Elizabeth Varoli '18, Katonah, New York
John F. Kennedy Catholic High School, Somers, New York
I definitely didn’t become an adult when I was five. But it’s important I talk about a certain day when I was five in order to make sense of the day I did.
Recently, a freshman at my high school was sitting at my lunch table and started talking about 9/11. By the way he was talking, that infamous day was ancient history to him – something he read about in a textbook, something he expected no one at the table to remember personally.
I closed my eyes. I was downtown that day:
It is my third day of kindergarten at P.S. 89 and the principal has called a sudden assembly. My class lazily files into the auditorium. The principal tells us something bad has happened a few blocks away at the World Trade Center and before I can process this, my dad races into the building, completely disheveled. He grabs my older brother David and me and together we speed out of the school and now I’m scared. Looking up, I see a skyscraper I have passed every day, now with a massive, gaping hole. It’s black and red and it almost seems like I’m looking at a picture except I also know my younger brother Andrew attends pre- school at the WTC. The cops wouldn’t let us go south to get him, so we start walking, then racing, north. I’m not crying. I feel outside my feelings. The air is thick with something – soot? Dust? My dad tries to rip his dress shirt into squares to cover our mouths, but it won’t rip. A stranger walking near us instantly rips his own. Now we are running, me on my dad’s shoulders. Now we are alongside a lady we know. Now we are on a bus being handed construction masks which I do not want to wear because they make me feel like maybe I’ll suffocate.
Now it’s night. We still haven’t heard from my mom or little brother and it is 11 p.m. and we can’t go home, if our home is even still standing in Battery Park City. We are staying with the lady we were running with. I am watching TV on a blow-up mattress when finally she calls: my mom. She and my younger brother were evacuated by the Army Corps of Engineers and were safe. She had a late start and had not dropped Andrew off after all…
… Back at the lunch table, I opened my eyes. Someone had clearly just mentioned that I had been there that day. The freshman looked at me with wide eyes. He asked what it was like.
I could have mentioned my fear, the horror of losing possessions, the paralyzing dread wondering whether my mom and little brother were alive. Instead, I found myself talking about the man who ripped his shirt, the construction worker who forced me to wear a mask so I could stay healthy, the generosity of the woman who gave us a place to stay. As a result of that day, my life path was completely altered. I still wonder what direction it would have taken had I not been forced to leave the city.
And yet the day I became an adult wasn’t that day in 2001. It wasn’t when I was 5. It was in that lunchroom when I was 17, when I realized that I can choose how to remember something. I can choose to find meaning in that day, not in the horror but in other people’s kindness. I can’t choose what to remember but I can choose how to remember.
It is probably too soon to truly say I am an adult. But something did change in me that day and I feel different – I look forward to continuing to change, to sharing my experiences, and to learning what other people have to teach me.