She wrote about it last year, in 10th grade. I have her again this year, in AP English, and every time she enters our room, I recall her piece. The assignment was simple. “Write about a moment that changed your life.” She is a tall, young woman with a dancer’s body and a scientist’s eyes. She is hungry for truth, and I do my best to stimulate her search.
In her first draft last year, she had clearly heeded my advice. “Use details. Make the reader see.” As I read it, I could envision completely the scene she brought to life. The year was 2001, and she could not be more excited. Her first birthday party. Parents would be dropping off their children at her houses after school, their tiny arms bulging with gifts. Her mother had even ordered a special cake from Safeway, chocolate with lemon icing. Ms. Lewis was turning eight, and, for the first time, the living room in her mother’s apartment would be full of balloons and the laughter of children and adults not related. Anticipation had kept Ms. Lewis awake for days.
The morning of the impending celebration, she donned her second-most-favorite outfit (the first, a new one, would be unveiled at the party) and headed to school. Second grade is always special. For me, as for Ms. Lewis, it is the moment of letting go–at least a little. Second grade is when the monsters under the bed fade from view–at least a little–and tomorrow always seems brighter than today.
Ms. Lewis basted that day in the sunshine her handwritten invitations had created. Even her teachers seemed more attentive, more aware that her shy demeanor and half-baked smile concealed a deeper place yearning for expression. After all, it was September 11th, 2001, and Ms. Lewis was hosting a party. She was finally eight, and, with her oldest sister about to leave for college, soon to inherit her own room.
Then something happened. A heavy whisper grew in the classroom as the adults huddled near the hallway door. At first, Ms. Lewis assumed they were conferring about her party later that day and the appropriate gift to bring. But the cloud behind their eyes and the tunnel in their voices convinced her something more was at stake.
Mothers began arriving, scooping their charges from the classroom. Her best friend turned to her just before leaving with something like apology in her stance. Ms. Lewis, always a bright child, finally understood when her own mother arrived and nervously helped her gather her backpack; there would be no party that day.
Ms. Lewis consumed all of the special sheet cake she could that night, while snatches of words like “World Trade” and “terrorist” circled overhead. Something had happened that day, her day, to change the world. Her mother would only allow Ms. Lewis to watch bits and pieces of the footage on the evening news. To this day, Ms. Lewis remembers the sight of bodies falling from the darkened sky, and people below moving as though in slow motion, their faces covered in ash and disbelief.
“I hate my birthday,” she wrote last year. The next day, after reading her draft, I called her name and asked her to meet me after class. When the bell rang, she remained behind, a concerned look on her face. Always a serious, young scholar, I moved quickly to reassure her. Her paper had been fine. I just wanted to speak with her.
“I lived in New York for fifteen years,” I began. I told her how my oldest daughter had actually been on a field trip to the World Trade Centers in 1993, the year Ms. Lewis was born, when the building had to be evacuated during an earlier bombing attempt. My wife and I just assumed it was a random act of desperation, nothing more.
I painted a picture for Ms. Lewis of how my children would always search the horizon for the Centers whenever we drove back to New York from a DC visit with relatives. The bold, steel-gray, squares defying the sky always told them home was near.
“But things happen,” I continued. I could tell Ms. Lewis was listening intently. Her head leaned downwards towards her shoes, and her breath grew still. The second bell for lunch rang, and we both ignored it. “But just because bad things happen does not mean good things don’t happen, too.”
I asked her what details she knew about her birth. Ms. Lewis relayed how her mother always said it had been somewhat difficult, except near the end. “Are you a miracle?” I asked her.
“I guess,” she mumbled.
“Don’t let anyone, or anything, take your day away,” I continued. We spoke for fifteen minutes or more. I made her promise me that never again would she lie about her birth date, or apologize. I told her that life beginning at the very moment others tragically end is a sign of hope and revival, an antidote to madness.
I have Ms. Lewis again this year for AP English. At first, she was reluctant to join the class, but I insisted. She is an inch or two taller now, and her smile is more forthcoming. On Friday, just as the bell was about to ring, she suddenly announced to the class that today, 9/11, is her birthday. I promised her a Pop Tart on Monday.
As I pause now to consider the awful events of that day (I was at home and watched it all on TV), I think about so many things: the empty skyline where my children’s homeline used to begin; the brave men and women who surrendered their lives saving others; the nearly 3,000 innocents whose afternoon ended without warning, or a proper goodbye; the almost 60 Muslims who perished in the World Trade Center fires that day without knowing the lightening rod their faith would become; the mindless, nineteen hijackers who somehow convinced themselves that the road to glory requires blood.
I think about Ms. Lewis, quietly turning seventeen today. Or my neighbor across the street, who is now 100. All the parking spaces on my block are full as friends and admirers deliver their respects. I just found out from another neighbor this afternoon, and I quickly call my wife and ask her to pick up some sort of gift on the way home. Later, I will cross the street and wish our latest centenarian well. Tonight, I will pause to pray, as I have for the last nine years, for clarity and strength in these difficult times. But even as I ponder, even as I grieve, I will hold the lesson of Ms. Lewis and my neighbor close to my heart. Life persists and miracles continue despite the fumblings of man–and I am so grateful for that.
I did not lose a loved one that horrible day, but I lost something. Regaining my original ground and verve might be impossible, but my faith sprouts new wings, new outlets, every day. Thank you, neighbor. Thank you, Ms. Lewis. Happy Birthday!