Before leaving New York on my trip this week, I had a half day to essentially do anything I wished in New York City. The 9/11 memorial and museum were not completed when I was in New York City in 2008 when I was here last so I decided to spend my day visiting this historic site.
Everyone of this generation has their own 9/11 story. My own was as a teacher who had just started teaching in a new school district. I had just started my career at Liberty Public Schools a couple of weeks earlier - I'm still here after 15 years by the way. I was teaching on the third floor of what was then Liberty Junior High. During the passing period in the morning the teacher next door mentioned that something crazy had happened in New York - a plane had crashed into a building. Of course then more details unfolded throughout the day and significance of the events began to soak in. I didn't have a personal connection to anyone who lost their life that day but I will never forget the overwhelming feeling that night that things would never be the same again, for any of us. I wasn't sure exactly how things would be different but just like Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK, this would be a marker in each person's timeline that denoted the separation between pre 9/11 and post 9/11.
I got on the subway and arrived at the museum early. It opened at 9 am and I think I bought my ticket at around 8:50. It wasn't really crowded when I entered the museum but it progressively became more crowded throughout the morning. I opted not to rent the device to listen to the self guided audio tour for $7. The same content is available on the free 9/11 museum app. I tried to download it at the museum but the wifi wasn't fast enough - or I wasn't patient enough - to let it completely download. I walked the museum without the audio tour and never felt like I was missing out on anything but I'm sure it would be beneficial for some. I tend to read a lot of artifact tags and in parts of the museum there were video and audio clips included in the exhibits.
The museum had two really powerful elements for me - the wreckage from the towers and the way in which the personal stories of the victims were shared. I have seen pieces of the towers in other museums but when see the steel that absorbed the impact of the first plane and the crushed New York City fire department truck it becomes real in a new way, or at least it did for me. The first part of the museum was largely about the building itself and objects from the towers.
One powerful display in the first part of my museum experience was a wall made up of about 3,000 blue squares - each representing a person who lost their life on 9/11. The quote in the middle of the wall reads "No day shall erase you from the memory of time". The display explained that each square depicts a different shade of the blue sky that morning and each of the squares is a unique shade of blue. It represents the idea that each of us may see the same thing - like a blue sky - and yet each of us has a different way of describing and experiencing it. I thought this wall had a powerful meaning both artistically and emotionally.
The second emotional part of the museum for me was the area in which each person who lost their life has their picture displayed on the four walls of the room. In the middle of the space is an enclosed room in which each person has a video with a description of their life, a picture and a family member telling a little about the person. The videos are on a continual loop. This was very powerful. To see all the faces and then pause to listen to a couple of these stories was moving to say the least.
The final part of the museum for me was the area in which the events of 9/11 are described with video accounts, artifacts from that day and wreckage from when the towers fell. We have all seen the video clips many times but seeing the plane hit the towers still gets me. I was also especially struck by the items recovered from both the towers and the planes.
There were several times during visit when I got a pit in my stomach and felt very emotional. The museum was somewhat crowded at this point - tickets are timed but not everyone spends the same amount of time in various spaces - and yet almost no one spoke. There was an occasional child asking a parent "why did this happen?" Followed by a parent struggling to find words to explain. I also noticed many people from other countries which reminded me that this was not just an American tragedy, it impacted the rest of the world as well.
Perhaps the most emotional experience for me in the museum was a small area in which people could sit and listen to some of the phone calls made from Flight 93 - the United flight where people knew what was happening and quite a few made phone calls to loved ones saying that the plane had been hijacked, they loved their family members and hoped they would see them again. Of course it also goes on to describe how these passengers decided they must try to regain control of the plane and in the struggle it crashed in Pennsylvania. As I listened to those phone calls made from the flight I started to cry in a room full of strangers. I wasn't the only one but at that point the humanity of what I was seeing was too ugh to hold inside. I am actually on a plane as I type this blog post on my way back home to see my family. Looking out the window and thinking about what those passengers must have felt knowing what had happened earlier that day in New York and thinking about their loved ones is difficult.
I left the museum feeling somber and trying to process what I had just seen and experienced. As I type this almost 10 hours later I am still reflecting on the day. After leaving the museum I visited the two reflecting pools located on the footprints of the towers. I looked up and saw the newly constructed Freedom Tower, a symbol that time moves on.
I think the museum and memorial are both successful in their attempt to both tell the story of 9/11 and honor the memory of those who,lost their life that day. It will continue to be a watershed moment for all Americans, even those who were not alive at the time and that is important. The 8th graders that I teach today have no personal recollection of experiencing that day and it difficult for me sometimes to remember that fact. I am glad that I visited the site today and I encourage everyone to visit if they have an opportunity.