I was sixteen when hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and downed in Pennsylvania. I was a Junior in high school in a rural area of upstate New York. It was a largely homogenous population, a high school of more than a thousand students over four grades; in my graduating class there was one African American girl, three Chinese kids, and one girl who had moved to our district the year before who was Pakistani.
September 11, 2001 was a dark, terrible day for millions of people. The person I saw suffer the most was that quiet, gentle, fifteen year old girl. Our final class of the day was together and despite all the horrified, trembling, tear-streaked faces that had wandered the halls of the school throughout for the preceding hours, the only expression I remember is hers.
She walked into the second-floor classroom as if she couldn’t see anything around her. Her eyes were black, haunted. The rich tone of her skin was starkly wan, pale and tight. Her mouth sagged though her jaw was clenched. She walked as a girl in a world that had closed in, as if the very earth itself had risen up into a fist around her and begun to squeeze. Her eyes drifted across the room, scanning the empty faces, until someone must have made eye contact and she flinched.
I don’t remember how I got there, but one moment I was sitting down in my seat and the next I was across the room with my arms around her. Her arms had come around me automatically and I remember the brief pause before she started hugging me back. We stood there, she and I, girls who had known each other somewhat genially for a little less than a year, just clinging.
It wasn’t until the next day, when I found her standing motionless in a hallway with two other students turning their backs on her that I learned what, exactly, had put that terrible, broken expression on her face. What they had asked, what other students had asked on September 11 and continued to ask, was, “How can you do this?!”
Not, “Isn’t this horrible?”
Not, “Do you have any family in the city?”
Not, “Are you okay?”
How can you do this? Your skin color is different from mine, your skin color is like theirs, you are Muslim, how can you do this?
I saw her take a breath. I saw her blink rapidly. I saw her try to look okay. And I decided, then and there, that I would do everything I could to be there for her.
While I realize that the other students that day were struggling to make sense of what had happened, there is no scenario in which it would ever be permissible to attribute guilt for the action of others to someone who is only tangentially similar. On September 11, I realized how cruel teenagers could be, even if it was unthinking. I also learned how teenagers can stand quietly and receive that unfair guilt and blame without protestation or reprisal, allowing others to vent and heal while saying nothing of their own pain.
September 11, 2001 took away the last vestiges of my childhood notion of invulnerability but it also brought me a sister. Since that day, she has been my best friend. I celebrated a mini-Ramadan with her (I didn’t eat during school unless I got shaky), she and her sister came to my house to join our extended family for Christmas. Her mother baked things which she then brought to school and stashed in my locker so we could sneak quick meals and spend our lunch breaks doing far more interesting things (like researching!!). We helped each other study for Advanced Placement tests and talked about our assignments. We adopted each others’ families.
She shared her own best friend, her younger sister, with me for shopping excursions and movies and dinners out. Whenever I realized I needed a break, a shoulder or a distraction, within seconds my phone would ring and I’d have an invitation to invade her mother’s kitchen to make spaghetti (which inevitably would turn into the two of us and her sister and brother sitting at the dining room table yammering at each other while their ridiculously patient and tolerant mother brought us tea and made the pasta).
I have never known anyone more supportive and caring than she is. While our closeness initially grew out of my desire to offer comfort and my need for a hug, our friendship deepened as she cheered me on and comforted me throughout our last year in high school. She was there for me through my grandmother’s passing away, my mother’s breast cancer, a few disastrous situations in which I felt hurt and betrayed by others whom I had known for far longer and had thought I would always be friends with.
To this day, she is my best friend. We can go months without seeing each other or even exchanging text messages but somehow, wonderfully, whenever we do contact each other it’s as if no time has passed at all. Her sister is also one of my dearest friends and whenever we all manage to be in the same place at the same time, I do nothing but laugh and smile and giggle and feel incredibly lucky. I have something of a niggling suspicion that if I ever called her and asked for help, I would wake up to find her already in my apartment making toast and eggs and telling me to pack, she was taking me home to our families where she could take care of me.
Every September 11, I watch an old news video and remember the shock and terror I felt. I cry and remember the following months of harsh, swift growing pains for my generation. I remember the look on her face when she walked into that classroom. Then, I think about what came after. I think about long hours spent at coffee shops in discussion. I think about studying and talking and watching movies until we fell asleep and barely woke up the next morning in time for school. I think about the phone calls she makes to my mother, the phone calls her sister makes to me, the first time her mother called me “Baby” in Urdu (a word I still don’t know but understand has been said when my best friend squawks), and the phone calls we make to each other that always leave me laughing, feeling happy and loved and grateful to have such a wonderful person in my life.
September 11 is a day of mourning but, for me, also a day of joy. Ten years ago today, I hugged a girl who looked lost and broken but who turned around and put me back together more times than I can count. Ten years ago today, my childhood stuttered and started to change into adult fears and responsibilities. I lost my naivety and innocence but found the most incredible friend I have ever known.
I did not lose any family, friends or acquaintances in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but even if I had, I think they would prefer to be honored with feelings of love and compassion rather than anguish or pain. That terrible day marked the beginning of a new reality for my nation, for my generation. I cannot erase the darkness those events left on my memory but I know that, whenever I need a kind word, I can reach out to the girl I clung to that day and she will remind me that there is enough grace, strength, goodness, and love in the world for anyone who needs it.