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How 9/11 Changed a 13-Year-Old Girl in Harlem

Follow our live coverage of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It was the third day of eighth grade and I still had first-day-of-school jitters. I’d …

How 9/11 Changed a 13-Year-Old Girl in Harlem

Follow our live coverage of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

It was the third day of eighth grade and I still had first-day-of-school jitters. I’d attended the same school the previous year, but I was graduating this year, which meant everything was different.

While I was returning to my middle school in Harlem, my older sister was starting her freshman year of high school. Curious and already looking forward to my next grade, I asked her a million questions. What was high school like? Did the school have lockers like in the movies and sitcoms on the Disney Channel? Who were the mean girls? What did everyone wear?

Sometimes she would respond begrudgingly, between sighs. She told me that she took the No. 1 train to her school, which was across the street from the twin towers.

That Tuesday, the sky was so clear and bright blue as I was sitting in my eighth-grade class. Our teacher, Ms. Graham, asked everyone to sit in place, then stepped out of the classroom.

When Ms. Graham came back, everything changed. As a native New Yorker, and someone who still lives in New York, I think about that day often. I think about how even a small family like mine — it was just my mom, brother, sister and me — living as far away from ground zero as Harlem, was affected by the events of Sept. 11. I think about how most of us who were in the city carry that day — those we have lost and those who managed to return home — close to the surface. For many of us, there is still a hole in our skyline.

The city felt like it had accidentally fallen into a black hole. There was no one who could come help us and no way for a majority of us to get out. Those of us who were here that day, sitting with our eyes glued to newscasts, can still remember how that felt.

Sometimes that feeling seems like a suit of armor that I wear: knowing I am from a city strong enough to overcome the darkest of days, a day when people fell from the sky. But inside that armor, there’s always an itch, a sadness for the girl I was, just 13 years old, experiencing something more monumental than my brain could grasp.

I remember that my mom appeared at my school. This was before kids had cellphones so parents couldn’t reach them in class. She saw my face and how sullen all my classmates looked. I noticed the sadness on her face while she was wrangling her nerves to deliver her best English to speak to Ms. Graham. I left school with her and we went to my brother’s school nearby to pick him up. My mother said she wanted to gather her children and keep them close.

At home, we realized we couldn’t reach my sister or head downtown to get her.

So my mother began to cook.

She cooked everything we had in the house. She made a flan, turkey legs, rice, a soup, chicken, an arepa and beans. She was trying to relax, she said.

My eyes were glued to the television. I watched Pat Kiernan try to talk us through what was happening. By now, a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon and the north tower had collapsed. We still had not heard from my sister.

It felt like my world was crumbling. The city was on fire. Smoke billowed from what would come to be called ground zero.

By the afternoon, I began to look for a photo of my sister so that I could head downtown with it and look for her. I found one from her 10th birthday party. The front of her hair was flat-twisted and the back was blown out. She was wearing blue denim overalls and a white T-shirt. She was smiling.

Family members kept calling from the Dominican Republic, Spain and Mississippi to make sure no one had been hurt but we did not know yet. Neighbors who lived in the tenement apartment building where I was raised stopped by to find my mother leaned over pots and pans on the stove, wiping sweat off her brow with her forearm.

“I wondered how I would be able to bury my child’s body,” my mother, Sandra Rodriguez, said to me recently, 20 years after 9/11. “I wanted to know where I would go to get her remains. Would there be remains?”

The afternoon became the evening and by then, whenever the phone rang, I would pick it up so quickly, before the first ring even had a chance to finish. I’d say “Hello?” with the same desperation of, “Is that you?”

It rang. I picked up.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hey, is Mom there?” my sister asked.

Her voice sounded so small, as if she couldn’t fully open her mouth. She sounded like she was using all the energy she had left to make this call.

The next day when she arrived home, she explained where she’d been: After the second plane hit the south tower, my sister was evacuated from her school. She made her way onto the Staten Island Ferry. One of her teachers found her on the ferry and took her to her home for the night. That evening, my sister asked her teacher for medication for a headache. The teacher said she needed my mother’s permission first. And so she called.

Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

Almost 3,000 people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and more than 6,000 were injured. For years on every anniversary, I have turned on NY1 to watch people read the names of those who were lost that day. And I have felt lucky. I wasn’t a survivor. My sister came home.

It’s been 20 years and now, as an adult, I think about a time when my nephews, who are 4 and 6, will ask me what happened that day. I hope to tell them that the city survived and no one bowed in the face of fear.

But I also understand what I lost that day: I had to watch my trust in the safety of the world burn to the ground. It was as if a hole was torn in my reality and now anything was possible — even the unimaginable. I recognized the fragile humanity in my mother and my own helplessness in the world. My mother wasn’t a superhero anymore; she could be hurt, she could be made to cook everything around her, in a desperate search for comfort.

I’ve come to realize that I am a survivor of Sept. 11 because in the 20 years since that day, I have watched my life, and my understanding of it, erode a bit. My relationship with my sister struggled. The events changed us and we have never quite fit together in the puzzle that is our family like we used to.

The city doesn’t quite fit back together like it used to either. Too much was lost for it to feel like it did before. But I recognize that what we have now can be even better. To look back at what we’ve been through since Sept 11. is to see a city full of survivors, full of warriors. It’s what binds New Yorkers together. It’s our armor and our glue.


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