Looking at it retrospectively, I don’t think my life was
ever really complicated until the fourth grade. All I cared about before that
was playing dress ups and pretend games and running around outside and reading
fairy tales. My parents encouraged me to live simply. They never watched the
news in front of me or allowed me to watch movies with a rating over PG. My
world was simple, small, and neat. I usually didn’t even know what day of the
year it was, unless it was Christmas, Halloween or my birthday.
remember when my life did become
complicated. The fourth graders at Sherwood Elementary School had just switched
back from math class to homeroom. My friends and I were laughing about
something at our desks; I don’t remember what. I do remember having Little
Women propped open on my desk, as if I had been planning to read it before
my classmates and I started talking.
of the women who worked at the school had come in to talk to my fourth grade
teacher, leaving us at liberty to talk and laugh. My teacher had emigrated from
India some years past, but she often still dressed in beautiful saris and
jingling gold jewelry. Her accent tumbled gently like a stream over rocks and
her laugh had more music to it than the best-tuned orchestra. Sometimes, she
let us hear her laugh when other grown ups visited to talk to her. That day,
has been a national emergency,” she said gravely when the administrator lady
The word “emergency” triggered a
Pavlovian reaction in me; my heart plummeted into my gut and started racing
while my little imagination worked overtime to find out what it could be. Was
it disease? Or earthquake? Or tornados? Or fire? Or war?
They didn’t tell us, but I heard
them mention “The World Trade Center” which I had never heard of before. The
sent us home early and on the bus, I heard a woman on the radio say, “The
pentagon is in flames.” I knew what the pentagon was and I started to get even
When I got home, my dad explained
what had happened; he used the word “hijacker” which had previously been
unknown to my vocabulary. I didn’t know at the time what day it was. I know now
that it was September 11, 2001.
The attacks shattered my neat
little world. Everything was pandemonium afterwards. I remember my older brother
was all the way in Wyoming. I was too scared to eat, too scared to do anything
but lay on the couch watching Sesame Street videos, trying to anesthetize
myself to it all.
But the real complications set in
after the fear had gone away. Why did people do this? Though I initially went
for the “we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys” answer it didn’t really
make sense to me after awhile. If America is the good guy, how come we are
fighting a war in a part of the world I didn’t know existed?
I remember there was a little
Muslim girl who lived down the street from me. When we got off of the bus
together in the months after the attacks, kids would yell hateful things at her
father who was waiting there, just because of the way he was dressed. I couldn’t
understand why they would yell these things at this kind man, his wife and
little daughter. It made me feel ashamed.
I started to wonder what it meant
to be American. I had always known I was one, but I had never actually though
about it. Now, nine years later, I think I’ve come to my answer.
Being an American, in my opinion,
means promising and protecting freedom for everyone. (No, I am not advocating
that we run off with bombs to “liberate” the world). Yes, technically, as an
American you have the right to disagree with people. You have the right to
protest and burn people’s scriptures. But bear in mind, those same people have
equal right to burn your scriptures. You
have a right to protest where a mosque is being built. Muslims have the right
to build a mosque there. I have the right to say all this. You have the right
to disagree with me.
That’s the meaning of being an
American. Protecting the rights of all the fellows of your homeland, not just
when it’s convenient. Freedom does not mean freedom for everyone except slaves.
Freedom does not mean freedom for everyone except Japanese Americans. Freedom
does not mean freedom for everyone except Muslims.
This is a nation “with liberty and
justice for all”. I think today of all days, it’s important to remember