Why We Choose to Fight

Lessons Learned on September 11, 2001.

By Etienne C. Toussaint

“It’s never easy moving from one world to another.”

T he words bounced off of my tongue like the sound of the train creeping its way into our bedroom window, clunky and loud, yet warmly familiar.

“Happy birthday Jeremy.”

I rubbed my eyes and yawned, struggling to wake up on what I imagined would be yet another annoying morning of traveling downtown to learn about math and American history.

It was early. A little too early for my taste, to be honest, but I knew Granny would start yelling my name if I didn’t get up and start getting dressed soon, so I sluggishly began my morning routine. Eat breakfast. Shower. Get Dressed. I said goodbye to my little brother, hugged and kissed my grandmother, and ran out the front door, rushing to make the 7:30 am train headed downtown. I was a junior in high school at the time and had grown accustomed to the thirty minute trip from the South Bronx into the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But I still didn’t like it.

It’s never easy moving from one world to another.

T here wasn’t time for basketball that morning. I was already running late. I bolted into the basement locker room and tossed a few books into my faded North Face backpack before rushing up to homeroom on the third floor. Everyone was already assembled. After we had all checked in with our homeroom teacher, we each scurried off to our respective classes, laughing and sharing jokes along the way as we raced up the stairwell. I sat toward the back of the classroom in my usual seat. It was my first class of the day and I was still tired.

My little brother was probably already at school too. Mom was likely at work. Granny was likely relaxing at home. And my step-father was likely safe in his office near Wall Street. Those were my assumptions anyway.

I think it was math class. Maybe trigonometry. But I am not sure. Sometimes these memories don’t quite add up.

I t came quick and slow at the same time. Like an unsuspected wave creeping its way onto an innocent beach, whispers began flooding the room as a solitary hand floated into the open space. We all watched. I listened. The words rolled off of his lips slowly and slithered anxiously between our chairs, filling the air like the cold memories of hushed goodbyes during my grandfather’s funeral. I retracted into an uncomfortable lump in the center of my wooden seat.

“A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”

Confusion filled each face around the room. Wrinkled eyebrows hovered over curled lips. Noses and cheeks waved back and forth like white flags begging for surrender. I did not own a cell phone at the time. I had a beeper, but other than helping me look cool during our monthly dances with the girls school down the street, it served no functional purpose. I was barely brave enough to talk to girls, much less have one actually call me.

A few students pulled out Nextel phones and stepped into the hallway to make calls to family members. The vast majority of us sat in jealous silence, our fingers thumbing the empty spaces in our pockets. Mobile phones were too expensive for most. Besides, there were no Twitter feeds to provide us with minute-by-minute updates. I imagine we were unsure of what this meant for us. Uncertain what this meant for our country. For our future. But maybe that was just me.

Sometimes, I don’t know what to think.

I remember looking at my teacher’s face. He stood at the front of the room like a wooden solder, his arms stiff and pointed toward the blackboard, the heat of confusion radiating from his eyes. What should I do? What do I say to these men? He seemed to be speaking to us without words, comforting us without hands.

When he finally spoke, he urged us to focus on the task at hand, open our textbooks to last night’s reading. The chalk in his hands tapped on the board like a metronome, urging us to hide behind the safe music of education. Perhaps he assumed that a plane crashing into a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan would eventually be summed up as an unfortunate accident. Perhaps he knew that politicians would find a way to weave this incident into our next history lesson. Perhaps he knew that we would all eventually be told to simply move on.

After we learned that a second plane had flown into the second tower, our math class came to an abrupt stop. I guess our teacher no longer knew how to add up all the pieces to the story.

The ticking of the second hand on the wall clock seemed to grind to a halt as all conversation was suffocated under the crushing weight of an eerie silence. We spoke to one another without words. Some of us stared at the crooked lines on the top of our wooden desks. A few of my friends simply closed their eyes.

The pieces to the story did not add up. I didn’t need my math teacher to tell me that. We did not have Facebook to explain things or help us communicate with family and friends. My only email account was accessible on the desktop computer stationed safely in my bedroom in the South Bronx. A few of my classmates had family members who worked downtown near the World Trade Center, only 6 miles away. We could see the expansive black smoke billowing in the distance out the rear window.

I kept trying to remember if the World trade Center was anywhere near my step-father’s office.

T hat school day was longer than most. All of the subway trains were shut down for several hours and the trains going uptown into the Bronx did not start running again until early in the evening. We sat around and waited. We all watched. I listened. Many of my classmates who lived in Brooklyn or Queens could not go home at all and stayed with friends nearby.

I remember rushing home to my family that evening. I wanted to tell them know how much I loved them. I wanted to wish my brother happy birthday again. I wanted to know that everyone was safe. Later that night, laying in bed with my brother resting peacefully on the other side of the room and the rest of my family soundly asleep, I kept thinking, Where do we go from here? How does this all add up? Why?

F ourteen years ago, on September 11, 2001, I returned home from school with lessons more powerful than any I had ever learned before. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but history was teaching me that, sometimes, things don’t add up neatly in the simple ways we expect.

On that day, I learned that our world is connected in ways I may never fully comprehend. I experienced the impact one decision can have on the lives of many, and the power many shared convictions can yield toward a common goal. I became part of a living history that binds my everyday experiences to that of individuals thousands of miles away. In simpler terms, I woke up.

Every moment we share with family and friends is precious and each embrace should be cherished. Fourteen years ago, I witnessed the power of bravery in action as I stared at the unfolding news reports on television during the days and weeks after that tragedy. I watched firefighters and police officers and ordinary people put their lives in danger to help save those in need. And when my older sister put on a military uniform and bravely ventured across the Atlantic Ocean to fight for peace, although I did not understand our government’s strategy, I learned to believe in the power of a shared vision for a better future.

I do not believe that war is ever the answer. I do not agree with using violence to fight violence. As Marvin Gaye reminded us, “War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate”

But I think I learned on that day, at least a little bit, why in a world filled with hate we choose to fight for peace.

Etienne Toussaint is a social justice advocate, law professor and business adviser living in Washington D.C. He writes about developing leadership,
building business, and discovering purpose on his personal website. Follow him on Twitter.

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