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The Most Important Question of All

Where were you when JFK was shot? Where were you when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon? Where were you on 9-11?

My answers to these three questions are the same: school, school, and school.  Given that JFK was shot in 1963 and the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001, you may think that I am the oldest living elementary school student in America, and/or the least successful. (Yes, the educational system in our country may be broken, but it’s not that broken!

I was in kindergarten on November 22, 1963, the day the teachers hustled us into the gym to sit “Indian style” (the blatantly politically incorrect term for what is now called “criss, cross applesauce) in front of a large black-and-white TV that had been wheeled into the room. I don’t remember much about that terrible day in Dallas except watching a man on TV who talked a lot in a very serious voice, much like my parents when I was about to get in trouble for something. I do remember seeing the President and the First Lady riding in their car, smiling and waving to the crowds lining both sides of the street.  However, these probably were just still shots, since no TV stations were broadcasting the motorcade live.

I was just starting junior high (more commonly referred to today as “middle school’) when we all gathered to watch Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Technically, he’d taken those first steps the night before, on June 20, 1969, but July 21, 1969 was when we kids got to see the television broadcast of this epic event.

On September 11, 2011, I had just walked into the main office of the school where I was a guidance counselor when I heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  The principal waved us into her office, where we crowded around a small TV. As soon as the second plane hit, the principal sent the other counselor and me to all the classrooms to let teachers know what was happening, and to tell them not to turn on the television. I didn’t watch TV when I went home. I never did see the Twin Towers fall. And to this day, I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who has never watched the TV coverage of 9-11.

I don’t know whether if I’ve never felt the need to see it, or whether I just don’t want to see it,because seeing, after all, is believing – and believing that something as unreal as 9-11 is real is a place that I don’t want to go.

In fact, when I found that my guest column for the suburban newspaper was scheduled to run on September 11th, I gladly gave my spot to another guest columnist who really wanted it. “I don’t want to write about 9-11,” I told her. But with the 10th anniversary of 9-11 , it’s almost impossible to avoid hearing – and seeing – reminders of that day. And so I find myself writing about 9-11 for this column, even though I told myself I wasn’t going to write about it at all.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter – the writing heart, that is. Writing what you want to write about is easy. Writing what you don’t want to write about ? Now, that’s where the real work is.

It’s a place I now find myself, after years of avoiding it. The elephant in the writing room, so to speak. And like that old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?,” I’m going to do it one bite at a time. It’s the only way I know to make sense of the senseless, whether it’s a president being assassinated, planes crashing into buildings, or the tragedies and losses that happen every day.

So, where were you when JFK was shot, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, or the Twin Towers fell? How has it changed your life, your outlook on life – or death, your writing? Or has it? Maybe that last question is the most important of all.


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