Teenagers have stumbled toward independence in every generation, a hallmark of American pluck. One minute, they’re kids. Then a clock ticks, and they’re free to open credit cards, get married, stay out past midnight or not come home at all.
Most of us remember that cocktail of freedom and courage. But what happens when it coincides with the sky falling? In 2001, no person could have been mature enough to turn 18.
I was one of them. I graduated from Countryside High and celebrated my birthday in June. I worked in the mall and hoped to be a writer. I didn’t know what friends thought of politics; it was not something that stapled us together. It’s difficult to explain to today’s youth, a cavalry with power to create movements on TikTok, how different things were on the heels of the 1990s.
On Sept. 11, I went to a freshman class at St. Petersburg College and found people rapidly clearing out of the lecture hall.
“Someone bombed the World Trade Center,” a classmate said.
“Again?” I said, with a vague recollection of an old incident.
The rest of the day was like wet strokes on wet paint: waiting for my boyfriend to pick me up; learning the mall had closed; trying to grasp what on earth was happening.
A younger colleague recently pointed out how many 9/11 memories revolve around the television. It was what we had. Online news was an infant, there were no Twitter threads or group texts. We flanked boxes and watched with ghoulish expressions.
The immediate aftermath was cartoonishly patriotic. I painted my nails red, white and blue and bought a Fire Department of New York City shirt, though I had never been to New York. The CD store where I worked sold Lee Greenwood God Bless the U.S.A. singles for 99 cents. Customers gobbled them up.
When the bombast mellowed, we were left to assemble adult lives in a world upended. A rash of young people joined the military, and too many died. Others plunged into school or trades, pacifism or prejudice. American Muslims coming of age, who knows how, found a way forward in a hostile, suspicious world.
Suddenly, opinions on complex topics were currency. I remember muddling through a half-baked take on the war and realizing friends were rolling their eyes. It was an awakening that would define the decades ahead. Despite our flag shirts, we would forever pick sides. We would wade through disinformation and twitching rage, and 20 years later, might not recognize each other.
Other generations say millennials are entitled, spendy and slow. Something lost in the clichés, though, is how we’ve always known the world could crumble. If people who hated us could drop airplanes, what else? We traded anthrax for mass shootings, the TV on the wall for the phone in our hands, the frenzied start of the war for its clumsy, tragic end.
Maybe you cried right away back then. It took me a while. I couldn’t stop thinking about those who died, obsessed with the ones who jumped out of the towers, their bodies in the sky, that calculus they made. When the tears finally came, they were the kind of wild, throaty sobs I can count ever having on one hand. I imagine how the families of the dead must still weep.
The group born between 1981 and 1996 is the largest generation in history. While we remain wary of terrorism, research shows we are diverse, inclusive, politically engaged and filled with energy to explore the world. We care about making things better at home.
What does that mean 20 years later? Despite the worst start, maybe we never lost the sloppy optimism of 18. It fades, and it hardens, but it’s always there, pushing us ahead one day at a time.
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