Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - September 9, 2011

Growing up in the shadow of Sept. 11

Childhood memories of scary day taught them to 'expect the unexpected,' students say

by Chris Kenrick

Their parents and babysitters were crying. Their teachers were acting scared. A plane crashed into a building. It might have been a movie.

Such are the memories of today's high school students about Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 — when they were young children.

"I was so young that it didn't really hit me exactly what had happened," said Palo Alto High School junior Jessica Tam.

A first-grader at Duveneck Elementary School at the time, Tam remembered watching the images of crashing towers with her parents.

"My parents were shocked, and over the years I've come to recognize the significance of the event."

Paly senior Jared Swezey-Gleason was up early for school that day and found his baby-sitter "bawling on my parents' bed," her eyes fixed on the television screen. He looked at the screen to see a smoking building and a few moments later — live — a second plane crashing into it.

In his second-grade class later that day, the teacher asked the children if they knew what had happened.

"For me, it was engraved into my brain, so the question of whether we had seen it seemed ridiculous," Swezey-Gleason recalled.

Paly freshman Arin Tai-Seale, who was 4 at the time, has no specific memory of Sept. 11, 2001, at all.

"I don't remember much — just my parents talking about the news, and when I got older I learned more about it. For me personally it made planes kind of scary, but I still go on them," she said.

Paly junior Soo Song most recalled the shock of her parents, who had emigrated from Korea four years earlier.

"My parents never really thought that America could be attacked like that, and they were really impacted by it," Song said. At the time, they tried to shield her from the news.

"I'm sort of glad I wasn't old enough to realize the full horror of the event."

Kevin Wang, then a second-grader at Hoover Elementary School and now a Paly senior, recalled the teachers were acting strangely that day, with "people running in and out of the classroom."

He knew something was wrong but didn't know what it was until he got home from school and saw the TV images.

"I thought it was a movie at first — I don't think it really hit me until a couple days later," Wang said.

Paly seniors Tremaine Kirkman and Uma Veerappan both recalled their parents frantically and repeatedly trying to get through to relatives in New York. Both have uncles who lived there at the time.

Kirkman thought he must be "in trouble" when his mother arrived, shaking, to take him home early from his second-grade class at Escondido Elementary School, where they'd been celebrating a classmate's birthday.

"I was a kid, so I didn't really understand what was going on, but it's become more significant every year," he said.

Veerappan's uncle, who worked near the Twin Towers, had been walking near the explosions, but was safe.

Though too young to fully have comprehended the terrorist attack at the time, the students have no doubt they've grown up in its shadow.

"I think the event itself, and what I saw, is a central part of my childhood and how I remember those developing years," Swezey-Gleason said.

"To have seen not only the tragedy in it but how everyone came together in the end was really powerful."

The event "definitely changed this country," Wang said.

Song worried for years, especially in elementary school, that her frequently flying father would get on a plane that would be hijacked.

"Obviously, this paranoia will be with America forever, considering how airport security got really tight," she said.

For Tam, although she didn't feel personally affected by the attack, "It opened my eyes to the rest of the world and all the terrorism that's going on, not only in America but outside of America."

All the students interviewed said they were relieved at the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden this year, but they differed on the appropriate response.

Wang, who was at a friend's house when the news came, said they went outside and screamed, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

"We were really excited. This was 10 years in the making — a huge event. Then we went back and watched Obama's speech, and it was really fine and touching, a really special moment."

Paly freshman Joshua Torres was watching "Family Guy" when his mother told him Bin Laden had been killed.

"I think everyone was quite happy — happy in a 'revenge' way," Torres said. "That he's dead was our revenge, but I don't think screaming and shouting was the best way to say he was dead.

"Everyone should have been a little more respectful."

The post-Sept. 11 world is all they've really known, but students said they still have drawn life lessons from the event.

"It showed me just how extreme peoples' struggles (are) and — even in a very sheltered area like Palo Alto — how tragic those struggles can actually be," Swezey-Gleason said.

"I know I should be happy and make the most of what I have, because it could be taken away by a tragedy like that."

Though Veerappan said she was too young for it to have affected her childhood, she thinks the terrorist attacks taught her, from an early age, to "expect the unexpected."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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