Yahoo! is asking Americans how September 11 changedthem. Below is an account from a reader.
My yearbook picture was taken on Sept. 10, 2001, and I rejected it immediately. It was only a couple of days into the school year at my downtown Manhattan high school, so I hadn't assembled the "look" I was hoping to be remembered by.
When I looked at the picture that would identify me for posterity, I looked goofy. Young. Naive. Also, perhaps because of the former, I looked fat. I didn't want to be remembered as young and fat. I wanted to be remembered as a mature, sophisticated and a latent genius.
We weren't supposed to have pictures taken twice unless something went drastically wrong on our first try, but nonetheless, I stealthily began preparations to get my picture retaken the next day. That morning, Sept. 11, 2001, I obsessed over my hair, wore more makeup than usual and brought extra blush and lip gloss just in case.
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But there were no pictures taken on the 11th. My high school, just three blocks from the World Trade Center, was evacuated. That day, instead of showing off my new shoes, I walked 10 miles in them.
My health was not assigned a fate by Osama bin Laden, as much as it was by a government eager to get business back to lower Manhattan and show how normal everything was. On Oct. 9, 2001, Stuyvesant High School students were sent back to a contaminated school building next to the World Trade Center's garbage barge, the floating transportation for debris from ground zero to the landfill in Staten Island.
That first day back, I walked toward school with the usual hoard of high-school students -- some in dust masks, others shielding their mouths and noses with scarves. But most were just breathing in the crisp morning air as if they couldn't smell the smoke. Bottle-necking began about 100 feet before Greenwich Street: To our left, two metal girders smoked atop a pile of rubble, perfectly framed by the buildings on either side.
It took me several years to face the issues surrounding our return to the WTC site. But since 2006, I have tried to turn my lingering anxiety about nearly everything -- including random violent acts, airplanes, terrorists, the moral certitude of U.S. government policy, and the ways in which my health was and will be impacted by the events of 9/11 -- into political action. It has been the only way for me to use my fear productively.
I began to advocate for my fellow students, founding an organization called StuyHealth in 2006, right after James Zadroga, an NYPD responder, died of 9/11-related respiratory disease, the first of a long line to do so. StuyHealth focuses primarily on securing health monitoring and treatment for 9/11 survivors, specifically student 9/11 victims.
There are times that I feel silly advocating for alumni of the most prestigious public school in New York City, as if having the possibility of successful futures makes us invincible to poor health at the hands of terrorism and awful government policies. But the initial reason I got involved was that, because of a variety of factors, Stuyvesant needed a dedicated student advocate. We returned to lower Manhattan early -- months earlier, in fact, than other schools from the area. Additionally, Stuyvesant alumni, as well as other high-school students from lower Manhattan, are now dispersed, with most of us now living outside of New York City. We are one of the only groups from the community for whom that is the case.
More importantly, we are a population at a uniquely vulnerable age, during which health insurance is not an assured thing. Meanwhile, the possibility that we will get sick (or already are sick, in some cases) from our exposure to months and months of smoke, debris, and contaminated airshafts will linger over us for decades to come.
StuyHealth began with a simple petition, requesting medical monitoring and treatment for student 9/11 victims. When my friends agreed to sign it, I passed it on to friends of friends and eventually acquaintances. Today, StuyHealth is a network of more than 400 people, most of whom are organized through Facebook and other social media outlets. Through it, we disseminate information about health-treatment options for young adults and the state of the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (Zadroga Bill). We also advocate for former students when federal, state or local legislation, as well as the administering of any resources for 9/11 victims, allows for community input.
Being such a visible school put us in a very vulnerable position after 9/11 because our return to lower Manhattan had symbolic value and, as a result, was rushed. Political expediency should never be the reason behind making a policy that impacts children.
I did, by the way, end up getting my yearbook photo retaken later in my senior year of high school. By then, there was no strategy for sneaking into the line. We all agreed that nobody would speak of the first session -- that, in some way, we were all different people then anyway. My new "look" for the year? A gaze comprised almost entirely of nervous expectancy. I don't remember what I wore.
- World Trade Center