OPINION: Lest I forget

 Family and friends of 9/11 victims leave flowers, notes and pictures to memorialize their deaths at Ground Zero during the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attack that killed 2,977 people in 2001. (Photo by Logan Kirkland, SDN)

I was sitting in Mrs. Rogers' seventh grade physical science class. The day was clear outside and I remember peeling the sole of my Nikes off the sticky tile floor under my plastic desk.

It was a day like any other - until an urgent knock rapped the classroom door.

The teacher went out into the hall, conversed with an unseen authority, then came back into the classroom looking like she had seen a ghost. She told us a terrible tragedy was unfolding and without another word, left the room and returned with a fat-back tube TV on a push cart.

Our lives ceased to be innocent that day. We sat in awe and watched as black smoked billowed out of one of the World Trade Center towers. I thought it was bad, but the gravity of the situation had not yet set in. Surely it was an accident - a miscalculation from some rookie pilot.

Then, we collectively wrenched and were stunned when the second plane hit. We watched all morning as reports came in of terrorists. People both in our school and on TV were saying the Pentagon had been bombed. Our country was under attack.

Several students were checked out by their parents. Our civics teacher explained concepts to us like Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Taliban - in the event our parents couldn't.

I remember how quiet the ride home on the school bus was. Normally loud and jovial children had seemingly aged years in just a few hours. I remember how gravely concerned - yet reserved - my own parents were when they returned from work. Dinner was short and eaten in silence in front of the TV as news updates rolled in.

And I remember loading up into the car as a family and going to church. To add perspective, we were a Sunday morning family - not one that went to church during the week - so I knew this had to be something historic.

I grew up Baptist, but denomination didn't matter that day. Our church was packed with familiar faces and strangers, all desperately grasping for some kind of answer in the wake of the most tragic event of the new millennium. I recall thinking we dodged a bullet with Y2K, but those thoughts were a product of the optimism found in a pre-9/11 world.

In the sanctuary, strangers held hands. We sang "Amazing Grace" and "Just As I Am."

Tears were shed, multiple prayers were said and even our pastor was at a loss for words. Many say we came together in the immediate aftermath as a country so the terrorists wouldn't win, but for a brief moment on that September day, I recall an existential fear that things would never be the same again. In hindsight, they wouldn't.

Another gut-wrenching fear in my personal experience came in the form of the images of first responders covered in a fine gray dust, bleeding and doing their jobs amid the chaos. My father worked for nearly three decades as a police officer and was a sheriff's deputy at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

After those images were burned into my young mind via CNN, it was a fear I couldn't shake that day and in the days and months after. What would become of my dad?

On the ride home from church, the car was dark and even the radio was turned off. We rode in silence and I broke the quiet to ask my father what he thought the future held.

"Will you be drafted?" I asked. "Will you have to go to New York or Washington to help? Are we going to war?"

My dad let out a deep sigh and continued looking ahead to the road, one hand on the wheel.

His answer will stick with me throughout all of my years as one of the defining moments of my life. It was the moment I realized sometimes parents aren't all-knowing.

"I don't know, son. I don't know."

Ryan Phillips is the editor of the Starkville Daily News. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Starkville Daily News staff.