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Liz Sauchelli: 9/11 changed the way I looked at my childhood

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/11/2021 10:02:22 PM
Modified: 9/11/2021 10:22:40 PM

In the months after 9/11, I slept on my parents’ bedroom floor in a sleeping bag. I was 11 years old, and the world as I knew it — generally safe and trustworthy — had been shattered.

In suburban northern New Jersey, roughly an hour’s drive from Manhattan, everyone knew someone who worked in the city. I still remember the seat I was sitting in in the classroom as my sixth-grade science teacher told us in a stuttering, labored announcement that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center.

When I got home from school that afternoon, there was a strange kind of quiet. Planes that regularly flew overhead out of the nearby Newark airport were grounded. My neighbors congregated on our suburban street in silence, speaking occasionally but mostly standing around in disbelief.

I remember the fear and the misunderstanding I had about the people who crashed the jetliners into the Twin Towers. I thought it was the start of a foreign invasion. My parents did their best to dispel that fear. Each morning, my dad, who worked for an insurance company, would spread the daily newspaper in front of me at the dining room table and ask me to read it. Focus on the facts, he’d say. Don’t focus on the scenarios your mind creates.

I don’t remember if my elementary school teachers ever acknowledged that the events of 9/11 were something that could shape us. I don’t know if the school made counselors available to talk.

Instead, I remember the surge of patriotism, of wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed “These Colors Don’t Run.” We had school assemblies where we sang patriotic songs.

We wrapped ourselves in the flag like a warm blanket.

After Sept. 11, I started reading the newspaper every day, beyond the comics. I followed the U.S. military’s involvement in Afghanistan and our country’s march toward war in Iraq, when “weapons of mass destruction” became part of the vernacular. A new fear settled in. I was watching a revival of the talent competition Star Search with my mom when the show was interrupted to broadcast the first U.S. bombs being dropped on Iraq.

But I kept reading the news, and the knowledge I gained helped to comfort me. I became interested in pursuing journalism, because for me it was always better to learn about the things that scared me than to avoid them and be afraid.

But certain fears associated with 9/11 always lingered. I remember a shift, an inflection point in the way I understood the world. I started thinking of my childhood as “before 9/11” and “after 9/11.”

The question I carried throughout the rest of my childhood was: “What if it — or something worse — happens again?”

The illusion of childhood safety had to be broken, and once 9/11 happened mine was well on its way. There was no more easing in.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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