By Rocco Schirripa
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in my sixth-grade Italian class at I.S. 7 on Staten Island. When the World Trade Center was attacked, my teachers decided it was best not to tell us what had happened. We were young — most of us sixth graders were 11 that fall. And because we were on Staten Island, we were considered to be safe.
At first, I couldn’t tell anything was wrong. But as I look back on that day, I realize that Mr. Iacono, my Italian teacher, was at a rare loss for words and seemed shaky. I remember the phone in the classroom ringing and, when he picked it up, he didn’t say anything, which seemed strange at the time considering Mr. Iacono was known for being outgoing.
As the day wore on, we heard announcements over the school loudspeaker telling tens of kids at a time that their parents were coming to pick them up. At one point, I went to the bathroom, and while I was walking down the hall I saw my father waiting with other parents to pick their children up early. I looked at him, and it was the only time I ever saw fear in his eyes. My dad works for the M.T.A. as a manager. What I didn’t find out until later was that he had spent the morning sending buses downtown to pick up passengers — most of them covered in ash — from near the Twin Towers.
All of this could have been pretty traumatizing for a little boy. But what really got to me was the nonstop media coverage. I saw the constant footage of the tallest buildings in New York being attacked, on fire and collapsing. I saw people screaming and crying, even jumping out of buildings. All of a sudden, it hit me. The people who died in downtown Manhattan didn’t deserve to die, and the people who attacked the buildings wouldn’t have cared if I had been one of them.
That night I experienced the worst nightmare of my life. I woke up in a cold sweat, screaming.
Of course, I was one of the lucky ones. People lost fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters that day. I consoled friends who had suddenly lost a parent. I sometimes felt that I spent my adolescence looking over my shoulder.
In fact, it was common for young New Yorkers, even those who did not lose a parent, to be traumatized by the events of 9/11. Twenty-nine percent of children in New York City public school developed some sort of mental disorder as a result of Sept. 11; most affected were girls and children in grades four and five, according to a study published in the Journal of General Psychology. Other studies suggest that children’s mental stress dissipated in the months after the disaster.
For me, the nightmares eventually subsided. As I grew into adulthood, 9/11 became a distant memory. That is, until I transferred from Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., to Baruch College, in the fall of 2010. It was not too soon after my transfer that I watched a documentary about 9/11, a collection of home videos that people took in Lower Manhattan that morning. That documentary and the everyday commute into Manhattan brought the fears and images of 9/11 rushing back into my life.
I was frightened all over again. I realized that an attack could happen again at any time. While there are some people who fall asleep at night in some parts of the world wondering if it is their last, in America, we have long felt safe and comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. Now I wonder if that normalcy is something that we take for granted.
Fear is like a shadow. It comes in different forms and serves different purposes. It is something that is so real — sometimes there, just behind us — but we can never truly feel or touch it.
The thing is, I don’t think fear is a bad thing. Out of fear came brotherhood. After Sept. 11, New Yorkers actually came closer together and became friends. I never thought there would be a time in my life when my neighbors would leave their doors open to each other. The fear actually seemed to bring out the best in many of us.
The biggest problem with fear is that for some people fear can dictate their lives. Fear can cripple people to the point of radicalism or harden them to the point of fascism. It can make people jump to a dangerous any-means-to-an-end mindset.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” This is a lesson that I think we are all still learning. Every day that I walk through Manhattan I remember what I saw on TV all those years ago and the crying people who lost their loved ones for no reason. When I take the Staten Island Ferry back home, I can see the new skyline taking shape as the new World Trade Center begins to rise above Lower Manhattan, filling the void. I realize that, no matter what, for the rest of my life I will always be looking over my shoulder, worrying about another attack.
But, I refuse to let fear cripple me. I will walk down the streets of New York City with my held high as a symbol of the hope we have as a city and as a challenge to make sure that an attack here never happens again.