June 18, 2018
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Growing up around ground zero

By Natalie Bazinet, Aroostook Republican & News

LIMESTONE, Maine — Shanksville, the Pentagon, the Twin Towers — the world’s eyes were affixed to whichever TV screen was closest as horrific scenes from the Sept. 11 attacks unfolded 10 years ago with images none will soon forget.

But in New York City, the effects of the attacks have resonated far deeper than the standard traveler’s “inconvenience” of a body scan; the teens and tweens who watched the towers come crashing down still remember that day vividly, though nearly a decade bridges today with the attacks. A handful of those youths are currently studying at the Loring Job Corps Center, and kindly agreed to share their stories.

Jeremy Johnson is a New Yorker through and through, and though the Brooklyn-based student was only 12 when the country was attacked, he knows that the depth and complexity of emotions were experienced differently for everyone — particularly since so many lost loved ones in the attacks that spanned three states.

“But at the same time, this was our home. This is where we lay our heads each night,” he said.

Like many students of the day, Johnson was in class when the attacks began. It wasn’t long before his school was evacuated, but other students in the city didn’t have that option.

Dalik Roberts, also from Brooklyn, watched from his classroom windows as smoke billowed from the skyscrapers just across the river from his school — they couldn’t be evacuated due to transportation constraints.

Roberts remembered how his teacher tried explaining to the class what was happening.

“It didn’t even seem real,” he remembered.

A 13-year-old André Ferguson watched from his bedroom window as smoke from Manhattan sifted about his neighborhood. The power was out, he remembered, and his mother was praying because his grandmother lived near ground zero. (Ferguson said his grandmother was shaken up, but fine).

For Roberts, the event was a reality check.

“You never believe something catastrophic like that can happen — you always believe that your city’s this big metropolis and think that something like that is going to happen to somebody else — it’s just kind of a snap to reality that you’re not invincible,” he said. Roberts was 15 years old when the towers fell.

Tyheem Jones was in Virginia the morning of Sept. 11, and the 14-year-old thought he was looking at fancy special effects when he first saw the buildings burning.

“What movie is this?” he asked, only to find that it was the news.

But Jones’ experiences in the months and years after the Sept. 11 attacks were different than most New Yorkers because, as he’ll tell you, Muslims became ostracized.

“People did pull together to make stronger communities and tight knit groups, but if you didn’t fit into that group, you had it tough,” he recalled.

“I never really grew up as a Muslim, but my father was Muslim and he had always been very well known in our community,” Jones said. “Before [the attacks] people respected my father, treated him as a person. After, my mom wouldn’t let me go anywhere with him because people would curse and treat him poorly — I had people tell me that my family was responsible, that it was my ‘people’ that did it.”

As time progressed, more and more people traded blind hatred with educated tolerance and Jones says that the prejudice has diminished for the most part.

“I guess New York is about moving forward and we all try to adapt past it, but at the same time there are some people who hold on to that very staunchly,” he said.

And New York is moving forward. The Freedom Tower is going up floor by floor, but many of the NYC students of the Loring Job Corps Center agree that they’d rather it not.

Ferguson remembers being a small kid and craning his neck to see the tops of the towers. To him, the Freedom Tower will never seem right and, like the other New Yorkers in the room agreed, they would prefer to have the Twin Towers back, rebuilt exactly how they were.

The Tribute Lights?

Ferguson isn’t a fan of those, either.

“It’s like a ghost now …” he said, trailing off before mentioning how he loved going to see the World Trade Center when he was a kid and would have loved to take his daughter to see the same stunning structures.

But as the students described, whether it’s the Freedom Tower, Tribute Lights or a community created mural, New Yorkers haven’t forgotten.

And that New Yorker pride doesn’t seem to have wavered either.

“They’ve got the saying ‘if you can make it there you can make it anywhere’ — it’s like a badge of honor to be from New York,” Jones said. “If you’re from there, you’re used to a certain level of aggression from coming from the city and coming from the surroundings and they thrive on that — you can’t terrorize America and you can’t terrorize the city — we’re like the pit bulls of America.”

Other students clapped and cheered as Jones spoke of their hometown, smiling as they recalled the people, the places and the feel of the city, particularly the noise. (They all agreed that they have trouble falling to sleep in a place that’s so quiet).

“The thing is New York is so big, it’s so fast, you can meet just about anyone from anywhere in the world within a two-hour train ride,” Jones said.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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