It was the day after the day.
September 12, 2001 was a Wednesday. I know because Wednesday was my mentoring day.
I swung into the parking lot of the elementary school not far from Seattle.
My friend was a smart, but troubled 8-year-old. I’ll call her Bella. She was in the gifted class.
Bella loved to read. I brought her my old comics, like Little Lulu. She read them out loud and laughed hysterically at the strong, spunky Lulu. We made bracelets out of plastic jewelry and waved our hands at each other to see who could make the loudest clicking sound.
We played board games. Once she tried to teach me chess but she gave up. I could never figure out what move to make and she got tired of waiting. Sometimes Bella would come into the library, sit down and frown, arms crossed, swinging her legs. On those days, she didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even me.
“Why didn’t they make the towers this way? she said.
On this particular Wednesday, Bella was quiet. She sat down, took out the set of blocks and started building, her tongue sticking out in concentration.
“What are you making?” I said.
“Towers,” she said, keeping her eyes on the blocks.
My heart did a flip. She continued adding blocks until she had two blue buildings, side by side. She gently pulled out blocks on each side, about three-quarters from the top of each tower, so there were perfectly square holes on all sides.
Then she did an astounding thing. She lifted a black crayon, holding it with the thumb and forefinger. She made it climb, turn, then slowly push through the empty space, from one side of the tower right through the other side and onto the library table.
“See?” she said.
“If they just would have made the towers this way, with holes in the sides, the plane could have gone right through. And no one would have been hurt. Why didn’t they make them that way?”
I swallowed. I didn’t have any words.
Bella punched the buildings with her fist. The blocks fell across the table and onto the floor.
As the weeks went by, in my “Wednesdays with Bella,” we talked more about the terrorist attacks. She asked why the firefighters had to go in those burning buildings. She wanted to know if any kids
I had to tell her the truth. I felt like she needed to know.
She said she never wanted to go on an airplane again. Then she walked out of the library, down the hall to her classroom.
All she wanted was a picture of a firefighter.
One Wednesday four and a half months later, Bella and I sat in the library.
“I’m going to New York City for a writer’s conference tomorrow,” I said. “What would you like me to bring you back?”
I waited, expecting, I don’t know what: a t-shirt, maybe.
“I want a picture of a firefighter,” she said. She stared at me with huge brown eyes.
“And what I really want is an autograph,” she said. She studied my face.
“I’ll do my best,” I said. “Hey! How about if I bring a picture of you and maybe a short letter, and see if I can find a firefighter to give them to?”
I had no idea if I could do this.
Bella’s eyes lit up. She grabbed my pen and wrote:
Jan. 29, 2002
Thank you for working hard to clear the ground at ground zero. I think
it is very brave that you are doing what you are doing. Thank you.
“Give this to Bella,” he said. “Tell her it’s from me.”
I stood in the fierce Manhattan sun, in a line that wound down four blocks and around another two. Just as I got to the fence with its mementos and massive butcher paper wall, with thousands of messages of hope and sorrow scrawled every which way, I saw him.
He wore brown overalls, a blue shirt with an embossed fire department insignia and a navy blue baseball cap with red letters: FDNY. His name was JJ, from Engine 299, Queens. His eyes
widened as I told him about Bella. I handed the letter and photo to him.
“Wow,” he said. “Tell her these are going up at the station.” He waved the letter and photo.
“She wants your autograph,” I said.
“Are you kidding?”
No, I said, it’s the one thing she wants me to bring back from New York.
He took the paper from me and wrote,
Thank you for being so kind and thoughtful.
Then he reached behind the fence and pulled out an FDNY hat. “Give this to Bella,” he said. “Tell her it’s from me.”
He held up Bella’s letter and I took a photo of him.
I pulled out the FDNY cap and her face sagged.
The next Wednesday, Bella was sitting on a chair in the library waiting for me.
“I brought you something from my trip,” I said.
I handed her J.J.’s photo and note, which I had framed. Her eyes got big.
“Cool!” she said, jumping out of her seat as if I had just brought her the biggest, softest teddy bear from FAO Schwartz.
I reached into my bag and pulled out the FDNY cap. Her face sagged. She grabbed the cap and put it on. It made her look goofy, the way it covered her ears and most of her eyes. I helped her adjust the tab in the back.
Bella stood up.
“I want to go back to my class now,” she said.
She pushed the bill of the cap down and peered out at me.
I smiled. “Sure.”
I watched her skip down the hall, pumping her arm in the air.
One horrific day. And four and a half months and 3,000 miles later, a genuine, heartfelt connection between an eight-year-old girl and her hero.
It’s the one good memory I have from September 11.
8 September 11s later
We have had eight September 11’s since that gut-wrenching day.
Bella is now a high school junior. She doesn’t need a mentor anymore. She’s bright, achieving, just starting to think about the rest of her life.
As we never forget September 11, as we think about the sacrifices that were made for us, let’s also think about the kids who, if only for a season, replaced Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys with bigger heroes, like New York’s firefighters.
What about you?
Do you have a story of hope, something good that came out of September 11?