September 11th, 10 years later

Daydreaming really never bothered me during my school hours, as I was always a good student who took copious notes. Call it journalistic training, if you like. Then I was assigned to Mr. Cherry’s pre-Calc class. I had it in my head that the only reason I needed math was to get into college, and then I could forget about anything but basic addition and subtraction (for the record, I am mostly right!).

Three weeks into my junior year of high school, I was still daydreaming in my second-hour math class. My second row seat meant that Mr. Cherry often called on me, but I could usually fake it (I somehow faked my way to a B+ in class, too), so as Bob wrote out daily problems on the overhead in blue pen, a knock came at the door. Mr. Cherry stepped outside, his tall frame barely fitting through the door. I stared at the back of Ellen Lee’s head, wishing I was still in 1st period PE playing volleyball.

A few seconds later, my teacher returned, white-faced and wheeling a TV from the math department office next door. Merely switching it on, we were horrified to watch a second plane slam into one of the iconic towers next to one already smoking.

As a wannabe journalist, I was relieved that our teachers let us watch news coverage for the rest of the day. I jogged through hallways to not miss a single press conference, major development or other tidbit of this monumental day, one in which Americans finally felt the instability of today’s world. In the ten years since that day, life has changed for even the most far-reached from the twin towers.

September 11th has affected me in countless ways, both big and small. Living so far from New York City and never having been there, I don’t know anyone who died that day, nor do I have a constant reminder in my home city.


Most of the people I know outside of Spain may consider this day to be just a blip in international news, but for Spain, it was a brush with Islamic terrorism, just a few years after my own country’s doomsday. On the morning of March 11th, 2004, bombs ripped through commuter trains throughout Madrid and the surrounding suburbs, killing nearly 200. Happening just days before the general elections. then-president José María Aznár wrongly accused the Basque Separatist group ETA for the attacks, hoping to be the straw that broke the Basque camel’s back, as he had a personal vengeance against the group that has caused him so much trauma during his presidency and campaign. As a result, Aznár lost the government to now outgoing president José Luis Rodriguéz Zapatero.

Still, I’m reminded of the dark day in recent Spanish memory (and, seriously, this last century is littered with them) every time I take the train to Madrid. My boyfriend’s brother lives just blocks from the station, and the red brick and glass monument meant to honor the victims looms over the passing gates for the cercanías trains and metro. I always have to hoist my bags onto airport-style security scanners when traveling on the high-speed trains, and the presence of guards actually makes me more nervous than lack thereof.

Atocha Station’s Tribute to Victims of 11-M

Body Scanners and Airport Security

I had read about the body scanners long before I ever used them. In fact, my most recent trip to America was the first time I was ever required to step into that small blue hallway and surrender all that is my dignity for the sake of a safe flight. And you know what? I don’t care. When my grandpa offered to fly me to France shortly before my 17th birthday, he suggested July 4th as our departure date. Being a worry wart for the better part of my younger years, I refused and made him change the flight to two days later, fearful for my well-being on a transatlantic jog from one of the world’s busiest airports.

Funny story: After arriving to de Gaulle to take our connecting flight to Nice, my grandfather complained about having to take his shoes off when going through security again. I begged him to lower his voice so the security guards would leave old Mr. Eccentric alone. We boarded the plane and I fell asleep. Two hours later, we were still on the ground, as a passenger’s bags had made it onto the plane, but the passenger himself didn’t. Glad my mother told me to wear gym shoes, I scrambled off the plane, found my big purple suitcase and wheeled it onto another baggage cart before falling asleep again (dude, jetlag is a bitch.). I woke up an hour later, stretched and open the window blinds. We were over water at a low altitude. I panicked, tightening my seat belt and putting my head between my knees as countless safety videos had instructed. My grandfather, a Korea vet and Navy pilot, laughed at me. Apparently the Nice airport is right on the coast, but the sensation of dying in a crash has afforded me a lot of patience when it comes to bag searches, pat downs and having the security guard at O’Hare give me a lashing…for being a Cubs fan.

American Stigma

I admit, I fully look like the American I am, from the haircut to the hips to my jeans. This is both a good thing and a bad thing while living abroad. A pro, for example, would be the anything but shortage of language jobs available to me as a TEFL professional. The biggest con, however, is the American stigma I get stuck with. Ok, I look like I’m 20, so that automatically qualifies me for the study abroad student in Seville to spend Daddy’s money on chupitas, copas, tapas and weekend trips to Lagos. Um, sorry, but no.

Further, being one of 250 million makes everyone think that every cosmopolitan New Yorker, hippie from the Pacific Northwest and down-home farmer is just like me. I am a twentysomething from Chicago with a big mouth, small dose of common sense and love for the big, big world. But one of the most common questions I got while I studied abroad in 2005 was, “Bush or Kerry?” I wasn’t one of the ones who voted in the majority that election, but he is one man who made one decision based on millions of opinions. Sometimes it’s hard for people to see past the fact that I am merely a single individual whose thought don’t always reflect those of my country.

I carry around a stigma everywhere in the world I’ve gone in the last ten years. I must be rich, or as dumb as that Bush guy. I must be arrogant and fat from all the McDonalds I eat. I must know every Hollywood star and drive a sports car and not speak anything else but English. These stereotypes are some of many that have been flung my way during my four years living abroad. But the one that stings the most? Being called unpatriotic.

English Teaching

Strangely enough, September 11th provides me with a go-to example of the past continuous. I can describe precisely where I was and what I was doing that morning, like I can the moment the newsflash about invading Afghanistan (sadly, I was watching Trista’s season of the “Bachelorette” and was angry that it was interrupted. Shame on me!). And in case you were wondering, I was eating Jeff Nowicki’s famous crepes in his living room when we found out Princess Di had been killed. It’s easy to asked what one was doing/wearing/watching/feeling when something monumental happened. For Spaniards, asking about 11-M or November 20, 1975, the day that Francisco Franco died, is a simple example to illustrate a not-so-simple grammar point. Like it or not, life-changing moments are a TEFL teacher’s best friend.

What were you doing when it happened?

As an educator, it seems strange that my students weren’t even alive when these events unfolded. My mom remembers bathing me one afternoon when the Challenger exploded, just a few months after I was born. Though I obviously don’t remember that day, the weight of its impact affected me when Columbia burst into flames when I was 17. To think that I’ll let Monday pass without so much as mentioning it is a bit sad to me. If I were a teacher in America, talking about September 11th would be like my 7th grade social studies teacher talking about the Vietnam War.

Regardless, the images and the emotions from that day will likely be on my mind forever, affecting me in my day-to-day.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. Trista’s season….. old school! Can you believe they’re still together? Looking back on it now, I feel like such an asshole for every time I was annoyed by something like the State of the Union address when it interrupted whatever I was watching at the time (probably Big Brother or America’s Next Top Model). Oh, and this: “..I look like I’m 20, so that automatically qualifies me for the study abroad student in Seville to spend Daddy’s money on chupitas, copas, tapas and weekend trips to Lagos.” I’m already preparing myself to be automatically placed in that category by every new Sevillano I meet.

  2. Such a great post. I plan on doing something similar with my blog, for the anniversary of 9-11 today. It’s amazing how a lot of people here in Spain will tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on that day when they heard the news, just as an American. It shook the whole world.

  3. Great post. I remember that I was in Mr. Fitchuk’s orchestra class at that time, and Dr. Baker made an announcement on the loud speaker that we all needed to get the T.V.s out to see what was happening. That day, I had no idea that it would have such a huge impact on the country.

    Being in China on Sept. 11 is strange. Today is the autumn moon festival, so the campus/city is actually relatively quiet and empty. None of my students have said anything, but I haven’t really seen them for the last couple days because of the holiday. Interestingly enough, I’ve been very moved by the expat community here. We attend an international fellowship, and I’m surprised at the sympathies from Canadians, Britons, Australians, Nigerians, Kenyans, etc. In fact, one of my coworkers, a Danish citizen, asked me if it would be appropriate to wear an American flag. I guess it show that the world is more connected than I think.

  4. Matt, I’m overwhelmed by just how big and powerful America is sometimes. People on the street shook my hand when Obama was elected, and I can only imagine what people may say today. In Spanish, the phrase it’s a small world is translated to, the word is a hankerchief: it really is that small.

Speak Your Mind


CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.