As I walked up the hill from my little school bus stop, in my little town in Nowhere, Pennsylvania, I rolled the word around my 8-year-old mind. My mother stood at the back door, waiting and watching for my brother and me to amble home.
“Mommy, Matt says the tourists did it,” I said to her as she removed my backpack. Matt, my hyper, loud-mouthed cousin lived up the street and took the school bus home with us. He had jumped up on the green, pleather bus seat, leaning over the back in animated explanation of the day’s events.
“Terrorists, honey,” my mother said. “Not tourists.”
How strange it is now, to think of a time when little children didn’t know the word. When I couldn’t grasp the idea of an attack, and naively joked with my brother that perhaps a large man had caused the building to fall down, like a cartoon.
“It’s not a joke,” my mother scolded me, and I could see in her teary eyes that this was not something small or far away or unrelated to us. It was huge and close and made my mother and father and teachers cry.
For a few summers in high school I taught at a summer camp. The first, second and third graders were all the same age as I was on September 11, 2001. Little boys ran around the playground, rapt in pretend war. Their parents let them play Call of Duty and other killing games I had never heard of. Pointing invisible guns at each other on the jungle gyms, they’d mimic the sound of firing guns, exploding grenades. “I’m killing the terrorists,” they’d say, smiling up at me through gapped baby teeth.
Now a part of the standard American vocabulary. And, apparently, the American childhood.
Lara Sorokanich is an accidental science writer and editor living in New York City. When she’s not writing about tiny robots and outer space, she enjoys reading trashy library books and searching for the best Chinese takeout in her neighborhood. Follow her @lara_soro.