We have just heard the bell that marks the first loss of life on September 11th, 2001, and the first of the events we remember today. You heard it toll twenty times for the twenty years since that day. You have watched your classmates unfurl the flag and raise it to full staff—quickly to show our country’s resilience and diligence—then lower it to half-staff slowly to show that we mourn those that our nation lost. You raise the flag to raise up one of the only symbols that stands for each and all of us in America, just as row upon row of flags lined city and town streets, country roads and solitary porches twenty years ago. Just as row upon row of congress members lined the steps of the US Capitol at the end of that terrible day to sing “God Bless America” in unison. Together.
There are numbers associated with these events: 9/11, Flight 175, Flight 77, Flight 11, Flight 93; 8:46 am, 9:03 am, 9:37, 10:03. Pieces of data, perhaps, to you who were not yet born, you who raise the flag and toll the bell today. But for some of us, these are searing memories. And for two thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven individual people, these mean such loss. Normal citizens, firefighters, police. Those suddenly stolen from us. Those few who ran into harm’s way so that so many could flee. And for each of those individuals, a family that still feels the ache of absence, including families that were and are a part of Gill, whom we think of especially today.
Over the intervening years, further loss unleashed by those events echoed from here to the far edges of the globe, to places like Afghanistan, where war has ended, but where it is hard to discern if peace will ever come. And there we hear more numbers—of soldiers, civilians, contractors, aid workers, journalists—of costs in dollars and costs in lives.
I have heard some question the span of time, the span of your lives, since then. Was anything since then worth it? Did any of this make a difference? All the people who joined in the service of their country in the days and months after September 11th did so with a purpose—whether digging through the rubble in New York or building a school in Kabul.
Perhaps we should pause to rethink our perspective.
Once there was a man who walked on a beach after a major storm. He saw thousands of starfish thrown up by the waves on the beach sand, destined to dry out and die. In the midst of them was a little girl, picking up a starfish in each hand, walking diligently to the water’s edge, and throwing them back in the water. The man told her that her efforts would not make a difference in so great a loss, and as she tossed a starfish in the water, she said, “Makes a difference to that one.”
One of the young men who joined the Marines in the days after September 11th, who served and was wounded in Afghanistan, faced just such a dilemma recently when that country turned, but rather than mourn the futility of war, he worked to save one man, his translator, and successfully get him on a flight to new life. This young Marine, the son of two firefighters, in fact my sister’s son, this young Marine, now no longer so young, made a difference to that one man.
So perhaps that is how we can think about numbers. Not in the thousands, but in twos and threes. The two men who carried a colleague in her wheelchair down 68 floors of the World Trade Center. The three men who decided to fight back on Flight 93 to save the US Capitol from destruction. The two of you comforting a friend who is mourning the loss of a family member to Covid. The three of you helping a classmate clean up after flooding. One of us recognizing a need and filling it, realizing that our hands are strong enough to carry that person’s burden, to carry that sea star to the shore because, like the stars on this flag, and like us here at Gill, they achieve their greatest purpose when they are together in a sea of blue.
That is my wish today for all of us and for our families—that we can remember and mourn and grow together today.
Now, as we turn to a moment of silence, which we will observe until we hear the last tolling of the bell, let us remember.