The second plane had hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center by the time I arrived at work at the Rochester Post Bulletin.

I had an interview scheduled that day. I went to it. I was in my car, waiting to interview staff at the now-defunct Studio Academy charter school when the first tower went down.

What did it mean? We're still trying to figure that one out.

At the time, no one knew for certain what else was out there. What other terrorist plots were planned for the day? There was a vague, inchoate fear. The Mall of America? Mayo Clinic? It didn't seem inconceivable. People talked about the possibility.

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Where were you? What were you doing that day? Today, those are the questions that children and young people who were born after 9/11 ask of parents who lived through it. They are the same queries that previous generations asked about Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy.

It may sound odd. You would think that when nearly 3,000 lives perish in a single day on America soil, that life would suddenly come to a screeching halt. But it didn't. I went about my day as did others. There was a refuge in normalcy. Plus, for me and my colleagues, there was a story to report. A story like 9/11 has ramifications for everyone.

That's how I ended up in social studies teacher Shane Baker's class at Century High School on Sept. 11, 2001, 19 years ago today. When I look back at the article I wrote, I am struck by students' awareness that they were passing through a moment that would change their lives.

"I don't think America will be the same," then 16-year-old Marissa Oliver said. "People are going to look at security. It's going to be totally different."

She was right. We live in that world today. Nearly two decades of nearly endless wars, long lines at airports, and massive increases in deportations shows how right she was.

Century High School teacher Shane Baker September 9 2020. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Century High School teacher Shane Baker September 9 2020. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

I asked Baker what he remembered about that day.

Baker still gets chills when he thinks about it. The class discussion that day was to be organized around a quote from a famous Revolutionary War pamphleteer: The first duty of government is to keep people safe.

"I still get goose bumps," Baker said. "That was the quote of the day we were going to be talking about, and then that happened."

Baker said he felt a responsibility to protect students somewhat from the news as it was unfolding. Yet it was hard to focus on Revolutionary War words with the country under attack. Classrooms back then had TVs with access to cable. Baker recalled a student suggesting that the TV be turned on so they could see what was going on in New York. Within a minute of turning it on, one of the towers fell.

Baker doesn't recall any crying or emotion from students. Mostly, they were subdued, somber, some in an almost zombie, trance-like state. There were exceptions. Baker co-taught a class with a teacher who was a Long Island native, and one student had had an aunt who worked in Manhattan. Both were distraught.

"The story was changing so fast," Baker said. "It went from a fluke-accident-mistake to an attack to something else is going to happen. We weren't on any kind of firm footing."

Today, Baker teaches students who were born after 9/11 and have no personal memories of it. Even before then, Baker was encountering students with no memories of the attack, because either they were too young or their parents shielded them from the news during that time.

Their relationship to 9/11 is the same as mine to the end of World War II. I was born in 1961, 16 years after the war's end. Even though my life has been profoundly shaped by the war, it was never a felt experience. That changed perspective has altered how Baker teaches students about 9/11.

The Century teacher said he keeps waiting for the day when students show less interest in 9/11 as a fading event. But it hasn't happened yet. He can tell by the questions.

"(They ask), 'did you keep going to classes? Did the bells ring? Did you hand out homework?' They understand from their parents and their history books that this was a huge event," Baker said. "Their curiosity lately seems to be around: Did you know it was going to be this big a deal?"

Matthew Stolle is a reporter for the Post Bulletin.