‘Waking memories’: Emerson students reflect on 20 years of 9/11

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Photo: Elaina Bolanos

Emerson community members memorializing the victims of 9/11.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 marks an important milestone in the commemoration of the attacks—coming at a time where most college-aged students were either born after or were too young at the time to remember the events that unfolded that fateful September morning.

For Vaughn Coleman, a senior visual and media arts major, 9/11 was a day that would alter his life forever. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Coleman lost his father, Keith, and uncle, Scott, in the World Trade Center.

This year’s anniversary is a sobering benchmark for Coleman, who read aloud the names of victims at a commemoration ceremony at Ground Zero in New York City.

“It symbolizes how many years of my life my dad hasn’t been there—how many years it’s been since he’s been taken,” he said. “20 years doesn’t mean it’s in the past. It’s a waking memory for me, every single day. It’s part of my life. It’s not in my past. Every year that passes, maybe it’s further away from someone, but not me. It’ll be a part of me until the day I die.”

Coleman stressed the importance of making sure each victim’s name was pronounced correctly and with dignity at the ceremony.

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“[My list] was towards the end of the alphabet and I had time to listen to the recording [of the pronunciations],” he said. “You have to remember that everyone is just like my dad. I would hate for someone to butcher my dad’s name—so I made sure that everyone’s name was read properly.”

After reading the names, Coleman gave a brief speech about the life his father could have lived had it not been for the attacks. 

“He worked so hard,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “He deserved to raise his children and be with his wife, but cowards took him from me. I think about how he should’ve been there for my graduation—all of them—and how he should be here now. I can’t change that, but I know that he’s here in spirit.”

After the ceremony Saturday, many came up to Coleman to show their support—including an Air Force serviceman who was on a fighter jet sent to attempt to stop the hijacked airplanes.

“He shook my hand and you could just feel the guilt he was carrying,” he said.

In addition to those at the ceremony, Coleman said that many people from his past reached out to him, which he appreciated immensely.

“There is a sense of unity,” he said. “Most people in the world are good. What it affirms above all else, is that most people—my friends, family, people I barely even know and people I haven’t talked to since high school—will reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m with you, man.’ That’s something special.”

After all of the grief and turmoil he’s been through, Coleman worries that many in his generation, having grown up with little-to-no memory of the attacks, will not understand their significance as they should.

“They forget the human element,” he said. “Just like, ‘Yeah, 3,000 people died,’ but a lot of them don’t know anyone who suffered. They don’t know how the world changed, they don’t know the events surrounding it, or the events preceding and then afterward.”

Indeed, the vast majority of this year’s freshmen can only recall the events of 9/11 from their parents’ accounts, or from history books. Some have stories that stand out, learning the tragedy of that day from family members who were in New York that morning—thankful that their loved ones did not end up becoming casualties.

Jack Reisman, a first-year comedic arts major, said his mother and relatives were in New York at the time of the attacks.

“Fortunately, all of them were safe when the attack happened, but it definitely hits home for me, and it feels very personal,” he said. “New York is a place that I consider home. Being from there, this day means so much to me.”

Dev Dokania, a first-year visual and media arts major, said his family was in Boston, with his older brother—a year old at the time—at his first day of daycare.

“They saw it happening on TV and went and got my brother and just sat around the TV together,” he said. “My aunt was in New York. She was also safe, luckily.”

For Cassie Hine, a first-year visual and media arts major, the tragedies of 9/11 struck too close to home, with her father catching a flight out of New York that morning. 

“[My mother told me] how frightening it was for her,” she said. “Because they were thousands of feet above the ground, she couldn’t get in contact with him.”

When asked what he would want to tell the Emerson community directly, especially those who have grown up in a post-9/11 world, Coleman put an enormous emphasis on wanting them to be kind to one another.

“I want you to look to your friends and your family and I want you to see another human being,” he pleaded. “I want you to realize that sometimes you don’t know how much someone is suffering. I want you to reach out and talk to each other and treat each other with respect.”