WEST FORSYTH -- Andy Thompson, just like people throughout the nation who were old enough to retain memories on September 11, 2001, remembers where he was and what he was doing when news of the attacks broke.
He was 12. Just like many of the students to whom he spoke Friday morning in the gym at Liberty Middle School.
“I was in class, and my principal came in and pulled the teacher out of the class,” said Thompson, the middle school director at Browns Bridge Church.
That had only happened once before, when his grandfather passed away.
“I knew in that moment when my principal came and grabbed my teacher out into the hall, I knew something bad had happened,” he said.
Each year the school – the first public school in Forsyth County to open after the attacks by terrorist group al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93 that killed almost 3,000 people – holds a ceremony to honor the victims and their families.
This year’s theme focused on the unsung heroes who chose to run into the rubble to help strangers instead of flee.
“There’s one thing we’ve all thought at one point or another. This one single question: Why would this happen?” Thompson said. “And the truth is, I don’t know … 15 years later standing here I still don’t fully know.
“But there is something that I do know. Tragedies do happen.”
There are two ways to respond to a tragedy, he said, whether that event be as catastrophically grandiose as 9/11 or as personal as a divorce or a family member getting cancer.
One way to respond is to run away. From the situation. From people.
“To isolate ourselves, to think we can handle this alone. That we don’t need anybody’s help. That I’ve got this,” he said.
Or the response can be to run to people.
“We can lock arms with those around us. We can be a community to rally behind any terrible situation,” Thompson said. “Running away is safer. It’s easier. Then we only have to rely on ourselves.
“But something happens when we decide as individuals and as a community and as a school that we want to run toward the tragedies that we face.”
Thompson may have that day and where he was ingrained in his memory forever, but Sarah Livingston does not. She cannot. The eighth grader was not alive when the planes struck the towers and the black smoke billowed upwards and outwards.
That’s where parents and teachers and ceremonies like Friday’s are vital.
“It was really sad, and there were so many people dying. And a lot of animals died, as well,” Livingston said of what she has been taught about the attacks.
She was among the students who performed for the ceremony. Members from the band, chorus and drama club all participated.
Livingston said she wanted to take part to “show everyone, like, how sad it was and what you can do … it was a terrible thing, and everyone should be aware of it.”
Though important to those who were not alive or too young to watch the events unfold, eyes glued to their TVs, commemorating Patriot Day is not simply about learning the history to Liberty Principal Cheryl Riddle.
“We want them to remember that with strength, with perseverance, that we can overcome such tragedies on a daily basis,” she said, “and that, more important, I want them to learn to support each other and care for each other. Not just in times of trouble, but every day.”
Riddle has only been principal at Liberty for two years, but she was a teacher at the school on Wallace Tatum Road in 2001.
“Liberty was at that time, as they were trying to decide what to name [the school when it opened], I think it was so still burning in the hearts everything that was happening at the time, and I think it was a perfect opportunity to use our school and use our Patriot name and to remember,” she said.
She said the students and the community and teachers came together to produce the ceremony, something that Thompson stressed.
“I remember when the firefighters were running into the buildings. They were locking arms with those people in need. And they were being that community that were rallying behind those people inside those buildings,” he said. “Some of them would still be alive to this day if they didn’t do that, but they dove head first and they ran into that devastation.
“They knew something important. They knew that people matter. They knew relationships matter. And supporting each other matters. In tragedies, in difficult situations you and I may face, supporting each other matters. We must support each other.