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Samantha Sharf
Elements of Style

Today’s average college student was between the ages of eight and 11 on Sept. 11, 2001. We were old enough to know there was a problem, to feel that something had been lost, to watch the events unfold on the news. But we were young enough to not completely understand what was going on.

The television could be shut off or the newspaper turned over to guard us from the harsher realities. Our generational discourse about the terrorist attacks has therefore become a composite of understanding and misunderstanding, fact and emotion. And as much as we know now that we have grown, the glut of media attention surrounding the 10th anniversary still has the ability to surprise us, to fill in memory gaps.

My 9/11 story is not particularly tragic or heroic, but it is representative of the complications in communicating about the events that existed then and still exist now.

On that morning I was on a sixth grade overnight trip — outdoor education — for class bonding and character building. A new kid, I was just beginning to let down my guard when our trip came to an abrupt end. The principal told us planes had been hijacked. Everything was okay, but some parents wanted us home. As we rode two buses and a ferry home from Rhode Island to Long Island, I pictured men dressed in black running around with guns.

A friend whispered that she overheard another ferry passenger say a plane had crashed into the New York Stock Exchange. I told her that was too big, too close; didn’t that girl with brown hair’s dad work there? I believed that even states away we would intuitively know that something truly awful had happened back home — perhaps I thought we would have read it on our teachers’ faces. How could they keep from blurting out the true extent of the damage?

Late that night my parents explained the events of the day. Four planes. The Pentagon. A field in Pennsylvania. And the twin towers. My mom remembers telling me the truth and being very clear about what happened. She felt that, at 11, I was old enough to be told everything and to talk about it openly. I don’t recall what they said, just feeling disoriented as we drove along curves of street we lived on and later enveloping myself in my parents’ yellow comforter to guard my eyes from images of planes hitting metal. Soon the strange shapes and sounds would become a constant presence. Sometimes I hardly noticed them; on other occasions they could make me cry without warning. For the months that followed it seemed as though everything I saw on the news, or off the news, was related to the attacks.

We are the 9/11 generation, but we are also a generation accustomed to having information constantly available. If we read enough articles, tweets and Facebook posts we believe there is nothing we cannot face. I remember slowly piecing together how closely the events impacted me by chatting with my new friends on AIM the following day. Perhaps it is in part through the coverage of 9/11 that we learned this thirst for information. We got through the days and years following the attacks on a wave of media coverage. It didn’t solve the problems, but at least we were abreast of the situation.

I did not yet fancy myself a news junkie, and it would be years before I would experience the conflicted high of covering a breaking story as an editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. I tend to believe that facts laid out in the proper order lead to some semblance of truth. But I am not sure that all the facts in the world could help me understand 9/11.

Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her column, Elements of Style, will appear every Wednesday. Her email address is

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