09/11/2012 10:36 am ET

I Was 13 On 9/11

I was 13 years old and in the eighth grade on September 11, 2001. I was a student at the Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. My memories of that day are unremarkable but I'm sure similar to those of my peers in other areas far from the epicenter of the attacks.

The morning of September 11 started out like any other. On the bus, a friend and I shared a pair of headphones and listened to Led Zeppelin IV on my Discman. School was slightly different that morning. Usually the entire student body assembled in an auditorium known as the "chapel" for the morning announcements, declamations etc. Instead the day began in various places on campus for a school-wide poem discussion. For the life of me I can't remember the name, author or subject matter of the poem.

It was after the poem discussion that I first learned something had happened in New York. A few friends and I stopped to talk with the English teachers that had led our discussion group. One of them complimented my Tiffany necklace inscribed with the words "Please return to Tiffany & Co. New York." The other teacher commented, "I heard a plane crashed in New York this morning." That was it -- nothing out of the ordinary, simply a downed aircraft.

I went to my Spanish class. There were rumblings of the plane crash in New York but no one had any concrete details and terrorism was the furthest thing from our minds. Nowadays almost every kid has his or her own cell phone. In 2001, this wasn't so. Many of our teachers didn't even regularly carry cell phones! Spanish class continued as normal and afterwards, I went to my history class.

My classmates and I knew something was up when 15 minutes into class our teacher still hadn't arrived. This was very unlike him, but being eighth graders, we took it as an opportunity to goof off. I vividly remember a few of us having an animated conversation about whether or not Kurt Cobain had been murdered.

Our teacher finally arrived but looked like he'd seen a ghost. He quickly told us to sit down and shut up. He had no patience for our teenage antics and we quickly learned why. He explained that commercial airliners had been used to strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We were all too shocked to say much. This teacher lived on campus so we went to his house to watch the news.

It was positively surreal. The news outlets played the footage of the Pentagon on fire, the Twin Towers collapsing and the ensuing chaos. Rumors flew about other incidents. We didn't know what to make of the events. The idea of radical Islamic terrorism was completely foreign. Before it had been confirmed, our teacher asked us to brainstorm who we thought had carried out the attacks and we were baffled. Being scared eighth graders, we threw out asinine answers. I seem to remember the "hillbilly Nazis" being a popular theory.

The headmaster called for an emergency chapel meeting. As my friends and I walked from our history teacher's house to the chapel we sang "It's the End Of the World As We Know It" by R.E.M. Looking back, that was incredibly irreverent but it really was the end of the world we had grown up in.

Terrorism was something that my classmates and I had never really faced. We were too young to remember the bombings in 1993 at the World Trade Center and in 1995 in Oklahoma City. In our minds, we were safe on American soil. I didn't understand the type of hate that could inspire such a nefarious onslaught on innocent people.

The chapel meeting is a bit of a blur now. The headmaster further explained the attacks but having watched the news for nearly an hour at my history teacher's house, I already knew many of the details available at the time. The headmaster decided not to close the school but we were given the rest of the morning off to watch the news. We scattered all over campus - the student center, the dormitory common rooms -- to find places with TVs. It was then that I saw footage of people jumping to their deaths from the burning towers. The images still haunt me.

After lunch, we tried to continue the school day as normal. My pre-algebra teacher hosted a prayer session. Math was forgotten and instead we mused upon the day's events. We talked about our fears, reactions and tried to reason why these terrorists would execute such a heinous attack. I had science class next. My teacher conducted the class as if nothing had even happened. He never once mentioned the catastrophe. My classmates and I tried to focus on whatever was being taught but our hearts and minds were elsewhere.

When the day ended, it was a relief to go home to the safe confines of my parents' house. They tried to make me understand what had happened. In the following days, my parents swiftly canceled their upcoming trip to Chicago. Years later, we traveled to London only a few weeks after the Tube bombings. We briefly debated canceling our vacation but decided not to let fear rule our lives.

My story isn't remarkable in the least but I wanted to share my perspective as someone that was barely old enough to comprehend what was happening on 9/11. My peers and I cloaked our tremendous fear with dumb jokes and R.E.M. sing-a-longs in a desperate attempt to act like things hadn't changed, that we weren't deeply affected even in rural Tennessee. 11 years on, my heart is still with those who lost loved ones on that tragic day.