The Twin Towers fell a year before my daughter was born.
The first time I talked to her in depth about the 9/11 attacks, she was in second grade. That year, the date fell on the same day as one of our major religious holidays.
I wanted her to know about the sorrow and significance of that anniversary date. But I also knew she was too young to fully comprehend the emotional and long-term impact of the attacks. And she was too young to understand the fear and anxiety that gripped the American Muslim community in the aftermath.
Over the years, we have talked about other horrific events -- moments that reveal the darkest sides of human behavior. It's hard to know the right thing to say. When she was very young, I could rely on the sage advice of Mister Rogers, who told children to "look for the helpers" when they saw scary things on the news.
Now that my children are teenagers, and as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I want them to know about one way in which the world was significantly different back then.
Shortly after the attacks, I wrote and published my first column -- a personal essay about what my family experienced the day of the attacks -- while still covering, and reeling from, the national tragedy as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In that piece, I wrote about the questions my college-aged sister asked me at the time: "Will the government come after us like they did with the Japanese? Will other Americans stand up for us?"
I received nearly a hundred responses, and more than 95% were supportive and kind. Our country was devastated and angry, but many of us were drawing closer and coming together, rather than turning on one another. It was a vastly different reaction than I could ever expect today, when the country is so polarized and online cruelty and ugliness are commonplace.
I had printed out many of those reader emails decades ago and filed them away. Their words comforted me. I recently dug the messages out of their old boxes and reread them. I was struck by one of the names of people who had responded.
Jere Hochman, then superintendent of a large suburban school district in St. Louis County, said he had shared my essay with other district administrators. They were advising teachers to be mindful of all students' safety as they discussed current events in their classrooms. It must have been reassuring for me to hear that some school officials were taking such care during that tumultuous time.
I could not have known that 19 years later, my own daughter would graduate from that same school district. Or that Hochman's son, Benjamin, would return to his hometown as a sports columnist at my own newspaper.
It was a reminder of how interconnected and small our world can be.
I reached out to Hochman this week to tell him how much his letter had meant to me. He was moved to hear it. It also brought back for him the intense memories and emotions of those difficult days in the aftermath of the attacks. He remembered telling the middle school teachers that he didn't want students watching live television in the classrooms because he wasn't sure what traumatic things might be airing at any moment.
In hindsight, a good call.
I told him that I wanted my children to know that there was a time in our country's recent history when people still responded to strangers with compassion -- even in the worst of times.
He said he stood by what he had written 20 years ago.
The last line of his note was an answer to my column: "In response to the final question of your Sunday article, 'Will other Americans stand up for us?' -- my answer is YES!"