Of the past, they could still recall how their football team crushed Parkville 48-12 in the season opener and how a brilliant blue sky prevailed all morning and how Britney Spears writhed with a python on the MTV Video Music Awards.
Of the immediate future, they could still have faith. At Catonsville High School, auditions for the fall play, Up The Down Staircase, would soon begin. At Montgomery Blair High School, students would again record the most National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists in the state - for the sixth year in a row.
But that Tuesday morning, the anchored past and constant future severed. As a national tragedy collapsed across lesson periods, that natural juncture of time opened a fissure. Hijackers, Muslim chieftains, expert witnesses, teachers who could no longer teach - an unimaginable tsunami of news brought time to a standstill. The divide widened and a few of them began to realize that nothing again would ever fill the chasm.
"In my life, it will always be the time before this happened and the time after," says Stefan Matheke-Fischer, a senior at Blair, a self-described anarchist with a history of radical political involvement. "I just want peace."
"I wanted to get back to my normal, incredibly busy life," says Nora Krohn, a senior at Catonsville who once named music as the "biggest thing" in her productive life. "But then I also wanted to know everything there was to know or would happen in relation to this event because it's changed me forever. Everyone in this country has immediately become a world citizen."
The jolt of terrorism on Sept. 11 captured the attention of these adolescents like nothing else in their lifetimes. Infamously known as members of Generation Y - previously characterized by demographers more for their consumer habits than their ascendance as politically minded citizens - they belong to a group that has come of age during the most optimistic and prosperous time in American history. Twenty-six days ago, when the unthinkable happened, it struck them especially hard. If only for a moment, Generation Y was transformed.
Aghast. Alarmed. Astonished.
Angry. Aggrieved. Aroused.
Generation Y became Generation A - a generation rudely, unquestionably awakened.
"This is the biggest socializing event of the last 25 or 30 years," says James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who recently completed a survey of civic attitudes among more than 3,000 high school students across the state. "Until now this Millennial Generation would have had few experiences to direct their political socialization - the Clinton impeachment, the O.J. Simpson trial, maybe - but nothing like Vietnam or Watergate. Until now it seemed like we were seeing the birth of an apolitical or nonpolitical generation. Now that we face months and months of newscasts and investigations and hearings, this event will awaken these kids to world events and U.S. politics like nothing else in their lifetimes. It will go on and on and on."
Two days after the terrorist attacks, another political scientist, Steven David, a dean of academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University, addressed a Generation Y crowd of more than 200 at an impromptu campus forum on terrorism.
He told them how an earlier generation was shaped by World War I, became pacifists and supported policies of appeasement that allowed Adolph Hitler to gain momentum. He spoke of how a World War II generation learned to stop dictatorships but also supported interventionist policies that led to the bog of Vietnam. The Vietnam generation became disillusioned and distrusting of politics.
"How will this mold you?" he asked, predicting that it inevitably would.
Then, as if they hadn't considered it yet, he added: "You must realize, Americans of your age will die."
The stunned silence that followed suggested that perhaps another piece of the happy past had detached from the future, reminding them of the unbreachable divide that would likely shape their generation for many, many years to come.
First of all was how it happened.
In 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the day was Sunday. Children gathered around the family radio for news.
Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John Kennedy on a Friday afternoon in 1963. Most children went home and watched second-hand accounts on black-and-white TV sets over the weekend.
But unlike defining moments of the 20th century, last month's terrorist attacks struck like a personal assault, live and in color. The school setting may have been more structured than a family living room, but in some ways it felt far less secure. The week was new, the school day had just begun. No matter how distant students may have been from Manhattan, Washington or rural Pennsylvania, many sat only a few feet away from disaster - as it occurred - in their presence. In the intimacy of classrooms, surrounded by teachers and classmates, a sense of isolation and vulnerability hit some like a thunderbolt.
Nora Krohn walked into her biology class at Catonsville High School around 9:30 and wondered why the TV was on. The glassy building spewing fire and smoke looked familiar.
"I couldn't believe it was the World Trade Center," she said. "It was like something happening to the Statue of Liberty. It's a symbol of America. Seeing it in flames was like watching the whole world crumble. My whole body began to react before I could process it. Nobody else in the room seemed affected, but when the first tower collapsed, for me it was like when you find out that someone close to you has died. I don't believe in God, but I've always had an innate sense of reason and humanity. Somehow that just turned into existential terror and loneliness. Something got right down into the core of me and shook it. I felt immediately alienated."
Her breathing grew shallow and Nora gasped for breath. As a friend led her out into the hallway, she remembered, "I have an uncle who works near there."
In another part of the building, band teacher Jim Wharton and his students watched the second tower collapse. When television cameras brought up a shot of the Pentagon, Jason Shinsato, a clarinetist, felt a staggering wave of grief.
"I didn't want anyone to see me cry," Jason said, "so I left and went to the bathroom to calm myself. Mr. Wharton came in after me and then I just lost it. He told me I could stay there. Even if we had not been witnessing the destruction of these American icons, watching it and knowing that we'd just seen all these people die hit me really hard."
For many others, the reality - and its repercussions - took longer to comprehend.
In a third part of the building, a teacher in an advanced placement English class flipped on the TV 15 minutes after the first airplane slammed into the trade center. Danielle Torain did not know how to react. Even after the towers crashed and newscasters reported the Pentagon disaster, she couldn't quite take it in. When news reports hinted that Muslim terrorists might have been involved, some of Danielle's classmates looked to her for answers.
"The class kept turning to me because I had spent a month in Israel this summer," she said. "At one point my teacher said, 'Did you just hear what they said on TV? They said Palestinians did this.' And I had just told the class not to blame the Arab world. They took that as, 'You're supporting the terrorists.' But I knew we just didn't have sufficient information. They were reacting from emotion. Before I went to Israel, I was like them - I didn't know how deep this was. I had been there for a whole month, and I still didn't have a full understanding. But at least I did know there was more than one perspective."
As blame turned more squarely to the Arab world. Danielle recalled, one girl in the class said: "We have to get rid of them."
Danielle recoiled. Her mind suddenly locked onto memories of her friends overseas. The attacks started to have dimension.
Six weeks earlier, she had awakened to the complexity of international conflicts. She was in Haifa at the end of a monthlong summer program sponsored by Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings. Living at an Israeli youth village, she had spent weeks with Arabs and Jews, and studied with high school students from Ethiopia, Tibet, Brazil, India and Russia. When she came back to Baltimore, Danielle believed in the commonalities of people. She had hope for the potential of peaceful coexistence for Arabs and Israelis. The experience had opened her eyes to violence against Palestinians and sensitized her to examples of political oppression, educational deficiencies and the absence of governmental support systems in other parts of the world.
Now the television reports seemed one-sided. Her classmates sounded prejudiced. What she thought but did not say was: "How in the world did we not expect something like this to happen?" As horrible as it was, she thought, "I just know there's more information out there that we've not been given."
But, in fact, Danielle had never heard of Osama bin Laden. Nora knew the name but could not place him in the context of world affairs. Jason, who kept up with world events, thought he understood all too well.
For each of them - among the school's top students - there were moments in those first few days when they felt alone and confused. Coming from a military family, Jason wondered whether he would be called to duty and how he would overcome his private belief in nonviolence. Danielle, who could not fathom the evil unleashed, kept hoping for "closure with the terrorists," but stumbled over what that might mean. Nora, whose father teaches history, felt that her education had somehow failed to teach her about something fundamentally wrong with the world. Grief-stricken, she looked for a place to share her feelings and seek answers.
That week, Catonsville High's Political Awareness Club offered a forum to discuss the roots of terrorism and look at implications for the coming days. Nora stepped into the meeting, hoping to address the neglected part of her education and, perhaps, find solace with classmates. She still found herself alone.
"Kill all Arabs," said one boy.
Nora turned and hurried out of the room.
Professor Jim Gimpel was examining batches of fresh survey data when the terrorist attacks occurred. His political science studies, sponsored in 1999 and 2000 by the William T. Grant Foundation, assessed civic behavior and attitudes of more than 3,000 Maryland high school students.
Looking at the data, Gimpel saw one disturbing, but particularly relevant, statistic.
In almost 30 high schools, he had asked students to rate how closely they identified with a wide range of American racial and ethnic groups: Black, Cuban, Haitian, Filipino, Puerto Rican, German, Native American, Italian, Chinese, Irish, Jewish, Asian, White, Latino, Hispanic, Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican and, finally, Arab.
In a measure of their feelings of "social distance," students consistently placed Arab Americans at the very bottom of the scale.
"Views of Arab Americans were rather hostile and distant," Gimpel said. "They're not well understood. It could be, partly, their small numbers - people do not come into contact with them often. But then that's true of some of these other groups, so it can't be just that. There was a suspicion of Arab Americans even before these events, and a distrust, which has created this distance."
For Maha Jafri, a freshman at Hopkins, Sept. 11 was "the worst morning of my life." She worried that her father, a Pakistani immigrant, might have traveled to New York on business from the family's Oriental rug shop in Albany, N.Y. Her roommate kept talking fretfully about the Apocalypse, and even Maha thought the attacks might mark the beginning of World War III.
But over the next few days, she came to feel the most immediate threat to her might not be from foreign extremists but fellow Americans.
"I'm not Arab," she said. "I don't look Arab. But there is definitely a sense of what it is like to look like an American. And whatever that is, I guess I don't fit it. Even though I was born in New York, and my parents have never isolated themselves from this culture - they are Americans - people always ask me, 'Where are you from?' and when I say Albany, they say, 'No, I mean, where are you from?' "
After the attacks, looking different grew even more difficult.
In Albany, friends and customers of her parents cautioned the family to display American flags at their home and at their store. Maha's younger brother got hostile notes from strangers on the Internet who recognized his name as Middle Eastern. Young men she knew cut their beards to look less Arabic. Her parents called and instructed her not to go anywhere alone.
During those initial days, Maha grew into an uncomfortable new awareness. Educated at a politically active high school and welcomed at Hopkins as one of its most outstanding freshmen, Maha had to face what she called "a different kind of terrorism" - personal fears that she should censor herself, withdraw from political activity and avoid nascent conversations on campus about war and peace in the Middle East.
With relatives in Pakistan, Maha grew up with one very different perspective from many young Americans - she has always had an immediate connection to the rest of the world. She understood international politics and critical perceptions of America's role abroad better than most people. "I grew up with the idea that politics are very personal," she said. "I think most people my age see politics as something that's really detached from their lives. It's an abstract idea. But my parents were always aware of what was going on in the world. We had a sense of the world's interconnections and the effect of U.S. policies overseas."
Ten days after the attacks, she decided she could safely attend a peace rally on campus. Cautioned by her father not to speak out or become too public, she also felt she had to state her motives explicitly: "I do not go there to protest bombing in Afghanistan," she said. "I am going to show that I do not support racist sentiments. After all, if I don't go, what would that say?"
For the first time in her life, Maha believes people her age will begin to discuss politics as if their lives depend on it. "We were on track to becoming the most apathetic generation in American history. It's indicative of who we've been that buildings had to blow up and thousands of people had to die before we'd wake up. I just hope it will bring us together, that it will give us a sense of perspective."
Oddly, at the time when others are finally talking, Maha is struggling to decide if it's safe to speak.
The call to duty touched many of them - some rapidly, some profoundly - for the first time.
Andy Oare, a 17-year-old senior at Loyola Blakefield, went directly home to Catonsville when his Jesuit prep school in Towson closed after the attacks. But immediately he felt something was wrong.
"I was at home with my father and brother watching this stuff on TV and sitting on my ass, and ... this household was so insular, it really started to irk me that I wasn't doing anything!" he said. "I actually started to feel sick and went upstairs to lie down but then I thought, 'I can either sit here and grieve and be sad or analyze it forever or I can get up and try to fix it.' I left the house and drove around a while, then I went to St. Agnes Hospital to give blood. And they told me to go to the Red Cross. It was the only thing I could do."
When he arrived at Red Cross headquarters in north Baltimore, a long line stretched out the door. The white heat he'd felt leaving home started to cool when, among hundreds of people, he bumped into a friend.
"It's going to be at least a two-hour wait," the friend said.
Andy muttered something about whether it would be worth the effort, but a girl in line behind him piped up: "Of course, it's worth it!"
Five hours later, Andy had bonded with like-minded strangers in a kind of temporary melting pot that he had never imagined existed. The Red Cross volunteers, he referred to as "patriots." Long lines of patient donors became "a community." The evening, he would later say, turned into "the most significant experience of my life."
Before Sept. 11, Andy had never paid attention to politics or world affairs. He had never felt the slightest patriotic stirrings. He had never donated blood. In fact, when he first heard about the attacks Tuesday morning, he joked about them. His mind had leaped to scenes from the movie "Speed," a 1994 thriller about a psychotic bomber. Hours later, when school let out, his first thought was how to get home before traffic backed up on the Beltway. "That's how limited my view was," he said.
By 9 o'clock that night, having watched TV broadcasts for hours, made new friends and "talked with probably more black people than I ever had in my entire life," the decision to abandon his parents and little brother in their "comfortable home," as he said, had become nothing less than an act of selfhood. When his father phoned and suggested that he give up what seemed like a fruitless wait and come home to do his homework - "You can always go back tomorrow when the lines are down," Bob Oare had told his oldest son - Andy exploded. "You'll have to come up and drag me out of here!" he said, and clicked off his cell phone.
"I couldn't sit around and be a kid anymore," he said. "This was a significant problem. What we were doing could possibly save someone's life!"
Finally, around midnight, as he finished filling a pint bag with blood, Andy had crossed some private barrier with his family and himself. He would not remove either his Red Cross sticker or the bandage he left with, and when he walked into school the next morning he scanned the halls for classmates bearing similar signs of their efforts.
But there were none like him. When teachers asked about his good deed and commended him, Andy was appalled. "Look, I'm nothing special - I'm not some super moral person," he complained. "I mean, this is what you're supposed to do, isn't it?"
Within a week, Andy was even talking about the possibility of military service. Of course, he could not predict exactly what he would do next - that, as his parents wisely noted, is part of a discernment process even adults have just begun. But more than ever, Andy felt called to action.
But what of those who already held strong convictions, who long ago made the choice to stand apart from their peers?
In the cliquish land of high school, it would not be easy to find two teen-age boys so willing to stand apart as Catonsville's Chris Hauf and Montgomery Blair's Stefan Matheke-Fischer. Probably few in their schools could be described as so committed or, in very different ways, convinced of the rightness of their paths.
At 17, Chris repeats the three basic values of the U.S. Marine Corps with reverence.
"Honor, courage, commitment," he will say, pointing out that a sense of duty arose in his life long before terrorists left a scar on the landscape. "Why do I feel that way, where does it come from?" He taps his heart. "Right here."
With the same earnestness, Stefan speaks of Truth with a capital T. Unlike Chris, whose trim haircut and crisp attire mirror his future plans, Stefan's appearance - a motley bush of hair slowly winding into dreadlocks, a glimmer of silver jewelry dangling from his nose and glinting from his tongue - speak clearly of his early engagement with the punk club scene and recent entry into the fledgling youth anarchism movement.
"You have to dedicate yourself to something real," Stefan will say. "A classless, stateless society. Direct democracy - consensus would be even better. Small communities. Let people live in peace and provide for themselves as they need."
Stefan's association with a youth empowerment program in Washington called Positive Force has brought him into a volunteer corps that works at a women's shelter in Washington and delivers groceries in low-income neighborhoods. But he also spent the summer helping organize a national action against the World Bank in Washington this fall.
"I consider myself a revolutionary," he said. The basic creed is simple: "It's your world; take it back."
Unlike Stefan, whose education in international affairs started in music clubs around Washington and has become a regular immersion into global politics, Chris prefers a far more parochial approach to civic activity. He avoids politics, ignores international news, but makes a practice of looking out for anyone in need around his town.
"In my truck, I carry a shovel, tow strap, ax, flares, medical kit, everything I need to help out in an emergency," he said. "I stopped for a guy I found lying in a storm drain last week, got him cleaned up and called for help. You talk about American spirit? That's what I want America to be like. You see those firefighters in New York? That's who I want to be."
Both are staunchly committed, and yet in many ways, they're regular kids. Stefan enjoys working at the food co-op after school; Chris likes working as stage manager for the high school drama club. Before the terrorist actions, Stefan had envisioned packing up and moving to a small college far from suburban Washington ("There are a lot of interesting things happening in the Pacific Northwest"); Chris couldn't wait to escape high school ("a mindless gerbil track") and start boot camp, which begins three days after his June graduation.
But despite the apparent stability of their lives, terrorism did make its mark - perhaps not so overwhelmingly as on their peers, but with same swift and definite power.
"I had expected something big like to this to happen," Stefan said. "I knew there was a lot of anger in the world against the United States. People have been angry for a long time - the sanctions against Iraq, accidentally bombing a pharmaceutical factory and never apologizing. ... You know, I was really envious of other students who didn't understand what was happening. I wished I did not have the capacity or knowledge to understand what's going on. People who celebrated going home [early] from school that Tuesday had total trust that the government would do everything right. It was the opposite of what I had been studying and working on for the last couple of years. I have very little trust in the government to do the right thing now."
Nevertheless, his previous interest in the tactics of "active dissent," which might once have condoned symbolic destruction of property, suddenly ended. Terrorist violence, the specter of war, the suggestion of a rougher, more policed society at home and a more virulent foreign policy has shaken him at the core.
"What Jesus Christ said is definitely amazing - forgiveness of your enemies and how to break cycles of violence. I'm beginning to realize how important it is to acknowledge that there is a higher Truth."
While Stefan considers what it might mean today to become part of a religious community - "I wonder about becoming a progressive Catholic" - for the first time, Chris imagines what it could mean to be a Marine shouldering a rifle in another land.
"It really hadn't occurred to me until after this happened and I was talking with a friend at school and he said, 'Good luck, buddy, you're going to war now,' that - oh, I could be involved in this thing. I thought of walking through some foreign country carrying an M-16 and people shooting at me. It was a little scary. Before this, I had just thought of being on training maneuvers. "
Chris says he doesn't worry about any more terrorist incidents, and he's not convinced that the recent upsurge of patriotism will last. He doesn't understand why some people are still so upset and he remains confident that everything will be all right - for him and for the country.
But he also admits that he doesn't pay attention to the news. He chose not to listen to the president's speeches.
"If they said to me, 'Hey, Chris, let's go to Afghanistan,' I'd go for it," he says. "We could obliterate Afghanistan ... "
He shrugs off the thought.
"But I don't finish school until June, and I won't finish military training until next December. So I actually have a lot more important things to think about than where I'll be in a year and a half. I can't do anything about this stuff right now anyway."
The idea that cataclysmic events can profoundly affect political socialization has deep roots in research by Kent Jennings, former president of the American Political Science Association, whose studies of the so-called Vietnam Generation have now spanned more than 35 years. It is a simple idea that describes a complex process.
Beginning with a national survey in 1965, Jennings mapped attitudes of young people who were, in some ways, similar to the plucky, optimistic members of Generation Y. "You can look at surveys during Eisenhower years and you couldn't find a more trusting, confident, gung-ho group of future Americans," he said recently from his office at the University of California Santa Barbara. "And then, of course, we know what happened."
A war intervened.
His first survey in 1965 showed that high school students generally shared a fairly rosy political outlook, with few great differences among them. By 1973 a broad gulf had opened between those who were college graduates and those who were not. Many college graduates by then were generally disillusioned but also genuinely engaged in political life. The war had provided an education in everyday civics, made public policy profoundly salient and shaped their behavior as American citizens. His follow-up studies of the Vietnam Generation continued over the next two decades. By 1997, when he conducted the last survey of the now-middle-aged group, he had evidence of the war's lasting impact: Former political activists remained keenly involved in conventional politics.
"The whole idea is that these kids are in their formative years - they don't have a base of experience," he said. "You hear talk comparing the terrorists events to Pearl Harbor. Well, people who came of age during Pearl Harbor had no living memory of World War I. So it did have a huge impact: Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation.
"Now you have all kinds of data showing that successively, young people coming into adulthood after Vietnam became less and less interested in politics. Then this happens - it's so totally foreign and alien and massive and staggering in scope. It's got to be quite a jolt. Seems to me they're going to get engaged; there's no question about it. The question is how: If the government conducts itself in ways they think are in concert with democratic values, we'll find a certain reaction. If it does not, there will be another ... "
In any case, his studies indicate vacillation will occur. Generation Awakened will not go in lockstep off to war or on to peace vigils. The immediate question, for some, will not just be whether the government will act properly, but whether it has acted properly in the past. Within a generation so young it regards Desert Storm as "my parents' history," as one Catonsville student said, the new lessons in American politics will be abrupt and eye-opening for some, tedious and inconsequential for others. But the prevailing impact of this event will be unavoidable.
Katie McGinn, a senior at Montgomery Blair, tried to avoid the after-shocks of Sept. 11, but is learning just how unavoidable the new world has become.
Katie does not describe herself as one of the extraordinary students in a school well known for its super-achievers. She limits her activities outside school, sets relatively modest goals for the future and is matter-of-fact about her former lack of interest in the great tangle of world events. "I never read the newspaper," she will admit. "I was uneducated about terrorism. I had never heard of Osama bin Laden. When it comes to government action and politics, I'm pretty oblivious. I had no understanding of these events whatsoever."
But Katie quickly woke up to the once foggy universe of news reports from distant lands and a world of strongly divided opinions.
The day of the attack, she listened quietly as friends and family discussed what happened, watched some news reports, did her homework and was in bed by 9 p.m. The next day, she left the house, visited with friends, avoided the television and did not discuss what happened. Again she went to bed early. "I didn't know what I felt," she recalled. "I didn't know enough to say anything."
By Thursday morning, though, when Blair students returned to school and classes began to discuss the attacks, Katie knew precisely what she thought.
"I had listened to Bush's speech and liked that a lot," she said. "I saw how patriotic people were and I wanted to do something to help. I wanted to donate blood. I wanted to fly a flag. And I kept making the point stronger and stronger in my mind: I wanted revenge."
In the hallway before a morning class, she met one of her closest friends, Farrah Farley, and told her she hoped the U.S. would begin bombing. "I want them all dead," she said.
Farrah, who is part Lebanese and spent the first two years of her life living in Jordan, had been praying that Americans would not overreact or embrace stereotypes about Arabs. She didn't say much to Katie, but she did speak. "That's hypocritical," she said. The two girls, who had been cheerleaders together and were even considering attending the same college, went on to class. In moments, Katie realized that terrorist violence was not just about politics - it had become a personal issue. She looked at Farrah and started to cry.
Over the next several days, class discussions - particularly with students who had lived in or somehow maintained close connections in the Middle East - influenced Katie to think even harder.
One student, Karin Brown, explained how she had spent the first six years of her life in Jerusalem as daughter of Lutheran missionaries. In recent years, she had joined her father at rallies to relieve the debts of Third World nations and followed him to Capitol Hill as he lobbied legislators to ban land mines. She appealed to classmates to look at the larger picture, to consider the root causes of terrorism, to think more deeply about their response. When you went to sleep Monday night the world was safe, she would say, and Wednesday night it wasn't safe anymore. Then she would goad them: "But the truth is, the world has not changed that much. It's your perception of it that shifted."
In just a few weeks, Katie McGinn has waffled and struggled with many new ideas. She does not know what she thinks about friends who advocate nonviolence. She wonders if the U.S. government is revealing enough about its private actions abroad and at home, and if it ever has explained its foreign policy fully to the American people. Sometimes she thinks America should "butt out" of the international arena. She has decided that all the flag waving is an emotional display with a vengeful purpose, and refuses to ally herself with that kind of business.
She also has realized that her brother and boyfriend could be drafted if a war escalates. She imagines what could have happened had terrorists dropped an atomic bomb on Washington. "I was just very lucky the first attack didn't affect me," she will say. "But that won't be true the second time."
With dangers and complications becoming more apparent every day, Katie admits she is sometimes confused and unclear about her new world. But she is adamant that people like her get all the most accurate news and information that is available, and like Stefan, Danielle, Andy, Nora, Jason, Maha and other members of the changing Generation Y, she is certain now that everyone should keep talking.
About This Story
They are the most racially diverse generation in American history, children of single-parent and two-income households, stretched for time, generally optimistic and powerful in number. As a group, they have also been remarkably uninterested in politics and world affairs.
Jolted now by the new realities of terrorism, the 71 million children of Baby Boomers may find themselves shaped in ways that will change them forever.
Over the next year, The Sun will keep in touch with some of these young people and map the path of their experience. In the wake of cataclysm, in a more dangerous and complex world, their new interests and influences will have their effect and may speak to larger awakenings among us.