As I was walking to my class the other day, I came across a sign that read “If You Can Read This, Thank a Soldier.” I read it in passing, and thought to myself “That is really American.”

I did not understand.

I was in the second grade when September 11 occurred. Far away from the tragedy, physically and emotionally, and being just 8-years-old, protected me from the knowledge of the reality.

Fast forward a few years, I am now 15-years-old and in love for the very first time. He had lived in New Jersey and the moment of, he was in school just like all the other third-graders. His memories overwhelm him each time we discuss it, and he later on refuses to speak of it.

I did not understand.

Then I did my research, “wiped away” my ignorance with each turn of a page with each click of the computer mouse and with each word of the recordings.

I had thought I understood.

Fast forward a few more years, I am now 21-years-old and I am attending my first memorial for September 11. As we gather in Witherspoon Hall’s third floor lounge, one of the RAs plays the video of the tradgedy and the atmosphere thickens. We flip through a scrapbook filled with photos and quotes written on school desks and the emotions grow stronger. We reach one that starts with “My innocence has been taken away from me.”

Outside, with mini Star-Spangled Banners in the one hand and commemorative candles in the other, people share their stories and memories. They tell of loved ones and the loved ones of our loved ones touched by a sorrow that settled deep within them. A nation was left in shocked sorrow.

Photo by: Corlene Beukes

I wrote a letter to a soldier. I told him that I am from South Africa and that this was my first 9/11 memorial. I told him that I had thought I understood, but I now realize I did not. The experience of this is something the world will be able to understand, but it is something the United States of America share as a nation.

I did not understand and I thought knowledge could lift my ignorance. It was not the knowledge you find in books that made me understand, but the knowledge you find in people; in the ones you share with and talk to.

I think that is why America not only survived but thrived after the attacks. They helped each other, were there for each other, cared for each other. They experienced it together. Because there is no doubt that from a tragedy, rose a nation stronger, better and more united than ever.

The truth is that is what we should commemorate. When we tell our children and our children’s children, we should remind them that the people that rose from the tragedy is greater than the event of the tragedy.

Maybe, just maybe, if that were the way the world handle all of its tragedies, we could rise up stronger, better and more united than ever, because just as easily as people hurt people, people can also heal people.

So, if you can read this, thank a soldier, and I say this because now I understand.

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