Here is what I remember: most of it. The day itself, I mean. The interruption of class, the announcement by the fumbling English teacher, the crowding at the window, the black cloud already invading the skyline.

I remember the snarky, oblivious comments — my own, especially. The teachers herded everyone to the school rooftop to sort us into homerooms and take count of where everyone was.

I remember the first few parents arriving, to our surprise, followed by the announcement that students would not be released from school until a parent — anybody’s parent — signed them out. And then my own parents arrived in a flurry, scooping up as many of the downtown kids as they could find, sweeping us all out to the street, seeing a man with the radio walkie-talkie on his shoulder as if we were in another decade. I remember my father’s van becoming a caravan for other people’s children, the way we dropped them off one by one to grateful parents, how sad I was to watch them leave.


Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

I remember reaching my father’s office on 17th Street and the black-and-white TV they had set up. It was the only black-and-white TV that I had ever seen up close. I remember that nobody knew who would be able to get home that night and that the bridge and tunnel employees gathered around the TV set, forcing smiles for my brother and me.

I remember my mother deciding we should go buy groceries, leaving my brother in the office and taking me back to the street. I remember Gourmet Garage feeling like Disneyland. Not because it was full of adventure, but because the entire store was one giant line wrapped around and around itself. Everyone else had had the same idea: Trucks had already been stopped from entering or leaving Manhattan. Food deliveries would be halted. I remember gathering what we could carry, winding around the aisles, paying, leaving.

It was while we were walking back to the office that the two men appeared. They were standing against a wall, both wearing yellow hard hats and reflective vests over their dirty grey sweatshirts and jeans.

Dark mud caked their hair and their hands, and there was dust in the lines in their faces. They poured water from bottles into their mouths, creating streams of mud down their chins and necks.

I heard myself say, "Ew." It wasn’t from disgust. It was just what I could come up with. Maybe it was to fill the quiet already starting to settle in the mouths of everyone around me. Maybe it was to hear my own voice. Maybe it was to try and make my mother laugh. She did not laugh. She looked startled and then worried. "Sarah," she said, "you know that is blood."

It was not a question. I did not stop walking. I did turn back to look.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

When we got back to the office, my brother was perched on my father’s knee, playing a video game on his computer. I sat on the floor next to my father’s leg while my mother tried to hand out food to the employees in the other room.

I closed my eyes and put my face in the folds of his pants. I could see the faces of the two men like Dust Bowl photographs from history class. The water pouring down their necks. The dark stains on their arms, their chests. For the first time all day, I started to cry.

We spent that first night at my grandmother’s house because she lived uptown. My six-foot-four, 200-something-pound basketball coach father paced the tiny living room for two whole days, watching the news, wringing his hands.

Finally he decided he needed to get back to our apartment. We didn’t know whether the windows had been left open, whether everything we owned was now covered in ash. He announced that he would go downtown, get a change of clothes for each of us, get his bike out of the basement, and bike his way back uptown.

It sounds absurd now. It was two days after the attack. Nobody had any information yet. Nobody was allowed to go downtown. We could have borrowed clothes. I couldn’t stop imagining the towers falling over instead of down, envisioning my home and the entire neighborhood crushed. But my father was sick of pacing.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

It took him hours to get downtown because he had to talk his way through every police barrier, and when he finally arrived, he understood why they had been trying to keep everyone out.

The air was thick and gritty. The only other humans around were police and soldiers. In an effort to reach potential survivors, responders had used bulldozers to stack damaged cars and shove them some blocks north, trying to clear as much rubble as possible. Ash and soot and trash covered everything. Later, my father described it like a science-fiction terrain. With no electricity, there was no elevator or light in the stairwell. The air smelled of burning debris.

My father was shaking by the time he got upstairs. He found a backpack. He put in a change of clothes for each member of the family, made sure the windows were closed. Then he caught sight of my childhood loves: a stuffed animal lion and a baby blanket. He did not know if he would ever be back in our apartment again. He did not know what the future held. He took out his change of clothes and put in the blanket and stuffed lion instead.

He zipped the backpack up as far as he could and left the lion with its head sticking out, so that when my father got on the bike to make his way up through the dust and ash and ghosts, the lion’s head lay perched on his shoulder. He said the only way he made it back uptown was by whispering into the lion’s ears the way he had seen me do as a child. "We’re going to make it," he said over and over. "You and I. We’re going to be OK."

We were not OK for a long time. But memory is a terrible beast. It refuses to obey or sit still.

There are holes that will not fill themselves. It was years before I remembered that my mother severely tore ligaments in her ankle the next week, that for all those weeks of aftermath she was hobbling on crutches, a stupid metaphor for her broken city. Why would my brain decide to forget that detail? Why would I need protection from that fact? My brother’s growing silence, his twitching eyes. My father’s time-bomb anger that we tiptoed around. My mother’s desperate attempts to prevent everything from sinking. These things come back only in pieces. The loft we stayed in for weeks is hazy at best.

Photo by Alex Fuchs/AFP/Getty Images.

But the moment we finally returned to our apartment I remember in crystalline detail. The three cars crushed one on top of the other in line with our front door, like some giant had stacked his Hot Wheels and gotten bored with them and smashed his hands down on top. What I can see most clearly is the white flowers that someone had slipped into the cracks of the shattered windshields. The delirious idea that this was all just a series of car crashes, one on top of another, the grey ash everywhere.

I remember knowing I was lucky. There was so much hurt I was spared.

Yes, I watched the black cloud from my classroom window. Yes, I inhaled the ash and the smell. Yes, I was out of my home for a month. Yes, my parents’ marriage became strained. Yes, I lost my soccer coach. Yes, my brother stopped speaking for months. Yes.

But my mother still tucked me in at night. My father still came home from work. All of my limbs worked to help raise me from the pillow each morning. Nothing was so disrupted that I could not continue being an eighth-grade girl, concerned about homework and the upcoming school dance.

I understand that scars are not always visible; they are often as quiet as a prolonged blink, a clenched fist. There are moments that are etched into the deepest parts of us that never leave.

My mother no longer trusts blue skies. I know that buried things do not always stay buried, that damage is a slow unraveling. Sometimes it feels like we are just accumulations of hurt smashed one on top of another. I collect as many flowers as I can. I never know when I will need to slip them into shattered glass.

Years later, I am unsurprised when I break into tears at the smell of an electrical fire. I understand what happens inside me when I see the lights come on each September.

Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.

But how can I explain the late-night train ride more than a decade later? The 4 a.m. trek home. I was alone on the subway car, until I wasn’t.

He was there, across the car, his grey sweatshirt sleeve pulled down over his hand, the clutched water bottle. The yellow hard hat. The reflective vest. The Dust Bowl eyes. The stains.

If God himself had outstretched a hand to me, I would have been less fazed. I did not breathe. I did not look away. My entire body quaked. He looked at me unblinking. I expected — and there is no way to say this except to say it — I expected that he was there to tell me my time had come. I truly believed this. It made perfect sense. He was my last memory of being a child. Now his presence would mark my last memory of being alive.

I do not know how long we rode together. Not another soul got on or off. The train stopped; the doors opened. He stared at me; I stared at him. The doors closed; the train started again. Finally the train reached my stop. The doors opened, and I shook to my feet. He did not look away. I made my way out to the platform, then reached back to hold open the doors. I held eye contact, waiting to see if he would follow. He did not. I let the doors close, and he disappeared. I have never seen him since.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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How do you explain the transition from the brown and orange aesthetic of the '70s to the dusty rose and forest green carpeting of the '80s if you didn't experience it? When I tell my kids there were smoking sections in restaurants and airplanes and ashtrays everywhere, they look horrified (and rightfully so—what were we thinking?!). The fact that we went places with our friends with no quick way to get ahold of our parents? Unbelievable.

One day I described the process of listening to the radio, waiting for my favorite song to come on so I could record it on my tape recorder, and how mad I would get when the deejay talked through the intro of the song until the lyrics started. My Spotify-spoiled kids didn't even understand half of the words I said.

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Of course, wrecks aside, buying a used car might end up costing more in the long run after needing repairs, breaking down and just a general slew of unexpected surprises. But hey, at least we can all look back and laugh.

My first car, for example, was a hand-me-down Toyota of some sort from my mother. I don’t recall the specific model, but I definitely remember getting into a fender bender within the first week of having it. She had forgotten to get the brakes fixed … isn’t that a fun story?

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