Member of Class of 2020 Born on 9/11 Reflects on the Power of Coming Together

A blonde high schooler stands in between a group of four first responders in dress uniforms in a high school auditorium.
Caleigh Leiken at Shaker Heights High School's 9/11 assembly on September 11, 2019. Photo courtesy of Caleigh Leiken.

I am writing this blog from my bedroom at home in April 2020, where I just learned that the rest of my senior year of high school has been canceled. While I am sad, my life experience teaches me to always live with hope. Here’s why:

I was born on September 11, 2001 in New York City, in the middle of a shocking and unfathomable crisis that no one could have imagined before it happened. Almost 18 years later, in the summer of 2019, I visited the 9/11 Memorial & Museum for the very first time. This was my first visit to lower Manhattan since my mom made her journey from Ground Zero to Mt. Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side on the day I was born. I wrote about my first visit to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in a blog post last year.

My visit to the Memorial—including seeing my birthday in huge type on the wall—inspired in me so many feelings, but the strongest was a feeling of hope. 9/11 showed the world that human bravery (from incredible first responders and survivors) and the spirit of community (from so many loving people who built and maintain the Memorial) are stronger than any attack. My visit also inspired me to get involved and to share the story of my birth to help my friends and classmates in the class of 2020 understand how we can embrace these lessons and pay them forward.

On 9/11 last year—my 18th birthday—we held an assembly at Shaker Heights High School to watch the 9/11 Memorial’s Anniversary in in the Schools webinar together. We celebrated Shaker’s police and firefighters, brave first responders in our community who mirror the incredible selflessness shown by so many on 9/11. We honored the victims and their families, making sure that we will never forget those we lost.  

Little did we know then that we were about to face our own shocking and unfathomable crisis—this time as young adults. As we shelter at home to stop the spread of COVID-19, all of us need to rediscover the hope we felt at our assembly last fall.

We’re hopeful because we see bravery everywhere around us. First responders are showing the same courage today that so many showed on 9/11 rushing to help COVID-19 patients every day. Schools and communities are rallying together, making sure that all kids have internet access so we can complete the year through distance learning. And we fight for our rituals, getting dressed up in tuxes and gowns and holding virtual proms.

After 9/11, my parents have shared with me that they feared that I would grow up in a world dominated by terrorism. They feared that I would not have all the things they hoped for in my childhood: birthday parties and figure skating and apple picking in the fall. But the world did heal after 9/11, and I was able to experience all those things in a beautiful childhood in Shaker Heights. The world healed because of bravery and community, and honoring and remembering those we lost.

Now we know that the world will again heal, based on these same indomitable human strengths. And so we are filled with hope: My friends and I hope we can have a real prom, when it is safe, maybe in the summer. And even though graduation will be virtual and online, we look forward to celebrating with our families and throwing our caps in the air all over Shaker. We also know that, as adults about to enter the world and go to college, that we can play a big part in helping the world to heal. 

The #classof2020 was born on and around 9/11, and we are the generation of kids—now adults—that knows what it means to live in a healing world and to help the world heal. We’re filled with hope and ready to play our part.  

By Caleigh Leiken, Senior, Shaker Heights High School

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