Stuyvesant High School, relatively speaking, is often in the news. The articles generally revolve around its distinguished academic pedigree. Increasingly, they are discussions about how so few Black students pass the test that would gain them entrance into the specialized school. What, unfortunately, gets lost is the fact that Stuyvesant is, and has been for generations, a school of immigrants.
The students are often, regardless of race, just one to three generations away from arrival in America. They’re from families savvy enough or lucky enough to have heard of Stuyvesant, and understand the positive implications of attending. They’re also often from nations that although perhaps not as economically robust as America, have traditions of rigorous standardized tests that are the cornerstone of their educational systems and are often seen as the only path to a successful life.
So it isn’t surprising that the eight Stuyvesant alumni in HBO’s new documentary, In The Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11, are mostly from first and second-generation immigrant families. All were students walking the halls, and sitting in Stuyvesant’s classrooms on the day the Twin Towers, roughly a tenth of a mile away and within their vantage points, fell. Their last names are Batra, Haque, Choy, Feldsherov, Suri, and O’ Callahan. Their families hail from Eastern Europe, Northern Ireland, South Asia, East Asia. Carlos Williams, one of the interviewees, came here from Panama. As Mohammad Haque commented, “Stuyvesant was really a dream for most of us immigrant children growing up in the boroughs. Getting into this elite school was something that we were sort of hoping for and expecting since we were really young.”
The film, which runs approximately thirty minutes, captures their recollections of the actual moments when the two Boeing 757’s hit each of the towers. All of the witnesses were children at the time, director Amy Schatz wanted to capture the memories from the perspective of then-adolescents. In addition to the on-camera interviews, there is archival footage and images of that day and the ensuing months.
The interviewees take viewers along as they recall a class rushing en masse toward the classroom windows, the suddenly fierce expression on a Spanish teacher’s normally placid face, the improbable instant replay on the classroom television of the horror playing out before their eyes. The sight and sound of low-flying fighter jets. The tragic realization that what they thought was debris tumbling out of the windows of the towers, were people. The awful odor of burning chemicals and death.
There was the certainty that America, and by extension, they, had just been attacked. There was uncertainty as to whether there was more to come and if so, what to do about it.
In addition to the proximal physical connection to the buildings, were the personal ones. Eleven of the victims (one had been a classmate of mine) who perished in the iconic skyscrapers were alumni of Stuyvesant, a high school iconic in its own way. Haque’s uncle also died. “He never came back,” Haque said. “We lost him that day.”
There was the realization for students like Taresh Batra, Mohammad Haque, and Himanshu Suri that the danger for them had an added dimension compared to their white, East Asian, and Black classmates. As they dazedly trekked down West Side Highway that day, remembers Haque, “Whoever we saw that we kind of knew who looked South Asian,” he said, “We would grab them and say ‘don’t be by yourself’. We were young kids in the city. We felt like we looked different. We didn’t want to be targeted.”
It turns out their instincts were right. Recalls Himanshu Suri, “Somebody from across the street, like a construction worker, tried to like yelled at [a female student], ‘Go back to where you came from!’”
Said Batra about a similar incident as he walked away from school that day, “We were feeling like we were all walking together away from danger and someone amongst us that was walking in the same direction as us was looking at someone that I was with as the enemy. It just blew my mind.”
Among other things, the events of 9/11 were a litmus test for these students as to how far America’s recognition of their “Americanness” went. There is arguably a stark difference between the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing incident just six years before, compared to the aftermath of 9/11. The documentary reveals that people’s homes and businesses were arbitrarily searched by law enforcement. Some people lost their businesses. Places of worship were vandalized, hate left in graffiti. Said Suri, “There’s a long history of hate in this country. And I think how you process events like this, and how much hate you ingest into your process shows what a country is. And I think in that respect for me we as a country failed.”
The singular, extraordinary events of September 11, 2001 forced these teens, in particular, to reckon with their identities in a way they may never have had to otherwise. First, the intimate nature of the attacks revealed America to be not invincible though “superpower” it may have been. At the same time, it forced them to carry the knowledge that the way they saw themselves, wasn’t the way many other Americans perceived them. They were threats personified and feared not just terrorists at that point, but equally feared misguided retribution and heedless vigilantism. Not surprisingly, said Haque, “It completely changed who I was as a person.”