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'In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11' on HBO
September 11, 2019  | By David Hinckley
 


Because September 11 led us to many of the places we find ourselves today, there's value in pretty much all the reminders that come around on the anniversary each year.

In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11, which premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, is a small production.

It's a half-hour documentary in which a half dozen 30-somethings who were students at New York's Stuyvesant High School on September 11, 2001, talk about their experience that day, reflecting on both the moment and the sometimes troubling parts of the response they encountered.

In several ways, In the Shadow is a local New York story. The high school was and is located a short distance from the site of the Twin Towers, so the students saw the planes hit as they looked up from their classroom windows.

At first, the school had classes continue. A few minutes later, when the second plane hit, the students were returned to their homerooms while administrators debated whether they would be safer indoors or outside.

They were eventually released and advised to head home, which was trickier than it sounds because by then the subways had been shut down and the students, who came from all over the sprawling city, had no alternative way of covering what was often many miles. This was also a time before everyone had a cell phone, so there were blocks-long lines to use public payphones and even call home to say everything was okay.

Upon leaving Stuyvesant, the students almost immediately faced a more pressing priority, however, which was to escape the massive sky-blackening dust cloud kicked up when the towers fell.

It's a story common to all New Yorkers who were downtown that morning, and nothing in this documentary suggests Stuyvesant students had a unique experience.

As they tell it, they eventually regrouped and made their ways home, often on foot as they worked to absorb the enormity of what had just happened.

It's not a redundant story just because it's been told before. What also becomes no less resonant with the passage of time are the almost incidental reflections on little things with larger ongoing ramifications.

Stuyvesant, an academically elite school, is known for the diversity of its student body, so the students leaving the area that day came in a wide range of skin tones.

Himanshu Suri recalls walking along the West Side with a fellow student in a hijab and having a random passerby call her a female dog. Across the street, he said, they heard a group of men call out that the students should "go back where you came from."

Suri says he told them that's what they were doing. "We were trying to get to Queens," he said. "That's where we came from."

The essence of that exchange is being repeated across America today, a fact In the Shadow notes. 

In the Shadow isn't framed as a political documentary, however, but more as a retrospective video diary. That makes it more striking when one student, Liz O'Callahan, recalls that when Stuyvesant held its graduation at the end of that school year, the class song was designed as a patriotic anthem that included the line "a love that asks no questions."

"A love that asks no questions?" says O'Callahan, who is currently a medical resident. "That's b-s."

In the Shadow of the Towers raises questions, subtly and effectively. It's a good way to remember the day, and some of the things it meant, for those who aren't ready for total reimmersion.

 
 
 
 
 
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