We Are Living History: Reflections of a New York City Social Studies Teacher. (Teaching about Tragedy)(Cover Story)

Article excerpt

Prelude

Fall is the most beautiful season of fill in New York City. Spring gives merely a fleeting taste of mild weather before the city bakes in too much heat; rare is the New Yorker who endures the long winter without complaint. Having lived in New York City all my life, first as a student and then as a teacher, the fall had always meant "back to school." Only on a sabbatical year off did I finally learn to appreciate the joys of autumn when New York City is in all its glory--day after day you can move from inside to outside in whatever you are wearing while savoring the deep blue skies against which the New York City skyline is so stunning. But this fall, our Indian summer feels utterly cruel; so much tragedy while the weather beckons us to enjoy life.

I live in Greenwich Village and walk to work by heading west. The Village Community School, an independent K-8 school, is on 10th Street just a few blocks from the Hudson River. For twenty years, on my fifteen-minute walk to work the Empire State Building has appeared on my right, the World Trade Center (visible anywhere in low-lying Greenwich Village) on my left. These buildings marked the boundary of my world and seemed as fixed and steadfast as the axis of a compass.

This fall, I was especially excited to return to school. Last year, I had developed a full year's course for seventh graders entitled The Islamic World. This year, I was eager to repeat and develop it further. Just mention "Islam" or "Muslims" and many well-educated adults will ask, "Why teach about Islam? Their values are so different from ours. What about their treatment of women? Of terrorism?" I grew up during the Cold War and one thing I know from the experience is that a wall of silence enveloped our schools in the 1950s and 1960s. We were to learn nothing about Russia or its people, as if by design. It is an easy--and effective--way to dehumanize "the other."

Aware of my own ignorance about the world's second largest religion, and about the centuries during which the Islamic world far surpassed the West in both material and intellectual accomplishments, I was determined to fill in the gaps of my own education. My school, deeply committed to diversity, supported my efforts. The summer of 1998, I studied at the Dar al Islam Teachers' Institute; last summer, I received a Fulbright grant to study in Turkey with fourteen other educators from around the United States (under the auspices of Dr. Manoucher Khosrowshahi of Tyler Jr. College in Texas). Before school opened, I posted on a bulletin board the fascinating photographs I had taken along the borders that Turkey shares with Iraq, Iran, and Syria. I had been so afraid to go to this part of the world; I had returned with so much to share.

Tuesday, September 11: Ground Zero

Today, during my first free period, I sit comparing notes with our other seventh grade homeroom teacher, Andy Robinson. We review the events of yesterday, our first day of school. My new seventh graders had returned fresh from summer and eager to learn; my eighth grade classes include many children who studied about the Islamic world with me last year. Around 9:15 a.m., someone pops into the teachers' room to tell us that our opening-of-school assembly has been called off. A small plane has accidentally crashed into the World Trade Center. To get to the assembly, our students would need to walk around the block in clear view of the accident. To protect our students from the upsetting sight, we will keep them inside.

Curious, Andy and I leave the teachers' room and head outside to the corner. A small group of adults is standing in the sun facing south. We look up. It takes a while for what we see to sink in. Not one, but two of the towers are ablaze. Black craters pockmark their upper stories. We are silent; we are helpless. Someone tells us that she saw a big American Airlines jet ram into one of the buildings. She avows that it was close enough to read the letters, even though we are located several miles north of the towers. …