by Tori Hamby
While ordinary citizens and military leaders still processed the news of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden’s death Monday morning, May 2, teachers across the north Mecklenburg area were tasked with the daunting job of explaining the monumental event to students – many of whom weren’t even alive when terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
“When I first heard the news that he had been killed, I was shocked,” said Cornelius Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Courtney Artis, who was only an 18-year-old college freshman when Americans watched in horror as two planes slammed into the World Trade Center in New York City.
“I immediately realized what a great learning opportunity this could be for my students,” she said.
Artis initially planned a 10-minute class discussion about terrorism, but with so many questions, the discussion blossomed into a 45-minute conversation about Islamic fundamentalism, the motivations behind militant jihadism and the closure that Bin Laden’s death brings to many families who lost loved ones during the 9/11 attacks.
“They came to class with many questions,” Artis said. Questions as simple as “What is terrorism?” and as complex as “What do the terrorists want that we won’t give them?”
The event captivated the students, and some conducted their own independent research following the class discussion, Artis said. For homework, she told students to find an article about Bin Laden and discuss its content with their parents. Students then responded to the article in a one- to two-paragraph essay.
The responses took a very mature approach to the subject and showed sensitivity toward Muslims, in America and abroad, who have been unfairly stereotyped as violent and unpatriotic.
“I know that Osama was a Muslim,” wrote one student. “Because of this, I think that Osama not only threatened America, he hurt his people. He caused most Americans to think of Muslims as traitors and people who aren’t to be trusted.”
“Even though a few Muslims are on Osama’s side doesn’t mean they’re all that way.”
Some students struggled to reconcile the celebration of Bin Laden’s death and lessons taught by parents, teachers and other adults about forgiveness.
“On one hand, I think that Osama should have died,” another student wrote. “I mean he was the mastermind, and he was the leader, so we should have took him down.”
“But on the other hand, killing someone is wrong. We should forgive everyone. But in some ways, forgiving someone for something terrible just does not seem right. It is very confusing.”
Not all schools and teachers took such an active approach to explaining the complex story behind the man who orchestrated the death of nearly 3,000 Americans. Long Creek Elementary School Principal Chad Thomas said the school’s faculty left that responsibility to parents.
“We haven’t really touched it,” Thomas said. “We need to be cautious with how we deal with issues like that. We’ve answered a few questions that students have asked, but we thought we should leave it up to parents to explain it.”
Artis said her students are old enough to tackle the complex issues and feelings that Bin Laden’s death has stirred in the American public.
“They recognized that war and violence in the Middle East is not finished. I asked them, ‘Guys, it’s like if I teach you and I pass away, do you stop learning?’”
“One girl answered, ‘It’s just like how you taught us about Socrates. Socrates taught his successor, and when he was killed, his followers continued. The good news is we have shown them what could happen if they do what Osama did.’”
One student summed up in her essay.
“I think that if so many people stood by Osama, they are going to have revenge. To them it’s like killing (President Barack) Obama, the leader.
“Other people will take his place and become the leader. But I don’t know for sure. Maybe everything will be okay!”