As Sept. 11 anniversary nears, learning lesson on tolerance at Centreville High

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, September 10, 2010

They remember their parents coming early to scoop them up from school that day. And the television channels that were changed quickly so they didn't see the planes hitting the towers, over and over again.

So they sat in their social studies classroom at Centreville High School in Fairfax County this week, ready for a history lesson about the day America was devastated, back when they were just third-graders.

That day is hazy for many of them. It is a news item, a reference point. A weird, frightening, divided world so far from their own.

So far, they are not hating. Unlike so much of America today.

This week, these kids in Northern Virginia gathered for class at their diverse school, their faces reflecting the global hot spots that their parents fled -- North and South Korea, Pakistan, Albania, Afghanistan.

Two Sikh boys with turbans, huge backpacks, sagging board shorts and iPod earbuds hanging from their necks shoved each other as they got off a bus. The girl with a hijab and a leopard print bag plopped down at her desk, gabbing with her friends. She was excited about getting lots of money during her family's Eid party this week. Oh, what will she buy?

They seem relatively oblivious to outward differences.

Nine years ago, things weren't so friendly in the lunchroom at many schools. Added to the geeks, the jocks and the skater cliques were "the terrorists."

"At first, right after the attacks, I'd hear it in the hallways and stuff. Some of these kids, the Muslims, would get teased, called terrorists," said Joseph Radun, who is teaching at Centreville but was working at Washington-Lee High School, near the Pentagon, on Sept. 11, 2001.

The attacks were raw and horrible for his students back then. They huddled in horror as they watched the devastation unfold on television, many of them wondering if their parents were alive or dead inside the Pentagon. And the anger and fear were palpable, Radun told me.

"I used to get that kind of stuff a lot," said Megan, 18, who left Afghanistan when she was 4 years old and is now a senior at Centreville High. "People would call me a terrorist. But I'm, like, more American than I am a girl from Afghanistan. I mean, I've been in America way longer.

"Whatever." She rolls her eyes.

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