While the tale of Kunta Kinte's traumatic life was being nationally televised, Sally Bowler, a teacher of hearing-impaired children at Fairfax's Camelot Elementary School took the opportunity to ask her students what happened when the slaves on the slave boats got sick or had to go to the bathroom.
"I explained that they had to do it right where they were (in the hold)," Bowler said.
And at Lake Braddock secondary school history teacher Helen Miller and her 11th graders "had discussions on 'Roots' every day."
"It just could not have been more ideal," Miller said.
In the Fairfax County system, where just 12 years ago students attended segregated schools, slavery is no longer a topic of discussion that is downplayed or ignored in the classroom, thanks in large part to "Roots," many educators say.
Most county teachers seized to the program's week-long domination of nightly television as a unique chance to discuss slavery as an institution in American history, and movies on black Americans and slavery are among the most popular in the county's film libraries, officials say.
Barely a half-dozen years ago - well into the early 1970s - many of those 11th grade students in Miller's history class would have used a history testbook called "Cavalier Commonwealth" that was commissioned in 1950 by the Virginia General Assembly. The book contained the following passage:
"Of course the slave was not free to change employers, to go and come as he pleased, to keep what he earned, or to stand on an equal footing before the law. Yet, his condition had its advantages . . . he enjoyed long holidays . . . he did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did, not have to worry about losing his job. In fact, the slave enjoyed what we might call comprehensive social security. Generally speaking, his food was plentiful, his clothing adequate, his cabin warm, his health protected and his leisure carefree."
The 4th grade state-approved textbook, also no longer used, mentions only one black Virginian by name - Booker T. Washington. Several subsequent references to the educator use only his first name, "Booker." The book describes slaves' living conditions like this:
"The slaves lived in small cabins on the plantations. The planters gave their servants food and clothes. They took care of them when they were sick and when they were too old to work."
These books are no longer used because they "weren't balanced," according to Frank Taylor, head of Fairfax County's curriculum division. It is the same criticism, teachers report, that some students are voicing about "Roots." "At times it made it appear as though all whites are evil," Miller said.
Despite these criticisms and the challenges now being made to the factual accuracy of "Roots" by some historians, most educators say the film is a valuable description of the slave experience of four million Americans.
The most popular film dealing with slavery which the county does have, is "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed?" In the film, which has been requested by 84 teachers since last September, Bill Cosby dumps on the myth of the happy black on Southern plantations. He also calls to task one of the foremost experts on American history, Henry Steele Commager, for referring to the black population generally as "Sambo" in one of his books and for implying that plantation life for blacks was not so bad after all.
Some historians say that sordid details of slave life by themselves don't tell the whole story and in fact acutally distort what slavery was really like.
"I don't think people understand slavery by studying about chopping off an ear or foot," said Donald Sweig of the county's history department." I object to anyone picturing the whole of slavery that way. That was only part of it.
"Slavery was a complicated economic, social and racial issue involving half the United States, four million black human beings and presidents of the United States, and you don't understand that by talking about isolated instances of cruelty and barbarity," Sweig explained.
Sweig said he "discredits" many of the stories of cruelty to slaves because "it's not logical to go out of your way to torture other human beings. It was a business and slaves cost a lot of money. It simply was a grisly time to be alive for everyone, black or white. Moreover, free blacks everywhere, not only slaves, were treated badly, and that needs to be said.
But some teachers found that the violence of "Roots" was expected by their students. Gale Long, head of the social studies department at Oakton High School, remarked that because of the violence on television, students "get to expect this kind of thing. They know these people (slaves) were not treated well."
She conoedes, "I don't know if they'd put Roots on television four or five years ago if that type of thing would have been allowed."
Thomas A. Elliott, assistant superintendent of history and geography in Virginia's Department of Education thought "Roots" spoke of things which teachers were reluctant to teach about in the past "because of how the public and students would react. Perhaps society was ready (to deal with those issues) but no one was ready to field test. Perhaps 'Roots' was a field test," Elliott said.
Elliott said he knew many black teachers who used to go in depth when teaching slavery in all-black schools, but after integration they "reversed their approach" fearing that the integrated classes were not ready for the harsh facts.
Asked if he thought many of these teachers were opening up again, Elliott replied, "I think so."
Just as "Roots" blasted away forever the myth of the happy plantation slave, many teachers today appear to be making conscious efforts to eliminate stereotypes in their teaching of Afro-American history.
At Lake Braddock secondy school, for example, English teacher Marylou Palmore began her course on black literature with Phyllis Wheatley, an 18th century ex-slave from Senegal who wrote poetry in a neoclassical style modeled after the famous English poet, Alexander Pope.
"I wanted the students to see that a black slave could write this kind of sophisticated poetry," Palmore explained.
Along with the trend to de-stereotype blacks is a move to incorporate Afro-American history into the mainstream of American history "where it belongs," according to many teachers.
The first time that slavery as a topic appears in the Fairfax county schools' program of studies is in the fifth grade when it is listed as an optional "enrichment opportunity."
Not until the seventh grade are teachers required to give an in-depth examination of the subject in the American history course. Later, in 11th grade, a look at slavery is again required, this time under the theme "important migration movements in which Americans have been involved," part of the American history course.
The separate black studies courses which were popular in the late 60s and early 70s are no longer in demand, school administrators report, and few county high schools now offer them.
Eloise Clarke, head of the black teachers' caucus within the Fairfax Educational Association, stressed that the effort today must be on teaching about blacks' contributions throughout American history. "There are certain time-frames, for example the Civil War, when one always talks about blacks. But there were blacks during World War I and II who did things and it's not mentioned that much."
Clarke said she once pointed out to some students that one of the men accompanying explorer Robert E. Peary to the North Pole (and actually the first one to reach it) was a black man named Matthew Henson. When she was asked by a colleague why it was necessary to point that out, Clarke said she answered, "To whites, it's not important, but if there is a black student sitting there, how does he know that we black people were there too unless we say so?"
While most teachers no longer shy away from the violetn, awful aspects of slavery, they say they still try to steer clear of moral judgments in class.
Kevin Kelly, a teacher at Jefferson High School explained. "You try to make the student do some critical thinking by giving him as many points of view as possible. For example, you might explain what information the man of the 18 century would have available to him, like the teachings of his religion, the concepts of mercantilism and the concept of property rights. In other words, you give the students as much information to the situation as possible so they can judge a situation not only with hindsight but also as the people of that day might have judged it."
When it comes to teaching about atrocities, Braddock's Miller said, "Most of us don't hesitate to point out our wrongs and that our judgment was bad. We ask what we would have done (ourselves) at that time. We might have acted the same way!" CAPTION: Picture 1, Colonial Kitchen, Many of the Negroes who lived in Virginia in the eighteenth century performed various household tasks. COLONIAL WILLIAMS 1977; Picture 2, Textbook used in Virginia until the 1970s gave an idyllic description of slavery.; Picture 3, A receipt for $300, paid on Oct. 3, 1840, for a slave named Ned is among items dealing with slavery on display at Fairfax County courthouse.