Eleven-year-old Jessie Bevis has learned all about heroes from history books and television. There's Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and even Lance Armstrong. There are the firefighters who helped people on Sept. 11, 2001, and the soldiers fighting in Iraq.
So yesterday, when Jessie shook hands with Paul Rusesabagina, a man she learned had saved the lives of more than 1,200 people in Rwanda, she was surprised by how normal he seemed.
"He's a nice guy, but inside he's really courageous and brave," Jessie said. "To learn about him, and then actually meet him, was really cool."
Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager whose story inspired the movie "Hotel Rwanda," was in the Washington area for World Refugee Day events, where he was honored Wednesday by an audience that included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and actress Angelina Jolie. He has become a prominent human rights activist, speaking to crowds at universities across the United States about the genocide in Rwanda. And he has traveled to Sudan in an effort to draw attention to killings in Darfur.
But yesterday, at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School in the Falls Church section of Fairfax County, Rusesabagina boiled down the message he has delivered to politicians, academics and movie stars into its essence for the youngest ears.
"I thought I was doing the right thing," Rusesabagina told the elementary students sitting cross-legged on a gymnasium floor. "You also should do the right thing."
The children sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth" for their guest and made him an honorary alumnus. And when he happened to mention that Wednesday was his birthday -- a detail he noted in response to a student's question about where he was born -- the children clapped and spontaneously sang "Happy Birthday."
Rusesabagina began his story by telling the children that in Rwanda, "there were bad people and good people." He explained that the bad people wanted to kill the good people.
"The good people came to hide in my hotel," Rusesabagina said. "I had to give them food. I had to give them shelter . . . and keep away the bad people for 21/2 months."
He told them that the electricity and water were cut off, so the refugees began to use water from the hotel swimming pool for drinking and cooking. "I watched the water in the swimming pool go down and wondered where I would get another drop of water," he said.
When it was time for questions, hands popped up. "How could you fit everyone in the hotel?" one child asked. "What made you do all these things?" "Was it hard?" "Were you scared during all this?"
"No, fortunately I did not have time to be scared," Rusesabagina said. "I did not know that what I was doing was different. I thought other people were doing it."
Rusesabagina's visit to the school has its roots in a trip he took in January to visit Sudan and refugee camps in neighboring Chad as part of a congressional delegation headed by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.). K. Riva Levinson, a Washington consultant on international issues and the mother of two Sleepy Hollow students, helped organize the trip and traveled with the group.
Levinson said Rusesabagina turned to her one day, thanked her and asked, "What can I do for you?" She invited him to Sleepy Hollow.
As the school prepared for Rusesabagina's visit, teachers and administrators talked over the best way to introduce children to the Rwandan genocide, 100 days of killing that left about 800,000 people dead in 1994, Principal Craig Rowland said.
They chose to avoid the word "genocide," a concept teachers thought was too disturbing for grade-schoolers, and instead turned the visit into a lesson about heroes. Rowland said he decided that Rusesabagina's story was too distressing and complex for kindergartners and first-graders, who stayed in their classrooms.
But in recent weeks, the older children learned that there was a conflict between ethnic groups in Rwanda. They learned that Rusesabagina saved many lives.
Tracy Raine's students, second- and third-graders, talked about George Washington, Susan B. Anthony and people who came to the aid of tsunami victims in South Asia in their discussion about heroes. They also talked about discrimination in the United States and the civil rights movement.
"We want them to understand the world," Raine said. "We can't hide the truth. We don't put it out there to terrify them, but they need to be informed."
Nadia Berhane, 10, said the hard part is trying to understand why Rusesabagina had to be a hero.
"It's hard to believe this could happen," Nadia said. "You don't want to be mean to people."