A lesson in context

For students who were preschoolers on 9/11, bin Laden’s death raises more questions than joy

Eric Hall, a seventh-grader at Boston's Orchard Gardens K-8 School, listened to Peter LeRoy as the creative writing teacher led a discussion yesterday on Osama bin Laden's death. Eric Hall, a seventh-grader at Boston's Orchard Gardens K-8 School, listened to Peter LeRoy as the creative writing teacher led a discussion yesterday on Osama bin Laden's death. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / May 3, 2011

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Peter LeRoy started each of his three classes yesterday at a Roxbury school much the same way, by holding a black-and-white photocopy of a picture of Osama bin Laden.

“Something took place that will change the world forever,’’ LeRoy, a writing teacher, told his students at Orchard Gardens K-8 School. “Osama bin Laden died, well, was killed. For you guys, he’s kind of like Darth Vader.’’

After those words, the next 50 minutes or so of his last class of the day filled with rapid-fire questions: “Why did 9/11 happen?’’ “Did he cause 9/11?’’ “Does he have mental issues?’’

In classrooms across Boston, students who were preschoolers when the World Trade Center’s twin towers crumbled spent yesterday reflecting on the world-changing event most barely remembered, and wondering what it meant that the Al Qaeda leader behind the attacks is dead.

“It’s so easy for them to go online and Google some of the images, but they have no idea of what it did to us as a country,’’ LeRoy said of Sept. 11, 2001. “For us, it’s D-day.’’

On this day, the students at Orchard Gardens sought answers — and meaning — from an event that stunned people worldwide.

“So, do they have his body or not?’’ seventh-grader Eli Martinez demanded.

“Yeah. But they’re doing tests to see if it’s really his face,’’ answered classmate Austin Webster.

In near unison, the class clarified the type of test done to confirm bin Laden’s identity by calling out: “DNA!’’ US government officials said the genetic testing offered near 100 percent certainty that one of the four men killed in the raid was bin Laden. Traditional Islamic procedures for handling the dead, including washing of the corpse and placing it in a white sheet, were followed before bin Laden was buried at sea.

Martinez said after the class that she had thought bin Laden would never be found. The fact that he was brought a mixture of joy and fear, she said, “because what if the people who worshiped him came over here and attacked us?’’

Classmate Tomell Kelly said he doubts that bin Laden was killed during the 40-minute raid by Navy SEALs who stormed the compound in Abbottabad.

“It’s too easy. Bin Laden has been hiding forever now,’’ Kelly said, starting a round robin of skepticism. “He’s probably got plastic surgery. If he can get people to blow themselves up, he can get them to do plastic surgery.’’

Bin Laden declared war on the United States nearly 15 years ago. Al Qaeda, the terrorist group led by the Saudi Arabian native, was blamed for the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa that killed 224 people, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors in Yemen. And then there were the attacks of 9/11, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives.

“He deserved to die. He took other people’s lives, other people’s families,’’ said Marqus Allien, an eighth-grader at the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester. Bin Laden, Allien said, demonized peaceful Muslims. “He made us feel unprotected.’’

Allien learned about bin Laden’s death through Facebook, but said he really didn’t understand all the fuss until he arrived at school yesterday.

His social studies teacher, David Hughes, dedicated all five of his classes to Sept. 11, bin Laden, and the military operation that took his life. A computer screen in the front of the class showed constantly updating news websites.

“I just think it’s a momentous day in our heritage,’’ Hughes said. “At some point in time, he stood for our whole way of life-changing. Americans like to put a face on an issue or a face on a situation and have one individual represent a theme, and he just represented our life changing.’’

Hughes said he’ll never forget being awakened by his roommate while a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. “He said, ‘You got to turn on the TV,’ ’’ Hughes recalled.

His students — who were anywhere from 2 to 4 years old at the time — don’t have that same emotional connection to 9/11, which is why some of yesterday’s lessons included video of that chaotic and tragic day, he said. Still, Hughes said, “They understand that this man was evil and did harm.’’

But some students questioned the spontaneous celebrations that erupted as word of bin Laden’s death spread.

Neighborhood House principal Kevin Andrews prompted students to think about the fact that the world condemned those who had celebrated after the Sept. 11 attacks, saying it was a mockery of death. Now, he said, world leaders cheer bin Laden’s demise.

To eighth-grade student Terry Norvin, it seemed “kind of semi-hypocritical, and the reason why I said ’semi-hypocritical’ is that we didn’t force an attack on the country, just on one person.’’

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.