In the years that followed 9/11, Abby Kozyra saw soldiers running drills at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on her commute to school in Steilacoom, Pierce County, every day. At night, her house shook from explosion tests.
Military personnel, the parents of her classmates, often visited her classes at Saltar’s Point Elementary School. The school held regular assemblies celebrating the heroism of American troops. As she grew older, her friends began signing up to serve.
But Kozyra is hard pressed to remember a “tangible moment” when her teachers discussed the actual reason America went to war.
“I wish we were taught what the conflict was about, what decisions had been made,” said Kozyra, now 28. “It was all around us, and all the time.”
A sampling of Washingtonians who attended school in the 9/11 era said they recalled no or little discussion of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars in the classroom. But they all remembered the climate at their schools or in their lives shifting.
Some students said they were targeted by Islamophobic bullying and harassment. For others, it marked what they called the end of their innocence.
Here and across the country, lessons about America’s actions on and after 9/11 are left up to individual teachers and schools. In Washington state, there is no requirement to teach about the war on terror.
“We underteach this event across the board,” said Johnny Lupinacci, an associate professor at Washington State University who instructs aspiring elementary school teachers.
“I think leading up to 9/11 — there is a lot of remembrance and celebration honoring heroes. I don’t want to make that wrong, but it tends to tip the scales and confuse young learners about what was actually a complex time,” said Lupinacci. “I always urge teachers to remember … to find diverse representations of voices here and internationally.”
Gaps in the learning
Semir Bajrektarević was a high school freshman in Tukwila on Sep. 11, 2001. When he walked into English class that day, the warm-up assignment was to learn a new vocabulary word: terrorism.
He doesn’t remember much about how the teacher defined the word, except for the phrase “political gain.” But he does remember walking out with “more questions than answers.”
An immigrant whose family fled war in Bosnia, Bajrektarević says he mostly kept his family’s Muslim faith quiet in the U.S. He wishes that there had been more effort to affirm his identity and separate it from current events. While Islamophobia wasn’t a huge issue at his school, he witnessed it in other places, including while playing sports.
“There were many times where I had the opportunity to speak up, and I would not be the first to speak up,” said Bajrektarević, now 34.
When schools do teach about the events, advocates say the content presented can be problematic.
In some cases, the materials teachers use to teach about the war on terror and 9/11 contain inflammatory or Islamophobic materials that assign blame for the attacks on Muslim people, said Imraan Siddiqui, the executive director of the Washington state chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
These include the works of Steven Emerson, a cable news pundit on terrorism and U.S. government adviser who Siddiqui calls “one of the godfathers of the Islamophobia industry.” A group called Act for America, an anti-Muslim coalition, has also called for its members to fight school curricula they deem has a positive bias toward the religion.
Schools play a pivotal role in shaping students’ views and understanding of 9/11 and the war on terror, said Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network at the Redmond-based Muslim Association of Puget Sound.
“It becomes part of the air they breathe,” she said.
Confronting instances of Islamophobia in schools — whether in the curricula or in the school culture — has been like “whack-a-mole,” said Afzali. But she noted that King County and Washington state schools do a better job teaching about the event compared with other places around the country.
When 9/11 and its aftermath is taught in classrooms, teachers should take a more holistic view, discussing both 9/11 and its consequences for Americans and civilians around the world who were killed or harmed by U.S. actions, said Siddiqui.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, an Arab American poet, was working in communications for the Seattle chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee at the time of the attacks. Very quickly after the event, she said, the organization began hearing about more instances of bullying and harassment among Muslim or Arab kids.
“People who are otherwise apathetic find their patriotism on 9/11, and direct it at an Arab or Muslim,” she said. “It creates a climate in schools, in history classrooms, where it’s really difficult to have rational conversations.”
At one of her daughter’s schools, Tuffaha said she had a thoughtful discussion with staff about the school’s 9/11 commemoration event. They invited her to speak to students about the aftermath of the event through the lens of the Arab and Muslim community.
“These kids need context”
Seattle teacher Robyn Horton has taught a unit on 9/11 and the aftermath to her students for about a decade.
She shows her students a documentary called “The Second Day,” produced by a survivor of the attacks who attended kindergarten two blocks from the World Trade Center. She also covers Islamophobia, teaches students about the Arabic and Muslim greeting “as-salamu alaikum” (“peace be with you”) and plays a recent speech from Afzali.
Some educators question whether it’s developmentally appropriate to teach elementary school students about the wars and chaos of that era, said Lupinacci, the WSU professor.
“We didn’t really want to raise alarms among a really young population,” said Gary Yoho, Kozyra’s stepfather, who in 2001 was in his first year as principal at Chloe Clark Elementary School in the Steilacoom school district. The school made a counselor available for affected students, and hung yellow ribbons on trees surrounding the campus in honor of military families. (Yoho feels older students should have more information.)
But Horton says these events are still all around her students, who are fourth and fifth graders.
“Especially with all the news about pulling out of Afghanistan, these kids need context. I want them to know these events launched the war on terror,” she said.
Covering these moments is a good way to build trust with students said Lupinacci. It also ensures that students learn about important events outside of pop culture, which may skew the truth or complexity of what actually happened. He recommends resources such as “Teaching About the Wars,” a free e-book that contains lessons and articles that break down U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some who attended school in the years immediately following 9/11 are skeptical about whether schools were equipped to fully teach about the events at the time — and whether they should have.
With the scarcity of the answers at the time of the attacks, “I feel like the version they’d teach is not actually accurate to what it is,” said Bahana Naimzadeh, an Afghan American who attended high school in Bellingham.
She and her family were shaken by a traumatic experience shortly after 9/11, during a visit to Canada. After they left a mosque one evening, they came back to find their car had been set on fire, along with several others in the parking lot.
Back in school, she received words of support from her classmates, but also xenophobic jabs.
But one history teacher, a veteran, made a difference. He discussed Afghanistan at length, and made a point to highlight the feelings of Afghans as the U.S. announced its invasion.
To learn the full story about this moment, students also need to learn from the perspective of all the ” … kids who died in Iraq and Afghanistan for no reason,” Naimzadeh said. “That’s the best way to teach history.”