Beryl Kalisa, Associate Professor of History, Clarkston
In September 1992, I began teaching American history at the Clarkston campus. It has indeed been both exciting and rewarding. However, I quickly observed that many non-history majors have preconceived notions about the study of history.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a new phase of history, reality history, was born. It was a gorgeous sunny day. Ironically, on that day the class assignment was on the Wampananoag nation in Massachusetts, examining the peaceful interactions between the Native Americans and the Puritans in the late 1600s.
A student approached the door screaming, “Turn on the television—two planes have flown into a building in New York City,” she said. I turned on the television monitor, and to our amazement, there it was, the footage of two planes flying into the World Trade Center and the blaze of fires that followed. It was like a movie; I, along with the thirty-five students in the class, was speechless.
The news anchors were suggesting that this was a terrorist attack. A terrorist attack—why and how could that be in the United States? Terrorism doesn’t happen in the United States that happens somewhere else. Needless to say, we did not follow the assignment for that day; instead, we began to gaze at each other, engaging in small chats—still stunned. One student expressed that he was of Jewish American heritage and that the previous summer he and his family had gone to Israel. “We were at a sidewalk cafe and they told us to run inside because there had been a suicide bomber two blocks over.” The student went on to explain that though this may be strange for us, it was not for many people in other parts of the planet. I noticed that a female student’s eyes became watery and she left the classroom. When she came back she told us that she was from Rwanada in East Africa and that she and her family had to flee because of the Civil War. Her ethnic group the Tutsis, were being slaughtered and that she had witnessed family and neighbors being killed. Quietly and slowly students left the classroom.
Two days later on Thursday, September 13th, this class reconvened. I sensed that students wanted and needed to talk about the events that we had watched collectively on television in the class. Terrorist, Bin Laden, Afghanistan were words used in the discussions. A Kenyan reminded us that three years before in 1998, the name Bin Laden had surfaced in her country. She explained that Bin Laden was blamed for the destruction of the United States Embassies in Kenya. “Nobody seemed to care that innocent lives were lost in Africa.” Another student from Pakistan, who identified himself as a Muslim, expressed his anger and sadness that the media’s depiction of Islam was not correct. He argued, “They write as if all Muslims are terrorists and all terrorists are Muslims. Those Americans who blew up the building in Oklahoma are terrorists and they are not Muslims.”
I instructed the students to open the books to the chapter so that we could begin. Then a student politely stood. “I am from Afghanistan”, he said. None of us knew that. “My name is Safi, and I hope that none of you think that is what people in Afghanistan are like. We are not, and Bin Laden is not from there; he is from Saudi Arabia.” He enlightened the class and helped to illustrate in a real way that caused this class to bond for the remaining semester as a tightly knitted class.
While we studied major events of the past, students learned an important lesson that we really have much more in common than we recognize. Though we may look different, speak different languages, dress differently, have different religious beliefs, there is a thread that unites us. And while September 11, 2001 will be chronicled in American history as one of the worst tragedies to occur on American soil, there was some beauty that came from all of this that was witnessed in this specific American history course. Each student in his or her way planted new seeds of tolerance, understanding, and peace in the class even when we were not always in agreement. I will never forget those students and how they made teaching and learning of history a reality.