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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Twin Sisters: A Student's E-Mail Meets the Paris Tragedy

A transcript of an e-mail written by a student's sister in Paris and forwarded to me, edited to preserve privacy (the blanks are in the place of my student's name):

I was your age and a freshman at Stuyvesant in downtown Manhattan when the Twin Towers fell next to me and thousands of New Yorkers lost their lives. 

It was a day that changed many things for my peers.  In the short term, we had to attend Brooklyn Tech for a month while our school was used as a triage center for the wounded.  

In the long term, it changed everything from air travel and our sense of security to politics and the way Muslims are viewed. 

It is terrible that people murder in the name of religion.  It is even more terrible that they kill for a religion that I am a part of, especially when that religion emphasizes compassion in the face of criticism.  

I feel for all people, everywhere that die as a result of senseless violence.  Such acts are cruel, unjust, and must be condemned.

Similarly, hate crimes against the millions of Muslims that do not commit terrorist acts must be condemned.  

Tensions are high in Paris and all over Europe, and already, Muslims in France have been targeted in revenge. 

In New York, our father was attacked while driving his taxi cab shortly after 9/11.

Recently, _______'s twin was pushed by an adult on an NYC bus and called a terrorist. Even though she is just a child, not a single person helped her on the bus.  
None of these acts are justified.  

My hope is that you will learn to be tolerant and open-minded and speak out against hate in all forms.  I hope that you will think of ______ and her kindness when you think of Muslims and not extremists who kill in cold blood.  And most importantly, I hope that you will get to know and appreciate people from all backgrounds and ask as many questions as possible.  You already have a head start on this, growing up in the best city in the world!

Best wishes from Paris


This particular e-mail above was forwarded to me by a current student who has a twin sister.  The original e-mail was written by her oldest sister in Paris with the hope that we might discuss its contents in class.  I jumped on board.  After all, the study of history is so much about primary sources.  We are living history.  And, here was a primary source staring me straight in the face.

There are so many intensely important issues underlying the tragedy in France.  Intolerance seems to be exhibited in so many degrees.  First, there are the cartoons, disturbing to many and potential signs of intolerance.  I have not personally viewed them, but I have heard them described.  I join with Voltaire in defending free speech--even if I disagree vehemently with its content.  Let us know how others feel and if it is disturbing, let us condemn it through the same free speech.  

Then, there is the issue  of intolerance in the form of assassination and murder.  No one can afford to tolerate this, not even in the name of God.  There is, yet, a third type of intolerance in the form of revenge-based hate crimes directed against Muslims, as evidenced in the letter.  This must be condemned as well.  Free speech demands it.

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris tragedy, my class discussed the first two types of intolerance in some detail.  After reading the letter, I realized that we had not spent nearly enough time discussing this third type of intolerance.  The issue was so close to the heart of one student and probably a number of others.

The time had come to say more.  I was prepared to give the class copies of the letter, let the sister read it or read it myself.  I asked her how she would like to handle it.  She seemed to lose her nerve.  She opted for letting me read it aloud.  Since her name was mentioned in the letter, I did some minor editing to preserve her anonymity.

As I read the letter to the class, I looked around the room.  At times, my student seemed on the verge of tears, but I knew it was important to continue.  There seemed to be so much invested in how the class handled this letter.  I chose to focus upon a single question:  What, if anything, can be done to reduce hate-based acts or crimes perpetrated against peace-loving peoples?

Some kids favored greater police protection--not just for Paris Jews, but also for the city's Muslims.  Others favored education and advertising tolerance as panaceas.  Although our discussion focused on Paris, when it comes to these issues borders of place and time are blurred.

Some students thought little or nothing could be done.  In the face of ignorant biases, they favored the attitude that there will always be bad people.  As I thought more about my student's twin facing persecution riding a public bus, Countee Cullen's poem "Incident" came to mind.  When the stakes are so high, how can we let the hate and biases of a few prevail?

I was a little surprised no one offered the solution plainly before me--on that printed page of e-mail.  I saw my student's twin sister riding on that bus and as she faced the "Incident" of intolerance, the silence was deafening.  Not a single soul raised his or her voice to defend that innocent, young Muslim girl in her hijab.  

There will be bias and hate in the world, but it will not represent the majority.  When the good people cower, keep silent, can't be bothered or fail to rise to meet their opportunity to challenge wrong and do good, that is when we know our education system is failing us.  Perhaps we prep hard for tests, but do we pull the right lessons from history?   Perhaps we align ourselves to some high-stakes Core, but do we lose sight of humanity in the process?  

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