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Opinion: U.S. needs a diversity lesson from Va. school

They remember their parents coming early to scoop them up from school that day. And the television channels that were changed quickly so they didn't see the planes hitting the towers, over and over again.

So they sat in their social studies classroom at Centreville (Va.) High School last week, ready for a history lesson about the day America was devastated, back when they were just third-graders.

That day is hazy for many of them. It is a news item, a reference point. A weird, frightening, divided world so far from their own.

So far, they are not hating. Unlike so much of America today.

Last week, these kids in Northern Virginia gathered for class at their diverse school, their faces reflecting the global hot spots that their parents fled -- North and South Korea, Pakistan, Albania, Afghanistan.

Two Sikh boys with turbans, huge backpacks, sagging board shorts and iPod earbuds hanging from their necks shoved each other as they got off a bus. The girl with a hijab and a leopard print bag plopped down at her desk, gabbing with her friends. She was excited about getting lots of money during her family's Eid party last week.

They seem relatively oblivious to outward differences.

Nine years ago, things weren't so friendly in the lunchroom at many schools. Added to the geeks, the jocks and the skater cliques were "the terrorists."

"At first, right after the attacks, I'd hear it in the hallways and stuff. Some of these kids, the Muslims, would get teased, called terrorists," said Joseph Radun, who is teaching at Centreville but was working at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington on Sept. 11, 2001.

The attacks were raw and horrible for his students back then. They huddled in horror as they watched the devastation unfold on television, many of them wondering if their parents were alive or dead inside the Pentagon. And the anger and fear were palpable, Radun said.

"I used to get that kind of stuff a lot," said Megan, 18, who left Afghanistan when she was 4 years old and is now a senior at Centreville High. "People would call me a terrorist. But I'm, like, more American than I am a girl from Afghanistan. I mean, I've been in America way longer."

For the most part, today's teens seem to view Sept. 11 as gauzy history.

In his class, Radun serves up a rat-a-tat, in-your-face lesson about the attacks. It's how he starts every school year.

"You've gotta know what really happened. What it was like that day," he told the students. "The radicals? If they could, every day would be like 9/11 in America."

He tried to use the day to explain the civic values of courage, respect, perseverance, responsibility, justice, initiative, moderation and integrity.

He explained that then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani showed great leadership that day.

"Is he the guy who stopped that plane from going into the White House?" one of his students asked.

Radun showed the class "9/11," the emotional documentary by French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, who were with firefighters in the World Trade Center that day.

In the classroom, the shuffling stopped, the scribbling ended. They were riveted.

Afterward, one tearstreaked student said, "That was way worse than what I thought happened."

They talked about national security and the Patriot Act. Not a single student condemned Islam. No one turned to look at Megan, in her hijab.

If kids can get it right, what happened to us?

America, as a whole, was at its best right after the attacks. Our nation didn't repeat history's atrocities with the callous internment of Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Then, and in the years come, President George W. Bush tried to calm Americans and quell hatred. "I believe that the terrorists have hijacked a peaceful religion in order to justify their behavior," he said.

Undoubtedly, there were incidents of Muslims discriminated, mistreated and judged. But the general atmosphere, as America was still reeling from an attack, was kinder than what we have today.

Fueled by the painful debate over a mosque and Islamic center planned for Manhattan near Ground Zero, a Washington Post-ABC poll conducted last week found the country's mood toward Muslims increasingly hostile.

The poll said that 49 percent of Americans view Islam unfavorably.

"I don't understand that. I didn't do that. My family didn't do that. All the Muslims didn't do those attacks," Megan told me in the hallway after class, where the jocks, the geeks, the cheerleaders and the Muslims seem to get along fairly well.

I think 49 percent of Americans need to a lesson from the kids at Centreville High.