BY LINDLEY ESTES

The sixth-graders at Rodney Thompson Middle School don't remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001.

Most of them were not yet a year old.

That's why for the first time, the sixth-grade classes at the North Stafford school learned about the world-changing terrorist attacks as a historical rather than a current event.

Before the lessons, what the students knew about the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania was secondhand, from accounts of parents and teachers.

"Now our students don't remember," said sixth-grade history teacher Camille Swain. The teachers' goal was to help the Rodney Thompson students understand many aspects of the attacks, and the personal impact on all Americans.

Swain told them that she was teaching fourth grade in Stafford at the time of the attacks. She was most worried for her brother-in-law and nephews, who live in southern Georgia and are of Middle Eastern descent.

"I was concerned that my nephews would be discriminated against," she said Monday during the lesson. "But my nephews never had any discrimination. It shows the change in this country. We're open as a nation to everyone."

She said she wanted the lesson about Sept. 11 to teach the students about tolerance, as well as teaching the historical facts.

Swain also related the mood of the nation 11 years ago compared with today during the heat of the current presidential election campaign.

"Have you been watching the presidential election?" she asked. When the class nodded yes, she continued: "It's getting ugly. Everyone is a Democrat or a Republican. When [9/11] happened, that didn't matter. We were all Americans."

During the lesson, the children watched a video that detailed the events of the attacks and described the aftermath. They also listened to a recording of Swain and her son reading a book about St. Paul's Chapel in New York City, which stood amid the ruble around it from the fallen towers.

The students also learned about Osama bin Laden's background, and that the terrorists did not represent a country.

The children worked Monday and Tuesday to decorate stars to memorialize the victims of Sept. 11.

Each of the 300 sixth-graders was asked to decorate at least nine, so there would be one star for every victim. Five stars went on each student's locker. The rest lined the walls of the sixth-grade hallway.

Mckenzi Watkins, 11, decorated a star in memory of Martha Raszke, who worked at the Pentagon and was the mother of a former neighbor's family.

"It's sad because it's hard to imagine what their family felt like," Mckenzi said. "If I lost my mom I would be devastated. Thinking about it makes me want to cry." Mckenzi's father died just a few weeks after she was born.

Mckenzi said that before Monday, she did not know that nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11 and that Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

Andy Schroeder, 11, wore a patriotic shirt to school to mark the 11th anniversary of the attacks.

He decorated stars for James Patrick Ladley and Ganesh K. Ladkat, both of whom died in the World Trade Center.

"My dad has worked at the Pentagon so he knows a lot of people there," he said.

He also said that he learned what "Ground Zero" in New York City means.

Sixth-grade history teacher Meaghan Flerlage said the lesson had an impact on the kids.

"There are a lot of them with family in the government or military, so it hits home for them," she said.

Dartanian Seguin, 11, said his dad, a Marine, gave him a firsthand account of Sept. 11, 2001.

"He was at the shooting range, so he couldn't hear about what was happening," Dartanian said. "His boss told him after."

Another student, Emma Lazerson, also 11, took extra stars home Monday night because she saw that many had not yet been decorated.

"I didn't want anyone who lost their lives to go without one," she said.

Before decorating them, she talked to family and friends who remembered the attacks. She asked them what hopeful images come to mind them from those days.

Her grandmother said that she is thankful no one in their family died, so Emma decorated one star with hearts to represent family.

Her fourth-grade teacher said she remembered a candlelight ceremony held in her neighborhood after the attack, so another star is decorated with candles.

Emma decorated 16 stars by Tuesday morning, and said: "It wouldn't be fair to them if they didn't get a star. If I have any free time today I'll be making more."

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976

Email: lestes@freelancestar.com

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