I started secondary school in September 2001, meaning the World Trade Centre was destroyed by those pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda just two weeks into Year 7. I remember coming home with my friend and sitting in the living room with my parents and grandparents, watching it, unable to process the surreal images on the screen.
It felt overpoweringly significant, in the same way that many schools have felt the recent Paris attacks to be overpoweringly significant; something to be addressed, discussed and reflected upon.
Wars and explosions had, for me, been something we learnt about in history or played on the PSone. Now it was as though this distant surreality had become suddenly real, and there was no cheat code to make the fear and the enemy go away. As bombs began to rain down on the Tora Bora mountains, I would watch the News at Ten saying nothing but feeling anxious. Interested, scared and anxious.
In English lessons, things continued as normal. We were being taught about biographies and we were encouraged to research and write about a significant person. The expected parade of singers and footballers were covered. But I wrote mine about Osama Bin Laden. I researched it in great depth and can remember lots of elements of it even now because it felt as though, at the age of 11, I was for the first term learning something that was timely, serious and which mattered. I researched the family history of the Bin Ladens and about the recent history of Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. I was very naive, but nothing bad really came of it. One cover supply teacher took exception to it, and said ‘What the bloody hell are you writing about him for?’ The answer in my head was simply that he is a significant person, which is pretty incontestable. He is as significant as the attacks.
When it came to handing it in, I was told it was a good biography and the spellings were corrected.
This makes for a pretty stale anecdote for a few reasons. Nothing came of it. Nothing happened. I am white. I am not Muslim. Prevent didn’t exist.
We now are working in a schooling climate where a pupil even saying the word ‘ecoterrorisme‘ led to him being questioned about whether he is linked to ISIS. Or where a diligent pupil bringing in a clock he had made triggered a bomb scare in the mind of his teacher.
If I was being educated today, as a white British pupil with no visible religious affiliation in a northern town, I would undoubtedly be picking up praise for my abilities in my French oral exam if I was dropping in phrases about ‘l’ecoterrorisme’ and if I was to be producing fully functioning electronic clocks, I’d be patted on the back for my rare curiosity and commitment to my learning.
What would happen if a pupil in your class made a presentation or a biography about a leader of ISIS, like I made a biography back in 2011?
What would you think? What would you do? Why?
Would it depend? On what would it depend?