Boys' exciting adventure turns to horror

21st September 2001 at 01:00
In the United States schools struggle to cope with losses among staff, pupils and parents after terrorist attacks last week

Many 11-year-olds in Washington DC know little about geography outside the concrete apartment buildings of their neighbourhoods.

That's why Rodney Dickens, Bernard Brown, and Asia Cottom were so excited to be picked for a trip to see the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary off the West Coast of the United States, part of a programme sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

Even though they lived in the nation's capital, they had yet to learn about international politics. But they became the random victims of international politics when their westbound flight from Dulles Airport was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon after only minutes in the air.

All on board were killed, including the three youngsters and their teachers. The classmates and students they left behind are still struggling to make sense of it.

"We essentially told them bad people do bad things, but there is a difference between bad people and an entire religion or nation," said Arlington county schools superintendent Robert Smith.

The three teachers who died - James Debeuneure, 58, Sarah Clark, 65, and Hilda Taylor, age unknown - were widely admired.

"Mrs Taylor was like a monument here," said Clementine Homsley, principal of the Madeleine V Leckie elementary school, where Mrs Taylor taught sixth grade. And Mr Debeuneure's son, Jacques, said: "My dad was a good man who loved to teach kids. He'd give his own lunch to those kids in his class when they'd forget their own. He wanted to make a difference in their lives."

One way he did that was to take part in the National Geographic programme, designed to help teachers make geography and science fun for students. "He was going to learn as much as he could about rivers and oceansides, so he could bring it back for his kids," Jacques Debeuneure said. Memorial services were held two days after the tragedy for the three children and their teachers. Their classmates and students wrote poems and letters, drew pictures and cried together.

"We have not mentioned the word 'terrorism' to them yet," said Cynthia Dickens, Rodney's aunt. "It takes it beyond what they are ready to hear."

Meanwhile, Mrs Taylor's son, Dennis Stafford, visited his mother's class. "I'll tell them that everything will be fine," he said before going inside. "God will send somebody else that will handle their problems like my mom used to."

Friday magazine, 5

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