Matt Polazzo, a teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan, put aside his planned lesson on Nigerian politics on Monday to ask what his students thought about the demise of Osama bin Laden, who was killed the day before by American soldiers in Pakistan.
“Obviously,” he told his class of 30 seniors, “the news has some emotional significance for me.” Mr. Polazzo, 35, was teaching at the school on Sept. 11, 2001, just a few blocks from ground zero. He witnessed the collapse of the first tower from a footbridge next to the school, and watched people leap from the second tower while waiting for the signal to evacuate from the school’s lobby.
His current students had been in third grade at the time, and as the discussion soon made clear, the news hit them in a far less visceral way. “One of the things I heard repeatedly is that it doesn’t really matter that he has been assassinated, that he was more of a symbolic figure at this point,” said a student named Ariel.
“It seems to me that when you think about his capture there are two strands you have to walk down,” Mr. Polazzo replied, keeping his personal views to himself and answering in the form of questions. “The first is how militarily involved was he, and will his death disrupt those plans?” The second is will it be an blow to the ideological movement, or will it be an encouragement? Will he be more dangerous as a martyr than he was alive?”
It was a discussion that echoed in many classrooms across the city, as teachers grappled with ways to turn Bin Laden’s death into an educational moment. At Public School 234, a TriBeCa elementary school forced to relocate as a result of 9/11, the subject came up in a few classes, and it was mostly a normal day, said the principal, Lisa Ripperger.
But at Stuyvesant, among the city’s most selective academic high schools, students said that classes from Latin to engineering were upended to allow for talk on the killing. In some classes, teachers showed videos of Mr. Obama’s Sunday night speech or the attacks of 9/11 itself.
In Mr. Polazzo’s class, an Advanced Placement comparative government course, there was no need to review the basics. His students were familiar with Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal region, and the fact that fighting in Afghanistan tends to pick up in spring. Mr. Polazzo himself was just a contestant on “Jeopardy!” in an episode scheduled to be broadcast Wednesday night.
Sam Furnival, 17, had stayed up all night watching Al Jazeera English. He argued that the significance of the killing should not be underestimated. “After expending a trillion dollars and thousands of lives and 10 years, we were unable to catch one fighter of God who they said was protected by God from the imperial war machine,” he said, explaining the jihadist mindset. “The fact that Bin Laden is now dead debunks some of these claims.”
Mr. Polazzo asked another question. Do they think it would have been better to capture Bin Laden alive?
“That is what we should have strived to do,” said Chester Dubov, 18. “If nothing else, it would have been an excellent opportunity to give him due process of the law, and it would have been an opportunity to regain some of our moral standing.”
Even so, he said, he welcomed the death of Bin Laden, in part because “it serves as a demonstration that where there is some sort of global consensus we are able and willing to act decisively to do what we said is right.”
Of all the aspects of Bin Laden’s death, however, it seemed to be the broadcast images of young Americans celebrating the killing that disturbed students the most. Drunken revelry, many of them said, seemed an inappropriate response to an event so serious, especially one which might actually portend more death.
Daniel Frankel, 18, said that while he understood that relatives of victims of 9/11 would experience an outpouring of emotion, “throwing Champagne around and dancing and partying at ground zero, I think that’s just overkill.”
Another student said the scenes on the streets reminded her too much of the celebrations that had taken place in Iraq after the bodies of four murdered Americans were hung from a bridge.
“Because of my own mortality, I can’t celebrate any person’s death,” David Levitt, 18, said. “Do you mean morality?” Mr. Polazzo gently asked. “No, mortality,” he said, “because as a person, I can die, too.”
Mr. Polazzo interjected a possible explanation. In a war against terror without set battles, the destruction of a particular person is perhaps what must pass for victory. “I guess I’m not surprised by the celebrations,” he said, “because this is a tangible accomplishment in a war that feels so inchoate.”
Sam, who is headed to Wesleyan, picked up on that thought. “I sort of support people in the streets,” he said, because “if we argue that’s provoking the terrorists, not to use the cliché, but then that’s letting the terrorists win.”
Besides, he added, “a lot of drunken George Washington University students shouting U.S.A.” — referring to one scene on Sunday night outside the White House — “is not going to inspire global jihad any more than there is currently.”
Shifting into high gear in his gray sweater, khakis and brown boat shoes, Sam continued, “There are occasions on which it is appropriate to celebrate in the street, holding a Bud and waving an American flag, and presumably many of these occasions involve victory in battle.”
Then he went in for the rhetorical kill, explaining that even after the high death tolls at Iwo Jima and elsewhere, Americans celebrated in 1945. “It’s like the quote falsely attributed to Stalin: one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. If you are not willing to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden without any American casualties, then you shouldn’t, you know, feel able to celebrate our victory in WWII.”
Every Tuesday, education beat reporters for The New York Times take you inside the New York City schools, public and private. Have a tip? Send it to [email protected].