NEW YORK // When the World Trade Center collapsed in the September 11 attacks, Nate Chumley, who had not yet turned 10 years old, suddenly saw his world get bigger. "I was in fourth grade when 9/11 happened and I was involuntarily thrust into the politics of the Middle East," said Mr Chumley, now 18 and a 2010 graduate of Friends Seminary, the first high school in New York City to offer classes in Arabic. "When given the option, I jumped at the chance of learning Arabic. It's such a beautiful language."
He is just one of the coming-of-age New Yorkers who were children then and have started to satisfy their almost decade-old curiosity about the Middle East by learning Arabic. The Friends Seminary is a Quaker school although only four per cent of pupils belong to the pacifist, Christian faith, said Robert Lauder, the principal. Forty-eight pupils out of a student body of 275 have signed up to learn Arabic this year.
The school went through a long process of consulting parents, teachers and pupils before deciding to offer Arabic classes instead of Mandarin. "There was no vociferous opposition and there was some discussion of offering Hebrew, too," he said. "Arabic fits our mission and offers opportunities for effecting peace." Learning Arabic had helped to dispel the "propaganda and stereotyping that was so prevalent in the media", said Hayes Peebles, who graduated from Friends this year, performs as a singer and plans to study philosophy at university. "As a small child who watched the fire trucks race towards the WTC [World Trade Center] on September 11, the issue was especially pertinent and that much more powerful and frightening."
The school's Arabic teacher, Anna Swank, 28, is bubbly and youthful. She decided to learn the language after spending a year in France during college and befriending some Arabs. She became fascinated by the culture and graduated from the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University with a master's degree. Her teaching methods include immersion in Arab culture, particularly music.
"I teach prepositions and leave politics to the history teacher," she said. But she noted that her pupils invariably learn something about Middle East politics through the music. Konstantine Adamopoulos, 18, who will be attending NYU Abu Dhabi in the autumn, said some pupils and teachers had initially viewed Ms Swank as "suspect" because terrorism and the Middle East had become inextricably bound is the minds of so many New Yorkers.
"Taking Arabic is not only an honour, but it also goes against what everyone is telling you about the region and it helps you to think independently," he said. The pupils learn modern standard Arabic and the Egyptian dialect before moving on to Syrian and other dialects. When Mr Chumley, who plans to study music business at Northwestern University, in Illinois, said he preferred the Syrian dialect, Ms Swank jumped in and said: "That's great because there's a lot of Syrian rock bands that need your help badly."
Ms Swank said her long-term goal was to write a curriculum or an Arabic textbook suitable for US school pupils. The school has a reputation as a breeding ground for Wall Street's next generation. "This is a high-powered, academic school where a lot of the students go into finance," she said. Nonetheless, Ms Swank said many pupils have made a strong connection with Arab culture, especially through music.
Mr Peebles is one of them. "Luckily, music had been a huge part of our curriculum and now I have artists from Fairuz to Marcel Khalife to DAM to Nancy Ajram on my iPod, which I love and listen to and try to translate all the time," he said. Some pupils have also been able to try out their language skills on study trips to Jordan. "When people heard us, their perceptions changed and we weren't just more tourists," said Nicholas Rouner, 18. "We talked to locals and had enough Arabic to get by and to get some high-fives."