By Joshua Benton
WEST JORDAN, Utah – They may be part of the axis of evil, but at Jensen Middle School, Iran is still a welcome member of the family of nations.
Jensen was stuck with one of the most difficult assignments in the One School, One Country program, which links area schools to the countries sending athletes to the Olympics.
“I didn’t even think Iran had a Winter Olympics team,” said Jana Crist, the school’s assistant principal. “There wasn’t a lot of excitement when we were assigned Iran.”
Three years ago, area school leaders drew names from a basket to see who they’d be linked to. Then they’d integrate information about their country into their curriculum up through the Games.
Some, like France and Canada, were easy. Others, like Belarus and Azerbaijan, took more background research. And still others, like Jensen’s Iran, were politically sensitive. President Bush, after all, did name the country as one of a tripartite “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address.
“I was watching him give that address, and I just thought, ‘Oh. OK. That’s our country,'” Crist said.
Jensen focused on Iranian culture and music in its studies, she said. “We’ve stayed away from the politics,” she said. “It’s really a good way to get children beyond the idea that the Olympics are just about rooting for the U.S.A. and that’s it.”
The school-country pairing program was first launched for the Nagano Games in 1998, at the initiative of Nagano’s mayor. More than 800 Utah schools have gone to a variety of lengths to learn about foreign cultures; some have even visited with their Olympians, such as Emerson Elementary in Salt Lake City, which sent students to a Monaco bobsled team practice.
Bonneville Elementary in Salt Lake City was one of 14 Utah schools that picked China, whose relations with the United States have sometimes been rocky in recent years.
“This has been an opportunity to get past politics,” said Craig Ruesch, Bonneville’s principal. “The children are learning about the wider world.”
On Friday, Bonneville’s students hosted a Chinese athletic delegation, including Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, the bronze medalists in the controversial pairs figure skating competition.
“We’ve learned how to eat with chopsticks, write a few Chinese characters, practice Tai Chi movements, and even speak a few words of Chinese,” Ruesch told the visitors before a school assembly, shortly before being given two stuffed pandas as a symbol of U.S.-China cooperation.
“This is like a bridge between our two countries,” said Zhao, through a translator. “I hope some of them can come to Beijing in 2008, and we will return their hospitality.”
“The more you understand about other people, the more you can connect to them,” said Utah First Lady Jacalyn Leavitt. The Leavitts’ son Westin is a sixth grader at Bonneville. “It’s when you start putting up barriers that the problems start.”
Madisyn Taylor and Miles Bennett, both fifth graders, said they’ve learned a lot about China in the last three years. “They’ve got a billion people,” said Miles. “They’ve got a bunch of cities, and they’re nice people,” said Madisyn.
Leaving the school assembly, one girl was overheard telling her father: “I shook three of their hands. I’m never washing my hands again.”
Crist, the assistant principal at Jensen, is trying to arrange a similar trip of Iranian athletes to her school. (Iran sent two to the Games, alpine skier Bagher Kalhor and cross-county skier Seyed Mostafa Mirhashemi.) At first, she didn’t think it would be possible; she’d been led to believe that Iran had withdrawn from the Games after Sept. 11. When she watched the opening ceremonies on TV last week, she was surprised.
“There they were, marching into the stadium,” she said.