As the president of her high school Peace Club, Claire Brennan does not like to fight. Even so, Claire, who will be a senior at Friends Seminary this fall, found herself in some impassioned conversations — let's not even call them debates — this year, as she and some friends discussed what non-Western foreign language the school should add to its curriculum. The school, a small downtown institution, was soliciting suggestions from students and parents on whether Arabic or Mandarin Chinese would better suit its educational mission.
"It was the talk of the whole school," said Claire, one of a few students gathered in the principal's office last week to discuss the issue. Claire, a lanky 17-year-old, had come down on the side of Arabic for obvious reasons — she is, after all, the president of the Peace Club — but she wanted to make it clear that her support for the language choice didn't begin and end with world harmony. All along, she had agreed with her fellow classmate Christian Lopez-Balboa, who had pointed out in a classwide meeting with administrators that in five or six years, Arabic, not Chinese, might well be the more important language for those students who would be starting careers in finance.
"I'm interested in emerging markets," said Christian, 17, by way of explaining this insight.
Although the school takes seriously the tenets of pacifism and tolerance central to its Quaker tradition, it is also, like any New York City private school, in touch with the current high-flying world of New York financiers. And so arguments like Christian's surely added a practical, even cosmopolitan touch. In the end, the deciding committee at Friends reached consensus in February: Arabic.
In the months after Sept. 11, there was a sense of urgency, nationwide, around increasing the number of Arabic speakers, among both peaceniks (if only we could better understand each other) and hawks (how are we supposed to spy on Muslim terrorists if only four people in the C.I.A. speak Arabic?).
Since then, the number of college students taking advantage of Arabic classes has more than doubled, according to the Modern Language Association, but the offerings at the high school level, a starting point that gives students a better shot at achieving proficiency, remain scarce, even in New York.
A handful of New York schools now offer Arabic: Stuyvesant High School, which started teaching the language in response to the efforts of the Islamic student association; Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where the classes are exclusively attended by students of Arabic descent, the principal said; the School for International Studies; the United Nations International School; and, of course, the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, which has a heavy emphasis on Arabic language and culture and has been mired in controversy since plans for it were announced.
But Friends Seminary is most likely the first school in New York to offer the language that doesn't have a significant Arabic-speaking student body.
The field of Arabic teaching is new and small enough in this country that simply finding qualified teachers presents a challenge, said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. That wasn't the experience at Friends, said the principal, Robert Lauder, noting that he had four candidates he'd have been thrilled to hire. In the end, they went with Anna Swank, who graduated from the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University with a master's degree and has recently been teaching at Columbia University's Arabic Summer Program.
"If we start early enough, it really will be about the other and finding out about this part of the world that we've misunderstood in so many ways," said Ms. Swank, who is 26. She quickly followed up with a caveat, as if anticipating any potential contortion of her relatively uncontroversial sentiment (the downfall of the first principal of Khalil Gibran started with comments attributed to her in an interview with The New York Post).
"I don't want to get called an apologist and say it's all peachy," she said. "I've lived there, I know there's good and bad in the world; it's just the good doesn't get talked about here."
If the school wanted to make a hire unlikely to risk controversy, Ms. Swank, who is from Minnesota, seems like a safe bet. "I'm on neither side of the fence," she said. "I'm Mayflower on one side of my family, and American Indian on the other."
Perhaps inevitably, four or five parents called or met with Mr. Lauder to express their strong concerns that the language program would have a strong pro-Palestinian slant, although Mr. Lauder said they seemed reassured by conversations with him about the school's motivations.
So far, of the school's 260 students, 30 have signed up for Ms. Swank's class, which they will take four days a week. She wants them, in addition to studying Modern Standard Arabic, to learn a little bit of the Egyptian dialect, which she is most familiar with, to write to pen pals and to get in touch with the culture of Arab youth on YouTube. Closer to home, she said, she can't wait until the students start going into an Egyptian-run deli near school and showing off a few phrases. "They'll be so surprised and delighted," she said.
If the students are going to start building bridges somewhere, the corner of 16th and Third sounds like as good a place as any.