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Jill Swanson and former student Aaron Heath held the letter that Gadhafi sent to her second-grade class in 1986.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

St. Paul teacher, students recall letter from Gadhafi

  • Article by: KRISTIN TILLOTSON
  • Star Tribune
  • March 4, 2011 - 3:22 PM

"Dear Col. Khadafy,

"If you fight us, we will fight back. If you don't fight us, we will leave you alone, if you leave us alone."

Those words weren't written by current protesters in Libya, but by a St. Paul second-grader nearly 25 years ago. Aaron Heath, then a student at Maxfield Magnet School in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, wrote letters to President Ronald Reagan and Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi as part of a class project after the United States bombed Tripoli in May 1986.

"The idea was to try to use words to solve differences, to find other ways than violence to solve conflicts," recalled Heath, now a Twin Cities property manager. "Our perspective, being 8 years old, was, 'Why are grown-ups fighting? Why are people getting killed?'"

Only one wrote back right away -- Gadhafi (whose name has been spelled many different ways over the years), who signed a reply typed in English on fancy, green-and-gold-bordered official letterhead.

"Dear freind," read the letter, with some typos. "We received your kind letter in which you condemned the american barbarian aggression against our country and our people."

The exchange landed teacher Jill Swanson and her class in the local and national news. She was criticized in some corners by those who thought it was inappropriate for young children to correspond with a tyrant or question the president's actions.

As the unrest has grown in Libya over the past several weeks, Swanson, who still teaches second grade at Maxfield, said she has thought about the letters often. "We got a perception then that has proven to be the truth," she said. "He's an irrational dictator."

The idea to write the letters came from a student during a current-events discussion, while Swanson was pointing out Libya on a map, she said.

"It was very student-directed, which is the coolest way to teach anything. These were 7- and 8-year-olds sharing their thoughts really well, and then his response had a tone of 'thank you for supporting me.' When I read it to them, the kids were looking at me like, 'That's not what we said.' It was confusing to them, but it gave us a great opportunity to discuss what propaganda is, and how to spot it."

Propaganda aside, Heath said he was impressed that "someone we were having a dispute with wrote back to some kids in the middle of Minnesota, even though our own president didn't."

Swanson eventually got a response from Reagan, but it didn't come until school was over for the summer, she said.

The exchange had an impact on Heath, who disagrees with the criticism directed at Swanson at the time. "I honestly think it was a great experience," he said. "She was one of my favorite teachers ever because of assignments like this."

Student Daniel Barbosa's letter read, "Dear Col. Khadafy,

"Why are you bombing the U.S.A.? Can't you think of a better way to solve the problem? Well I can ... Write letters!"

Reached by phone in San Francisco, where he now works for Monster.com, Barbosa said he'd been thinking of that second-grade assignment recently, given the uprising in Libya and Gadhafi's increasingly out-of-touch statements.

"It was pretty shocking," he said. "I thought he would say something more rational. It made him seem totally insane, which I guess we can see now is a pretty good assessment."

Gadhafi's words have stuck with him.

"It was so beyond what you would have expected him to write to 8-year-olds," he said. "It definitely made an impression."

The letter's strongly worded claims didn't make Barbosa afraid. "It was too remote and distant. He just seemed like some crazy goofball on the other side of the world."

Heath, who said he now works all day long settling disputes between people, figures he got an early start.

"I guess I've always been a peacemaker."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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