The Last Days of the Tehran American School
“Everyone wants to go back,” says one former student.
[ feature ] In 1978, the Tehran American School closed its doors after 24 years in operation. J. Thom McInnis, a high school senior at the time, had a part-time job working for Pan Am. “I remember evacuating many of my schoolmates and their families those last days when I worked at the airport,” he says. “I remember fathers throwing their children over the heads of the crowds at the airport in a bid to get closer to the front of the line for those limited seats out of the country.”
For Anthony Roberts, author of Sons of the Great Satan, the sudden departure from Iran was a shock that left him feeling angry and displaced. “I was angry. I was pissed off. I didn’t understand it because I was a teenaged boy. Now that I am older, I understand it was the loss that really made me angry.” Overnight, his whole world abruptly changed. He was separated from his closest friends and uprooted from the place he’d come to call home.
When I left Iran, I didn’t know what happened to any of my classmates for 30 years…. It wasn’t like so-and-so went off to this college and so-and-so went off to that college. It was like 24 hours. You can pack one bag. You have to leave now. Nothing set up on the other end. You’re just going home to set up with relatives and go on from there.
Social networking brought the former classmates back together. They started reaching out to one another and now have several active groups on Facebook. Roberts says, “For some of us there were tears. It was like a 30-year-old weight lifted from us.”
Paul Stevenson, who now teaches linguistics and grammar in Iraqi Kurdistan, was excited to go to Iran as a teenager. He was interested in language and enjoyed the chance to learn Persian. He talks about the special dynamics of the students at the Tehran American School. “The intensity of our relationships was stronger because we didn’t have the rest of American society to live our American lives. School was a very, very big deal. It was a lot of fun being there. We’d get there early. There were plenty of after school activities.”
He explains that like most teenagers, he was too absorbed in his own life to notice the growing political unrest around them.
“If you really wanted to know what was going on in Iran at the time, you needed to talk to the elementary school kids,” says Jonathan Lee who was “a very mature 12” at the time he lived in Iran. Many of his classmates had parents in the State Department who worked closely with the Shah’s government. Adults spoke in front of them, he explained. They thought they were too young to understand. “We’d get on the bus every morning and compare notes.”
Despite his young age, Lee explored every corner of Tehran using his father’s expense account to hire taxis. “For some odd reason, Iranians thought I looked like a young Cassius Clay. We had doors opened up for us because everywhere we went people saw this young black American kid who looked like Muhammad Ali. Everywhere I went, a crowd gathered.”
When American Bell International (now AT&T) evacuated its employees and their families, Lee was excited to return to the States. Soon after he started school, however, things changed. With the hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy in November 1979, Iran became Americans’ enemy number one. Lee states, “I was not an American kid who lived in Iran; I was the Iranian. I got picked on constantly.”
T. Lilly Littlewater’s father was in the U.S. military. Her neighbors were families with people who worked for the Shah. “I hate to think of what happened to the people we left behind,” she says. When she was older and asked her father what had happened to them, he wouldn’t tell her. “You don’t want to know,” he said.
“My father really believed he was serving his country. When we left Iran, he was a changed man. He never recovered.”
Despite the fact that most led lives fairly isolated from Iranian society and had few if any Iranian friends, many of the former students of the Tehran American School developed life-long ties to the country. “I feel exiled from what I consider my second home,” says Littlewater.
What they miss about Iran is not all that different from what any Iranian in the diaspora misses. They miss eating labu, roasted beets, sold on the side of the road. They miss the mountains, hiking and camping. They miss bread cooked over open flames in ancient ovens. They miss their friends and the community they formed together.
Lee comments, “Why do people fall in love with Iran? Anyone who has spent time there will say it’s the people and the country.”
Littlewater adds, “Both my parents were American Indians. One of the reasons Iran was so relatable to me was because it is so ancient, like my culture. Our cultures aren’t really similar though. The similarity is in how ancient and how valuable ancient cultures are to this world…. I felt very comfortable there.”
As a teenager in Tehran, Anthony Roberts listened to Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, dosing himself with readily available prescription drugs and rotgut alcohol. “The good old Tehran daze,” he says. He and his friends found ways around restrictive parents, tense family situations, and the unfamiliarity of their surroundings. In many ways what he describes is not unlike what many urban teenagers experience today. “I get freaked out when I see these young Iranian kids playing Pink Floyd and stuff like that. Because I think they are in the same emotional state we were in back then,” Roberts says. “Depressed. ‘Woe is me.’ That music is kind of the freedom of it, too. Of course, they are more depressed than we were. We didn’t get depressed until we felt unsafe.”
The collapse of the Shah’s regime came as a surprise to many of the students of the Tehran American School, and their parents as well. They had witnessed growing social discord, but nothing that made them feel the society was on the brink of revolution. Littlewater remembers what her family’s Iranian housekeeper, who she describes as a gentle woman, said to her one day, “We are going on to the streets, and we are going to protest the Shah. We are going to kill the Shah.”
Roberts recounts the day the man who ran the neighborhood store started ignoring him. “He had turned that corner. He was done with Americans. He wasn’t going to be rude to me, just pretend I wasn’t there.”
Because of his (un-American) love of soccer, the young McInnis made many Iranian friends at neighborhood pick-up games. He learned to speak fluent Persian in the homes of his new buddies, and even helped to make huge cauldrons of ash (porridge) for the Shia celebration of Ashura (pictured below). When his father was transferred out of Iran in the spring of 1978, he managed to convince his parents to let him stay behind to graduate. It wasn’t until that autumn that he noticed a change and the “friendly people” he knew became openly aggressive.
On Facebook lately, the alumni of the Tehran American School have been talking about Argo. Who’s going to see it in Atlanta? Omaha? L.A.? Chicago? They long for a glimpse of the lives they left behind, even if it’s sensationalized. They want to see their own experiences reflected in the film. Online, many share their stories of harried evacuations, some noting the kindness and protection offered by their Iranian neighbors.
After leaving Iran, McInnis joined the military and was quickly given the task of using his fluent Persian and knowledge of Tehran to track the escape of the group of State Department employees featured in the film.
I fielded calls from Iranians, friends, and former employees of the U.S. government and American companies still in Iran…. Using my knowledge of the streets and bus systems of Tehran, I plotted the group’s day-to-day and house-to-house movements on a large map until they finally reached the relative safety of the home of a Canadian diplomat on November 10, 1979.
All of the alumni with whom I spoke, even those who had experienced anti-American hostility firsthand, shared warm memories of the country and its people. Littlewater calls her time in Iran “a gift.” In social encounters, she often speaks about her experiences living there and every once in a while even changes a negative opinion or two.
In an essay on his experience in Iran, McInnis writes,
It’s easy for many to condemn what they do not know or understand. But for those of us that lived there and became friends with the people, their music, their food, their customs and their country, we know that there are many good people in Iran, and we hope for the day when peace and sanity will prevail and the doors to their homes will once more open to us.
While their online message boards reflect an array of opinions on all things Iran-related, including Argo, sanctions, and the prospect of war, the former students I spoke with long for nothing more than peace and a chance to return to a country that left a deep mark on them. “Everyone wants to go back,” Lee says.
Roberts shares his wishes for Iran:
I wish they could celebrate their poetry and their culture and play rock and roll without hiding. I wish young girls could go out on the streets without being stopped about their hejab. I wish they didn’t have to go through all that…. I don’t want to see war. I don’t want to see these sanctions. To me they are just another form of war. Economic warfare. It’s a blockade. Where will that lead?
Originally published at www.pbs.org.