SAN MARCOS — Thirty pairs of eyes stared raptly as images of minarets, bazaars and ruins paraded across the screen in their seventh-grade World History class at San Marcos Middle School on Nov. 6. This was the real Iran, not the Iran portrayed by politicians and the media. This was the raw photos, video and accounts from their teacher, Lawrence Osen, who journeyed in June for a two-week tour of the Islamic Republic.
Osen began at the beginning, tying his trip in with what the students had learned of the region in sixth grade.
“This is where Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire got started,” Osen said as he showed pictures of the ancient imperial capital of Pasargadae. He then displayed a timeless photo — which could have been taken 4,000 years ago if cameras had existed then — of a child the same age as the students tending a flock of goats.
The teacher showed them Isfahan, the center of the Islamic Saffavid Empire, where the tremendous mosque of Shah Abbas the Great still stands in its original glory. There were videos of Osen’s fellow travelers, including actress Eliza Dushku, reading passages from the class textbook about the Saffavids from within the holy city.
Osen ended the tour with modern Iran and a video of a hopeful singer crooning to a small audience on a bridge where some artists have been “discovered.” He then played the music of the bridge’s most popular performer, now a superstar in his country.
Throughout the virtual trip, students noted many familiar qualities of Iran. At one photo of the dry plateau of central Iran, a student exclaimed, “It looks like Mexico!” Another wondered if it was coincidence that Iranian road signs use the same green and white color scheme as Americans.
Osen pointed out perhaps the most striking example. Printed across the backs of tour buses was the motto, “In God We Trust.”
Globetrotting is nothing new for the former National Geographic employee. Osen had traveled to most of the corners of the world, but Iran remained a mystery until this summer. As the diplomatic tension between Presidents Bush and Ahmadinejad heightened, Osen’s interest became an urgency. That is when Osen signed up with Global Exchange and became a self-described citizen diplomat.
“I really was hoping there was something I could do to promote peace and cooperation and exchange as opposed to see our country go to war,” Osen said.
The teacher said he was struck by how positively he was received in Iran and how friendly the people were. His reception in the classroom was positive, too.
“I like it better when we have more of a hands-on presentation than reading out of a book,” student Jamie Watson said.
“It’s easier to picture what they’re talking about and what they’re saying,” Chris DeGiazza said. “It makes it more intimate.”
“I want to go there someday,” Sarah Lawson said.