Victor Dabby, Freelance
Published: Sunday, September 24, 2006
The history of the Community School parallels
America's long love/hate relationship with Iran.
It started in the 19th century when scores of U.S.
Presbyterian missionaries descend on the country to
preach the message of the New Testament. With them
came their children and a need for schools.
It began with home schooling in 1830s and ended with
a sprawling campus in Tehran in the 1950s. At first,
the school had modest facilities in the Iranian
capital in the 1930s with about 200 students. Then
came more classrooms and teachers.
By the 1950s, the school changed forever as
non-Americans - Iranian and foreigners living in
Iran - outnumbered the kids of missionaries for whom
the school was first set up. Among the people of
Tehran, it was known as the "American school."
Its administrators walked a tight line between
proselytizing Christianity and a broad secular
identity that respects students who are Muslim,
Jewish, Zoroastrian, Hindu or Sikh.
It also tried not to offend Iran's powerful Islamic
clergy by holding classes from Monday to Thursday,
closing on Friday (the Muslim sabbath) and reopening
This made for odd, split weekends, but everyone was
happy. The teaching of French made many of the
non-American students bilingual or trilingual or
The end of the Second World War brought a new wave
of Americans working for the oil industry,
multi-nationals or the military. By the 1970s, about
70,000 Americans lived and work in Iran.
Their children flocked to the school. Early students
include Norman Schwarzkopf, who went on to lead U.S.
forces in the first Gulf War. Also a student was Bob
Barr, the Republican congressman from Georgia. Diane
Kerry, sister of Democratic presidential candidate
John Kerry, taught at the school for several years.
Meantime, a prospering Iranian middle class joined
the race for Western-style education, looking to
Community School, which, by the 1950s, had expanded
to a sprawling new campus on Kucheh Marizkhaneh
(Hospital Drive) in southeast Tehran.
Several city blocks long, the grounds included large
buildings, pathways, gardens, soccer and basketball
courts, as well as a pond. During the Second World
War, it was a Presbyterian missionary hospital but
changed vocations soon after.
A dynamic American educator, J. Richard Irvine,
became headmaster and the school took off. By the
mid-1960s, Community School was half-Iranian and
majority non-Christian. It took in many children of
Iraqi Jewish families - like my own - who were
refugees from the turmoil of Baghdad in the 1940s.
But the administration split over the school's
future and the role of religion. Irvine left to
start his own international school with a secular
Both schools prospered but everything came to a stop
with the triumph of the Islamic Revolution.
The schools were closed by the new government.
Ironically, one of Irvine's last students was the
articulate Massoumeh Ebtekar, who ended up speaking
English so well that she became a sought-after
spokesperson for the hostage-takers who occupied the
U.S. embassy in Tehran - another twist in our long