As soon as the school day was over in northern Iraq on Thursday, high school students at the Classical School of the Medes began switching out their profile photos on Facebook. The Iraqis replaced them with photos of their American teacher, Jeremiah Small, who was killed Thursday when an Iraqi student pulled a gun and shot him during class. The student then shot himself and died on the way to the hospital.
"There was an argument between the student and his American teacher … and as a result of that argument the student shot dead his teacher using a pistol he had, and then shot himself," provincial Gov. Zana Mohammad Salih said shortly after the incident.
Eyewitnesses disputed whether an argument preceded the shooting. In an article titled "The Loss of a Hero" and published on a Kurdish news site, senior students at the school wrote, "Quite contrary to what the public media has claimed, he wasn't killed because of a religious dispute."
Just after the shooting, students could be seen streaming from the school, crying and talking on cell phones, as classes were abruptly cancelled. The K-12 private institution has over 500 students and is one of three schools in Iraq's northern region of Kurdistan underwritten by Nashville-based Servant Group International.
It opened in 2000 and had about 75 students enrolled at the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Sulaymaniyah, a city that has grown to about 700,000 people, became a refuge for dislocated Iraqis from Baghdad and other hotspots during the eight-year war. Located 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, it largely escaped the notable violence and attacks by Islamic militants that have plagued the rest of the country. Locals said the shooting shocked them, and eyewitnesses described a scene of chaos in the classroom, the Associated Press reported, with some students fainting in fear after gunfire shattered the morning class.
Small, 33, had been teaching English and history at the school in Sulaymaniyah since 2005. Servant Group recruits American teachers to augment a faculty that was founded and is run largely by Iraqi Christian administrators. The student body is nearly all Kurdish and Muslim, drawn to its program by a classical curriculum that emphasizes English in a region that before the fall of Saddam Hussein was largely cut off from Western educational opportunities. Many of the students are from the region's wealthiest and most politically connected families.
Authorities identified the student killer as Beyar Talabani, and local news reports identified him as the grandson of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's half brother. Talabani, who was elected president in 2005, is head of the largest party in the region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Senior students in their online article described the student gunman as an 11th grader "who was known for some personal issues."
In a statement by Servant Group shortly after Small's death, the organization said he "continued to return to Iraq to teach year after year because of the great changes and hope he saw in the lives of his students." Servant Group executive director Dave Dillard traveled immediately to northern Iraq.
After hearing a presentation about the school seven years ago, Small told a Servant Group staff member, "I think I am supposed to go there." He taught more than 1,000 students during his tenure there, and became a favorite among high schoolers, leading regular weekend hiking, rock-climbing, and camping trips with students. He returned to the United States during school breaks. In 2008 he invited me to Sulaymaniyah to teach a group of about 20 high school students how to start and run a student newspaper (see "Homesteaders needed," Nov. 29, 2008). The students crowded into his living room, and lingered for conversation long after the workshop was over. Student visitors were frequent guests in a home he shared with other American teachers, and Small was to host a group of three prospective teachers from the United States starting next week.
The Washington state native was the oldest of seven siblings. Just hours after the Thursday shooting, Small's father, J. Dan Small, posted the words of the hymn "How Firm a Foundation" on his Facebook page and later wrote, "We are blessed by the huge 'family' the Lord has given us. He loaned us Jeremiah for 33 short years but used him to enlarge the family and extend the lives of many for eternity."
(Editor's Note: This article has been updated since its original posting.)