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In Schools, a Spotlight on Veterans

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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005

When Albert Lewis started working as a teacher 10 years ago, he noticed something disturbing come Nov. 11.

"Kids were getting this day off of school, and they had no idea why, no idea what the day was about," Lewis said.

That students would ignore Veterans Day was particularly upsetting to the fourth-grade social studies teacher, who spent 27 years in the Army, retiring as a colonel.

So he resolved to do something about it. Since then, he's organized almost yearly Veterans Day observances at the elementary schools where he has taught. This year's will be today at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Arlington County. It will feature a play performed by teachers in which students in a classroom learn about the importance of the day through patriotic readings, songs and a flag routine set to "You're a Grand Old Flag."

"When they're done, the older kids especially, they know what they're getting it off for," he said. "When it's over, without any prompting, they want the autographs of the servicemen and women in the audience. They understand these are some important people."

The Arlington assembly is one of dozens of events that area schools will hold this week to mark Veterans Day. Teachers and principals said it is especially important that schools organize such observances now because U.S. military personnel -- many not long out of school themselves -- are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They're close in age to when they could serve in the military, and it's made it real to them to know, you know, 'Next year, I could be in that Black Hawk helicopter,' " said Marty Potts, an English and history teacher at Loudoun Valley High School, which holds a community assembly each year. Last year's drew 250 people.

In Loudoun and Fairfax counties, where schools will be in session tomorrow, events can be held on the day itself. Loudoun County makes a point of holding school on Veterans Day because members of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post years ago asked the system to keep kids in class so teachers could talk about the day.

Arlington, Prince William and Alexandria schools will observe the federal holiday. Some will hold observances today.

At Washington Mill Elementary School in Fairfax, Principal Tish Howard will host a breakfast for veterans in the school library tomorrow. She said the gathering will be a thank-you from her to the former service members. She will do all the cooking, preparing bacon and sausage the night before and making 85 pieces of French toast adorned with strawberries, peaches and blueberries for a red, white and blue theme.

Last year, she hosted 20 veterans -- school volunteers, parents, aunts, uncles and babysitters. This year, she's expecting 40. After eating, the guests will be invited to stroll around the school so the children can see them in their uniforms.

Howard takes the meal so seriously, she said, because she sees it as a way to remember a veteran in her own life -- her mother, an Army staff sergeant during World War II. A Hungarian immigrant who lived in the coalfields of western Pennsylvania, Howard's mother told stories all her life about seeing the world through her service. Howard said she still tears up each year when she tells the breakfast guests about her mother, who died 20 years ago.

Other schools opt for more low-key observances. At Fairfax's West Springfield High School, Principal David G. Smith said there will be no assembly or group observance. Instead, students probably will talk about the day in classes. But Smith said that at this high school, which mourned the death of Army Capt. Mark N. Stubenhofer, a 1992 graduate, last year, students already have a keen understanding of the day.

"They are more aware, both of the day and of the event and what it's all about," Smith said. "They're also more aware of the possibilities and the risks involved for them if they choose to embark on a career or do a few years of service."

At Loudoun Valley, a recent graduate now serving in Iraq will take center stage at tomorrow's assembly, Potts said. Students have organized a drive to collect Beanie Babies and send them to Lt. Mackie Brownell, a 1999 graduate who has recounted in letters how he and fellow soldiers distributed the stuffed animals to Iraqi students. At the assembly, students will display an American flag that was flown in Iraq by Brownell.

As at many area schools, some students at Loudoun Valley staged protests when the United States went to war in Iraq. But Potts said those sentiments don't come up when it comes to observing Veterans Day.

"The students are just looking at a person far away from home, away from their family," she said. "They don't ever question the politics. What's most important is the person."


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