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Lessons in the Shared Scars of War

Ameer Abdalameer, left, laughs at Wakefield High School ESOL teacher Felix Herrera's attempts to write in Arabic.
Ameer Abdalameer, left, laughs at Wakefield High School ESOL teacher Felix Herrera's attempts to write in Arabic. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

One day last fall, Felix Herrera was teaching science at Wakefield High School when a helicopter rumbled overhead. The Army reservist's war instincts kicked in: His adrenaline surged, and his eyes shot to the window.

Nothing out there. Most students had not even noticed the chopper. But one had. Herrera exchanged glances with the 14-year-old from Baghdad.

"That's how my country sounds, Mister," Ameer Abdalameer said.

"I know," the teacher said.

Herrera has served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. His English for Speakers of Other Languages class, which a reporter observed over several months, has many teenagers who have arrived in Arlington County from homelands torn by civil strife or war.

In the class, they learn not only English, science and math but also deeper lessons about how to forge an identity and a future in an uncertain world. Ameer came to the United States after war blasted his life apart, and he found an unlikely mentor: a teacher who shared his story in more ways than one.

Herrera, 35, who started working at Wakefield last fall, does not hide his military service. The staff sergeant keeps his hair shorn to a tight fuzz. His classroom wall displays pictures of soldiers in camouflage, including himself, some holding semiautomatics.

His military background fascinates many students. But some seem troubled, too.

"Some of them make fun of me," he says. "Others want to know how come I made it back." Most common is: "Did you kill anybody?"

And sometimes: "Was it you who bombed my neighborhood?"

* * *

In November, a rumor flies that the new teacher -- "Mister," they call him -- killed civilians during a tour in Iraq. Several students burst into his room. Did he do it? Why?

CONTINUED     1                 >

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