Teaching has its heartfelt and resounding moments, and for me one of them came the morning of Jan. 17 when I was leaving Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Some students of mine -- from my daily 7:40-8:30 a.m. class -- were taking control of their lives. Independent control.
I had just finished meeting with them, a group of 40 juniors and seniors in a course called "Alternatives to Violence." On the eastern edge of the school's front lawn, about 150 students had gathered around the wide stump of an oak tree. Atop it was a young woman giving a speech. When I moved closer, I recognized her as a student from my class. She was speaking, to a rapt audience, about the Persian Gulf War and the need for nonviolent sanctions to be given a chance.
The evening before, as U.S. bomber pilots began leading a campaign of slaughter and destruction against Iraqi soldiers and citizens, George Bush announced that "the world could wait no longer." He was wrong. This part of the world could wait, as small and peripheral as it seemed on the lawn fronting the school. All semester, while reading and discussing essays on pacifism by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Leo Tolstoy and a long list of other practitioners of nonviolence, the Pentagon's preparations for war hovered over the collective consciousness of the class.
Now that the bombing and killing had begun, as more than three-fourths of the class had predicted by a show of hands one morning in October, the time had come for action. I looked among the students at the rally. I knew about 20, all from my class. Some I would have figured to be there, because I had listened to their anti-war views throughout the semester. Others surprised me -- reserved ones who hadn't said much in class one way or the other about the gulf.
The senior girl who had been speaking when I came over was in that group. I listened in amazement. Where did all that passion come from, and this suddenly? And what inner fires had been burning in the next speaker, a senior boy who spoke knowledgeably about draft resistance. Be aware of your rights, he said, and went on to tell about the national groups that provide counseling on conscientious objection.
When the rally dispersed, four students took a large sign -- "Honk for Peace" -- and stood behind it on the highway in front of the school. A clamor of honks began. The group, joined by others, decided to cut classes and go be educated in democracy by visiting the anti-war protest in front of the White House.
They learned there that they weren't alone, that resistance to the gulf war is spreading daily in this country and in Europe. Bush has vowed that "this will not be another Vietnam." Wrong again. It took less than a week for America's streets -- from San Diego to Boston -- to be filled with citizens expressing their opposition and contempt for the same kind of war ethic that dragged the United States into Vietnam.
It is common of late for Vietnam veterans to return to Southeast Asia, in exercises of catharsis and reconciliation, and in many cases to ask forgiveness of the villagers who were bombed and sprayed by American soldiers. In 20 years, it could happen that today's U.S. bomber pilots -- now so cocky as they flash thumbs-up signs for the cameras at takeoff -- will be returning to Iraq seeking reconciliation and peace. The anti-war demonstrators are saying, rightly, let's seek it now.
Up against the might of a war-approving Congress and the domination of the media by the Pentagon's version of events, plus television's one-sided reliance on ex-generals turned "military analysts" -- why no peace analysts on these programs? -- a few high school kids making speeches on a stump and holding peace signs is indeed small. Gandhi, as usual, had a thought: "Nonviolence is the finest quality of the soul, but it is developed by practice. Almost anything you do will seem insignificant but it is important that you do it."
Three days after war began in the gulf, the semester was over and class ended. We tell our children not to fight in the schoolyard, not to hit brothers, sisters or playmates, and to use reason and dialogue to settle conflicts. Seek alternatives to violence. It's a sound message, except all this school year much of the country's adults supported politicians and warriors who pushed the opposite ethic in the Middle East.
Three of my students -- articulate and spunky even at 7:40 a.m. -- were consistently skeptical about nonviolence, but they were willing to push themselves, and the rest of us, to think freshly about old problems. Moving beyond patented or conventional boundaries, and seeing life differently and acting in the riskiness of that new vision, is a breakthrough to be celebrated, not minimized. Wherever the newness leads, the students will go into adulthood as discoverers, not imitators, and least of all followers.