When sixth-graders talk about war, they talk about death.
Can a missile hit my house? Why is the president allowed to send people off to get killed? Could a terrorist bomb the Pentagon? Will my brother be drafted and get hurt?
At Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, there have been many weeks of such discussions. What fills adults' nightmares comes to children when they are awake -- wild thoughts untempered by practicality or cynicism -- and they ask the essential questions adults do not let themselves voice.
A good number of Jefferson's students live at Fort Myer or have parents who work for the Pentagon; some have relatives stationed in the Persian Gulf. But these are not the children of the front line. Few of them have seen their parents shipped out. They are, like most of the country, watching the war from the middle distance.
During the past few months, social studies teachers at Jefferson have led discussions, children have drawn political cartoons and classes have written letters to soldiers. Since war began, CNN has played in classroom after classroom, and Tuesday the student government encouraged everyone to wear yellow armbands or ribbons in support of the troops. Yet like the rest of us, the sixth-graders in Eleanor Dasenbrook's class have realized that life goes on. Despite some enterprising suggestions by students that school should be dismissed for the duration -- or that at the very least homework should be abolished -- the slow assault on long division continues.
Their talk of war is often less about the conflict in the Middle East than about being on the cusp of adolescence. Their imaginations are heightened: The universe is a dramatic place for 12-year-olds, and they are drawn to death and destruction even without help from the outside world. Their skepticism toward authority is growing: Questioning the president's right to send others to fight is not that far from questioning your parents' right to force you to clean up your room.
But in a series of visits to Dasenbrook's class and others at Jefferson before and since the gulf war began, children's emotions echoed those of adults. They make up jokes ("I call him Saddam Insane," says one girl) and quote the latest news reports. Before the fighting, they talked about wishing sanctions would be allowed to resolve the standoff, but once war started they turned to talk of winning. And like many adults, they have become suddenly sophisticated about military armaments and foreign policy strategy.
Still, for all their talk of sanctions and "superior air power," the children of Jefferson Middle School seem to feel an essential, human confusion.
"I just think it's dumb," says Donald Jackson. "I just think they should end it right away."
"I don't like it because my uncle is going over there and I don't want him to die," Robert Stroman says after the war is a week old. "Why do we have to go through this?"
"What does deployment mean?" Dasenbrook is asking her class of two dozen children. She is tall, elegantly dressed and precise in all things, from clothes to discipline to comments. "Why don't you sit up and I'll be happy to call on you," she tells one boy in that crystalline, let's-not-waste-any-time voice that must be a requirement for teacher certification.
It is Jan. 16 and the U.N. deadline has just passed. At Fort Myer, security police and sniffing dogs have become unavoidable. Here in the classroom, the children are confused by all the news around them and struggling to understand what is happening.
"I saw on the news that at some company in Philadelphia employees are working overtime to make uniforms and body bags," one girl says.
"I heard the Israeli students are out of school today and they'll be distributing gas masks," says another girl.
"Near my apartment building people found a box and they evacuated everyone," says one boy.
Everyone is worried about safety, including Alison Greenwald, who fears the garage of her apartment building is not secure enough. Alison attends synagogue and Hebrew school and frequently compares Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler. Like many of her classmates, she is startlingly well informed and speaks with such utter confidence of opinion she seems ready for a pre-adolescent "Nightline."
But there is something else behind her knowledge, a sense that a large and new and galvanizing experience may be about to begin -- the uneasy exhilaration of life's extremes.
"A lot of the teachers at my Hebrew school are Israeli and they talk about what it was like in '67," she says. "I heard that when they were kids they thought it was kind of exciting. I think if there was a war here I'd be scared but excited -- just the fact that something strange and different was happening."
Although the country has been bound together by a continuous television beam of images and sounds, there are many different wars. For Alison, the war is about Israel. For Albert Marrero, it is about God's plan for the world.
"My mom is a Christian and she reads the Bible and it says there that there would be a war between Israel and everyone else," he says as he watercolors an ancient Egyptian design. "She says it's all coming to pass. I believe it because whenever I read the Bible, all of it just seems to come to pass. When I read in Revelations, it gives me a little bit of anxiety and sort of chills me a little, but also I'm a bit eager for God to come."
Albert's friend David Robinson is listening and they begin to talk about what they think God looks like. David once dreamed he saw God -- "Have you ever seen that Ben-Hur movie? He sort of looked like that guy Ben-Hur but with a long beard" -- but until now he had not considered God's role in the war. "I don't understand what's wrong with Saddam Hussein," David says. "He should just move out of Kuwait. But what Albert's saying right now is sort of making me understand."
Letters to the Troops
"I suppose it is very exciting to be in a desert. I suppose it would be like being at a beach without water."
"If you're asking me, I think President Bush is making a terrible mistake and I'd like you to sleep with one eye open."
"It seems very strange to me that our country can go to war."
"School is school and sometimes boring."
"My father works at Fort Myer and he says he's going to bury the guys who are killed."
Jefferson principal Sharon Steindam is pleased. The student-written announcement read over the loudspeakers the morning after the war began was "very tasteful, nice," she says. "They didn't say anything about prayers, which I thought was good. They said we should just take some time to think."
Steindam is a warm woman whose hair floats in a curly haze around her face. She smiles and grimaces simultaneously when she says a mother called to ask if school would be closed early due to the possible threat of terrorism. That question was quickly dismissed, but later at a faculty meeting she told her teachers the same things other principals around the country were telling theirs. Protect vulnerable students, those who might have relatives stationed in the Middle East. Keep eyes open for strange packages. Do not let personal feelings about the war shape classroom discussions. Do not let discussion of war overwhelm the sacred lesson plan.
But how much should teachers legitimately be expected to do? Do parents ask too much? At a recent PTA meeting, parents asked Steindam how Jefferson would counsel children in time of war. "Oh my gosh!" Steindam says. "Besides everything else, we have to try to counsel the kids about the war!"
This is Michelle Maynes's first year as a teacher, and the question of her responsibility toward her seventh-graders clearly troubles her. "I was watching the television when the war started, and I wished I could just call up all my students, because I knew what they must be going through," she says. Later in her classroom she patiently leads her students through an "emergency procedure" form that will let teachers know which kids have relatives in the combat zone and who should be contacted if parents cannot be reached in case of emergency.
"What kind of emergency?" a student asks.
"If there's a bomb!" a boy shouts out with the excitement of actually saying what everyone is thinking.
"I'm not going to lie to you and I'm not going to scare you," Maynes tells her class. "But we are at war right now and we have to be prepared."
After class is dismissed, Maynes says: "The kids want promises, and I can't give that to them. I give them a little bit of hope -- that the war will stay in the Middle East, that they should be safe. I tell them if anything happens we'll know what to do. In reality, will I know what to do? I don't know."
Making Sense of It
April Jones, sixth-grader, whose brother is stationed in Saudi Arabia: "My father was in the Vietnam War. If my dad had died there, I might not have been born."
Nishant Chadha, sixth-grader: "My father told me, 'Don't touch anything on the street and don't tell your number or address to anyone.' My mom was talking about all that stuff -- terrorism. I said, 'I'm scared.' I told my mom again and again to be quiet about it."
Kari Footland, eighth-grader: "My dad supported the war in Vietnam and he supports this and I did at first because you know you're influenced by your parents. But last night I heard ambulances and I thought, 'He might have nuclear weapons and he could bomb us and we could all be dead.' "
Ria Riesner, eighth-grader: "I don't know what a war looks like. I think of myself hiding in a bomb shelter in my back yard. I've never even seen a bomb shelter. I have no idea what war is like."
Eleanor Dasenbrook's class is studying the Crusades. Those were other peoples' wars. When Dasenbrook began her career as a teacher, America was still fighting in Vietnam. That, she tells her class, was the war of her youth. "This," she says, "may be the war you remember."
Her students are so young that even the recent past seems like a vastly distant epoch. "That Panama war with that guy," is how David Robinson names a conflict barely a year old. "Did he give up?"
History used to be something they read about, but now history is something they are living, and it has begun to hurl their thoughts toward the future.
"Is this going to go down in history, be in the books?" David asks.
April Jones, sixth-grader: "I had a dream I went over there and Iraqis were shooting and my brother was shooting and there was another guy shooting at my brother and I started to shoot him. It was good because I protected my brother, but it was bad because he was being shot at."
Patrick Hildt, eighth-grader: "I was just walking down the street and then suddenly I was walking on sand. I was talking and suddenly they got a phone call and they said the war wasn't going to happen and they were cheering and one guy was crying."
Tamika White, eighth-grader: "I was just dreaming and it just switched into a war story. It was the middle of the war and I just popped up there trying to stop it. Then I made myself wake up because it was scaring me."
The Voice of Youth
Among the articles of faith of modern education is that children should be encouraged to talk about their feelings. "Your opinions and thoughts are very important and you should be expressing them," Dasenbrook tells her class. "People really do care."
Among the articles of faith of modern childhood is that adults usually don't mean it when they encourage you to talk about your feelings. Especially parents.
"Adults say, 'You're just a kid,' but if it comes out that what you said is true they don't listen," says April Jones.
"They just blank out," says Theresa Richardson.
"Kids know all these things and adults don't remember that," says April. "They tell you things you already know -- like about boys."
There are few courts in the world as harsh as a lunch table of 12-year-old girls, and when the conversation turns from one source of frustration (parents) to another (boys and related hypocrites) their voices crackle with disdain. There are, they say, kids who encourage teachers to lead discussions of the war solely to avoid doing the more mundane work of sixth grade.
"Some people get oversensitive and try to pretend they're sad or scared about the war, but they're not," says Alison Greenwald. "They like to act all big and hot-shotty, like 'I care about those people.' "
False sensitivity offends the girls, but so does callousness. "I think it's insecurity," says Alison. "One guy said he hoped they wouldn't cancel 'The Cosby Show.' I said, 'Who cares about "The Cosby Show"?' "
May Nakornjarupong groans. "They're so ..." she says, and searches for the apt condemnation.
"Immature," offers Alison.
The assembled judges nod in agreement.
It grinds on. "I feel like we're settling in," principal Sharon Steindam says after more than a week of fighting. "There's not the same sense of urgency."
For the children also the urgency is gone, replaced by a feeling somewhere between pain and boredom. Some of the images -- especially of the American soldiers being held by the Iraqis -- seem to act like a corrosive on their curiosity, wearing it down, making them wish they could stop looking. "I want to know who wins," says David Robinson. "I don't really want to know who gets captured -- I want to know if Saddam loses out."
Some kids are having nightmares, he says, and he knows adults worry about them. "It could hurt them as a child -- when they grow up. Some of the kids whose parents get captured or killed, it could hurt them."
But the violence in a desert far away is not utterly foreign to these children, who know of other pain closer to home.
"All this stuff is going on in D.C. and the rest of the world," says Donald Jackson.
"We see it every day," says Becky Drake. "On the news it's death, death, death!"
"Boys are always dying," says Donald.
"Suicide and everything," says Becky.
The death that strikes Jefferson Middle School in late January has nothing to do with battle: A seventh-grade boy is killed in a fire at his family's home.
A memorial service for Todd Trageser was scheduled, and as it approached, Steindam wondered if the event would rekindle some of the fears that flared when war started. Questions at an assembly for the boy's classmates also reminded her of the vulnerability of her students.
"With youngsters this age, you can talk about their rebelliousness, about their lip, rebelling against their parents," Steindam says, "but the question they kept asking was how could his parents get his brother out but they couldn't get him out?"
With this war, what many children are learning is that parents -- and by extension all adults -- can only do so much.
"My father says if he has to go and he doesn't come back, he wants me to remember all the things he did," sixth-grader Shawnon Lott says with somber equanimity.
Michelle Maynes worries about what her seventh-graders are hearing these days, yet with some hesitation she says, "In general, I think it makes them stronger people. They learn this is reality and it can happen."
But for a 12-year-old, reality sometimes stretches farther ahead than the imagination can encompass.
"It might be World War III because Saddam Hussein isn't giving up," says Nishant Chadha. "It might go on for months -- probably years."
"At least they can't nuke us," says Julia Connell. "They're too far away." But, she thinks, the war "will never end. Those people hold grudges for a long time." It is her uncle who has told her this, she says, about the grudges, and it has left her wondering about her future.
"How am I going to grow up?" she says.
"How are our children going to be?" says Becky Drake.
The questions are immense and resonate as they are asked, but the girls seem to expect no answers and already they are moving away. Lunch period is almost over and they do not want to be late for their next class.