The map of the Middle East appeared on the overhead projector and the hands shot up. Could the Iraqi government release chemical weapons in Washington? Would college students be exempt from a military draft? And what can a 14-year-old do to keep the world from going to war?
The 31 ninth-graders in Howard Banks's social studies class at Central High School in Prince George's County were supposed to be preparing for their Maryland citizenship test yesterday. But on a day that many feared might be the last their nation was at peace, the instructor saw no harm in changing the agenda.
"By the end of this week, I expect nearly every kid in that class to know someone who is over there in Saudi Arabia," said Banks, one of many area teachers who discussed the Iraqi conflict in their classes yesterday. "Seldom do we as teachers have the chance to teach our students about something that is both so historically significant and personally relevent."
Banks had offered to excuse any student who has a friend or relative stationed in the Persian Gulf and found discussing the issue too upsetting. But while several teenagers sat chewing their nails as the teacher pointed to the spot on the Saudi-Iraqi border where U.S. troops are positioned, none took him up on his offer.
As it turned out, the Middle East crisis was relevant to a discussion of citizenship. The majority of students in the class said they were opposed to the use of U.S. military force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait. They wanted to know why Congress voted to back the use of force and what they could do about it.
"We as Americans have the right to petition our government, which comes under what amendment?" Banks said.
"First Amendment," his students answered.
"Do you think there are petitions going around now to convince our representatives to stop a war?"
"Yes," a few more students said.
Banks told his class about a town meeting on the gulf crisis held by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) Monday. "Most of the people said no, they didn't want a war. How do you think Hoyer voted? He voted no," Banks said.
But Charles Dunn, of Suitland, knows representative government does not always work that way. He wanted to know about members of Congress who "voted their heart, as opposed to what their constituents wanted, and backed the president."
Banks told him that the only avenue for frustrated voters is to turn their representatives out of office on the next election day.
Ellen Zilch, of Andrews Air Force Base, was not satisfied. "Why don't they have voters vote to declare war? I don't know if they will vote against it or not, but that seems more fair," she said.
Many of the students said they planned to stay awake past midnight to watch their future unfold on television. Another student, Courtney Chambers, summed up their feelings about the nature of international relations and the role that average citizens play in it:
"I don't understand why Bush is endangering all our lives. It's their fight. It's between two leaders. They are going to be the chumps and argue about it. We are going to be the heroes and do the fighting."