As they finished watching a tape yesterday of President Bush's State of the Union speech, the sophomores in Josey Block's comparative government class at Fairfax County's Mount Vernon High School were asked to make a choice.
"How many hawks?" asked Block. Almost every hand in the room rose -- warily.
"I was kind of in the middle," said Will Brewster, 15, one of the reluctant supporters of going to war. "I am worried about all the things Saddam is doing in Iraq -- but they may implement the draft, and I'm approaching draft age."
What once was a far-off possibility became more real for the 22 students who listened to the speech in Classroom A108, and Brewster captured their trepidation and ambivalence.
During the 90-minute class, the students touched on almost every aspect of the president's message -- chemical warfare, smallpox, nuclear weapons, the prospect of American soldiers dying and Iraqis being killed by Americans -- as Block engaged them in lively debate.
They even covered the tangibles: the color of Bush's tie (blue to persuade, they decided, versus the red power tie he wore for his speech right after Sept. 11, 2001); what seemed to them the absurdity of all the clapping ("They like clapped 77 times -- I was counting," said Haley Parker, 15); the purpose of speech ("To tell the public what the government intends to accomplish." "To inspire people and get their support." "To show the rest of the world what they are thinking.")
Being teenagers, they devoted the first few minutes of class to smart aleck comments. ("I like George Bush Sr. better because he was easier to impersonate," Brewster told one of his classmates.) But after the videotape, their talk turned serious.
"Do you know Fairfax County public schools are designing a smallpox vaccination plan now?" asked Block, whose students were 4 years old during the Persian Gulf War. "Today's war is different from that of even 10 years ago."
Student Tarik Medy, 16, asked what would happen if nuclear weapons were used.
"If you drop a nuclear bomb, it goes WHOOSH," explained Block, gesturing dramatically as all eyes followed her upraised arms. "It is a cloud, and what do you think that cloud is? It is nuclear energy, which kills people and destroys land."
Only one student -- Christian Bentley -- kept his hand down while everybody else declared themselves hawks -- and he, too, was torn. As a Jehovah's Witness, he said, he couldn't support a war -- but he also said he believed that the United States should protect itself.
Although war dominated the discussion, there was brief talk about the economy -- and Emily Witucki, 15, tied the two together: "I think he's going to do it to get us out of a recession," she said.
Block also added moral questions for her students to consider: Should the United States be responsible for removing dictators, however heinous? Should the United States attack without the approval of the United Nations?
At one point, Doug Conlin, 15, turned the tables on her.
"Do you think we should go to war?" he asked
"It's not important what I think," answered Block, 28. "It's important what you think."
Block said she knows that these are disturbing questions for young people to have to consider. And for these Fairfax students, many with family members in the military and all of them living next door to a target of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the threat looms large.
"It's very real to them," she said. "It's not like they are in Missouri or Florida. It is very localized."
She was not surprised by the number of hawks.
"When they hear about a dictator who is so ruthless he used chemical weapons on his own people, when they hear nuclear weapons could be used against the United States, they become very ideological," Block said. "They are for whatever it takes."
But for the sake of argument, she gave them a homework assignment. Half the students were to write down every reason they could think of to be a hawk. The other half were asked to list reasons to be a dove -- and come up with alternatives to war.
Next week in classroom A108, the difficult debate about war will continue.