Former Charles County teacher Eric Griffin is in Bosnia on a military mission, thousands of miles from his former colleagues and students at Arthur Middleton Elementary School in Waldorf. But he remains in their hearts and minds.
"I wonder, is he safe?" asked fifth-grader Patrice Turner, 10.
Patrice and the rest of the students in the school recently wrote letters and created Valentines to send to Griffin, as well as to a son of a teacher at the school also serving in the military. The effort, known at Middleton as "Operation Valentine," was organized by physical education teacher Debra Haan.
Haan shared bus duty with Griffin last year, and the pair became good friends. He has sent pictures of himself in his Army Reserves uniform, and his e-mails let the school community know that he is safe and taking part in military training missions -- the details of which are, of course, top secret.
Griffin also wrote about how much he missed the students, which touched Haan.
"He was lovely," she said. "I just thought he'd be so surprised, and so I decided as a group, let's do it."
With the war on terrorism and deployments for a possible conflict with Iraq, several school districts have personnel who are awaiting word on their status, or who already have shipped out with their Reserve or National Guard units -- all the while keeping the schools back home up to date on their international moves.
Calvert County has one teacher called up on long-term duty and a head custodian who is on short-term orders, said personnel director Charles Craft.
Loudoun County social studies teacher Doug Dillon, who is serving in the Army Reserves in Afghanistan, has a page with photos on the Harper Park Middle School Web site.
Fairfax County leave of absence records show that seven employees are on military leave, two of them beginning this year. In Howard County, there are several teachers and two administrators who have left and returned, based on their level of involvement in the war effort. Schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said that staff members have tried to give as much advance notice as possible, "allowing me to make the situation as stable as possible, such as finding a long-term sub."
Charles County has two people from the public schools who have been called to serve, a pupil personnel worker and an instructional assistant. At Middleton, students and teachers have been concerned about two members of their extended Middleton "family," Griffin and Troy Barricklow, son of third-grade teacher Jean Barricklow.
Until the current mailing, students in just one grade had been sending notes, presents and letters to Griffin each month. But in the Valentine's Day package sent recently, students throughout the school also sent letters to Barricklow, who is stationed in Spain, and to other military personnel.
"My favorite sport is football . . . do you like the game of football?" Trevor Ducharme, 10, wrote in his letter.
Samantha Chiriaco, 10, wrote that she had black hair, glasses and two brothers. "I like to go to school, math is my favorite subject."
Jerilyn Ross, a psychotherapist and president of the Silver Spring-based nonprofit Anxiety Disorders Association of America, said hands-on activities that allow children to express their feelings can help them cope with the stress of war.
"It makes them feel like they are part of it . . . it will help them also when they hear things on the news," Ross said. "It will bring it down to their world, but it won't be as frightening. They feel like they can do something to help."
Principal Karen Bartholow, who peered over the shoulders of students as they finished their Valentine projects, said students are taught that they have a family at home, and as students in the school, they are part of the Middleton "family."
"Part of that is being united and helping and supporting each other," Bartholow said.
Along with their letters, the fifth-grade students drew flags and wrote words on Popsicle sticks, putting a couple of words on each one to create a poem. Patrice's had a patriotic message: "Thank you for your service and what you've done serving our country and helping keep freedom and democracy for us."
Kevin Ruffin, 10, clearly aware of the dangers that the soldiers might face, ended his poem with a line expressing gratitude: "Thank you for risking your life."