At McLean High School, the debate over war doesn't take a lunch break. In fact, in the open space of the cafeteria, over cups of fruit salad and cartons of chocolate milk, it intensifies.
"I don't think we have the right to decide for Iraq that they have to have a democracy," said Denise Kofteci, 18, a senior and aspiring Hollywood producer.
"When we have troops out, I don't care if you protested before. We need to be backing our troops now," responded classmate Rebecca Pascoe, 18, who rushes home from soccer practice to watch Fox News. As the rest of the lunch group resumed chatter yesterday about cheerleading and a coming soccer game, Pascoe and Kofteci exchanged verbal jabs, occasionally egged on by neighboring tables, until the bell rang.
Then they headed for classes -- Kofteci to journalism, Pascoe to yearbook -- where war would be discussed some more.
For students and teachers in the Washington area, there's been little escape from it. There are the obvious places, such as history and government classes, but discussion and dissection of war has pervaded even art history and math at many schools.
In response, some administrators have instructed teachers to leave their politics outside the classroom or to limit discussion of war to those classes to which it clearly relates. Many teachers have integrated war lessons and daily updates into the curriculum, while others say students on their own have formed connections between the lesson of the day and the latest development in Iraq.
At Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale, Principal Helena Nobles-Jones sat in on a classroom discussion on free trade that the students turned into a forum on war. "Anytime the children had a chance to bring up the war, that's what they did," she said. "You can be talking about 'Romeo and Juliet' and these kids will take us all the way to Iraq. . . . I think it relieves the anxiety for them."
Many administrators have warned teachers to proceed with caution, as classes often include children of military personnel and immigrants from war-torn countries.
"I've asked to try to keep it in social studies classes because not everyone is an expert and I don't want teachers to give their personal opinions on the war," said Gordon Libby, principal of Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro. "Kids need to take a look into a situation, understand the facts and then make their own determination. We're here to help them develop their higher-level thinking skills."
McLean High's social studies supervisor, Helen Stephan, said teachers have not been told what they can and can't say. "Most of us feel free to say what we think as long as both sides are represented," she said. More important, she said, is to seize the so-called teachable moment: unexpected opportunities for learning.
After receiving blank stares from his class of ninth-graders about the rules of war outlined by the Geneva Convention, Rick Ewart, a history teacher at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, changed tactics. Fighting a war in Iraq is like playing pickup basketball, he said. NBA rules don't apply on the street, and the game can get messy fast.
"I'm really trying to urge these kids to stop thinking about this war as a TV war, a video game war," he said.
At Fauquier High School, geopolitics teacher Ron Pfeiffer said students are sharper and less fearful than adults may think.
"A lot of adults feel that there's something wrong if the kids are not showing anxiety. They're not as nervous as adults expect them to be," Pfeiffer said. "They're looking for insight and are asking tough questions."
One of Pfeiffer's students, Duane Kuykendall, 17, of New Baltimore, said all his friends are well versed in the developments of the war because they have grown up with 24-hour news channels and the Internet, their main sources of information. "Everything we read is so immediate," he said. "Plus, I know so many people whose parents are involved with the government. It's unreasonable to be scared."
Several educators in Loudoun County said they were trying to provide a sense of normalcy to students. "We're pretty much going on with our normal curriculum," said Charles J. Haydt, principal of Ashburn's Eagle Ridge Middle School. "We've got a lot of work to do with the missed snow days to get ready" for state exams.
Students, he noted, seemed to take an emergency drill this week especially seriously as they practiced "sheltering in school." Loudoun's plan, similar to those at most schools, would keep students and staff members indoors in the event of a chemical attack in the Washington region.
"I stood right in the middle of the hallway," Haydt said. "Half the school passed me, and I don't think a single kid spoke."
War can be a difficult concept to grasp for students in elementary and middle schools. In February, fourth-graders at Arnold Elementary School in Anne Arundel County cried for hours when their science teacher, Sam Pelham, was called to active duty as a U.S. Marine Corps Reservist.
Pelham, the school's only male teacher, shoveled snow from the school's blacktop so children could get fresh air during recess. He was the one who played soccer with them instead of watching from the sidelines.
Now, students are trying to understand Pelham's other job -- a wartime forward air controller responsible for locating and calling in air strikes.
Pelham has written to the children regularly, even sending a postcard made from the top of a box of ready-to-eat military food.
Yesterday, the 75 fourth-graders used their neatest penmanship to write to Pelham. Among the messages: "You mist out on the big snow storm" . . . "We've had two science tests in less than one week!" . . . "We miss you a lot and hope that you will catch Saddam Hussein."
Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman, Ylan Q. Mui, Ian Shapira and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.