KILLEEN, TEX. -- In a classroom at Smith Middle School on the grounds of Fort Hood, sixth-grade history teacher Beth Danley chalked the wrong date on the blackboard Monday. She wrote Jan. 12. No! No! shouted her students, who often forget dates, but not this month. They all knew that it was Jan. 14. Each privately and fearfully had been counting down, or up: 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, one more day until the deadline in the Persian Gulf.
By erasing the "12" and writing "14," Danley realized, she had imparted a dramatic sense of inevitability to events, inadvertently raising the already high level of tension in her classroom. Suddenly, her students grew somber, stiff, quiet. Some boys started sobbing. Better to deal with the tension than try to avoid it, Danley decided. "Okay," she said. "Take out a piece of notebook paper and draw exactly what's on your mind."
What did the children of Fort Hood have on their minds on Jan. 14, 1991?A casket draped by an American flag. A funeral cortege. A body bag with dad's name on it.
Among Smith's 800 students, 422 have fathers, mothers or close relatives at the front. A few have lost their only guardian and are staying with baby sitters. Many are struggling bravely to buck up their spirits and to lift their mothers out of despair and depression. Some are unable to sleep. Many have trouble eating. A few cannot stop crying.
"We are dealing with an overwhelming emotional outpouring here," said Rosa Hereford, one of two counselors for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. "I've never seen anything like it. These kids are facing a potential tragedy with a countdown. Their anxiety is building day by day. They say that counselors are not supposed to get emotional, but in a situation like this, I am emotional. We talk. We cry together."
Smith Middle School teachers and counselors brought in a psychologist to discuss intense emotions that girls and boys have experienced. Teachers, all wearing red, white and blue ribbons indicating support for the troops, have led frank debates about the deployment and possible war. A major from Fort Hood presented a slide show on Saudi Arabia. In every classroom is a multicolored Middle East Crisis Map. Counselors have formed students into small support groups to share fears and hopes.
Still, Hereford estimates that at least 15 students visit her office each period seeking counseling. Two boys who had stopped eating and gone days without sleep became so depressed that they were sent to the hospital for treatment. All they could discuss was a fear that their dads would not come home alive.
In the school library after class Monday, six students gathered with Hereford for a discussion. "Do you know what day tomorrow is?" eighth-grader Joselyn Perkins asked Hereford.
"It's Martin Luther King's birthday, and it's Ann Richards's inaugural day as governor of Texas," Hereford replied.
"That's not what I meant," Joselyn said, whose biological father and stepfather, whom she calls dad, and uncle are in the desert.
She had tried to repress her feelings, Joselyn said, but they came flooding out as she watched a recent Bob Hope television special. The sand and troops in fatigues became a reality, she said, and she was nearly as depressed as her mother, who is so upset that she sleeps late and never wants to go to work.
Eric Phipps, an eighth-grader whose father is in military intelligence, said proudly that he was not afraid. Then he revealed his anxiety by looking at his watch and pronouncing that it was now midnight in Saudi Arabia. "I'm not worried," he said. "It's just like one big field exercise over there. That's all. But I worry about my mom. And I'm afraid Bush is going to do something stupid, like invade."
Jedediah Apgar, a sixth-grader, was openly worried. "I'm sad, and I'm mad," he said. When he first visited Hereford Sept. 22 and told her how afraid he was, she told him to go home and talk to his dad. He tried, but the words just would not come out, he told Hereford the next day. Try again, she said. Go call your dad right now.
"I called, and my mom answered, and I said, mom, is dad home? And she said, yeah, why? So he picked up, and I said, hi, dad, this is Jeddy. I'm just calling you from school trying to talk to you, but I can't. And my dad said, what are you feeling? And I said I don't like you to go to Saudi Arabia. And he said he has to."
Jedediah's father left the next day. The boy said he could not stop thinking about what might happen after Jan. 15. "It makes me sad," he said, "because he could die, and we didn't even say good-bye."