The Role of the Teachers
My high school memories are tinged with joy and sorrow. The Vietnam War was escalating; the school and its student body was a hive of heated hallway arguments.
Was the United States justified in attempting to halt the spread of Communism or had it thrust itself unwisely into the middle of what amounted to civil war? Was all this worth the cost of so many civilian and military lives? With no one to monitor our discussions, opinions flew fast and furious, based, for the most part, on the opinions of parents or the peer group du jour. It was hard to get facts. Even if students did, they had no real frame of reference with which to interpret them. Fear of the draft or of dying in some God-forsaken jungle went pretty much unexpressed. Nightly news shots of dead civilians women and children became part of the American television landscape.
The schools did not help us. Teachers avoided the subject like the proverbial plague, overly cautious, I assume, that any encouragement of discussion might translate into accusations by administrators, parents or community groups into anti-patriotism. I remember feeling frustrated and conflicted in those days. Many of my classmates already had decided to put off college and enlist, while I had a pre-disposition toward peaceful solutions to the conflict. It was a hard time to be an adolescent; so many feelings, so many thoughts that went unshared.
Today the United States once again is at war, a war that could, as President Bush has said, go on for many years. As in the Vietnam era, an entire generation of adolescents must learn to deal with that reality, and it is clear to me that as educators we are bound to help them. I recently talked to several local school children and discovered they all had innumerable unspoken fears about this war about boyfriends being drafted, about the eventual use of nuclear weapons, about bomb scares and heightened security and about their futures in general.
Some admitted that while the war has made them far more cognizant of problems facing people in other parts of the world, they also find that recognition disturbing, feeling powerless to affect it. Despite the pain of the violent images on the nightly news, one might say schools, using these images, have a golden opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past and allow full and open discussions to occur. Through these discussions, we can help students locate themselves in widening the circle of caring that extends beyond self and country to all humanity.
Reinforcing the positive concept of universal compassion, discouraging the division of people into "them and us," certainly falls within our realm of responsibility. To help students deal with the myriad of issues connected to Sept. 11 and the War on Terror, schools, if they choose, can encourage productive dialogue — a free expression of ideas and opinions that precludes any student from being deemed an outcast — a concern expressed by one student who said any expression of disagreement with the war brings a hail of epithets at his school.
This is a country where diverse opinions and ideas should not only be welcomed but expected. Possessing the ignominious distinction of being a member of the previous war generation, I can only insist freedom to discuss these issues is crucial to successful adulthood and to the cohesiveness of the next generation as they age.
The human face of war can be startling if viewed in retrospect, as I discovered several years ago when visiting Vietnam as a teacher. It should not have taken me all those years to connect on a human level with the people of that war-torn nation. For the same reason veterans walk the winding streets of Hanoi in search of closure, peace, a more perfect understanding of their life and times and the cacophony of emotions and pressures that entailed.
My classmates scattered after graduation. Thirty years later we still struggle with our feelings. The violence of the Vietnam era made it difficult to come to terms with one another as adults, fearing the thoughts we hold in silence might find voice. At a recent class reunion I met fellow classmates who had gone to war. Some appeared unscathed; others were obvious products of physical or psychological damage or both. Since then I've discovered a Web site, "Classmates," and have rekindled contact with many former classmates who were not at the reunion. They sometimes send me memorabilia, including clips and photos of the Vietnam War.
When they arrived, I have the same conflicted feelings I had back then. I'd always respected those who, putting off college, went to war and served the country, but my preference for peaceful solutions has remained firm. The sad part is I never had the opportunity to tell any of them why I felt that way. I'm happy sweeter dialogue has developed between all of us. Old political differences now seem irrelevant but are they, really? I hope schools accept their role and provide this new war generation with the opportunity to do what we could not: to sit down in an environment of mutual respect and discuss this war, the state of the world and everything connected to it — no holds barred. In the process, this generation may find the connections we did not, and their reunions will be that much sweeter.