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From Draft NOtices, April - June 2006

The F-18 as a Theme Park Ride

A teacher’s response to the military in her school.

— Susan Massey

At the end of the last semester, the principal of the small rural high school where I teach Spanish and ELD announced that there would be a change in the exam schedule. (ELD — English Language Development — is what used to be English as a Second Language.) The semester usually ends by giving exams on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We go back the following Monday to start the new semester. However, this year the principal had run into someone from the Navy SEALs who had offered to help us celebrate the end of the semester by bringing a flight simulator to our campus. The only day they could come was on Thursday. Easy solution. Finals were to be moved up to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and on Thursday the day would revolve around getting all the students onto the simulator, 20 at a time. Friday — well, Friday was just up in the air.

I was horrified. Our school has mostly low-income students and we are constantly visited by military recruiters. Last year we had a special program by the Blue Angels, who have their winter home 15 miles down the freeway from us. The idea that our school was welcoming recruiters so that they could bring in a fighter plane and teach our students that going to war was like going to Disneyland was outrageous. I railed on this topic to my colleagues, but only one shared my feelings. The principal was so excited about the arrangements she had made that I decided objecting would be futile.

Rearranging the exam schedule was annoying in itself. It’s no fun to try to begin a new unit when kids are still wound up about the finals that they took the day before. In the usual schedule, we count on the weekend for them to calm down. And just how to put Thursday and Friday to good use was a problem. Then it occurred to me that opportunity was knocking. I specifically asked the principal in our faculty meeting how we were to use those two days. She told me, “Do whatever you want!” I couldn’t have asked for a better answer. At least in my class we would use the free time to talk about the war in Iraq.

I must explain that I am a very cautious person. While the idea of getting fired for exercising free speech and becoming a cause célèbre is rather attractive, I don’t want to get fired for being stupid. The contract for our school district guarantees teachers the right to discuss controversial matters in the class as long as they make sure that opposing points of view are heard. I truly believe that is the appropriate role of the teacher, and when I venture into controversial areas, I always follow those guidelines. To present only your own point of view and try to pretend that another side doesn’t exist will convince no one for very long.

I had a couple of weeks’ lead-time to get some materials together. I found out that in spite of the rearranged schedule, my students would be in class both days. So on Thursday, I told the students that we had an unusual situation in having a couple of days between the end of one semester and the start of a new one and that since we had the presence of the military on campus, we would depart from our usual curriculum and talk about the role of the soldiers and the war that some of them were fighting. I pointed out that we were following ESLR #3, which states that students will develop critical thinking by engaging in debate. (ESLR stands for Expected School-wide Learning Results — all high schools must have them and we are supposed to live and die by them. You can get away with just about anything if it meets an ESLR.) Then I gave them some short readings. First we read three letters from soldiers in Iraq who supported the war. Some were actually quite eloquent in expressing their belief in their mission. Then we read Camilo Mejia’s beautifully written essay, “Regaining My Humanity,” in which he explains why he decided to go to prison rather than return to his unit in Iraq. I thought it was pretty strong stuff for my students, some of whom had probably not been exposed to anything negative about the role of the United States in the war. In the first paragraph Mejia talks about seeing children and other innocent people slaughtered and talks about the pain of the soldiers who had to participate. Then he talks about the fact that there were no WMDs. He asks forgiveness of the Iraqi people for the killings and destruction.

When we finished the letters I asked the students how there could be such a difference of opinion among people who had fought in the same war. They answered that the soldiers had been in different places and seen different things. One student realized that the way they had been brought up probably shaped the way they interpreted events. I expected that at this point the students would be ready to get into a heated argument concerning the justification of the war and had warned them that they had to be respectful of each other’s opinions. I am sad to report that no such argument ensued. Students seemed surprisingly indifferent.

The next day emotions were aroused a bit more when we showed the documentary Arlington West. Another teacher brought her class and the room was packed. This DVD shows the beaches where the Veterans for Peace have put up crosses to represent a cemetery, and people who have come to see the installation are interviewed. Most of these people are friends or relatives of the fallen soldiers or are fellow soldiers still on active duty. The people interviewed were against the war about four-to-one, so I cannot claim that it gave equal time to both points of view. However, in the name of critical thinking, I pointed out that the film was put together by a peace group and the students needed to consider who would attend their events and which interviews the group would choose to put in the film. The students reacted somewhat more emotionally to seeing the crosses and hearing from family and friends of the deceased. You could sense a current running through the class when they showed a scene with the exact setup the Navy had brought to our school the day before and a teenager talked about how the recruiters come to her school and aren’t honest about the reality of going to war. The movie also talked about the ASVAB test, which is a tool for military recruitment and was going to be given at our school the following week. We let the film run for about 30 minutes and then asked the students what they heard that they agreed or disagreed with.

I am sure that these students had never been presented with any such anti-war information in our school system and I again expected some kind of discussion. We have some students from very conservative families and I thought some would be angry. The reaction was low-key, but many were visibly moved by what they saw. The written reactions went both ways. Here are excerpts from what two students against the war wrote:

If the government wants oil, they can go get it themselves. They are safe behind desks with their families while the soldiers spend cold nights and hot days with fear and trembling.

No one should be there. There is no need for there to be intervention in Iraq. I support the soldiers. Their lives are valuable. I disagree with what they are doing.

For the next couple of days I waited to be called into the office to hear about complaints from parents who didn’t like exposing their kids to unpatriotic material. That never happened. Was it because the kids realized that we had attempted to give both sides an opportunity to be heard, or was it that the kids didn’t talk to their parents about their last two days in my class? I’ll never know. I do know that we teachers are among the most cautious people on this earth, and out of fear of retribution, we often cheat the students by failing to turn their attention to the burning issues of our day.

When the ASVAB was given the following week, three students who had been in our classes that day refused to sign to release the test to the military. That’s a plus.

Reflecting on the experience, my colleague and I felt good about the way we had used this time. We would have been happier if we had seen the birth of an anti-war movement on our campus or, better yet, a club to promote political awareness, but that just didn’t happen. I would like to find ways to encourage teachers to integrate life and death issues into the curriculum in a manner that encourages questioning.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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