MONROVIA — Students at Santa Fe Middle School travel daily into a desert world where the temperature reaches 130 degrees and there are only sandstorms and an occasional camel to relieve boredom.
In this alien place, the students are privy to the innermost fears and hopes of the people who may die in battle if the United States goes to war with Iraq.
The sixth- and seventh-graders aren't in Saudi Arabia, of course. But they have gained a glimpse at life in the desert by becoming pen pals with some of the more than 210,000 soldiers who have been shipped to the Middle East since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.
Social Studies teacher Jennifer Bryant, one of two Santa Fe teachers whose classes are corresponding with soldiers, says the letters offer a timely way to pique student interest in current events, history and geography.
"They love it," said Bryant, who sends the letters in care of her 21-year-old brother Jonathan Edic, a Marine lance corporal who was dispatched to the Persian Gulf shortly after the invasion of Kuwait. "You can see their minds working. They hear things on the news, and they can understand what's going on there and feel a part of it."
Earlier this week, Bryant passed around a sample "MRE"--Meal, Ready to Eat--that the soldiers are now chowing down. It consisted of ground beef with a spice sauce, a brownie, dried fruit and coffee with artificial creamer.
"When they're in the sand, they eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner," said Bryant, brandishing the prepackaged meal to a chorus of gagging noises.
Then students from Bryant's class and that of Gail LaBau, whose students are also pen pals, began sharing their letters with rapt classmates.
Twelve-year-old Ricci Rivera's letter came from Cpl. Jaem Jones, 20, who was born in Arcadia and moved to Oregon with his family when Jones was 8.
At first, the corporal described the bleakness of desert life and ruminated on the flora and occasional fauna, as well as the variety of large insects: "At night, when we stay out in the desert, there are these huge beetles running all over the place. They are about half the size of your palm. When you are trying to sleep, they run across your face."
Then the three-page, neatly handwritten letter took a more serious turn.
"We are sitting over here feeling like targets, waiting for something to happen. I hope nothing happens except Saddam Hussein moves out of Kuwait. We haven't been shooting at people, or any of that stuff. War is not pleasant. War kills people, and I don't like killing people. But if it comes down to war, which I hope it never does, I will have to kill whether I want to or not."
Bryant, who began teaching this year after receiving her credential from UCLA, says her students have started tuning in the nightly TV news and pooling information about the latest twists in the Gulf crisis.
They have learned to distinguish among the countries and customs of Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. They know that Islam is the primary religion of the Gulf, and that it encompasses a religious and cultural way of life that forbids women drivers, the eating of pork and bared legs, among other things.
If the United States does go to war, the Santa Fe students could also learn a tragic story about loss.
"This is causing them to think; if war does break out, they could lose their new friends," Bryant said. "We're going to have to deal with that as a class and it will be difficult on the kids."
Some of the letters wistfully describe the friends and families left behind and the career paths that brought the soldiers to the Middle East. A few have used the letters to debunk stereotypes about war and battle.
"I don't carry a machine gun or one of those big 'Rambo' knives," Keith (Doc) Jackson, a Marine paramedic, wrote to 11-year-old Carlos Colon. "Instead of trying to hurt and kill others, I use the skills I've learned to save lives."
The students, who are preparing care packages of cookies, magazines, pencils, sharpeners and photos for their pen pals, say they have new respect for the soldiers and a deeper understanding of that part of the world.
"The Army is a pretty tough job; you have to take a real risk in life to be part of it," Carlos said. But despite the dangers, the sixth-grader said the letters haven't derailed his plans to go into the Air Force. "I want to take a big risk in my life too," he said.
Bryant says she launched the Middle East project by asking students to find and summarize a newspaper story about the arms buildup in the Middle East. Then she assigned the letter writing and suggested the students ask their pen pals about life in the Gulf. Bryant, who made the writing project voluntary, said only two of her students chose not to participate, and they changed their minds once the first letters began arriving from overseas.
Mail takes about five days to reach the Gulf, but the class has found it takes up to 20 days for the Gulf letters to reach Monrovia.
Despite the time lag, Bryant says her class will continue corresponding with the soldiers until they return home. Some of them have promised to visit Santa Fe Middle School.
"It serves as a real motivator," Bryant said of how the school project has helped her students learn. "It relates to their lives, and they have friends there now. We've even learned the Marines' motto, 'Semper Fi.' When they come visit us, the kids will know that when a Marine says Semper Fi, they have to respond, 'Ooh-ray.' "