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Coping With Elementary Students' Sgt. Mommy at the Front

January 24, 1991|BY DOUG SMITH

Sooner or later, a child must learn about war. It's an imperative of growing up, even if most adults have no great stomach for breaking the bad news.

But the lesson is coming a lot sooner and more vividly than anyone would have wanted for some children at Glendale's Glenoaks Elementary School.

Among the first- and second-graders in two adjacent bungalows are two sisters, both blonde, adorable and very quiet. Respecting their father's request for anonymity, we'll give them the fictitious names Sally and Laura.

Their mother is a master sergeant in the U. S. Air Force. She shipped out to the Persian Gulf early in the mobilization and has been there since. Her job is supply specialist and involves airplanes. That's about all the school knows about her, which is slightly more than the sisters seem to know, although their reticence makes it hard to tell for sure.

The girls are new to Glendale. They came from Virginia over the summer and enrolled last fall. Their teachers didn't know anything about their personal stake in the developing war until several weeks into the semester.

Laura's teacher, Debbie Parson, said she thinks that she first heard it from a mother in Laura's Brownie troop.

That knowledge put her in a trailblazing spot for a teacher. Seldom before has the living metaphor for war been an elementary student's mommy at the front.

With war clouds building, she was not eager to jump into the task.

"I sort of tiptoed around it until several days ago when we couldn't tiptoe any more," the placid-faced young teacher said.

She was aware that the children were already getting lots of information about the looming conflict, most of it, naturally, from television.

In the skewed way that television teaches, most of them knew about the deadline and knew that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had called President George Bush "Satan," but few knew where Saudi Arabia was.

Explaining to a group of 8-year-olds the global and historical forces behind the largest military action since World War II is not an easy thing.

The school district doesn't have a specific policy on how to treat the war.

A few weeks ago, Donald Empey, deputy superintendent for instruction, briefed principals on the importance of teachers being sensitive to students who might reflect many sides of the complex issue, from those with parents in the armed forces to those who emigrated from Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq.

As for the reasons for the war and whether it is right or wrong, that should be treated like any current event, with discussion of pro and con, Empey suggested.

So Sally and Laura's teachers were on their own.

Next door to Parson, 25-year teaching veteran Joanne LaMonte began with a broadly pacifist viewpoint.

"One tries to be nonpolitical," LaMonte said. "I try to teach them to settle their differences verbally, not to go fighting on the playground. It's very hard when they see the adults fighting."

She had her first-graders write to President Bush a few days before war broke out.

"Dear President Bush:" began a typical example, from a boy named Ernesto. "We don't want a war. Please send Sally's mom home."

Sally's letter, with a smiling face and a crying face as a postscript, said: "Please send my mom home."

When war began, those letters were withheld. Instead, on Friday, the class wrote valentines for Sally's mother.

They cut out pink hearts and wrote messages such as this from Sameer Kulkarni, who comes from India:

"We hope you are safe. Love, Sameer. Happy Valentine."

Sally wrote simply: "I am waiting."

Another batch of valentines will be sent by Parson's second-graders next door. Theirs were noticeably more sophisticated and aware. Some were embellished with drawings of planes in combat, shooting down "bad planes" and Saddam Hussein's boat.

"I hope you win the war," Steve wrote. "Because I think you will win."

"I hope that you be safe in the war," Benjie said. "What kinds of planes do you ride? Were studying endangered animals."

Laura drew a family of four in crayon, with the mother in camouflage fatigues and wrote: "Dear mom, I hope you come back very soon. Dad and Sally are OK, mom. I hope you are safe. Next letter you give to me tell me how you and your war was. . . . I hope you will be safe in the war."

Parson said she has tried to present the concept of war as duty, without becoming a cheerleader. That's a thin line because some of her students told her that their parents oppose the war, while the parents of others support it.

Parson used the analogy of the neighborhood.

"I talked about how we should be proud of the people over there because they're helping a good neighbor," she said. "We've talked about helping and, if things go as President Bush is hopeful, what that will mean to the world."

She talked about how a lot of times the government takes things out of individuals' hands.

"I hope to answer their questions the best I can," she said, conveying equal measures of resolve and futility.

"We don't really understand," she said, with emphasis on "we."

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