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Coping with the Iraq War on the Homefront

March 27, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TEACHER: Let me start with this short clip from CNN, and then talk about what you’ve seen since Thursday and how things have changed.

CORRESPONDENT: From the air, more Cruise missiles, 40 already launched.

LEE HOCHBERG: As the first all- out war this generation has seen plays out on TV, schools in Sacramento tried to find a balance between educating students about it and comforting them.

SPOKESMAN: Another sign that the battle plan is unfolding here. On the horizon in that direction about two miles, I can see tanker trucks moving up.

LEE HOCHBERG: At the city’s McClatchy High, seniors devoted their honors government class one day this week to the war. Teacher Ellen Wong started the discussion with an educational angle, asking students to look closely at the images being broadcast from embedded reporters.

ELLEN WONG: You know, the fact that they’re with them seems… yeah, seems scripted, seems like a production. And are you thinking about that when you’re watching it?

DENNIS GENEST: I think it has to be scripted. You can’t just have reporters and news channels choosing to go wherever they want.

SARAH BULLOCK: And you have the military tell the reporters the only place they can go, or where they can go? That means you only get the side of the story that the military wants to tell you.

LEE HOCHBERG: As the discussion progressed, Wong tried to determine how disturbed her students were by what they were seeing.

ELLEN WONG: Do you think that you’ll begin to feel the weight of the war as it goes on longer? Will you begin to feel a little more depressed about it, I mean…


ELLEN WONG: I was moved emotionally by the P.O.W. this morning, because she looked terrified to me, and that really rattled me. I was just so uncomfortable. I thought, “they’re going to kill that girl.”

TU TRAN HUYNH: I want to feel some kind of strong emotion about this war. It seems mean, but I want to see what their reaction is, the families who have people that got shot at, the family… I mean…

ELLEN WONG: Because you think that people will react the way they should react to war?

TU TRAN HUYNH: Yeah, because it’s right there. You cannot turn your back on someone bawling at – because their loved one died.

NICOLAUS MEAGHER: I haven’t seen any actual buildings blowing up or people getting hurt, so it feels – I can’t really feel an emotional thing from it because it does feel like a videogame to me.

LEE HOCHBERG: At an elementary school in the quiet Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, James Sutter teacher worked a bit more cautiously with his younger sixth grade students. They asked him about some words they’ve been hearing.

JAMES SUTTER: Michael, what’s your question?

STUDENT: What are P.O.W.’s?

JAMES SUTTER: Prisoners of war. That’s what P.O.W. stands for. In a conflict situation, obviously there will be some soldiers that are taken by the other side who have not died; the other side takes control of them. Do you know what the Geneva Convention is?

EMILY JOHNSON, Student: Well, wasn’t that that treaty when they signed that they couldn’t, like, exploit people, or, like, killings and stuff on the TV. I don’t know.

LEEH HOCHBERG: The school had asked parents to talk to their children about war so teachers wouldn’t be the first to broach the subject. The administration also discouraged the use of television images in grades one through eight, but Sutter found even newspaper images upset some students.

JAMES SUTTER: A real disturbing picture. How many people saw this picture? How many people felt a little empty in their stomachs after seeing this picture? I saw that and I was pretty yucky in my stomach. You’re not alone in feeling a little bit wild about this situation. You know, when you’re looking at the pictures, you’re thinking, “gosh, what is that?” “How does that make me feel?” “Why do I feel a little bit,” you know, like I said, a little bit yucky in your stomach? If they’re bombarded with a lot of images that can be disturbing, some of them have the opportunity to speak at home about it, some don’t. And to come into a neutral atmosphere where it’s okay to say their mind I think is really healthy for them.

LEE HOCHBERG: Some psychologists say the graphic images of war should be left out of middle school entirely. Sacramento State University’s Steve Brock trains school psychologists.

STEVE BROCK: The images of those soldiers that were allegedly executed, you wouldn’t bring that in. Images of soldiers that are wounded and in pain, I wouldn’t bring that in.

JAMES SUTTER: We have a really good list of names that you can use to be able to write to today…

LEE HOCHBERG: Psychologists say middle-schoolers might feel more control over these times by writing letters to the troops, as Sutter’s sixth grade class did, or writing letters to the troops, as Sutter’s sixth grade class did, or writing the president or Congress with their views. The younger the kids, the less the war entered the classroom. In a second grade class at Elk Grove, teacher Heather Oakes tried to keep things as normal as possible, but she did feel the need to assure her students they were safe. She showed them how far the war zone is from their school.

HEATHER OAKES: It’s all the way over here. And we are all the way over here, a long ways away from Elk Grove, right?

LEE HOCHBERG: Oakes says while she hasn’t introduced the subject of war, she’s listening to her students’ worries– if they introduce them.

HEATHER OAKES: About nine students came up to me the morning after the conflict; a couple of them said, “I don’t want to be at war.” I just made sure they felt safe.

LEE HOCHBERG: And more than ever, as psychologists advise, she’s giving lots of hugs.