01 June, 2006

Just Had to Share...

I just finished the last day of music with one of my classes of 1st graders. They didn't understand why I would be leaving, and wanted to know where I would live and what job I would be doing after I left town. I told them there was a really great job I hoped I could get in DC. They asked what that job was and I struggled to tell them in "first-grader terms." I said it was a job that would help families who had soldiers in them.

That got some strange comments. One boy said, "But there's no such thing as soldiers, really... right?" I replied, "There are many soldiers in the world. Some of them are Americans and they are fighting right now. And so their families need help while they are far way." Several voices piped up to explain. One child said, "They fight for our freedom." In response another asked with surprise in his voice, "They fight for us?" Trying to be honest but apolitical, I said, "Yes. It is their job. Americans pay them to fight if we need them to."

Recognizing his peers' struggles to understand, one child piped up with his definition of soldier: "Soldiers fight in wars and they all die."

My heartrate went up a little as I realized what difficult ground we were treading. I told them that yes, sometimes soldiers die when they are fighting wars, "But not as many as used to. Most of them come home safe without even being hurt."

I could see the children visibly relax. That led to a flurry of raised hands as they shared experiences of relatives in the military, including those who had been wounded or died in wars past and present--ranging back to great-grandfathers in WWII. I empathized where I could--agreeing that a death was sad, cheering that someone's life was saved despite injury, or celebrating safe returns with several children whose uncles had recently been in Iraq.

It was a somewhat magical moment as I gained my footing and felt that we were handling the topic appropriately for the situation and age group. Halfway through the seven or eight minutes of discussion, I was hit with a wave of recognition: that this was a truly non-partisan conversation about war. At a child's level, we had agreed to the following points:

1. Part of a soldier's job is to fight wars.
2. Sometimes soldiers die in wars, and that is very sad.
3. Soldier stories are personal--stories of life, death, and those who love them.
4. (following on #3) It's about the people much more than the policies.

The children didn't need to have a debate to frame their understanding of and reactions to the idea of a soldier. They saw soldiers first and foremost as human beings who were connected to their fellow classmates. No one condemned fellow classmates for supporting the soldiers they knew, and no one said nasty things about the soldiers mentioned. It was just a simple acknowledgement of life as it is at this time--that there is a war going on right now, and it has personal connections to people we know, and the humanity of those connections transcends divisions created by our individual experiences or intellectual understanding.

I know that there is no real separation between war and policy, as one is the violent manifestation of the other, but I've often wished all our adult discussions of war could be as rational and compassionate as the one my dear little first graders conducted today.