Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Students adopt a soldier

After a while, it must be like white noise. Especially if this is your first war.

Talking heads argue. The newspaper writes of orange alerts and sandy places you never expect to visit. An evil axis. Bombs. Chemical warfare.

And, of course, it's in the classroom.

A conflict in Iraq? Will this be on the test? Troops sent to the Middle East? That's soldiers, right?

But members of a class at Sycamore Junior High School are worried about one soldier, their soldier.

It started with a good book (Isn't that the way of most important lessons?) and a couple of teachers who were stubborn about finding a way to connect their seventh-graders to world events.

The book was Goodnight, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian, which is about a London boy during World War II.

"The kids loved the book," says Dana Darbyshire, who teaches seventh-grade language arts and geography. "So we started thinking of ways of bringing that lesson to what's happening now."

The "we" is Kathy Nagel, her teaching partner. They found a Web site - www.adoptaplatoon.org - that linked them up with 24 Air Force soldiers serving in the Middle East.

"Dear hero," began one letter last Thanksgiving. It was the first contact from the kids. They followed that up with a care package - filled with books, magazines, lip balm, PowerBars and beef jerky to each of the 24, not expecting an answer.

The mother of one of the soldiers e-mailed her thanks. Pat Poth told them about her son, Jerry. When he was in the seventh grade in Mansfield, he joined the wrestling team. Later, he won a football scholarship, "a full, four-year ride."

"But he lost it when he was injured on a job the summer before he started school. So he decided the only way to get his education was to join the service," she wrote.

Jerry, now 24, was on a training exercise in Alaska on 9-11. He left a message on Pat's answering machine:

"Mom, I love you. And don't worry about me. I'll be OK. I don't know when I'll be back." Now, all she knows is that he's living in "some desert."

And a couple of weeks ago, a letter arrived at Sycamore from Jerry. "I belong to a special operations group. We go behind enemy lines and blow things us that would cause a threat to U.S. troops."

The envelope contained a picture of a Humvee, his tent, his dogs and his own handsome blond self. "Quite a few of you asked me about war," he wrote. "The only thing I can say is that war is never good. The hardest part about war is that good people get hurt."

Aly Mazzei, 13, says she admires the idea that "they would fight for people they don't know."

Me too, Aly.

And I admire your teachers for taking you beyond your textbooks, for giving you a connection to a larger world and an unforgettable lesson. They found a teachable moment in a desert across the world.

In short, they did what good teachers do.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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