Current events overshadow all other subjects

In metro-area schools, students aren't the only ones looking for answers

Terrorism Strikes America

Maryland

September 13, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The halls of Baltimore's Western High School were unusually quiet yesterday, the student chatter less lighthearted and the morning classrooms filled with talk of tragedy and justice.

At Western and schools at all levels across Maryland, students - like their parents - were trying to sort through the searing TV images to understand Tuesday's terrorist attacks.

They had a million questions.

The little ones asked innocently if there would be more bombs. Teen-agers asked how it was possible that the Pentagon -the symbol of our military strength - could have been hit. And college students searched for meaning by attending rallies and signing petitions to the president.

For many of these students, born long after Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and even the Persian Gulf war, the attacks on America were violent in a way they had never experienced.

Western Principal Landra McLaurin is certain that Tuesday will become a defining day in her students' lives - just as April 4, 1968 - the day Martin Luther King was killed - is for her.

As she walked the somber halls, she hugged and reassured those with sad faces. She encouraged teachers to set aside their lessons and let their students talk.

"You will never forget. And that is OK," a Western health teacher, Brian King, told his students.

He cautioned them not to get caught up in hysteria or hate: "When you watch this, watch for who the heroes are. Look at those who quietly gave up their lives to help."

In grappling with student questions, teachers and principals tended to emphasize helping students express their feelings and explain facts of the crisis, rather than use the events for a history lesson.

Rowland L. Savage, Baltimore County coordinator of guidance and counseling services, suggested that teachers not venture into a discussion of the attack's geopolitical implications.

"Today's not the day for a teachable moment," he said. "Today's the day to teach people about dealing with trauma."

Many schools had guidance counselors and social workers available, even as they maintained a normal schedule of classes. In Carroll County, guidance supervisors prepared a list of coping strategies for staff and parents to be posted on the state's Department of Education Web site.

At Howard County's Bushy Park Elementary, a flag waved at half-staff and the principal called for a moment of silence - which, she explained to the children, was a sign of honor for those who have died.

"We will keep you safe," Principal Nancy Kalin assured them.

Bushy Park second-grade teacher Janice Tucker gave her children time to ask questions.

On normal days, children talk about their favorite toy or a pet. But one boy offered quietly to his classmates that he had lost a relative at the Pentagon. He talked about memories of his uncle - the time they went swimming and his uncle dunked him under water in the pool.

Another second-grader offered sympathetically that he knew why "they" crashed planes into buildings, explaining that the terrorists were jealous because Americans are free and they aren't.

At Archbishop Curley High School in Northeast Baltimore, school began with a prayer service, and then teachers and students spent much of the day grappling with issues of right and wrong, good and evil.

The Rev. Michael Martin, Curley's president, devoted his morning class in Christian morality to a discussion of the attack and how the United States should respond.

Martin urged his students to think calmly about revenge. "The feelings of revenge and retaliation are born out of hatred, and hatred is the very feeling that brought about the attack," he said.

Unlike public schools, religious schools aren't constitutionally barred from discussing Tuesday's tragedy in the context of prayer. "That gives us a huge and wonderful advantage," said Martin.

At Towson's Goucher College, the subject of revenge was on the lips and pens of students as well. Running simultaneously with the "grief and loss" sessions were panel discussions on the political and social issues behind the terrorist attacks. The idea, the college said, was to "find some meaning, prepare for what happens next, and to think of the future."

"You're all welcome to ask questions," said Joe Morton, director emeritus of the college's peace studies program, said at one seminar. There was, at first, silence. But then students slowly began speaking - often about their fear of a protracted war.

Some Goucher students circulated a petition asking President Bush to abstain from vengeance and initiate instead "a peaceful implementation of justice."

Although teachers and principals sought to provide a sense of normality, some parents were upset that schools had reopened.

Baltimore County reported attendance was below normal. At Western High, the attendance was 85 percent, far below average.

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