Bring a long spoon Paul Tamburello
Wednesday, April 7, 2003
This commentary was aired as a "Radio Diary" on NPR affiliate station WBUR FM on April 7, 2003
at the 43:20 minute mark
The airwaves and print media are saturated with news of the war. It's not surprising that by now school age children have information and are forming opinions. The children in my fourth-grade classroom are no exception. But I can see that the weight of those opinions shares time and space with baseball season, learning the multiplication tables, and who they'll play with at recess.
When I was their age, America had just started what was called the Korean conflict. I knew that something important was going on in the world. Before walking to school, I tuned in to Martin Agronski on the radio for the latest news. One morning, I remember racing out of my room and breaking the news to my parents that Harry Truman had just fired General Douglas MacArthur. Once outside the house, though, I thought about playing baseball with my friends.
At school, no teacher so much as breathed a word about the war but I do remember our classes being herded down into the basement to practice air raid drills. It seemed like a clandestine affair; we kids loved the adventure, the time out of class, and had no real fear about our personal safety.
Now, a teacher myself, I don't conduct air raid drills, but I do ask my fourth graders "What do you think about the war?" And the hole in the ground in lower Manhattan reminds me that their personal safety is no longer a valid assumption.
Recently, I asked them where they got their information about the war. I scanned the room as I asked, TV...radio...the newspapers? They sensed that I was done with my little survey, and looked at me quizzically. "There's another source," they said. "Who?" I responded. "Our parents," several kids said, and most heads nodded.
The rest of my survey revealed that most of the children in front of me were opposed to the war. I told them that I was surprised, that much of the country was deeply divided about the question and they seemed to be uniformly against it. Then I did what any self-respecting teacher would do, I asked another question. "How many of you have mixed feelings about the war?" Nearly every hand shot into the air. Many were quoting their parents. "I feel half and half about it," one boy said. "I agree with what my dad said because we should stop Saddam Hussein now so there's less chance he can hurt us."
"And what's the other half?" I asked after he paused. "But I don't agree with the war because we will hurt innocent people in Iraq." I saw more heads nodding. The boy followed up to say that he'd heard a caller on a radio talk show insist that if he could sit down with Saddam Hussein, he could talk sense to him and make him a better person. The host cut him off and shouted "IF YOU DINE WITH THE DEVIL, BRING A LONG SPOON."
There was a pause in the room while 20 fourth graders tried to figure out what that meant. "My dad said that it means it will give you more time to think about what you're doing."
"Which would keep you a safer distance from something dangerous, a short spoon or a long spoon?" I asked. The verdict for a long spoon took only a few seconds this time.
By having these talks, one of my goals as a teacher is to acknowledge the gravity of the war and give my students a chance to make sense of it. With equal measure, I need to give them a long enough spoon so they have the distance to focus on being kids. Sure enough, minutes after our discussion, they're back to the times tables, baseball, and the games they want and need to play when school's dismissed. Now that I think of it, maybe I could use the long spoon myself.
Paul Tamburello is a writer and teacher who has taught in Brookline since 1970.