OAKLAND, CALIF. — When Monique Young first learned that America was going to war, the seventh-grader wondered if her house would be bombed. Weeks earlier, as talk of war took on an iron certainty, 10-year-old Nicholas Petru dreamed that the conflict had come to his neighborhood as Iraqi tanks advanced up his street, crushing houses as they came.
Even today, as images of destruction flicker on news channels only rarely turned to, his older sister finds it odd that her life goes on unchanged - from dance classes to her school musical's opening night.
For America's youngest generation, this past week has been an introduction to the world of war. In many ways, children's reactions echo their parents', and in this antiwar corner of the country, most are struggling to understand why the war began and whether it is worth the cost.
Yet beneath such questions of policy lies a deeper uncertainty. Indeed, many children too young to remember the Gulf War as anything more than a mental shoebox of disjointed impressions are now simply trying to understand what war means - for their daily lives and for the world.
To some, it has brought fear of an unknown and amorphous threat half a world away. To others, it has led to strengthened bonds of friendship and support. To all, however, it has developed the need for a new balance, as teens and grade-schoolers learn to deal with emotions and thoughts they've never felt before.
"It's really new to me, just gathering the information and trying to understand," says eighth-grader Erica Petru. "I've never really been that alert to war before."
On Feb. 16, she and her family joined as many as 200,000 people on a peace march in San Francisco. Like her older sister, Catherine, and younger brother, Nicholas, she designed her own T-shirt for the march, scrawling "Another child for peace" on the back with black marker.
It is an understated humility and self-awareness that defines her attitude toward the war. In contrast to the shrill and often confrontational demeanor of many Bay Area protesters, Erica is quiet and thoughtful when she talks. She does not hate America. She does not hate President Bush. She simply believes that there must be a better way than war to resolve the problem.
"It's important for me to think about people other than myself," she says. "There are people like me in Iraq getting bombed, and it's a really sickening thought."
It's a point that several children make at Erica's school, where Iraq makes for almost daily classroom conversation. Few claim to fully understand what is happening. Most understand that Saddam Hussein has done bad things in the past. Some even know that he used chemical weapons on his own people. But the pictures of Baghdad glowing in a midnight conflagration of bombs and missiles - despite their distance and unfamiliarity - still evoke strong sympathy at Oakland's Redwood Day School, which surrounded by middle-class homes, with an overpass for the MacArthur Highway nearby.
"When I watch it on TV, I think, 'What would I do if it was happening to me?' " says Monique, who has earnest eyes and long, black braids pulled into two ponytails. "I would be so scared."
Sarah Musiker acknowledges that the war affects her even now. Wearing a powder-blue T-shirt with a picture of Eeyore, the donkey from "Winnie the Pooh," the dark-haired eighth-grader enters the room smiling. But when she speaks of the war, she pauses.
Part of it is the fear of terrorism: "This war is a whole different ballgame," she says. But part of it is simply the thought of war itself. Asked to explain, she strains to find the words. "I don't know, it's just that war is not good," she says, rubbing her nails while in thought. "When I flip through the channels [and see the war], it's like, 'Oh yeah, right.' It affects me in ways I don't realize. I get depressed."
For Erica, one answer has been the care of friends and family. Participating in her school's chapter of Free the Children, an international children's-rights group, has also helped her feel that she is doing something.
"It seems like kids can't do much to stop the war, so I'm just trying to stay strong with the people around me," she says.
Not everyone seems so weighed down by cares of war, though. While support for the US-led campaign doesn't break exactly down along gender lines at an eighth-grade history class here, boys seem to be more open to war than girls.
As usual, Sam Taxy takes charge. Sam, who has been known to use the words "Yom Kippur War," "Kissinger," "OPEC," and "Sadat" in the same sentence, thinks the Bush administration did everything it could to avert war. Now, it's the only option.
"As soon as [United Nations Resolution] 1441 passed, there was no turning back," he says, peering confidently from behind his rectangular glasses. "Once the decision is made, we do have to support the government."
Sam is something of a legend in this class. He carts around his books in a wheeled pack that most people would use as carry-on luggage. He once debriefed the class on the positions of all the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
And he says he watched one to two hours of CNN each day over the weekend. Asked where he got a fact from, he responds, "CNN on Saturday morning at 7 a.m." Case closed.
Sam, clearly, is not afraid to go it alone. But for others, America's willingness to do the same - even at the risk of broad international condemnation - touches on perhaps the deepest theme of adolescence: the desire to be accepted. Erica's fourth-grade brother, Nicholas, suggests America "is like the schoolground bully." To his eyes, "It's our fault that there is a war."
What's more, it gives the world a bad view of what America is like, adds his sister Catherine, a sophomore in high school. "I don't want everybody to hate Americans," she says. "Many people don't support Bush, but people judge us because he's our leader. It's the same in Iraq: Many people don't support Saddam Hussein, but we judge them because he's their leader."
Since the first missiles struck Iraq a week ago, life has gone on pretty much as normal in the Petru home, which is perched on tree-lined hills overlooking the bay. Erica's and Catherine's schools held small vigils last Thursday, but the youngsters haven't gone to any more protests. Nicholas, meanwhile, can't recall ever talking about it with his friends or watching it on TV. "I only watch it when I go up a channel too high," mistakenly wandering from the Disney Channel on 55 to CNN on 56, he says.
Pressed about the war, he asks how he can look it up on the Internet. Then he says he feels safe, in part, because "we've got like a force field around Iraq."
Between baseball, soccer, and guitar lessons for Nicholas; basketball, soccer, and piano lessons for Erica; and dance, theater, and the big new production of "A Chorus Line" for Catherine, there's not much time for anything but homework, sleeping, and eating.
On one recent free night, the family gathers around the TV, but the screen flashes between the Oscars and the Golden State Warriors basketball game, with no hint of Iraq or Saddam Hussein.
To Catherine, it's not what she imagined war to be. She had read about what it was like for girls during World Wars I and II. Moreover, she had heard stories about her grandmother, who had survived the Holocaust. For her, war was about brothers and fathers going off to the front. It was about food rations and constant fear. It was about sacrifice.
"It was different," she says. "I feel like I should feel more of an impact right now."
"Of course, [this war] still comes up in daily life, but I feel like I haven't given up anything," she adds. "I can still go to my dance class. That's kind of strange."
Instead, she agrees with her sister when Erica says she's trying to deal with all these new ideas without letting them overwhelm her. "I'm trying not to get too scared, and when I do think about the war, I'm using the quote by Martin Luther King that 'Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend.' "