Battle lines in school halls

While rummaging through family archives recently, I discovered an award certificate that was issued to a relative during the early 1940s. It was presented by the Los Angeles City Board of Education. The recipient was commended for buying savings stamps, collecting scrap metal, and other patriotic activities that helped beat the Axis. This youth-service program was called, with evident pride, Schools At War.

What a difference 60 years make. These days, that phrase has almost been turned on its head. I say "almost" because it wouldn't be accurate to say we now have war at schools. But the battle lines for many social and political issues do extend into classrooms all over America.

Not surprisingly, the latest skirmishing involves US policy toward Iraq. In Michigan, a teenager was disciplined for wearing a shirt emblazoned with a picture of President Bush and the words "International Terrorist." A high school junior in Colorado got suspended for posting fliers announcing an international student walkout. Reports of teachers in Maine making antiwar comments in class got big airplay on talk shows around the country.

I do believe strongly that teachers should be very cautious about editorializing on the job. But, as the parent of a teenager, I know that all public school staffers are working in a very complex cultural environment that includes a wide variety of attitudes and emotions, and they are under tremendous pressure to keep every student focused on basic skills and subjects such as reading, math, science, and social studies.

Discussing current events in school sounds like a great idea. It would be no problem at a place like Riverdale High, except that Archie and Jughead would probably be snoozing while Miss Grundy was giving the lecture. Real America isn't like the Riverdales of comic books. We have become a culture that's fascinated by controversy, and our children are active participants. Iraq is only one issue. On any given day, I wonder how many kids are walking into class wearing some kind of garment or accessory that contains a message about sex, global warming, animal rights, gang affiliation, or other hot-button topics.

And even if schools had enough time to talk about all these subjects, most of them can't be wrapped up and resolved at the end of the day. The only advice I have for teachers (and parents) is to keep telling our students that just because they disagree with someone doesn't make that other person a commie pinko, corporate lackey, or some other form of total loser.

I'm not an expert on the educational process, but whenever I visit my daughter's school and see her classmates up close and hear their conversations in a variety of languages, a few essential truths resonate up and down the corridors: (1) Managing the system so it benefits an increasingly diverse population will be an ongoing challenge. (2) Being a teenager now is way more complicated than what I experienced decades ago. (3) Archie and Jughead have left the building.

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