I just returned from a second trip to a New Jersey middle school in as many months. Over a decade ago a teacher raised the funds to invite nearly thirty speakers to spend a day at her school, telling their stories of enormous challenge. Survivors and rescuers during the Holocaust, during 9-11, Katrina, columbine, the Oklahoma bombing all appeared to give living histories. Young people who had been bullied spoke and offered strategies to reduce this common abuse. Several young men who are known as “The Lost Boys” talked of their peril in war-torn Sudan. This far-seeing teacher hoped the children in the audience would feel inspired, to “respect, reflect, and remember,” and to realize that they could make a difference in improving our world.
Since that first program in 2000, other New Jersey middle schools have offered a similar program, calling it by their own names, but always emphasizing live voices, good values, especially courage. Since 2000 I have traveled to various New Jersey towns and participated, telling my story of coping with disability, trying to give hope that problems, if faced, can be solved.
Yesterday I visited Watchung, New Jersey. During one session that I was free I listened to a war correspondent who not only was Iraqi, but spent several years embedded with the U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Asking what the kids knew of the conflict, he then showed photos and spoke to the students about the numbers of lives lost. He spent most of his time giving a picture of life in Iraq for young people, with school and all activities interrupted for months and months, with temperatures of 135 and 150 degrees and all electricity disrupted by the bombing—hence not even an operating fan.
When asked by a teacher what Iraqi children would want our youngsters to know, the correspondent hesitated. “What most children asked me is if Americans knew what this war was doing to their lives. So many had lost parents. So many families lost as many as 9 relatives. 4 million Iraqis have been displaced—in a country of 25 million. Children said to me, ‘I’d like to be a pet in America. Americans treat their pets so much better.’”
“How many of you have been personally affected by the Iraq War?” he asked.
2 students said their uncles had served, but were home now. Another said her aunt had served.
“In this country we had the luxury of not even thinking about the war. Iraqis didn’t have that luxury.”