By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Marisa Alderdice, a kindergarten teacher at Condor Elementary School.
On the Friday before spring break, Annie Solomon's fourth-graders are busy making cards. Along with hand-colored pictures of bunnies and eggs, the children draw American flags and soldiers. There are heartfelt messages, too.
"We hope you come back safe and uninjured," says one card.
"Thank you for protecting us," says another.
Earlier in the day, two girls quietly approached the teacher and asked if the class could make cards as a writing exercise. They confided to Solomon that their fathers had recently been deployed to Iraq, and that they would like for the class to send cards and letters to them.
"Yes, of course," said Solomon, a teacher for more than 20 years at Twentynine Palms Elementary School.
Such requests happen frequently in schools located in the community of Twentynine Palms, home to the world's largest U.S. Marine Corps base. An hour away from Palm Springs, the area is remarkably similar to Middle Eastern terrain, with blazing sun, high winds and sandstorms that make it ideal for military drills. The elementary school where Solomon teaches is located a few miles from the base, and many students there have parents serving in the Marine Corps. This year, fortunately, there have been no injuries or deaths of parents whose children attend the school.
However, the stress of wartime has taken a toll on students. Morongo Teachers Association (MTA) members know that many of their students struggle on a daily basis with more than just schoolwork. They live in a constant state of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. Their families are often struggling financially, too. Military pay is so low that the schools are designated Title I. Many students have had to move frequently around the country. They may have attended several schools during their young lives and may be in the process of adjusting to yet another new school.
Solomon says that teachers and others who work in the Morongo Unified School District define their role as keeping things "as normal as possible" for their students to help them cope.
"We try to keep them in a routine," says Solomon. "It's easier for them that way."
Earlier in the week Solomon knew something was up with one of her students, who nervously twisted her fingers. It was behavior the child doesn't normally engage in, and her teacher could sense she was upset and frustrated with an assignment that should have come easily.
"I walked over and said, ‘Let's take a deep breath and look at it again,'" recalls Solomon. "I know that concentration can be a challenge, so I decided to give her a hand." Later, says Solomon, she learned the girl's father had just been deployed to Iraq.
"Their emotions are very close to the surface," says Melissa Norquist, a sixth-grade teacher at the school site. "With that comes frustration and being distracted in the classroom. Sometimes there are tears — especially when their dads first leave."
Norquist knows exactly how they feel. Her husband of 20 years is a Marine and spent 14 months in Iraq, returning home in 2005. She has taught military children for the past six years in three different states.
"I have a lot of empathy for kids whose parents are deployed," she says. "Sometimes you have to allow them extra time to get things completed and make sure they understand a project before you send them on their way. Sometimes I'll invite them to talk to me during recess. I'll share a treat with them and ask what's going on. I'll let them know that I understand that they may be a little sensitive right now, if their mom or dad is gone."
Testing can aggravate stress, especially if a parent has been recently deployed. "It's hard for them when they have a high-stakes test and they are not thinking about the test," says Norquist. "Sometimes something on a test can trigger a meltdown. It's a lot for somebody who is 11 or 12 years old and just starting puberty."
School on the base
Five miles away is Condor Elementary School, located right on the base and accessible only after passing through a security checkpoint. Approximately 95 percent of the students there have a parent in the service, and at any given time a third of these parents are deployed in the Middle East. Many of the school's teachers also have spouses in the service, such as kindergarten teacher Marisa Al¬derdice, whose husband is a Marine and has deployed three times to Iraq. (He is now at Twentynine Palms.)
"They are so young, and what's going on affects their routine and stability a lot at this age," says Alderdice. "You can always tell when a dad is about to leave, because they get very irritable and cry easily. It affects their day and they can't concentrate."
She can relate. "When my husband was gone, I was living on the edge emotionally. I did ridiculous things like cry at Hallmark commercials. Little things made me angry and I would get sad at something that didn't warrant that reaction. The level of stress put me right on the edge, and it's true of my students as well."
To help her students cope, she maintains a stable routine. "They need to know that everything is the same at school and they can always come to school and have stability, even if they don't have it at home." Her students also have a "Heroes" wall featuring family pictures and are encouraged to tape pictures of a parent on the inside lid of their supply boxes holding crayons and pencils.
Her students are young, but they are not sheltered from the harsh realities of war. "They know a lot," says Alderdice. "They probably know more than we think they know. They talk about it with other kids. They say ‘My dad's in Iraq fighting bad guys in the war.' And many of them are only 4 years old."
Sixth-grade teacher Carol Dougwillo's students follow the headlines and understand exactly what kinds of danger a parent faces in Iraq or Afghanistan. They also follow the political scene, and there have been heated political discussions in her classroom at times, especially before the presidential election. Dougwillo says she was surprised that many of her students wanted the U.S. to bring the war to an end.
But awareness of what is going on politically in the U.S. or militarily overseas has not made coping with the situation any easier for some students.
"It's a strange situation," she says. "You have some kids that withdraw and shut down and don't do well academically. You have others who start misbehaving as soon as a parent is gone. And then you have a few who actually become caretakers of their brothers, sisters and even the parent remaining at home. Sometimes you'll hear from a kid that their parent is crying a lot of the time in the bedroom because they are upset. That's the reality out here."
Teachers, she says, rise to the call of duty. "You definitely have to do more and take on a counseling role," she says. "You have to be very understanding and compassionate — more so than normally — because these kids are in a very bizarre situation. You have to step up and be more of a surrogate parent and more of a counselor. It's hard. I love these kids like they're my own kids. When they are hurting, it hurts me."
Dougwillo pauses, takes a breath and becomes teary. "I tell them that everything will be okay, that mom or dad is fine, loves them, is thinking of them and will call as soon as they can," she continues. "Sometimes they will ask if they can write to dad in the middle of class. I let them take that time, because that's where the kid is at emotionally at that moment. Some of the kids bring pictures of dad to school and take out the picture when they miss him. Sometimes they need to cry and a teacher will say, ‘We'll go outside and cry, it's OK.' These are sixth-graders and they really try, but sometimes they can't hold it together because they're so worried."
There have been some fatalities of parents whose children attend Condor Elementary School, says Dougwillo, but so far, none have been parents of children in her classroom. But when something bad does happen, all of the students usually know about it immediately.
"We don't talk about it, because it's not anything you want to dwell on," she explains. "With their own parents gone, you don't want to have that discussion."
And she seldom tells her students about her stepdaughter's husband, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. "It's not something you want to share, because you don't want to scare them," she explains. "But this war is very, very real to me."
When the war first began, counselors met with the students regularly and held school-sponsored letter-writing campaigns and collected items for care packages to be delivered. But as the war lingered on, years after former President Bush declared "mission accomplished," such activity gradually diminished.
"At first the war was shocking and scary for everybody," recalls Dougwillo. "The base put cement blocks all around the school as a safety precaution. But what was scary has become normal. I don't know if that's a good thing or not."
The base has stepped up to assist students with programs such as "Operation Hero," an after-school program where military personnel help students deal with the stress and problems associated with having a parent in the military. Over the years, communication has improved, so that students can regularly e-mail a parent in Iraq, which has eased some of the stress. Staying in communication is more difficult in Afghanistan, however, and students may not hear from parents for months at a time.
In a way, teachers in Twentynine Palms are also soldiering on to help students weather challenging circumstances. There have been years of unrelenting stress, and some teachers admit they are becoming somewhat weary.
"There have been a few of us here at the school since the war started, and we band together," says Dougwillo. "I guess you could say that going through this has made us stronger as people. It has also made us stronger as teachers."