Tuesday, September 07, 2004

At what price?

As my seventh-grade students dutifully completed their daily warm-up assignments, I sneaked a peek at CNN.com to scan the morning’s headlines. The red “BREAKING NEWS” banner caught my eye. I beelined to the television in the corner of the room and turned on the power. A few students murmured as I began searching for a news channel, any news channel. And there it was: smoke billowed out of the two towers, and one of the girls blurted out, “What’s goin’ on, Mr. Ryan?” The towers would crumble a few minutes later as New Yorkers would frenetically try to outrun the tsunami of cement dust and smoke – as my students, and children around the nation, paid rapt attention.

Almost three years later, between law school classes, horrific images from an elementary school in Russia immediately take me back to those early days of my first year as a seventh-grade English teacher in rural North Carolina. Hundreds of children sit kneecap-to-kneecap on a gymnasium floor as their teachers roam among them, calming nerves and keeping order. I stare at the basketball goal, the cinder block walls, the skylight windows. And I remember -- my students, crammed into the bleachers, cheering for their classmates as they sing the latest R & B hit at the annual talent show; me, standing among them, looking stern, warning Thaddeus that I intend to call his grandma if he pops Dante in the back of the head one more time, cracking a grin every once in a while to remind them that I love them.

I stare at a photo of a man in black, a camouflaged helmet atop his head, inspecting his arsenal; a photo of a female militant in an Arab-style black headdress that exposes only her eyes, a pistol firmly in hand. And I remember – searching for the words to assuage both the legitimate concerns and the irrational fears of my students, for the answer to Jessica’s question: “Mr. Ryan, you think them folks are gonna bomb us? Are gonna bomb our school?”

I stare at a photo of a teacher, gripping the tiny hands of two of her students, escorting them—where?—as a heavily-armed terrorist watches threateningly. And I remember – sitting in the library at a faculty meeting, half-awake, as a video produced by the North Carolina Department of Education drones on about the appropriate emergency procedures in the event an armed intruder were to enter the school premises (immediately lock the door, gather the students in the corner of the room out of sight from the window in the door, place the green card in the window if no one is injured, a red card if someone is), and feeling confident that such procedures would never be necessary at my school.

I stare at the television as parents and grandparents sift through the charred remnants of their elementary school, searching for the physical leftovers of their reasons for living, their precious children; I listen to their howling, the excruciating agony and unfathomable pain so evident in every sob, whimper, and wail. And I remember – a young single mother, perhaps only a few years older than her child’s fresh-out-of-college English teacher, weeping during a parent-teacher conference because, after she has tried everything she knows to help her 13 year-old son learn to read, she has learned that Chris has passed his End of Grade Reading test for the first time.

Some have described the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan as chaotic. Perhaps this is true; I have personally visited neither place. But after experiencing September 11 -- watching the anxiety in the faces of twenty-eight 12 year-olds as they struggled to make sense of what they were seeing, trying to maintain a confident adult posture even as my then-22 year-old stomach grew nervous – I much prefer the somewhat controlled chaos of Afghanistan, administered by men and women much braver than I who freely volunteered to keep us safe. And even as the one thousandth American hero falls in the frenzied streets of Iraq, I much prefer his willing sacrifice to the sacrifices of thousands of unwitting New Yorkers, United Airlines passengers, and Pentagon workers.

As some politicians insist that the war in Iraq is the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time”— that the price, in dollars and in soldiers, is too high — I wonder: what price would the Russians pay today if they could erase the events of the last few days? Perhaps Al-Qaeda would never have struck again on American soil had we not toppled the Taliban; perhaps Saddam Hussein would never have threatened us with the devastating arsenal the entire world believed he had. Perhaps we could have avoided the awful price of war.

Perhaps. The question, though, haunts us: how much are we willing to gamble on that “perhaps”? For the alternative manifests itself in the contorted and anxiety-ridden visages of our children as they come to terms with an utterly terrifying future; in the death plunges of doomed Trade Center workers who choose free-fall over flame; in the gut-wrenching, tortured screams of a mother who immediately recognizes the lifeless hand of her beloved daughter above the rubble of a school gymnasium.

As Mr. McCain explained last week, “Our choice wasn’t between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and a graver threat.”

Given that choice, I sadly – but firmly – choose war.


At 6:37 PM, Blogger Bo said...

nate, this is awesome. Why don't you submit it to the UVa paper, or to the city paper? If you feel so inclined, you could even send it over to the DI; they're always looking for new stuff.


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