Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thinking about kids whose parents are in war

When I was a kid, my dad was a Weekend Warrior. Meaning, he was a member of the Hawaii Air National Guard. Two weekends a month, two weeks a year. He was in from 1985 to 1988.

For National Guard training he'd go to Pohakuloa Training Area and Hickam Air Force Base. He recently told me they did anti-terrorism simulations. He was in communications with "top secret security clearance."

My parents tried to explain about "war games." They'd say there were guns. The men wore uniforms and color their faces with camouflage paint.

My parents had a routine to prepare for Dad leaving for "war games." At some point he might come home with shirts and pants and patches. Mom would sew the patches onto his uniforms, and iron and fold everything before arranging them in his duffel bag.

Mom would tell my brothers and I that two weeks was a long time and Dad would miss us. He couldn't call to tell us goodnight or ask how we did in school. So, we would draw pictures on construction paper and stash them in his bag, down deep so they wouldn’t get lost.

The night before leaving, Dad would shine his boots. He’d get the tin of thick black shoe polish, a damp cotton rag, a stiff brush, and set everything out on sheets of newspaper at the kitchen table. Sometimes he would let me help.

He'd leave early in the morning, when it was still dark. I can't recall what time of year it would be, but it would seem very long, especially at nights.

School teachers didn't talk about any of this, even though the Guard was probably the island's top "employer" and many students were home without a parent for two weeks each year.

Every regular night, we'd all say goodnight to each other, like a choir repeating the phrase: "I love you, see you in the morning." When dad was on the training we would say good-night to him anyway. When he came back he wouldn't tell me much about it, only that it was kind of like a hunting trip. He actually told me more about his days in Vietnam than the Guard training.

To a kid, two weeks is a really long time. Of course, it doesn't compare to the months and months for kids whose parents who are in a real war.

Thinking about how many people are in Iraq and other foreign countries we don't know about really makes me wonder about the traditions and routines like my family had. If my dad was sent off to an actual war and never came back? For example, would we have continued saying goodnight to him every night even if he wasn't there?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The link between public schooling and military service.

Is there a link between America's public school system and military recruitment?

I recently started a new job and was assigned to read materials for training. One particular item, written by an eighth-grader, discussed what's going on at their school.

"We can't go more than 3 minutes without hearing the word 'test' or 'assessment,'" the student wrote. "I am starting to believe the theory that we are being prepared to be drafted into the military."

The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires U.S. public school students to take standardized tests annually from grades 3 to 8, and at least once in high school. Just days after his inauguration, George W. Bush introduced NCLB, calling it a "framework for bipartisan education reform."

NCLB has many mandates. Here are a few: Teachers must be "highly qualified," with at least a bachelor's degree and teaching credential. Students who qualify for free and reduced lunch also qualify for free tutoring and after school programs. Students in grades 3–8 take annual standardized tests in reading and math. Schools and school districts are rewarded or sanctioned based on whether students have made "adequate yearly progress." Schools are required to the furnish name, address and telephone number of every student to military recruiters.

Many high schools administer "career inventory" or "skills" standardized tests to juniors and seniors thinking about life after high school.

Some guidance counselors, under the direction of military recruiters, direct students to take another type of standardized test. The ASVAB (pronounced az-vab) determines whether a person is eligible to enlist in the military. The department says its test is the world's most widely used multiple-aptitude test battery.
ASVAB stands for Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, but a few college counselors I know call it a "career exploration program."

I've met guidance counselors who set up school events like "military day" where they bring in vehicles and allow students to try on uniforms. On "career day" the Army and Marines recruiters are the first to get called. I've been on high school and middle school campuses during lunch when Marine recruiters have set up areas for students to demonstrate their ability to do a certain number of push-ups.

Many public schools operate JROTC programs, kind of like military for kids. I think of one in particular, which says its mission is to "motivate young people to be better citizens." When I see those junior ROTC kids march in a parade, or practice drills in the schoolyard, I think it's an incredible show of discipline and teamwork. I also feel it's a performance to show teens the greatest way to success is to become a robot-like soldier.

More and more parents, students and educators have blogged against the ASVAB, the militarism of youth, and the military's involvement in schools.

In high school, my friend Mary and I both took the ASVAB. I believe we were considering signing up for either the Navy or the Air Force. I can't remember what traits we possessed or which branch we were best suited for, but I do recall recruiters calling my house, basically until I graduated. In my case, they said they liked how my dad was in the Navy during Vietnam.

We both needed the money for college. Whereas Mary got straight As I nearly flunked out. The military people promised us we'd learn new technology and be able to travel the world. They said people who joined military service meet people from every state. We'd receive hands-on training and lessons in respect, leadership, dignity, discipline, etc. It sounded great.

What kid without money to pay for college wouldn't want their entire education paid for, and after four years in active service, the ability to get a home loan, advanced job training, not to mention the knowledge we'd gain from experiencing other countries and cultures. (That reminds me, I would like to talk with my friend again about this.) If I decided to stay in for 10 years I'd still be young enough to start a civilian career in just about whatever I chose. We'd get all kinds of benefits, monetary and otherwise. Remember, at the time, there was no large-scale Iraq War.

I'm not quite sure why I didn't enlist. If I did, I would have been out in 2000. I did go on to earn a bachelor's degree at a state university but no one paid for it and I'm $15,000 in debt. Anything regarding computers, I taught myself. I haven't traveled the world so I've learned little from meeting people in other countries. I haven't learned to discpline myself according to a rigid, standard schedule. I am starting a new career, 10 years after graduating high school. I don't own a home. It's strange to think I have met more than a few veterans my age who say they regret nothing more than signing up.