Just think of me as your new guidance counselor … Or just think

By Susan Van Haitsma

CommonDreams / IndyMedia Austin

The message printed beneath the image of the stern drill sergeant on the US Marine Corps recruitment poster reads, “Just Think of Me as Your New Guidance Counselor.” The poster is displayed in the administrative area of my neighborhood high school on the office door of the two police officers assigned to the school. The police officer who put it there says that it is not a recruitment poster and that, because he is a Marine, he uses it as motivational for himself. Just down the hall are the school’s actual guidance counselors, and one of them expresses another view about the poster. Studying the image, she says quietly, “He doesn’t look like a guidance counselor. His eyes are steely. He doesn’t look like someone who would listen.”

Drill instructors are looking toward ever-younger audiences. Among those marching in Austin’s recent Veterans Day parade, I noticed a group of Junior ROTC students who appeared to be child soldiers. I spoke later with one of them, a 6th grader who is enrolled in the program at his public middle school. I asked him what he learns in his JROTC class. “We learn how to march, and, well, we learn everything,” he said. “Everything?” I asked. “We learn how to be in the army,” he replied. Like the strange, contrary slogan, “An Army of One,” the guidance being given to this youngster pretends to offer a world of possibility, but it boils down to one direction.

The week after Veterans Day, I had an opportunity to speak with US Army Staff Sergeant, Booker T. Newton during a demonstration at his recruiting station on National Stand Down Day. Joined by other activists, parents and veterans, several CodePink women and I, dressed in pink police uniforms, issued citations to the recruiters for morality violations related to their use of deceptive recruitment practices and their roles as accomplices to an immoral war.

When Sergeant Newton learned that I was involved with Nonmilitary Options for Youth, he wanted to know what kinds of options we suggest. He was asking, he said, because more young people than usual are failing the academic tests required for enlistment, and he wonders what is happening or not happening in Texas schools to prepare students for the future. Like another Booker T. of a century ago, he was genuinely concerned about the state of public education, and although we disagreed about the best course of action, we discovered some common ground. He had guided one young person to a local AmeriCorps program that we promote. “After that, he’ll join the Army,” he said. “Or use his education award to go directly to college,” I countered, and he did not object to that possibility.

Another recruiter at the station stressed to the assembled media that he was glad we were there, because we were exercising the freedoms that he believed he was defending through his role in the military. This is the standard and puzzling response often given by spokespersons of the military, an institution that suppresses the individual freedoms of its members. We tried to demonstrate that education – guiding one another to think critically – is a foundation upon which freedom depends.

Last week, the Texas Supreme Court sidestepped an important opportunity to guide the Texas legislature toward improving a public education system that, by some standards, ranks lowest in the country. A friend, writer and educator, Greg Moses has been analyzing the situation in recent articles. He quotes some straightforward language from the Texas constitution of 1875: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” Moses concludes, “Into this succinct line of reasoning is packed a serious claim. Where there is no suitable education, there can be no real hope of preserving rights and liberties.”

The day before the Texas Supreme Court ruling that left school adequacy and equality issues unresolved, I was visiting a local high school to staff a literature table for Nonmilitary Options during the lunch periods. A fight broke out between two students in the hall near our table. My Air Force veteran colleague and I were the only older adults available at the moment the students began circling each other and putting up their fists. A crowd of students formed quickly around them. My colleague and I decided to place ourselves between the two young men and try to hold them apart. The only thing I could think to say as I held onto the shoulders of one of them was “It’s not worth it.” He would not make eye contact with me, but I sensed he would welcome a way out of the fight. Before long, school officials arrived, and a police officer grabbed the other young man, who resisted, was handcuffed and led away.

“Books Not Bombs, Conscience Not Combat,” stated the large poster above our table as a backdrop to the fight. But how can I fault those young men for doing exactly what their country guides them to do? They can see plainly enough that the USA jumps right into the ring with fists pounding when there is conflict. The president of their country clearly chooses bombs over books. Young people can see the ways that school officials promote the military at the same time that they punish students for fighting. During the course of our tabling, a teacher stopped by and told us about a recent all-faculty meeting where military recruiters gave a 20-minute power-point presentation offering assistance with discipline in the school.

Rather than more punishment and rigidity, I have to think that guidance, especially with teenagers, means trying our best to practice what we preach. Young people notice consistency. A role model who comes immediately to mind is a friend and colleague, Susan Quinlan, a former high school teacher who, along with a small group of volunteers at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Oakland, California has developed a program called Alternatives to War through Education (AWE). Quinlan, a long-time war tax resister, is clear with students about her standpoint but encourages them to think for themselves and develop their own positions. Funny and creative, a natural in the classroom, she guides students through interactive exercises that help them explore and express their beliefs about killing and conscience. She also has begun an after-school class for students who are learning to organize events for their peers and facilitate presentations themselves.

Mainly, Quinlan asks questions and listens to the answers. She is accompanied in the classroom by military veterans and conscientious objectors whose very presence as former soldiers who changed their minds about war is enough to cause students to stop and take notice. Quinlan and the AWE program are much in demand. The evolving curriculum offers a form of guidance that expands the mind, allowing students to follow the twists and turns along the many paths where rights and liberties lead. Students whose views are sought and valued are bound to ask questions in return. Such as why a drill sergeant who orders strict conformity is billed as a protector of freedom, and why schools allow drill sergeants in their hallways in the first place.

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Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation. She can be reached at jeffjweb@sbcglobal.net. For more information about the Alternatives to War through Education (AWE) program, contact awe@objector.org

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