Mightier than the sword
By Bruce Wallace and Mark Wallace First Published:July 31 2004
On September 11
2001, my nephew Mitch Wallace, a Supreme Court Officer attached to
a Manhattan fire company, was
taking wounded people out of the subway station beneath the World Trade Center When the South Tower collapsed. Two days later my brother and I took our place in the incredibly
long line of people outside an armory in Manhattan where they were collating the lists of all the injured. Mitch's name wasn't on
any of the lists. Months later, they found his badge and his gun. It was all
that was ever recovered. He was 34. Mitch's death brought
our family a lot of grief, a lot of anger, and a lot of frustration. Part of my frustration was wondering what I could do. Mitch was a very peaceful
person: he hated violence. He loved helping people. So when we went to war in Iraq,
I was totally confused.
Iraq seemed to have nothing to do with Mitch. Then I found that there was something I could do that might
help bring about a more peaceful tomorrow.
a teacher at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, and this year we had a human rights fair. I thought I could steer the students to write letters to students in Iraq. I walked the halls for two days with a pad and a pencil, asking students: "If you could talk to a kid in Iraq, what would you want to know?" I was surprised by their answers. They weren't curious about politics; they wanted to know what the Iraqi students did after school, what music they listened to, whether they played baseball.
It took several months, but eventually I managed to contact two schools in Baghdad, and found a coalition commander in a small town north of Tikrit who said he would deliver letters to a school there. Twelve students volunteered to submit letters. Then we waited. About 10 days later we got our first responses.
I asked my students to be brief, but the letters got longer with each round. They asked things like, "What's the music like? Oh, you listen to 'NSync, do you know Jay Z?" One US student who had lived in the Middle East was thrilled to hear the name of some foods she remembered fondly. A kid in my school who's from a tough neighborhood wrote: "When was the last time you heard a gunshot? I hear gunshots sometimes in my neighborhood."
At first my students were surprised that their Iraqi friends seemed so upbeat while a war was going on. But then, for more than a week, we didn't hear from one of the schools. The teacher later wrote to us to say there had been a firefight near her house. The house had been hit by bullets and her mother wouldn't let her go out, which was why the mail hadn't come. But she was fine, the kids were fine. The mail started to flow again.
About a week later we didn't hear from another of the schools for 10 days. The teacher there commutes to an internet cafe in Baghdad every week to e-mail his students' letters. But there had been heavy fighting: "I am afraid to go out of my house, sorry for the delay," he wrote. "When I did leave, the streets had many bodies, and buildings were blown up, but I am the Lion of Baghdad." Then he proceeded to send his students' mail.
The coalition commander seems to appreciate the project. I wrote to him asking, "What do you do all day? I have no idea what you people are doing out there." He wrote back that in the morning half of them get dressed in armor; the other half pick up shovels and sandbags and they are rebuilding a school and a medical centre. I wrote back that we hardly hear about the good works that are happening there, only atrocities and bombings. His most recent letter told me that he had just lost four of his soldiers in a raid on the village. It's hard for me to imagine how he can continue to do good works under the pressure of war.
My kids now feel the war affects them personally. When they hear something about a firefight or a bombing, they know that the people they're writing to may be directly affected. As for me, I thought this project would be about logistics: getting the mail in and out. What I didn't expect was to feel the same thing as the students: I now have a personal interest in this war. I have friends who live in the middle of it, and it's horrible. They don't want this war. I don't want this war. But that doesn't matter so much as the fact that, whatever is going on, I can do something to help promote peace.
Bruce Wallace can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce Wallace is a teacher at an inner-city, multi-racial high school in Brooklyn, New York.
Mark Wallace is his son and can be reached at www.boyreporter.com.