By the end of fourth grade, I’d already memorized the state capitals and learned about Davy Crockett and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Having been in a Texas Catholic school since the age of 5, I was used to the miraculous and macabre stories of the saints’ lives that the nuns told us during religion classes. I’d yet to become upset by anything I’d learned in school.
But Ms. Crawford decided to finish up the year with what I assume was her “introduction to the savagry of war” file. Maybe she’d just seen the newly released Das Boot and had combat on the brain. I remember the late-April day when she started talking about war– the windows were open and I could smell the wisteria that grew on the side of the school, which was a welcome whiff because the boys really stunk after running around during recess.
“In which war did the most American soldiers die?” she asked the class.
My hand shot up. I knew this because my Daddy had been in the war. I’m not sure I even waited for her to call on me, which was unusual because I was that girl– the rule follower, the teacher’s pet, the achingly needy student whose eggshell self-esteem depended on being perfect.
“Vietnam,” I answered from my seat in the middle of the room.
Aghast, I slumped back in my chair as if a bullet had pierced my chest. That’s what it felt like to be wrong so out loud, so publicly. My cheeks were burning because I was ashamed about getting the answer wrong and because I’d spoken out of turn. I was angry for reasons I didn’t understand; the only the war that mattered to me was the one my Daddy was in. Even though it was before I was born, and he never ever talked about it, except when to make a joke that so-and-so food was “worse than they had in Vietnam.”
I was too scared to laugh at those “jokes” because even at that age I knew there was nothing that funny about Vietnam. I knew it wasn’t like that stupid show M*A*S*H that made war seem like a collection of pranks and comical hijinks.
I tried to tune out Ms. Crawford and her “right answer” by re-braiding my hair, which I wore like Laura Ingalls in Little House On the Prairie. I heard Ms. Crawford say something about the Civil War and how it had a huge “death toll” because it was “Americans killing Americans.”
I didn’t care. I slumped farther in my chair. I didn’t know anyone who had fought in the Civil War. That was an old war for old timely people with muskets and bayonets. It wasn’t scary like Vietnam where people in my family had been. I didn’t want to count up the number of deaths– for any war. I didn’t want to talk about it. What a stupid lesson.
I moped through the rest of class, as feelings stirred in me that I couldn’t articulate or understand.
Later that afternoon, my mom asked me how school went.
“It was OK. I didn’t learn anything new.”