A Peace Education Sabbatical

Learnings From My Father

I believe in the culture of peace. I believe in daily peace building on a personal, institutional, national, and international level. I believe in regular, not random, acts of kindness. I believe in the power of teachers and students to be peace builders.

In March 2006, as a middle school teacher in an independent school outside Philadelphia, I was on sabbatical. Convinced that we everyday people are the key to creating a culture of peace in the world, I was preparing to travel halfway around the world to share my ideas on peace building with teachers and students in Japan, China, Canada, and Denmark.

In many ways, this journey of thousands of miles started at home with my father, Fred. From my earliest memories, I can see images of my father in uniform. There were the tiny photographs (fading even in my childhood) that he shot in Italy in World War II. There he was holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or posing with a buddy in a foxhole. In my memory, I can hear the stories, often funny, of how he and a buddy jumped waist-deep into a pigpen under orders to take cover, of getting stranded up a telephone pole when he was stringing wire as his jeep buddies sped away under German fire. My father told these stories over and over again, and they always ended with his loud belly laughs, as if he were trying to persuade us that the war had been fun.

But, I also hear the screaming. My father screamed in his sleep often, sometimes nightly, especially after watching a war movie. "Don’t let him watch it," my mother would plead. "He’ll fight the war all night if he does." But my dad always wanted to watch; it was as if he had to. He paid for each viewing with refreshed images in his nightmares. He would awaken my mom as he kicked and twitched, flailed and yelled, working the covers off his bruised and purple legs, battle-scarred and discolored from freezing in the Italian Alps in the winter of 1944.

My father had written my mother every day during the war, and we have over 1,000 letters he sent her, full of love, loneliness, and longing, but missing any mention of war’s horrors. He never talked seriously about the war until he was in his 80s, when my sixth-grade son conducted a video interview for a school project. Again, my dad told the funny stories, but suddenly, after two hours, he got serious, calling for his Army-issue Bible, a battered leather-covered copy that he had kept in his pocket every day of the war. He read the 23rd Psalm aloud. "’The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.’ I read that verse every day in battle," my father confided, looking straight at the camera, telling the truth even though he knew we could not fully understand it:

War is hell. That first battle was my baptism by fire. I was one of the walking wounded. . . . Those times weren’t a vacation and it wasn’t a game. There were thousands of dead people lying around—not just one—but thousands. . . . There were dead soldiers everywhere. . . . War is hell. I don’t wish it on my best friends or my worst enemy. May my children, and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren be spared from it, forever. Amen.

"Okay," my father concluded. "Now you can shut off the camera." Unfortunately, we couldn’t shut off the war in his mind.

The Secret World of War

The combat veteran lives in a world apart. The civilian co-worker, friend, wife, husband, child, parent—knows nothing about this world. Aware of our ignorance, countless poets and writers have tried to translate the soldier’s and veteran’s inner life to the rest of us. As I went searching for peace builders during my sabbatical year, I encountered two of them early in the process, at Wilmington College’s Westheimer Peace Symposium. Contemporary war correspondent Chris Hedges writes compellingly about war’s horrors in two books, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and What Every Person Should Know About War. His work does much to help ordinary citizens like me understand the realities—not the myth—of war. Here is an excerpt from a newspaper commentary by him, "The Myth and Reality of War" (Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 18, 2005):

War, it must be recognized, even for those who support the conflict . . . distorts and damages those sent to fight it. No one walks away from prolonged exposure to such violence unscathed, although not all come back disturbed. Our leaders mask the reality of war with abstract words of honor, duty, glory, and the ultimate sacrifice. These words, obscene and empty in the midst of combat, hide the fact that war is venal, brutal, disgusting.

John Crawford, an Iraq War veteran, was a senior in college when his Army Reserves unit was sent to Iraq. An accidental soldier, he published his war writing in his book The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. Reading it and talking with John, I understood more clearly the transformation from student to soldier he had undergone. "They wanted me to act like a man, but I was feeling like a little boy," he said. "I never wanted to hate anyone; it just sort of happens that way in a war."

After my father’s death, I asked my 90-year-old mother, "How did Dad go through all he did and still carry on a normal life?" "He fought the war every night," she replied, and turned away. He wasn’t alone. Millions of veterans of combat, soldier and civilian alike, are still living with the demons of war both in their daily lives and in their nightmares. And every day, in numerous countries around the world, more men, women, and children are becoming living and dead casualties of war, military and civilian alike.

As a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, and a teacher, I want to know why we are allowing this as a global society. I have not raised my two sons to kill other mothers’ sons. I am not teaching my students so they can go out and kill the students of other teachers. In my classroom, I refuse to support the myth of war anymore. I want to create a culture of peace.

Learnings from a Sabbatical

A sabbatical is an opportunity for a teacher to do research in a field of interest, away from the demands of the classroom. For my sabbatical during the school year 2005/06, I researched, wrote, created the website http://www.teachforpeace.org, and taught and traveled overseas. My field of interest was and continues to be peace education.

Peace education aims to change an existing belief system—acceptance of war as a method of solving international problems—to a new paradigm—one in which human rights, social justice, sustainable development, and creative diplomacy are promoted as effective paths to national and international security. Peace education helps young people see themselves as integral parts of one human family and as capable actors for positive social change on a local and global stage. In short, peace education helps kids to think, care, and act.

I traveled all around the world looking for peace educators and peace builders. Upon my return, it was important for me to share my thoughts and experiences with the middle and upper school students at my school. Many were inspired, referring to my ideas in later talks of their own. Here are some of the things I told them:

  • I learned that the modern, built-up city of Hiroshima, Japan, with its parks, shops, and skyscrapers, still has the
    eerie feeling of the dead, those who were incinerated by the atomic bomb. But life goes on. People work, shop, and picnic; children play and laugh.
  • I learned that hibakushas, a-bomb survivors, speak every day to groups of school children from middle schools all over Japan, about the perils of nuclear weapons and the horrors of war.
  • I learned from one hibakusha, Michiko Yamoake-san, that she would keep speaking to group after group of children even though she was ill, reasoning, "If I speak to 100 children, and I reach just one . . . that one might make a difference."
  • I learned that if I also speak up, and if even one student feels moved, that is a good thing.
  • I learned from college students in Kyoto that Japanese students feel pressured throughout their school careers, having to take exam after exam, and worrying about getting into college, just like my U.S. students.
  • And I learned that once they get there, they feel worried about getting jobs and good houses, and have no time to worry about issues such as equality and peace.
  • From these students, and others in China, I learned that it is important to teach my students how to balance their lives so they can think about important issues, while doing the things they need to do to succeed personally.
  • I learned in Toyohashi, Japan, that private school students in Sakaragoake Middle School could choose a global education track that would enable them to travel and learn about countries around the world for the next five years of their schooling. This was their school’s answer to the horrors of Japanese military aggression during World War II.
  • I learned that in Japan, once the home of innovative peace education, nationalism is on the rise. Teachers who buck country-wide proposals to teach "patriotism" in Japanese schools find their job security threatened. Teachers who refuse to rise for the singing of the national anthem, for example, have been fined, suspended, or sent by their school districts to distant schools as Japan begins to remilitarize.
  • Knowing how quickly patriotism turns to nationalism and then to militarism makes many educators—like me—apprehensive. I determined that I would teach teachers in the United States, and other countries I visit, about ways to teach for peace and an inclusive commitment to local, national, and global citizenship during our daily lessons, even at the risk of losing popularity or job security.
  • I learned in Toyohashi, Japan, that artists and educators can work together on peace projects, even when they cannot understand each others’ languages, to create beautiful works of art for peace.
  • I learned how inspiring the work of a small group can be to others. One Japanese artist wrote, "You taught us how to express our own opinion. You gave me energy. We have to start some action like you. The Toyohashi Peace Event was a great lesson for us."
  • I learned in Xinglong County, China, how comforting it feels to be treated to wonderful food and caring guidance in a new country, and that hospitality is a gracious talent at which my Chinese hosts were masters. I vowed to be a better host when people visit my home, my school, and my country.
  • I learned in Xinglong County, in Beijing, Shanghai, and countless cities in China, how curious many Chinese people are about people in the United States, and that they will open their homes and schools to meet these visitors and make new friends.
  • I learned that Chinese middle school students can be just as energetic, noisy, fun, smart, kind, and naughty as my U.S. middle school students, and I felt at home teaching them.
  • I learned how important it is for people in the United States to learn about Chinese culture, history, and development, and that the future of the world may well be found in the quality of the relationships among these two peoples. I made a website to help U.S. students learn about life in China, and another one to help Chinese learn about life in the United States. Many of my students are pictured on the website, and teachers and students all over the world have enjoyed their writing and art work about their hopes and dreams.
  • I also learned that many people who used to look at the United States with admiration now look at us with fear. "What is going on with your country?" was the most common question we were asked in Japan, China, Denmark, and Canada. However, another comment we heard quite often was, "We thought all Americans were arrogant and selfish—until we met you." I realized the power of personal connection in a global society.
  • I learned from one Japanese woman that her post office was powered by solar panels on the roof. In Yangzhou and Rugao, China, I saw passive solar water heaters on every rooftop. I learned from my Danish hosts about water-conserving toilets. "Why can’t you Americans do things like this?" they asked. We can. Our new toilet works beautifully and saves water.
  • I learned that my Chinese teacher friends walk, ride bikes, or take long bus rides to get to their schools each day, yet I know they wish they could drive to work as I usually do. I saw Chinese cities developing at a seemingly unsustainable pace and wondered how our two countries will solve problems of pollution and competition for resources in a sustainable manner. The point is: We must.
  • I learned in Canada, at an international conference of peace researchers, that all over the world, in any country I could name, people are working on projects big and small to promote peace.
  • I learned from Johan Galtung, Norwegian peace mediator, that many citizens of the world want Americans to walk humbly, to realize that we are a nation among nations, and that we need to cooperate with the world community.
  • I learned in Denmark that in a climate of distrust, reasoned, responsible free speech can promote dialogue and understanding, while flippant, irresponsible free speech can destroy dialogue. I learned that ignorance of the culture of your neighbor can lead to violence with your neighbor.
  • I learned in Norway, at the Nobel Institute, that everyone can be a peacebuilder. I interviewed Anne Kjelling, chief librarian, and asked her what my students most needed to know. "Tell them anyone can be a Nobel Peace Prize winner. They are just ordinary people, educated and uneducated, doctors, lawyers, housewives, volunteers. The thing is, they have done something for the cause of peace. Everyone can, but no one does," she said. I vowed that I would tell my U.S. students that.
  • I learned from Irwin Abrams, Nobel Peace Prize biographer, U.S. historian, peace educator, and Quaker, that peace education leads to an "unseen harvest." He was emphatic. "There are consequences" of the peace work we do. Big and small efforts yield fruit, whether we are the ones to harvest it or not. He encouraged me to believe that my efforts as a teacher are meaningful and important, even in a culture of war.
  • Finally, I learned that in Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian Fred means Peace. I was visiting the Nobel Fredcenterwhen I figured it out.

Being an Active Peacebuilder

My father’s name was Fred. While he didn’t have peace in his life, his name, his experiences, and his love for people propel me to work for Fred, for Paz, Heiwa, He Ping, Salaam, Shalom, Shanti, Peace.

I want my students to believe in the value of active peace building: the belief that socially just policies and structures are more lastingly effective methods of solving global problems than violence and war. Finally, I want them to know that such pacifism is not passive. It is active, hard work, and it is not for the faint of heart.

I ask that my students be peace builders, encouraging them by saying, "Use your critical judgment when you watch TV or read the news. Walk, take the bus, carpool. Buy less stuff. Be a good host. Do regular acts of kindness. Study about other cultures, religions, and countries. Make friends with people who are different from you. Care about your families and classmates, and also care about the billions of people who are your global neighbors. Learn how to select a cause worthy of your energy and work for it. Make time for peace building. Think. Care. Act. ‘Everyone can, but no one does.’ Be the one who does."

Susan Gelber Cannon

Susan Gelber Cannon teaches at the Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pa. She has attended Yellow Springs (Ohio), Swannanoah Valley (N.C.), and Saranac Lake (N.Y.) meetings. Susan's website, http://www.teachforpeace.org, has resources for teachers, students, and parents and a journal of her sabbatical experiences.