"Hello, my name is Kendra, and I was given your name as someone who is a member of the Quaker group here in Taos. I teach the third grade at the Yaxche School, and we have been studying the Civil War. Would you be available to talk to us about pacifism?"
Third grade? How old would they be? Would they be squirming? Attentive? Un-manageable? I had no answers to those questions but, hey, how often would I get a chance like that?
"When would you want me and for how long?"
"Could you come this Friday at 9:00 am?"
"I’ll be there."
I figured that if the kids entered school when they were about five, then they were probably between nine and eleven years old. I had no memory of my own children at that age. Since I now live in Plaza de Retiro there wasn’t anyone that age in my social circle. But I had the rest of the week to let the prospect and the substance of the session roll around in my mind. Nothing really took shape.
As I was dressing on Friday morning the penny dropped. Instead of putting on my shoes, I called my wife and asked her to sit beside me while I talked out an idea. I got more confident as she approved the thoughts that had developed in me.
And so I left for the short walk to the Yaxche School and walked into the third grade room. It was a space, not a room. Like elementary school classrooms today, this was equipped with all sorts of interesting things: globes and maps, paints and bulletin boards, anything and everything that might serve as a magnet for an inquiring third-grade mind.
Kendra was not what I expected: she was a young mother with her newest infant strapped to her chest while a second child, probably two years old, played quietly with toys around her feet and in another part of the space.
And there was the class! Ten of them, all sitting on the floor or slouched against the wall. All mute. Almost intimidating! I tried to introduce myself as "Dyck," the short name that is used by almost everyone I know. I even said that I had people who called me "Grandpa." But, no, I was "Mr. Vermilye, a Quaker." And so I started to speak.
"I want to tell you a story. Remember, this is just a story.
"Last week in the Taos News there was an article that you may not have noticed. It said that the mayor had driven down Salazar Road and passed that big empty field at the southern end. You know where that is?"
Kendra said, "You know. That’s where the hot air balloons are launched." Heads nodded.
"Well," I continued, "the mayor noticed that the prairie dogs had begun to clean out their burrows and were piling little mounds
of dirt all over the field. He thought that was unsightly and the holes that the prairie dogs left could be dangerous if anyone was to
walk out there or if a horse got a leg caught in one of the tunnels. He spoke to the town council and they agreed that it was a bad place, and bad for tourists to see. Something had to be done.
"So the council and the mayor decided that all third graders in Taos had to go to their nearest Police Station and register. Give their names, where they lived and their parents’ names. And they were to be given a small plastic bag with pellets in it. They were to go to the Salazar Road field and drop a pellet in every prairie dog hole they could find. The pellets were poisonous and would kill the prairie dogs living in the tunnels underground.
"What do you think of that?"
There wasn’t a rush to comment but then one hand went up.
"I wouldn’t do it."
"I wouldn’t want to kill a prairie dog."
The class interaction was actually pretty limited and echoed the first concern about killing prairie dogs. I was not there to be a conscientious objector counselor, but told them that sometimes it was possible in some countries to apply for what I said was alternative service. "It was once called the Civilian Conservation Corps and was like what I understand the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps to be like today."
A hand shot up. "My daddy started that."
I said that a famous U.S. poet had volunteered for alternative service during the Civil War. His name was Walt Whitman. During his alternative service he worked in field hospitals and helped doctors who were treating severely wounded soldiers who had had legs blown off. They would probably learn more about Whitman later in school since he was a famous poet. I told them that I remembered the Civilian Conservation Corps had been paid just what I had been paid when I was a soldier: "a dollar a day once a month." I tried to help them see the humor in that but I think I failed.
Who knows in what other ways I failed? No more than half the class spoke while I was with them and I have no idea whether any spoke later. And, I suppose, it is also fair for me to ask myself, "In what way did I succeed?" I thought killing prairie dogs or not killing prairie dogs would be an easier concept for ten-year-old kids to think about than the Holocaust or the consequences of Hiroshima. And I thought that maybe one or more of them would have had a burr put under their saddle which they will find irksome and thought-provoking as they grow. As a Quaker I could only hope so.
As it turned out, Kendra encouraged them to write to me. It helped me decide that my session was not a complete failure. I got some wonderful acknowledgements:
"Thank you for telling us about Quakers." "I liked hearing the story. I learned that it’s sometimes hard to be a quacker." "I learned that you didn’t need to fight in war. You could be a conscience objection and what I liked the most was the story you told us first." "I learned that when you are a boy but don’t want to fight in war you are making a conscience objection. What I really liked most was talking about the prairie dogs."
And I loved being introduced to a schoolteacher who could bring her newborn to class in a chest cradle!