Rachel was an honor student in my senior history class. One morning when I arrived at school early, I found her sitting alone on the steps in front of my classroom, sobbing uncontrollably.
It was 1992. The Rodney King beating verdicts had been announced and a wave of anger-driven rioting and rebellion was washing across Southern California, cresting precariously close to suburban Los Alamitos, where I teach. The sky was black with smoke from fires not too many miles away that had been torched by rioters.
For most of the hour before classes started, Rachel confided her fears to me in a rush of tears and unanswerable questions. Rachel was 17. She told me she had never been so afraid. "Where will it stop?" she sobbed. "Where will it stop?" she asked me over and over again.
I struggled to console her, and I too wondered, "Where will it stop?"
The violence did stop, and the raw fear that had gripped Rachel slowly subsided. I've kept that indelible image of the fear I saw on Rachel's face securely locked away somewhere deep in my memory. And those words. "Where will it stop?"
It is now 2003, and one recent morning a student in my history class nervously asked me whether I had seen the strange ring around the moon over the weekend. The unexpected question and the urgent tone in her voice jolted me to attention. I told her I had not seen it.
"It really frightened me," she said.
She described the glowing ring and again said, "I'm scared." Her friends, she said, assured her that the moon's eerie halo was nothing more than ice crystals. "But I don't believe them," she said. "It means something else, something more terrifying!"
At that moment, I saw that same look of raw fear I had seen in Rachel's eyes. "Is it about the war?" I asked. She nodded that it was. I told her that I too was scared, and we talked about the importance of talking to friends and family members (and teachers) about our fears. For a moment, at least, we were afraid together, and this seemed to ease her fears.
Then suddenly, Rachel's words came back to me. "Where will it stop?" Since that conversation about "ice crystals around the moon," I have become increasingly aware of the growing war fears that I see in the faces of other students. One student and I exchanged nervous glances when a particularly loud airplane passed over the campus. We smiled at each other in relief as the sound receded. Then there was the routine school emergency drill, when the mood turned decidedly (and uncharacteristically) somber as an administrator explained the various signals we needed to know.
Another day, a boy presenting a current event report was asked by a classmate whether he was willing to die in a war against Iraq. There was dead silence in the room. After a pause, the boy answered that he supported the president and would fight if called. As he sat down, the room again fell silent. Students seemed to sense that the classroom exercise had veered into a dangerous and personal discussion of war and death.
As Rachel did many years ago, my students are again asking: "Where will it stop?" Again, I have no sure answers for them. I know that Rachel's world came back into a semblance of order in a few days. This time, I am afraid we may not be so lucky.