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The faces of 16-year-olds

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff, 9/8/2002

DOVER, N.H. - Paul DiPietro is an unpretentious man, a 32-year-old father of two who speaks with a disarming blend of earnestness and affability that belies the weighty subjects he discusses with his 16-year-old students at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.

Those subjects form the core of ''Social Justice,'' a course DiPietro does not ''teach'' as much as he uses to jump-start critical thought among teenagers who are only beginning to evaluate the morality of 21st-century society.

Eugenics, immigration, ''just'' wars, prisoner rights, civil liberties - these are but a few of the topics DiPietro serves up to a classroom that sometimes is difficult to engage. But last Sept. 11, no rhetorical inducements were necessary. On that tragic day, DiPietro and his 20 students watched a live broadcast as the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed into a smoldering, twisted, dusty grave for 2,821 innocent workers and the police officers and firefighters who had tried to save them.

Suddenly, ''social justice'' took on new meaning for a small group of students - most of them ''naive and isolated,'' said DiPietro. These students now approached their teacher's questions with a head-on pragmatism that, without the constant images of the calamity, would have been elusive at best.

Some of them had parents who served in the military at nearby Pease Air Force Base; some of them had joined ROTC and now pondered future deployment to one of the most remote areas on earth; others questioned the rush to anger against ordinary Muslims in their hometowns.

''Social justice'' had become current affairs at this 700-student Catholic high school. And for DiPietro, the deadliest foreign attack on the United States - and its aftermath - made the last academic year the most compelling and important of his career.

''Nothing that has ever occurred to me in my lifetime scared me as much as what occurred that day,'' DiPietro said. ''And I'm sure the same is true for my students.''

Changing course

Sept. 11 in DiPietro's classroom unfolded with 10-minute segments of television, followed by discussions with students about what they had seen, and what it meant. Immediately, the course's focus for the remainder of the semester changed to the surprise attack and to the military, political, and legal ramifications of the high-tech, fitful war that followed.

''We talked about assumptions being made about the identity of the attackers,'' said DiPietro, who lives in Medford, Mass. ''We talked about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and asked students: `What makes us think it's them?'''

That morning, the noise of nearby jets at Pease caused students to look out the windows and up to the skies. DiPietro assured his class that the sound was of military aircraft dispatched to protect the country, rather than commercial planes that had been hijacked to cause even more destruction.

That night, the students' previously assigned reading on the romantic anticipation of World War I - and its obscene, disillusioning reality - took on deeper meaning. DiPietro challenged them to question whether the eager, reflexive desire for quick retaliation after Sept. 11, which many of the students and their teachers shared, might fall victim to some of the same regrets that dogged European leaders who plunged their continent into devastating war between 1914 and 1918.

''Some of them had the same type of enthusiasm: That we have to go out there and start dropping bombs or shelling,'' DiPietro said.

Each day, the class turned to the real-time drama of the most important global event of the students' lives. The daily questions at the start of class - ''What's new? What have you heard?'' - became starting points for discussions about the meaning of ''war,'' the occasional infringement of civil liberties during national crises, the popularity of flag-flying during war, civilian courts vs. military tribunals, and rhetorical pressures from both sides of ''the war on terror'' to dehumanize the enemy.

''We had to talk through the consequences of what action we would choose,'' DiPietro said of the US government. ''One of the challenges of `Social Justice' is always getting the students to put themselves in someone else's shoes.''

In the classroom at St. Thomas Aquinas in the weeks after Sept. 11, DiPietro watched 16-year-olds trying to make sense of the world. In that regard, they were not different from millions of other Americans who were having to deal with the shock of the terrorist attacks. But what DiPietro saw in the faces before him was not just a struggle to come to grips with violence and hatred. It was also the death of apathy. A new generation had just experienced its Kennedy assassination, its Challenger explosion, its end of innocence.

A natural fit

DiPietro describes himself as a liberal, and as a professional teacher by accident. After attending the University of San Diego, near where his family lives, he traveled across the country to earn master and doctorate degrees in theology from Boston College. ''I was just studying theology for the sake of it,'' said DiPietro, with the thought that he might venture into youth ministry after his studies.

''It was not necessarily my objective to become a teacher,'' DiPietro concedes with a smile that seems as attached to his face as his neatly trimmed beard.

But after teaching for four years at St. Anselm College in Manchester, and seven more at St. Thomas Aquinas, DiPietro appears to be a natural fit. His manner is comfortable, friendly, compelling, and prodding - a combination of qualities that seems to be a Hollywood composite for the kind of popular teacher who educates by charisma as well as intelligence.

''The thing that I enjoy most about teaching? When I see students grow, develop, change, ask new questions that they wouldn't have asked otherwise,'' DiPietro said. ''I like to see the lights go on, and to have them wonder about things they otherwise wouldn't have questioned.''

Last school year, DiPietro said, ''the lights went on more than usual.''

That switch was not difficult to flip. ''A lot of these kids had been up in the twin towers, and now they had watched them fall,'' DiPietro said.

From that point, ''Social Justice'' took on a news-propelled momentum of its own. ''I challenged my students to think about the meaning of the words they were hearing, especially the use of war terminology from the first moments of the attack and the phrase `War on Terrorism,''' DiPietro wrote for Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that encourages teachers and students to examine issues of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism.

DiPietro, who coordinates the use of Facing History at St. Thomas Aquinas, launched his 20 students into a discussion about the meaning of ''war'' in World War II, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the war on poverty, and the war on drugs. ''My aim was to help them recognize the metaphorical uses of the term and its implications, especially regarding the possibility of a definitive end to the effort,'' DiPietro told Facing History in a Sept. 11 retrospective that he wrote for the organization's Web site.

The class also discussed the use of ''good'' and ''evil'' that had become prevalent in the public discussion surrounding Sept. 11, citing its use by both the US government and terrorist groups to refer to each other, and comparing such dehumanizing rhetoric with similar descriptions of the enemy that had been a key feature of Nazi propaganda.

DiPietro said he has not had restrictions placed on the boundaries of his classroom discussions, including such potentially prickly topics as the sudden proliferation of US flags on homes, cars, and public places. His students have been encouraged to question ''the authenticity of patriotism that only shows up in a time of crisis,'' DiPietro said.

''I certainly encourage my students to think critically about all of these issues,'' DiPietro said. ''There's a difference between cynical and being critical.''

Eye-opening discussions

The course has led to surprises both inside and outside the school, the teacher said. One of DiPietro's students, the daughter of a high-ranking official at Pease Air Force Base, brought a classroom exercise home to the dinner table, where she asked the military family to conceptualize Sept. 11 through the eyes of the attackers.

''That is not an option we usually consider at the table,'' DiPietro said the student's mother told him.

The result of such discussions, DiPietro said, was that the class ''had an easier time understanding why, for example, Germans were resentful of Western democracies after World War I, and how that resentment could have led to something that led to Hitler.''

Even inside the classroom, the new questions went in surprising directions. In one example, two students who had never gotten along well - one in ROTC, and one who generally shunned the military line - took dramatically unexpected points of view.

The non-military-minded student, DiPietro said, argued that the United States should start bombing immediately. The ROTC student countered by saying: ''Now, wait a minute. That could have me shipped off, and I'm not so sure this is what I want to do,'' DiPietro recalled.

''That conversation opened up a lot of eyes,'' the teacher said.

If opening eyes is the goal, DiPietro believes he has helped a small group of teenagers adopt a slightly different world view. And for a teacher, such a change speaks directly to the core mission of the profession.

''Right after 9-11, most of the students would have been in favor of taking military action. I'm not sure I could say it had changed a lot by the end of the semester,'' DiPietro said. But throughout the coursework, he added, there had been tough questions posed and tough questions discussed.

Classroom questions about patriotism and freedom of speech and civil liberties would not have been probed in such detail had not the attacks occurred, DiPietro said.

DiPietro said that not a day passed last school year in which he did not think about the tragedy. This year, he occasionally will get through a day without replaying images of the attacks or thinking about their consequences.

''Literally, I lived through that event with those kids,'' DiPietro said. ''I'm not sure it will ever be the same.''

This story ran on page E4 of the Boston Globe on 9/8/2002.
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© Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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