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Child Soldiers

Unidentified Young Soldier

How old does this boy look? If he were alive today, he would be about the age of my junior high school students.

This spring in social studies, our eighth graders were studying the United States Civil War, so the communication arts teachers decided — in the interest of interdisciplinary studies — to guide our students through reading Civil War literature.

In prepping for this unit, I stumbled across a book about boy soldiers in the Civil War. Apparently the youngest enlisted was nine years old and the youngest wounded in battle was twelve. At first I — as a mother — was shocked at the young ages. As a teacher, I was delighted to find a way to make history relevant to the class. They could look into this boy’s face and see someone like themselves. Estimates are that there were 100,000 soldiers in the Union army alone under age 15. The minimum age for enlistment was 18, but children could and did lie about their ages, and parents could and did give their permission for an underage child to join.

As I say, the mother in me was shocked by the young ages of these child soldiers. But then I realized that in my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lifetime, teenagers did not necessarily attend high school. In families that were not financially well off — which was the majority of families — children would be on their own at age 14. My great-grandfather Martin Walz emigrated from Bavaria to St. Louis when he was 14, and he traveled by himself, picking up work as a cook, a saloon keeper, a wine salesman, a candy shop owner. His son and namesake — my grandfather — graduated from eighth grade in the same class as my grandmother, and that’s all the education they ever had. One of my husband’s grandmothers was married at age 14 and bore her first child at age 15.

As I recall from my classwork in the School for Education, it wasn’t until the 1930s that teenagers started being required to attend high school, partially so they wouldn’t be able to compete with adults for scarce jobs and partially so they could be trained for blue collar work. More and more U.S. citizens were moving from the farms to the cities and needed to learn job skills required in industry, and that is why the nature of secondary education changed from college prep to a two-track system including vocational training.

Students who were going to work in industry needed to learn how to sit quietly, do as they were told and follow a schedule, which is what students are required to do in high school today. However, the nature of work has changed and jobs of the sort high school used to educate students to obtain no longer exist in great numbers. Now we need students to exercise higher order thinking skills, to think creatively and independently. Desperately, educators are trying to instill those skills in a system that was not designed for this type of education.

Next fall my daughter leaves the shelter of elementary school and is supposed to enroll in middle school, the beginning of her secondary school education. She is a talented student, and I was excited for her until we attended a tour of the new school. It was so big. There were so many stairs. Each grade inhabits its own hall so older children will not harass them. And there is a full-time deputy sheriff on staff who has an office right next to the nurse’s office.

My daughter was already upset, because she had to make a choice between taking orchestra or taking visual art classes. Swallowing hard, I started to initiate her into the limitations of adult life. “You have to make choices … You can’t do everything.” I felt my heart closing, and I felt awful being the one to limit her like that. Was that my role as her mother? As a teacher? Or should I be expanding her choices?

How do we go from May when she is in the friendly, comfortable elementary school she has attended since kindergarten to August in a school where students are considered to be so dangerous that there is a full-time law enforcement officer on staff? Why are we so afraid of our children? Are they that dangerous?

How old does the young Union soldier look in the photo at the top of this post? Not much older than my daughter.

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Photo Credit: The Library of Congress http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/5229153190/

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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.

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