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War is hitting the home front hard. Young people who've known battle only in terms of Rambo and Nintendo are suddenly confronting the realities of war.

In schools all over the United States, students are using class time to write letters and send gifts to Americans stationed in Saudi Arabia. In some cases, these pen pals are taking on extraordinary significance. An eighth-grade class at Varnum Brook Middle School in Pepperell, Mass., recently learned that two of the Marine pilots they'd been corresponding with are now prisoners of war in Iraq."It brought it home even more to them that this is something very serious," says their teacher, Tricia Erwin.

At schools located on or near military bases, many students are dealing with separation from parents or other relatives deployed to the Persian Gulf.

"The teachers are aware that when a parent goes TDY (on temporary duty), there's extra TLC (tender loving care) to be distributed right away," says Paul J. Farley, principal of Hilltop School, an elementary school near the Fort Devens Army base in Ayer, Mass.

In the days after war broke out, teachers, students and administrators found it difficult to carry on the business of school as usual. Junior and senior high schools from Chicago to Los Angeles called assemblies or held "teach-ins" about the situation.

"This is a turning point in history that their children will study years from now," says John Thomas, middle-school principal at Kinkaid School in Houston. "We can't just block it out like it doesn't exist."

Many teachers found themselves wishing for a crash course on the Middle East. Without textbooks or other teaching aides, the people in front of the class must depend on newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts to keep themselves and their students informed.

Classroom magazines, such as the Weekly Reader and Scholastic News, are responding quickly with special editions to help both teachers and students.

When the war began, many students weren't sure how to react to the news.

"Everyone was really upset," says Lorig Charkoudian, a senior at Newton North High School in Newton, Mass. "There was TV going in the library and in the film lecture hall so people could keep up with the CNN updates."

For younger children, the focus is often on reassurance. Elementary school teachers speak of using maps to show their students how far away the conflict is and explaining gas masks or other things seen on television.

"Over the last five years or so there's been a greater sensitivity in schools of the need to provide the opportunity to discuss things like this," says Lew Armistead at the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. "I think that the Challenger tragedy was one event that contributed to that."

Unquestionably, schools - private and public, small and large - are taking their responsibilities to students seriously.

"We made certain that all the teachers were aware that they could feel quite comfortable talking about (the war) in class, answering questions, hearing what the kids were worried about," says Thomas.

But where, when and how the war is discussed at school can be controversial. Differing opinions among parents, teachers and students often clash. School officials must walk a tightrope separating those who would emphasize discussion of the situation and those who would minimize it.

At Hempfield Area High School near Pittsburgh, 150 students walked out of classes in protest of what they said was a lack of attention to the war. When the students refused to return to classes, they were suspended for three days.

Meanwhile, a mother in Albuquerque, N.M., kept her daughter home from La Cueva High School, protesting what she considered to be too much attention to the war.

It's a tough balance for those in charge.

In a number of instances, teachers, parents and students are using the school as an arena for activism.

For example:

- Students from more than a dozen public and private high schools in New York demonstrated against the war, many walking out of school to take part.

- In Oakland, Calif., parents petitioned the school board for the right to withhold their children's names, telephone numbers and addresses from lists given to military recruiters.

- About 100 students at Newton North High School marched to a nearby armory, placing peace signs on the door.

Some schools are hoping to provide their students with a haven from the changes war is bringing to their lives.

"We're ready to deal with any problems that come up," says Farley of Hilltop School, which has a majority of students from military families. "But in another respect, we're hoping that we can give students a respite from the pressures of what's going on, too."

For many students, the crisis has brought a heightened awareness of the world they live in. "I watch the news every night now with my parents," says Stephanie Bourgeois, an eighth-grader at Varnum Brook Middle School. "I never watched the news before."