"Dear Mr. Bush," one 10-year-old Buffalo student recently wrote to the president. "Our teacher is leaving because she got laid off because the U.S. doesn't have enough money to support her. So we are asking you - no, wait, begging you - to give us at least a couple hundred dollars or something like that."
I was that child's sixth-grade teacher until December, when I was laid off - one of 195 Buffalo teachers to be let go. I didn't teach an extravagant elective or an optional after-school program. I taught a full-time class of 19 sixth-graders.
My classroom was locked shut, and my students were split and dispersed among three remaining sixth-grade classes, increasing each by 30 percent. The kids cried as they were directed to drag their own desks down the hallway and wedge them into their new classrooms.
Why is this happening? Like much of the country after Sept. 11, many school districts are now in serious financial trouble. In places like Buffalo, where local property taxes don't generate enough revenue to cover basic education, schools have relied on state funding to make up the difference.
But with almost every state now feeling the financial ripple effect of Sept. 11, the billions of dollars in state money that many schools have depended on - the money used to help pay teachers like me - is suddenly no longer available. Buffalo's schools were on life support before Sept. 11. Now my students and I have become the latest collateral damage of the terrorist attacks against America.
"Why," asked one of my students, "do we have enough money to spend in Afghanistan, but not enough to keep our classroom open in Buffalo?"
I strongly support America's war against terrorism. But as a teacher, I believe we also have to "do the math." When we're all being asked to sacrifice, when we've gone beyond trimming the fat to slicing the bone by laying off almost 200 teachers in just one school district alone, should the Pentagon really budget $8.3 billion, for example, on an elaborate and unproven Star Wars system that can neither stop a suicide terrorist nor educate one sixth-grader?
Buffalo could avoid laying off any teachers if it could get less than one half of 1 percent of the $8.3 billion that's currently budgeted for Star Wars. That same $8.3 billion could build more than 1,000 new elementary schools across America. And for the price of just one Star Wars test, we could solve Buffalo's school crisis, and still have more than $70 million left over.
"Put yourself in our shoes and see how you like it," the student's letter to the president continued. "It's like this: If you don't help us, could you imagine how many hearts you would break?"
We are a nation of broken hearts after the horror of Sept. 11, and we're all trying to heal. My own heart has broken 19 more times since - once for each of my lost students. But shutting the doors of even one more classroom anywhere in America will only create more fissures.
The six hours those kids spent in my classroom each day was the only stability many of them had.
"Dear Miss Merzacco," one of them wrote in a letter to me. "I am going to miss you. You're the only teacher that felt like family to me."
I believe we are also a family in America - a family and a nation that needs to take a critical look at its budget and its priorities and the hearts of all our children who must be well educated. They are our future, our best weapon against terrorism.
Carmella Merzacco is a teacher living in Kenmore, New York.
Copyright 2002 The Buffalo News