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Teach-In guests walk a fine line

Published Sep. 4, 2005

The lesson is simple: Heroin kills. But sometimes rescue workers can prevent a death.

Emergency medical technician Paul W. Costello pulls out a vial the size of a crayon. He passes a substance called Narcan around the second-grade classroom.

Too much reality?

He doesn't think so.

"It's a fine line and you play it by ear," says Costello, who will travel in one day from this suburban classroom to the county juvenile detention center, all in the name of the Great American Teach-In.

"For the second-graders, you don't want to terrify them," he says. "You want to speak in terms they will understand. Knowledge is like a cake. You want to build on it, layer by layer."

Such is the goal of many working adults who are venturing this week into America's classrooms. They groom pets, mix chemicals and perform magic tricks, imparting variations of the same message: Study hard and you can grow up to do something cool.

My own dog-and-pony show involves journalism, a process depicted in the movies like the running of the bulls _ but with less sensitivity.

A third-grader asks me: Do you interview people in hospitals?

Good question. Sometimes we do, I tell her. One reporter in my office caught flak for telephoning a beating victim, hoping to speak to a relative but conversing, instead, with the patient himself.

But most times, we respect the privacy of people in distress.

I read to them from the memoirs of Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan, whose strategy, when people hang up on her, is to call back once. Say, "We were disconnected." Give them that chance to reconsider.

Then leave them alone.

Reading from Buchanan's book, The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, is, in itself, problematic. How much gore can these kids handle? Dare I even make disparaging remarks about Miami, where many of the children have relatives?

Invariably, we find ourselves sanitizing what we say.

And, in doing so, we get a lesson.

We learn, in our 20-minute sessions, what teachers face as they seek to make sense of a shrinking and often violent world.

How, we wonder, did they answer questions about Sept. 11? Are they teaching their children about Iraq? How do they handle issues such as drugs, domestic violence and teen promiscuity that might hit close to home?

Is it any accident, given these many minefields, that the lessons we learned as children were so distorted and oversimplified?

"Kids know a lot more, at all levels, than we give them credit for," says Costello, who in one of his later talks will explain the chemical side effects of the drug ecstasy. "You have to talk to them honestly."

Kids want to know if we enjoy our jobs. We love it, we tell them. We have to.

They don't want to know about the office politics or the struggle to make time for family or the eternal fear of layoffs or the rising cost of health insurance. They're looking for Indiana Jones.

The gulf between us and them is never more apparent than in those 20 minutes. Their expectations, our realities. Their teachers' deftly crafted reality filters, our clumsiness in applying them on the fly.

They serve us breakfast when we get to the school. They give us awards and thank you cards when it's over. That's the hard part _ letting the teachers treat us like the dignitaries, the heroes, the magicians.

When they pull rabbits from hats every day.