By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN Photographs by Heather Ainsworth for CNN
It was not quite 8 a.m. and Ambur Misercola’s first-period history class was still shaking off slumber as she told them of a woman detained in Moscow’s Pushkin Square — not unlike the historic Public Square a short drive north that anchors this American military town.
Yulia Zhivtsova’s crime, as it were, was taking two Harry Potter books to the square on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — one from the Ravenclaw House edition and one from the Hufflepuff version. As most young people know, the color for Ravenclaw is blue and for Hufflepuff, yellow. The book covers correlate. Thus, as Zhivtsova sat beneath a lamppost reading, the green patina likeness of poet Alexander Pushkin watching over her, she appeared to hold a Ukrainian flag.
“But she’s just reading Harry Potter, right?” Misercola asked her students. “Those are kind of interesting forms of protest that they can still get in trouble for.”
Over the next two days, Misercola would continue to challenge her students to think critically about the crisis, assigning projects centered on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with world history students examining media influence and economics pupils looking at the effects on markets.
For some, it’s a straight line from the war zone 4,500 miles away to their classroom. While about 50 of the more than 1,000 students at Watertown High School have a parent in the armed forces, most of them stationed at nearby Fort Drum, others have friends and relatives in the Army. That’s not counting the children of veterans and military contractors.
Fears of loved ones being deployed had been largely allayed by the time Russia’s incursion entered its third week in mid-March, but concern lingered. Familiar with the former USSR and NATO expansion, students worried about Vladimir Putin’s unpredictable nature and World War III.
For sophomore Mason Dimmick, the anxiety is personal. The 16-year-old wore a sweatshirt from a joint military drill at South Korea’s Rodriguez Live Fire Complex, an American flag on its sleeve. A US Army lanyard was tucked into his hood. His mother gave him the hoodie. It was too big for her. His stepdad is in the military, too. Though unlikely, he’s pondered moving to Texas to live with relatives if they were deployed, he said, but it isn’t his only worry.
“She’s my mom,” he said. “I don’t want to lose her or anything.”
Depending on the class, Misercola’s students chose assignments from among several options, including fact-checking social media, studying the flow of aid or sanctions, writing a letter to a TV station, comparing political slants in reporting, sketching a political cartoon or tracking oil prices.
What they picked offers a glimpse into today’s teenage mind. Tech was a popular theme. Weaponry, namely Javelin missiles, and nuclear power plants were regularly raised, as were Westerners supporting Ukrainians by renting Airbnbs they didn’t intend to visit. Sophomore Aydin Amell compared the plummeting Russian ruble to a V-Buck, a currency used in Fortnite. Elon Musk — with his Starlink satellites and evacuees relying on their Teslas’ “camp mode” — was regularly brought up.
“Even though he’s not a country, he has a lot of money to help,” senior Makena Babcock, 18, explained during her econ presentation.
Seniors Habib Bencomo and Genesis Smith, 18, focused on oil, canceled flights and Russian banks. Misercola pulled Habib aside, offering praise for the context he included — all the more impressive, she said, considering English is his second language; he moved last year to Watertown from Culiacán, Mexico, to be with his mother and brother, who is stationed at Fort Drum.
Habib’s interest in gas costs spiked when the 17-year-old gym rat noticed prices rising each time he drove to his workouts. “I asked myself why it’s increasing very fast, so I did an investigation,” he said.
Refugees were another recurring topic. Mason presented a project on evacuation routes. The fighting seems senseless to Mason, but it made less sense that, at the time, most of the proposed escape routes led to Russia or Belarus, he told his classmates, pointing to the massive monitor supplanting the chalkboard behind it.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a 3D-printed “dissent collar” hanging on the wall above him, Mason told the class, “They have no choice but to go to their enemy nations … to survive from the war and they don’t have a place to live.”
Later, he confided to CNN, “I don’t want to imagine what’s going to happen to them.”
Waning fears of World War III
The kids were on break when Russia invaded. Misercola and Jo-Ann Webb-Bennett, an educator of 27 years, were teaching the Cold War before students left. Misercola had been delivering lessons on the Warsaw Pact and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, while Webb-Bennett’s charges had been studying NATO. Both were ideal transitions.
“The majority of the kids came back on (February 28) with snippets of information and that we were going to be starting World War III, so there was a real need to talk about the historical background rather than just what was on the news on a day-to-day flash because kids don’t watch the news,” Webb-Bennett said.
“They watch TikTok,” Misercola chimed.
“Yes,” Webb-Bennett continued, “and so the pieces of information that they were getting were tearing at their heartstrings and they were scared at the same time, so they needed some historical background.”
Misercola handled queries about war and the draft in a straightforward manner, she said. Yes, the young men would have to register with the Selective Service, but the United States hasn’t conscripted soldiers since the Vietnam War, she’d explain.
“It’s too early to claim it’s World War III,” she said. “We’re doing economic sanctions to try and prevent further war from escalating and that they don’t need to worry about being drafted at this point. We have one of the largest already standing militaries, and if it happens, we’ll deal with it then.”
Kellie Ortiz and Clayton Day, both 18, aren’t terribly rattled. Clayton’s dad is a retired Marine who works in a civilian role at Fort Drum. Clayton would like to join the Corps himself. The specter of world war is concerning, but the draft isn’t.
“I’m not too worried about it because I would go first, personally,” the senior said.
Kellie has cousins in the Army and plans on joining himself in August. His predilection for ammo and gear is steering him toward logistics, he said. He isn’t worried about war, he said, adding Russia would’ve stood down if Donald Trump were still in charge.
The sentiment is shared by classmate Robert Carbray. Even if war had erupted under the last administration, he said, “Trump would’ve done something about it.” The 16-year-old wants to be a US Air Force pilot, he said, and while Watertown’s proximity to Fort Drum worried him initially — as does Putin’s distaste for President Joe Biden — he has faith the international community can stave off broader conflict.
“Everyone’s just smarter,” Robert said. “It would be putting the whole world at risk.”
Not everyone is sold on military service. Jeric Poblete’s dad is a sergeant first class at Fort Drum. The 16-year-old history buff just finished a book on the Korean War his father recommended. He, too, wants to pursue a career in aviation, but the negatives of the military route — post-traumatic stress disorder and other possible ailments atop the list — outweigh the positives, he said.
Jeric was mildly worried by the prospect of his dad’s deployment, but his fears have subsided. He’s also certain the conflict won’t reach American shores.
“I personally have no concern over what’s going to happen here at home,” the sophomore said. “As for World War III, I highly doubt it will escalate into a global conflict.”
For all those confident everything will be fine, there are classmates who remain unsettled, especially when it comes to Putin.
“It’s not stopping, so we don’t know where it will go,” said Micaiah Saint-Val, 16, whose dad is a retired Fort Drum serviceman. “People don’t really know what (Putin’s) doing.”
Cameron Baird is the son of an Air Force retiree. Though he’s “not super concerned” about war spreading, he remains uneasy about the Russian leader.
“Basically, no one should fire any nukes, but we don’t know about the stability of Putin — so that’s a little concerning.” the 15-year-old said.
From industrial hub to Army town
The wind whipped outside while students worked. Spells of sideways snow are common in March. The 12-foot piles of white stuff plowed into every edge of the high school parking lot stand as testament, emboldened by the toe-numbing nip in the air.
The city of 25,000 sits in North Country, tucked between the Adirondacks and Lake Ontario, both exacerbating the chill. The Thousand Islands Bridge into Ontario, Canada, is a 40-minute drive up Interstate 81.
A mile and a half from Watertown High sits the Public Square that Misercola cited in her lesson on protests. Established in 1805, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Its former epicenter, Hotel Woodruff — which boasted Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Ulysses Grant among its VIPs — was razed long before students were born, but the square still hosts dozens of multistory masonry rows dating back a century or more.
Troops were in the area long before Fort Drum. Infantry soldiers were stationed at nearby Sackets Harbor to enforce an 1807 trade embargo and later to fight in the War of 1812.
Farms, mills and factories soon dotted the periphery of the Black River, which runs fast through town en route to Lake Ontario. Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) was built at the outset of the city’s heyday in 1908. Watertown began morphing from an industrial hub to a military town during World War II, hastened as industry was lured outside the state. The terrain and climate made it an excellent training ground during the Korean conflict, and the abundant forest allowed the military to test Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Jefferson County, where Watertown serves as seat, takes pride in providing troops for every major war since its 1805 inception — as evidenced in the 50-foot-tall Soldier and Sailor Monument and the obelisk honoring 20th-century war veterans on the Public Square.
In Thompson Park — designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who created New York’s Central Park — stands a monument to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most deployed units in the US military. Division troops have called Fort Drum home since 1984. With 15,000 soldiers and almost 5,000 civilian and contracted employees, it’s the county’s largest employer, contributing almost $1.5 billion to the area in 2020.
Yet it isn’t all industry and military. Watertown has numerous illustrious daughters and sons, including former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, ex-CIA Director Allen Dulles, who’ve lent their surname to the 11-story state building near downtown. The city also inspired a Harry Chapin song, and for Frank Sinatra, a whole damned album.
A portrait of one of Watertown High’s most famous alumni hangs in a second-floor hallway: actor Viggo Mortensen, of “The Lord of the Rings” fame. Misercola — who graduated in 2005 with her twin, Brittany, now an Air Force surgeon — recalls “fangirling too hard” when the 1976 grad visited the supermarket where she worked as a teen. The movie star’s question about tomatoes left her speechless and pointing like a mime, she said, her customary smile spreading beneath blushed cheeks.
The tools to untangle a modern conflict
In 2019, a writer for The Atlantic dubbed Watertown “the least politically prejudiced place in America,” a title embraced and debated by locals, and the projects from Misercola’s students wielded a variety of leanings.
While the majority of students’ sympathies fall with Ukraine, one young scholar compared NATO’s expansion to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another called out the hypocrisy of the United States rebuking Russia, considering its own warmongering.
Perhaps it’s a product of Misercola’s neutrality in class. She wants students to consider all sides and contemplate how multiple variables drive outcomes.
“We talk relatively frequently in (class) about how history is told from the viewpoint of the victor, so by having that discussion we get to look at this as it’s happening in real time and say, ‘OK, so what would the story be if Ukraine wins? And what will the story be if Putin wins, or Russia?’” she said.
Hence, several students opting to don fact-checker hats for their projects. Kimberlie DiLeonardo, 15, identified three images on social media purportedly from Ukraine — a troop standoff, an explosion and a crying child — that actually had nothing to do with the invasion.
“It can get out of control when it comes to fake news,” the sophomore told the class. “It can cause more conflicts and make small situations grow larger.”
Conner Cantwell, 16, his bangs swooping out from the hood of his Green Bay Packers sweatshirt, said he used CBS, CNN, Fox and The New York Times to determine the veracity of reports on a ceasefire. He showed video of a reporter sparring with a State Department flak over evidence of Russian “false flag” operations.
Fellow sophomore Andrea Doan presented 12 methods for detecting fake news. One of the steps: “Check your own biases automatically.” The 15-year-old conceded she had trouble doing that when she first learned of the invasion via TikTok. What she knows of past wars worries her, but nothing like the TikTok of Ukrainian siblings recounting how their parents left home on an errand and never came back.
“That’s just so messed up and so sad,” she said. “I cried about it, of course.”
Her friend, Jillian Jones, 17, who also learned of the invasion on TikTok, added, “All these innocent people are being attacked for no reason. They”re shooting hospitals with children inside. It’s so sad. …. Being in the house hearing bombs, I’d probably start crying.”
Misercola — who signs emails, “The most dangerous phrase is ‘It’s always been done this way’” — provided a stream of correction and encouragement. “I love all of you, but I can still shake my head at you just like your parents do,” she said one morning.
She corrected pronunciations — Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko among the most butchered. “Dictator” is a less charged word than “evil,” she instructed one student. She reminded others to remain quiet during presentations and put their earbuds, phones and Chromebooks away. “Wrangling monkeys,” she quipped.
When sophomore Adorie Jones presented her project as an investigative journalist, Misercola praised the presentation and layout of Adorie’s mock newspaper, but asked, “Would an investigative journalist write, ‘Putin’s acting like a child that has had his favorite toy taken away from him’?” The class, in unison, said no.
Later, the 15-year-old told her teacher, “It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and I was angry.”
Misercola’s retort: “That’s a dangerous time to write.”
Earlier, senior Jacob Sanders said Russian leaders were being “sourpusses” over NATO. Standing beside him at the head of the class, Josh Marra, 17, apologized for his classmate’s language.
Misercola informed the students that in a morning class one presenter had read from a right-wing publication that reported, “Biden has no balls.”
“So, your language is fine,” she said, chuckling. “Sourpuss.”
The next day, the projects wrapped. Misercola hopes she accomplished her two-pronged mission of educating them about the Russia-Ukraine conflict while bringing them some personal peace.
“The goal of the project was to teach them how to find the information they need to feel more confident and aware of what’s happening in the world, which does in fact ease your state of mind. We could have done that just through discussion, and I want them to learn skills to help them later in life when other big events occur,” she texted a week later.
By then, of course, the toll of Russia’s war on Ukraine had multiplied. Watertown High School’s teens had moved on to the next lesson: for the econ students, graphing a supply-and-demand chart, and for those studying history, scripting Netflix-style shows on the Chinese or Russian revolutions, or World War II.
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