CHESHIRE — Students enter Ralph Zingarella’s class on the Vietnam War era laughing and joking with one another.
In just a few short minutes, the class at Cheshire High School turns somber, as shocking images of war, passionate protests and young soldiers flash across the screen.
“That could be you. These are 18-year-old kids. College? Forget about it. You’re going to war,” Zingarella tells the class of juniors and seniors. “There was a lot of violence in Vietnam, and here at home with the protests.”
Zingarella teaches students about America’s role in Vietnam and how the war influenced events in the United States.
The class is so popular that nearly 100 students are on the waiting list, school officials said.
More students than ever went to U.S. colleges in the 1960s, morals and standards for young people became looser, and “trust no one over 30” became a mantra for youth.
“Before that time, in the ’50s, we had to wear collared shirts and you couldn’t wear blue jeans to school,” said Zingarella, who grew up in the 1950s and was in college in the ’60s. He took part in some protests but wasn’t that active, though he did grow his hair long.
“The Vietnam War was such a decisive war,” he said, as students watched “Two Days in October,” a PBS documentary about two separate events in 1967 that changed people’s perceptions of the war. Based on the book “They Marched Into Sunlight,”the documentary tells the story of a Viet Cong ambush that caused some elected leaders to question whether the war could be won and protests at the University of Wisconsin against Dow Chemical, makers of napalm.
“War is not good, but don’t blame the messengers, the soldiers,” he said. “It’s the people in charge. The 59,000 people on the Vietnam Wall shouldn’t be there.”
Student have a chance to write about what weapons should be allowed in war and what companies should be allowed to recruit on college campuses.
“I teach them they have a voice. If they see something wrong, to say something,” he said. “I want them to examine their own morals, what they think of themselves morally.”
Many of the students said they took the course because classmates had recommended it.
“It opens my eyes,” said junior Skyler Sklenarik. “After this class I’ve seen how war is terrible. I wish we did stuff like the protesters. I think our generation just isn’t that feisty.”
Junior Ellie Senft took the class because she didn’t know much about the Vietnam War.
“It surprised me that people protested the war and that the vets were ignored when they came home,” she said. “It upset me that people didn’t appreciate their service.”
Senior Joe Strollo said he is learning about the government’s role in the war.
“I feel badly that they had to go through all that and they didn’t even need to be there,” he said of the soldiers. “The (fighting in Afghanistan and war in Iraq) is not that noticed by kids my age because there’s no draft.”
Junior Colin Thorne said his mother, father, and brother all had Zingarella for a teacher.
“Some of the stuff that happened in Vietnam is pretty gory,” he said. “It’s shocking to see what happened.”
Some of the students said they were saddened, but felt enlightened.
“It’s interesting to learn about the war. They don’t really cover it in American history, probably because America wants us to forget about it,” said senior Wes Robertson. “It’s shocking to see the things we did. He (Zingarella) makes it personal and when it’s personal, it means something.”