Tough Times at Shoemaker High

Executive editor Mimi Swartz on talking to high schoolers in Killeen about losing a parent during wartime.

texasmonthly.com: How did Barbara Critchfield become the main character in your feature story about Shoemaker High School, in Killeen?

Mimi Swartz: It was obvious. The guidance office is the school’s emotional center, and she runs the guidance office. The kids clearly love her, and she has been moved by all that has happened to them.

texasmonthly.com: What was your first impression of Critchfield? Did your assessment of her change through the course of your reporting?

MS: My first impression of her was that she was very tough. As I reported, I saw more layers to her—she’s like a lot of people who have tough exteriors but who are very soft inside. She really cares about those kids.

texasmonthly.com: Was Shoemaker High what you were expecting? Why or why not?

MS: I thought Shoemaker was fascinating. What I thought was especially interesting was how much of a bunker mentality pervades there—people get along, people like each other, and they’ve all drawn together because of the enormous stress they are under. They understand each other because their experiences are so common to one another.

texasmonthly.com: Were most of the students willing to be interviewed? Were they suspicious of you, a reporter?

MS: Most teenagers are suspicious of adults who want to ask them questions, and the war brought up a lot of anxiety. Most of the students were willing to talk, but I thought Jessica Blankenbecler and Rohan Osbourne were exceptional in their ability to articulate everything that has happened to them.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story? Why?

MS: The most difficult aspect of working on the story was having to inflict emotional pain on people—asking questions that I knew were very hard to answer, especially on the kids. On the other hand, as Barbara Critchfield said, people have no idea what these kids are going through, so it felt like time well spent to deliver that message to our readers.

texasmonthly.com: Do you feel enough resources are available to help these kids and their families?

MS: I think the Army is trying, and it is to be applauded for doing so. According to the Military Child Education Coalition, the Army is often in the forefront of social change, and it is here, really trying to keep families and communities together under very difficult situations. On the other hand, when kids lose a parent in wartime, I’m not sure how much these institutions can really do to make them feel better. The loss is so profound, coming as it does at such a young age, that the kids finally have to find their own way through it. The best thing the Military Child Education Coalition has done is set up peer-to-peer discussions, so the kids can help each other.

texasmonthly.com: What motivated you to write this story?

MS: The idea came from senior editor Pam Colloff, who always has great ideas, and I knew I wanted to do it right away. I wanted to report on what the kids at Shoemaker go through; it was another way to write about the home front during wartime. Most of us do not have to deal with the Iraq war on a daily basis; if we did, I think there might be more action one way or another to move for some kind of organized resolution.

texasmonthly.com: What is the message you are conveying to readers?

MS: I wanted readers to think about the families who are sacrificing so much to fight this war. It does strike me as unfair that they are shouldering so much of the burden while the rest of us do so little.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?

MS: How smart and generous the students and faculty are at Shoemaker. Many of these kids have lived all over the world, and they are mature beyond their years because of all they’ve seen and experienced.

texasmonthly.com: Do you think Barbara Critchfield will be at Shoemaker High School much longer? Why or why not?

MS: I think Barbara will have to be carried out on a stretcher. She loves her job and the kids, and they love her.

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