"Before that day, Vietnam had never really entered my mind," said Frank, 17, a senior at Haddonfield Memorial High School. "But when my dad came in and talked to my class, I was pretty amazed. I felt proud. Hearing him talk, I realized how much I didn't know about what had happened to him."
For many children of baby boomers, born into times of relative peace, the war that marked their parents' generation and tore apart a nation remains a mystery.
Despite the movies, books, songs and poems devoted to the war, the Vietnam era seems an age far removed from their own, even though it has been only 25 years since the last American helicopter lifted off from Saigon.
Even the images of long-haired men and women in bell-bottoms and bandannas protesting the war, while a source of fascination today, are sometimes stereotyped and often misunderstood.
This comes as no surprise to many teachers, students and Vietnam veterans. For the longest time, the Vietnam War was a source of shame. Its veterans were ostracized and felt that they could not talk openly about their experience - even to their children - without being met with boredom or contempt.
And in the schools, it would take more than a decade to develop curriculums to teach students about Vietnam, said Jerold Starr, director for the Center for Social Studies Education in Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that supports teaching the Vietnam War. Even then, the Vietnam War would be incorporated into American history classes, and teachers would rarely get to it before school let out for the summer.
In many ways, said Starr and others, the generation that was born after the war was left to learn about Vietnam from Hollywood: from Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter, Charlie Sheen in Platoon, Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. In many cases, he said, the films failed to capture the complexity of that era.
"And the politics surrounding the war were so nuanced and different from what we see today, that it's difficult to get kids to understand," said Starr, a sociology professor at West Virginia University.
David Childs, 18, can attest to that. Before taking a class on the war in high school, much of his knowledge came from the movie Born on the Fourth of July.
The images were ruthless. Fresh-faced boys not much older than he was losing their limbs, setting fire to villages, and killing babies. Young soldiers of a powerful country losing a war for reasons they never really understood.
He remembers leaving the theater with more questions than answers.
"Before that, all the wars seemed patriotic, and it seemed like there was a reason behind them," said Childs, a senior at Haddonfield High School. "But this, it was like, why were they there? What was the point? I wondered what the whole war was really about."
Answering those questions for the generation born to baby boomers is a difficult task, said Ted Goertzel, a sociology professor at Rutgers University in Camden.
Baby boomers, he said, were an idealistic generation, one that reacted to the strict set of morals handed down by their parents, raised questions about the meaning of life, and became swept up in a cultural revolution that seemed unmatched by those of previous generations.
And coming of age in the 1960s was a wild experience, in some ways more confusing than growing up today, said Janet Golden, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in Camden. There were drugs, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement and the sexual revolution. There were sit-ins, demonstrations and bloody clashes with police.
"I see the Sixties as a very long decade that begins in 1954 with the Brown decision [desegregating schools] and ends in 1975, with the end of the war," said Golden, who teaches a course on the 1960s. "And with the end of the war, everyone is just worn out and exhausted."
With the end of the war, said Golden, a "cultural revulsion" swept the nation, a kind of conservative backlash against the brand of activism that filled the 1960s. And the men who fought in Vietnam came home to a nation that wanted to close the wounds and start a new chapter in American history.
That was the climate in which children born in the '70s and '80s were raised, Goertzel said. While the generation born to boomers bears the imprint of the 1960s - racial awareness, gender sensitivity, a deep mistrust of government - "exploring the philosophy of life went down, and making a good living became more important."
That point resonates with Steve Nieman, a senior at Haddonfield High School taking a course on Vietnam this semester. To Nieman, who is just learning about the peace movement, there is a perception that the antiwar movement "was like one big, cushy bandwagon."
"They were out there celebrating and dancing around and saying, 'Make love, not war,' but what did that really accomplish?" asked classmate Matt Pappalardo.
Their teacher, Patty Kolodi, said that by the end of the semester, she hopes to tackle those questions.
"We try to give them both sides of the story, and let them make up their own minds," Kolodi said.
For students such as Nieman and Pappalardo, there is as much sympathy for Vietnam veterans as for those who protested.
"I can't say whether the war was really worth it or not, and I can't say what I would do if I were living in that time," said Lori Quintavalle, 18, of Haddonfield. "I can say that I'm proud of everyone who went there and sacrificed their life. I look up to the veterans. I look at them with pride."
"They were just as heroic as World War I and World War II veterans," said Drew Lipiecki, 17, of Haddonfield. "If I lived back then, I would have gone to war. . . . So many people died fighting for our freedom. Stepping up to the call of our country is really our job as citizens."
It is a major shift in thinking, said Vincent Phillips, a Vietnam veteran who is the director of the Burlington County Alternative School. Ironically, the shift bothers him.
Phillips, 51, said he speaks to high school classes about his war experiences, oftentimes alongside men who dodged the draft or participated in the antiwar movement. The youths, he said, treat him with respect and former protesters with anger.
"It bothers me that a lot of kids are hostile toward the resisters," he said. "It scares me, because it makes me think that there could be another Vietnam."
In the schools there is a concerted effort to teach the war not as a set of historical facts, but as an open-ended question that challenges students to draw their own conclusions.
That is a far cry from the early 1980s, Starr said. Back then, there were only brief references to Vietnam in high school and college texts. Teachers were intimidated by the idea of teaching a war that they themselves were still struggling to understand, and veterans were wary of talking about it. And then there was the question of how to teach it.
"Before I took a class on Vietnam two years ago, I just couldn't understand how Americans seemed to be winning battles over there but losing the war," said Sung Lee, 22, a senior at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "That was a major question we tried to answer, and we did that through learning about the American military experience and learning about the politics behind the war."
Still, in today's relatively stable political climate, it is harder to understand the forces behind such a paradoxical war and get a new generation excited about what today seems like "ancient history," Golden said.
"We are foolish to expect students to be any more knowledgeable about Vietnam than they are about the New Deal or the Second World War," said Michael Zuckerman, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's all history to them. If you didn't live through it, it doesn't matter if it was five years or five centuries ago. It's an expectation by grown-ups that their kids will share the same passions they did."
And for Joe McElroy, who was a combat soldier in Vietnam between 1970 and 1971, that is all right. He is not searching for affirmation, from his generation or the next. Taking the baby step of telling the story of his life to a class his son was attending was enough.
"After I talked to his class, Frank wrote me a nice letter," Joe McElroy said. "Everyone in the class wrote me a note, but Frank's was very touching. It was to the effect that he used to think I was a jerk, but that now, he sees things differently. He said he was proud of me."
Tomorrow: Philadelphia's Vietnamese community.