If it's a war of words in the Middle East, American troops will be well-armed: Students, teachers and parents at Southeast Middle School in Guilford County have collected 21,892 paperback books and magazines to send to the military stationed in Saudi Arabia.

After seeing television news accounts of information-hungry troops passing around pages torn from books, Chris Villa decided the school - where her son, Ted, is a sixth-grader - could do something about it.``I thought it was pretty neat, because we're helping out,' said 12-year-old Ted. ``Since they have to be over there so long, why shouldn't they have something to read?'

John Herndon, 13, said the troops could use a book to while away their time.

``If they get bored and don't have anything else to do, they don't just want to sit around and play charades,' he said.

Marcia Abernethy, the middle school's media coordinator, turned the drive into ``Operation Booklift,' a contest with a party for the three homerooms that collected the most materials between Oct. 29 and Nov. 9.

``I talked to everybody and they kept giving me books, so I brought some every day,' said Anne Rissmiller, 11. Her father is the Rev. James Rissmiller of Community in Christ Presbyterian Church, and when the church cleaned out its library, Anne took the unwanted books to school.

Her classmate Sharon Plummer, 11, said her grandmother contributed 1,000 paperbacks she'd collected over seven years.

Frances Upchurch's seventh-grade homeroom contributed a school-high 3,525 books and magazines - including more than 1,000 on the last day of the contest. One of her students, Kim Ackley, 12, said donating reading material is the least the students could do for the troops.

``They support us by going over there and fighting, so we should support them in any way we can,' Kim said.

The N.C. National Guard is scheduled to pick up the books and magazines Monday and truck them to Fort Bragg. The Army is organizing an airlift, and Air Force planes will fly the books to Saudi Arabia.

Because of strict moral codes in Saudi Arabia, the school turned down paperbacks with racy covers and the ``Sports Illustrated' swimsuit edition.

And because some folks used the book drive to clean out basements and attics, the school received some materials for children and teens. Instead of throwing them out, the school gave them to three area hospitals.

Abernethy said she hopes the drive teaches students a lesson about reading for pleasure.

``I hope it's explaining the fact that reading and education are an ongoing process,' she said. ``It's not just something that goes on within the confines of the school walls.'

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