I’m involved in teaching, and I love it. It is one of the few jobs where you get to see kids progressing day by day towards new understandings and towards maturity. To follow the trail of past students is also a fine thing. There is nothing that is more rewarding than a kid that you had three, five, ten years ago come up to you and say, “How are you doing”! Part of teaching I believe is being genuine with the kids. Kids know if you like them, and when you don’t. I’ve always tried, imperfectly, to be open and honest with my kids, and yeah, they are my kids. This means sharing bits about yourself, and picking your spots when you choose to do so.
A long while back, about 12 years ago I had two students. They were good boys, a bit rough around the edges, which is how 11 or 12 year old boys should be. They had horrible handwriting, and their homework performance wasn’t much to be raved about either. In a lot of ways, if learning by mistakes is the best way to grow into knowledge, I figured these kids would be Einsteins if not sooner, later. But, they were good boys.
One day they saw a set of jump wings that I had embossed on a board inside my desk. Next to it were my E5 stripes, and my 82nd Airborne patch. Being all boy, the two of them asked me about what jumping out of planes was like, and I was more than happy to let them know about my experiences jumping from planes and the G rated stories of my six years in the Army and National Guard. Like most rough around the edges boys, I think they were pretty impressed.
I also coached a lot back in the days when I was a younger teacher. Time and other issues of life have taken that away from me. One of these rough and tumble – now teens – was on two of the teams I coached. The other also played sports, but not ones I coached. Well, it was the baseball team, and he was my 2nd catcher and spot player. Which means when I needed a player to do a certain thing in a certain spot he did it. Coaches like 2nd string catchers, at least I did. I also knew this kid could play in outfield, infield, even pitch a couple of innings. I knew that he was tough, because he had been on the wrestling team, and yeah, I was his coach. There’s a special relationship that develops when a kid who was stuck with you for a year in a classroom wants to be on every team or club you run. This kid even joined clubs I oversaw, and one night when I saw him at McDonald’s after a wrestling match, he gave me that big smile and said, Coach, I made my weight. Eat your Big Mac kid, you deserved it. You see he was also the kind of kid you could send out on the mat against the toughest kid the other team had to offer, and he did that because he knew it would make his coach happy. Where do you get kids like that?
Well I’m sure you know what kind of man this kind of kid grows up into. He and his partner in crime back in the 6th grade had grown up into tough young men, and one fine day in October when I was on another field with the only team that they didn’t join or try out for that I had coached, since it was a girl’s team, showed up in uniforms of United States Marines. They hung out and after the game said How’s it going Coach? You see “kids” like that remember you as a teacher, but I think they never forget you as a coach. I smiled at them and slapped them on the back. I told them I was proud of them, and that they were serving their country, which was a fine thing. They smiled, and a part of me wondered if they had remembered seeing their teacher’s and coaches jump wings when they were eleven.
That was in 2000, and of course you know what happened after 2001. These two Marines have been in Iraq for four tours of duty. They are, thank God, healthy and have not yet been injured. They are both, like their teacher-coach in combat arms. Most times when I think of them, I say a prayer, or try not to think of them. When I see one of their moms at PTA meeting or when she is picking up one of her other children, I am always uneasy, and ask does she blame me for the fear she must live with day in and day out. I try not to think of it too much.
One day I heard on the radio that a serviceman had died, and that he had attended the school district where I worked. I was in a panic, and learned to my initial relief and then horror that it wasn’t either of those two kids, it was the older brother of two other kids – both the deceased younger brothers – whom I had taught and one of whom wrestled for me.
God knows I want our nation to have security. I also believe those two kids when they told me about the good they were doing in Iraq (I last spoke with one of them a year ago). I know both are over there now, deployed, and doing God knows what. I either pray, or try not to think about it too much.
A part of me hopes I never influenced them to enlist in the armed forces, and that the smile that I had when I told them about jumping out of planes, or the friends that I had made while I was in the Army stayed inside of me, even though many years had passed. A part of me thinks this is a delusion of grandeur, and that I don’t have so much sway over a kid, who turns into a young man, who turns out to be the model of what I want my students to be, citizens who understand and value our nation. A part of me says, your kidding yourself. You did influence them. They were your ideal of what a boy should be, what a player should be to his coach, and what a young man does for his country. You did all of these things, and like a good teacher, modelled it for the learner.
Whenever I read stories about bringing the troops back home, I die inwardly because I know that the armed forces are filled with young men who are just like those two kids with whom I developed a special bond, the bond of the teacher and the taught. The bond of the coach and the athlete who would run through the wall for his coach, even though he would never do the homework the teacher gave out. I also know that I was that type of kid, and became that type of man. It is my fondest hope for those two boys, and all the boys and girls of this nation who serve it so proudly, that they come home safely to the love that their families have stored up in countless days and nights of fear. I also know, that in the case of these two boys, though they want to come home, they won’t, not until they know their job is completed.
Where do such kids come from?