Thursday, December 25, 2008

Another Soldier Story

My students call it the "ghetto security system" although I prefer the term "old school" to "ghetto". Regardless of the moniker, the cowbells wired to the top of my classroom door are pretty effective at alerting us whenever anyone enters or leaves the art room. A hand on the door knob is enough to set them clanging.

"You've got a visitor! Should I get the door?"

I looked up from the paintbrushes I was cleaning and dropped them into the sink. Nearly tripping over a chair, I raced to the front of the room where a young soldier had just stepped inside.

"Oh my god! You're back! Look at you!"

"Is that your daughter?" a tenth grade boy asked as I stepped back from the warm hug.

"Some things never change." I laughed "This is Tabitha, and she has been my daughter since she was a freshman at Max Hayes. She adopted me."

For four years Tabitha was a fixture in the art studio. Her blond hair drew attention in an urban school where the majority of her classmates had darker complexions, and students often assumed, because of my 'currently blond' hair, that we were certainly related. Growing tired of their questions, Tabitha began calling me "Mom".

Eyeing the beige and green fatigues, I asked, "I heard you were going to join the Marines. What happened ? Was I misinformed?"

"The Marines promised money for college, but it seems they have no idea how much college costs these days. The Army had a better education program. I'll be starting nursing school soon."

"I'm so proud of you. You look so much better than the last time I saw you at your sister's commencement."

"I am better."

After graduating in 2006, Tabitha followed the same path as many of her classmates, as she tried to figure out what to do with her life. Unable to afford college, she had spent the last couple of years working, first at a pizza shop and then at a used car lot. When I saw her in the auditorium at her younger sister Samantha's graduation, she looked tired and miserable, and left immediately after the ceremony with hardly more than a wave in my direction. A very different young woman in front of me now. She was animated, confident, and happy.

"I've been in the Army for seven months. I love it. I completed my training as a petroleum specialist, but I decided what I really wanted to do was nursing. Right now I'm stationed in Virginia. They let me come home for Christmas because in February I'm being deployed."

"Deployed?" With that single word, my heart sank.

"I'll be going to Iraq for one month, and then on to Afghanistan for twelve months." Accurately reading my furrowed brow, she added "Don't worry. I'll be fine. Actually I'm excited about going, it will be an adventure."

I cannot keep track of how many of my students are now fighting overseas. Like Tabitha, many will come by to visit with me before they go to war, but very few ever come back to talk about it when they return. As often as they promise to write or call, I've never received a letter or even an email, but admittedly I did not take the initiative to write either. I think about these young men and women all the time, wondering where their lives have taken them. About eight years ago one of my boys, who had joined the Marines, came back to see me after returning from a violent episode he experienced while on a stint in Lebanon. He recounted his tour of duty for more than an hour in my office, with tears running down his face. It was quite heart wrenching.

I've often said that one of the best things about teaching high school are the relationships you build with your students. When those relationships become friendships that sustain into adulthood, a teacher feels truly blessed. I am grateful to have made some very dear friends over the course of my career.

Tabitha and I met for lunch at Stone Mad a couple of days before Christmas. We talked about everything from families to boyfriends, gossiped about classmates and faculty, and even discussed philosophy and religion. We lingered, laughing and chatting until the dinning room was empty, and the wait staff were anxious. Before we parted we exchanged e-mails, phone numbers and addresses. This time I will make certain I write the first letter...After all she is my daughter.
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Sammy said...

We have every right to be proud and respectful of our military broghtes and sisters. We don't need to agree with the politics, but these courageous people don't serve a political interest, only a Code of Honor that civilians can never understand.

There are those that chafe at that last statement; they might even interpret it as some sort of slight to them. Nothing could be further form the truth. No one can comprehend the true meaning of battle, of actual combat, who has not personally experienced it. There are absolute, crystal clear numinous moments follwed by hours of sensory decompression and flatness, only to find aderaline filled action and responses based on training and experience. It is the absolute supreme freefall from emption, logic and reason. It is the focus of the highest intensity, especially when another life, or other lives, depend on a single action of another.
It's not "god-like" it IS God - Merciful and Terrible, Loving and Destroying,obediant and defiant, all in the same instant.

Marybeth - your concern for your "student-warriors" is a wonderful thing, and even your least thought may change the course of their lives forever. I wish more people had your compassion and gratitude for them. I for one, thank you, and I thank my brothers and sisters who are where I would wish to be again.

Alice Rericha said...

Wow, I couldn't beleive that was Tabitha. She is so grown up. I remember her when I was student teaching- such a little fire cracker!