I lived in Europe as a 19 year old. Not as an exchange student or as a language teacher, but as an Infantryman during what, my later history teacher’s mind would recognize as the last gasp of the Cold War, an era of collapsing walls: an era where, with one swing of a sledgehammer (and 5DM), you could literally take a piece of history home with you.
At the time I had no appreciation for the zeitgeist or the lessons I was learning. A post-urban white-trash suburban punk, I had never been educated to filter the experience of conflict through the eyes of Wilfred Owen or even James Foley. The reason I joined the army was that no university would have me, and after a year I had flunked out of community college: to me the army was just a quick path to something other than working at the car wash.
It has taken 25 years for me to learn, see and understand the lessons that being a veteran has to offer the teacher—especially when working with students who resemble me when I was their age. People from New Jersey who knew me back when I was a punk tell me to encourage all my “bad kids” to enlist, assuming that I straightened out due to the discipline imbued by a stint in the Infantry. “Knocked some damn sense indaya, eh, Billy?” they sneer, not realizing, as any veteran does, that you can easily get through a 4-year enlistment or more without gaining an ounce of maturity or sense.
I believe any soldier, when you ask him to think about it, will say that—among the weapons, tactics and parachute training—the key lessons learned stemmed not from the weapons, tactics and parachute training, but from learning how to trust and learn from others. On a small scale, my current efforts at teaching strive to convey this essential truth to my students, who are just a bit younger than I was when I enlisted; to impart the wisdom I earned while saving them at least some of the confusion and hardship.
In the end this may be a misguided endeavor. For all the mistakes I made as a youth, I wouldn’t trade one for the chance to take a different path at any juncture, no matter how temporarily catastrophic. And to suggest to my students that I somehow know better than karma or fate—to try to spare them the experience—is to belie what I learned through direct, sometimes painful, involvement. One of the essential truths seasoned teachers understand is that our role isn’t to remove obstacles, but to help navigate them.
Which reminds me of the day I taught Wayne Cooley how to walk:
End of February 1992, I find myself on 22-mile road march in the middle of a rainy, sleeting winter on Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Most of the company (including me) has some degree of trenchfoot from standing in water-filled foxholes for three days. The anti-tank gunner from my squad, Little Wayne Cooley from Arkansas, even shorter than me, at 5’2”, lags further and further behind in the formation, forcing everyone behind him to run to catch up every few minutes. A mutiny is brewing and Cooley is breaking down. As his team leader, I break formation and march next to him, pacing him and showing him how to bend his legs and stretch out into strides that match those of the taller soldiers in front and behind. He yells at me to “f*** off” and let him fall out for the “bus” (the 5-ton truck that shadows the formation collecting stragglers) to pick up. Ranked a corporal, I ride the fine line between soldier and sergeant (a conflicted role today’s ‘teacher-leaders’ can appreciate) and a bedraggled Cooley’s in no mood for my sergeant mode right now (he already doesn’t like me because I am from north of the Mason-Dixon). But I don’t relent: I ignore the cussing and the sleet and the moaning and the mud. And then—in the middle of a renewed downpour, after pacing him for over an hour—Cooley gets his stride. In the slush and the shifting, bloodied jungle boots, he recovers.He doesn’t drop out. He widens his stride and maintains the formation. The storm never relents, but neither does he, and he finishes the march.
When the unit is back at the 3/502 barracks sitting outside cleaning our rifles and rucksacks—and recovering—Cooley rushes up to me like he’s going to throw a punch, but instead he grabs my arm and announces incredously to the platoon that, “This northern mutherf***er taught me how to walk! You taught me how to walk, Tolley!”
It’s not the normal Veterans Day story, and it’s not the normal teacher’s tale, but that’s the precise moment I decided I would become a teacher. Over the past 25 years I’ve come to appreciate how the two narratives intertwine and define my daily work, and the lesson is surprisingly simple:
If you want to teach someone to walk, walk with him, through anything.