For Those Who Serve

It was Tuesday. I was at work and it was lunch. There were several students in my classroom: one taking a vocabulary quiz that she’d been absent for, another finishing an assignment that she needed extra time on, and a third asking me to help her format her paper to MLA specifications.

My turkey-noodle soup was finished warming up in the microwave, and just as I was about to sit back down at my desk, the door to my classroom opened again. This time, it was not one of my current students, but a former student, one who had graduated the year before. He was wearing Dress Blues and I squealed when I saw him.

It felt like Christmas seeing this young man stand before me in full regalia for the Marine Corps.  This was a boy whom I had taught for two years—once as a junior, and again as a senior. He had put a rubber snake on my chair once just to see my reaction, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the reaction he got from me on this day.

I knew that he had planned on joining the military after graduation, and I knew that after the military he wanted to become a State Trooper, but teachers hear a lot about dreams. Some dreams don’t go as planned, some dreams change, and some dreamer’s lives end too soon.

Mostly when I run into graduates they are handing me a Cinnamon Dulce Latte at Starbucks or they are ringing me up at Safeway, talking to me about college. They don’t wear the giant grin I saw on his face. They’ve got miles to go before they sleep. 

As I looked around at the students working in my classroom, I thought about how this young man had been seated at one of those desks just last year, and in five months time he had been catapulted into adulthood. He didn’t make the slow and arduous transition that comes with earning a college degree. He didn’t look exhausted or uncertain. His smile beamed as bright as the gold buttons of his coat.

I’ve yet to run into a former student at their profession. I have not had one write me a prescription or write me a ticket. I have had other students come back to see me in their Army combat gear, but somehow…this time it felt different.

Maybe it was coincidence but my nephew had just left for Parris Island for his basic training for the Marines the day before. I knew how upset my step-mother was; the fear of him enlisting had tormented her for months, but I didn’t share in her woe. I prayed for his safety, but when I thought of his future and of the choice he had made, I felt nothing but pride. The same pride thrummed through me now.

As a teacher, we talk the college talk to our students, but we know that not all students are cut out for college. Even less, perhaps, are cut out to live the military life. And in a world with so many possibilities, I wonder if fewer and fewer will choose it. Whenever I see a man or a woman who has, I am thankful. Thankful of the sacrifices they have made. Thankful of the service that they provide to the citizens of this country, most of whom are complete strangers. It seems a selfless act of valor that I myself could never make.

My own father was in the Navy. Growing up, my favorite stories were those he told from his time of service. There is an old polaroid taken of my father while he was out at sea. He is sitting on his bunk with a far-away look in his eyes. You can see his last name on the breast pocket of his shirt. He wasn’t looking at the camera. I like to imagine he was thinking about home, about the woman he would later ask to marry him. It was a part of his life that was lived long before me that harbors the mystique and intrigue of an adventure novel, but only because he lived to tell.

My husband’s grandfather fought in World War II. When he recently passed, my husband collected treasures from his basement: an old phonograph that his grandfather had recorded to send to his own mother (my husband’s great-grandmother), The Bluejackets’ Manual from 1940, musty military books and sepia photographs.

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These are our heroes.

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped to shake the hand of a stranger I saw while I was on my run. He had patches from Vietnam on his coat and an American Flag on his hat. Veterans Day had passed, but I needed to say those two words.

I will never know what it is like to stand in combat boots. I hope I never know what it feels like to fire a gun. I pray that I will never spend months away from my home and my family. But for all those who do: Thank you and Thank you and Thank you.

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