Stories

A theory: Just like most divorces from spouses happen around the first, seventh, and twenty-ninth years of marriage, so, too, do divorces from lines of work. Now into my sixth year of teaching, I feared we were entering our seven-year-slump and would either need to get some counseling or see if a short separation wouldn’t reignite old passions. It’s true I am weary of his thesis statements and word counts, his comma rules and red pens, but when we decided to take our relationship to the next level and move to Alaska, I found all sorts of meaning in working with a new batch of students, mostly an older group of students putting their V.A. benefits to good use.

Usually, my interest immediately wanes when someone brings up an African country or a type of artillery. And, it’s true that for the first two minutes of conversation with one of my students, a former marine, I was politely trying to make eye contact while clicking around Blackboard. At first all I heard was “off the coast of Somalia” and “a big-ass AK 47” but then he started with this one: “I think they were Russian mercenaries . . .”

He says that while he was in Somalia a group of Russians were running a business that offered money-rich, blood-thirsty individuals a chance to take a “murder tour.” The Russians would teach them how to kill. Then, supposedly, these otherwise normal civilians would have a chance to take out some Somalian pirates.

Soon engrossed and wanting not only to be polite but also to contribute, I told him that I read in last month’s edition of Harper’s that the number of military-related suicides is higher than the number of military-related deaths. He said that one of the guys in their camp shot himself outside while the rest of them were eating dinner. He said they all just kept eating and the “mess” was cleaned up in fifteen minutes. He was diagnosed with PTSD but not because he hits the floor if a car door slams too loudly but because he has an unhealthy case of desensitization. Yet as he told the story about the guy outside, he looked about to cry.

This morning I went to Aaron’s kindergarten program and watched these adorable five-year-olds sing “Tony Chestnut Knows I Love You” as they tapped their toes, knees, chests, heads, noses, and eyes to the syllables of the song.  For another song, they danced with a partner down the alley formed by their classmates, and Aaron had them all give an emphatic “Yes!” when they turned and saw who their partner was.  These students adore Aaron. When I’m hanging out after school and letting Clara try out the egg-shakers, shy sixth-graders come in and ask if he’ll play something on his soprano or tenor saxophone and whisper to themselves, “That’s so awesome.”

Correct colon usage and transitional paragraphs don’t offer a lot of mystery, but people do. At its best, writing, like music, is about communication, and although there have been happier times, I think teaching and I might soon schedule a private renewal of vows ceremony. We all have stories to share and ideas to discover, and it’s the teachers in our lives—even if they happen to be students—who help us find them.

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