As an educator for 40 years, I had countless opportunities to witness the genuine goodness of teenagers. One such memorable moment came in the winter of 1991, when as a U.S. Marine reservist, I was called to active duty for Operation Desert Storm.
At the time, I was a Spanish teacher at Garden City High School and an interrogator/translator in the intelligence field in the Marine Corps. I received my activation letter on Feb. 4 when I got home from school that afternoon and was given only two weeks’ notice before deploying. I knew there was the remote possibility that this could happen, yet being an optimist, I chose to keep it in the recesses of my mind. I was reminded, however, that not everything could be wished away and that sometimes reality could hit us with an unexpected and powerful thud. That night, as I tried to adjust to what would soon become my reality, I was on the phone for hours with family and friends. The following day, I informed my principal and my students, and their sympathy and consolation were overwhelming.
I went through the next two weeks in a daze, yet it was not until the last day of classes before departing that I discovered the true impact that this event would have on my future teaching career and on me. It was Friday morning, and one by one, my colleagues bid me farewell, and my students asked infinite questions. As the day progressed, I received cards and gifts. I was deeply touched by the outpouring of love and concern.
Expecting to find boxes of candy and bottles of perfume among the presents, I was speechless as I opened gift after gift of what represented deep personal meaning to the giver.
There, wrapped in white tissue, I found a personal Bible with a note attached from a sophomore girl, telling me that it was her most prized possession, and she wanted me to have it. Prayer, she said, was very important. In another brown paper bag, I pulled out a compass from an 11th-grade Boy Scout who did not want me to lose my way in the desert. Another student gave me hand cream and lip balm for protection from the wind and sun. In a small box, there was a St. Christopher medal from Mark, who apologized for his constant doodling in my Spanish class. There were other special symbols, and each opened my eyes wider to the real message of teaching: We touch lives and teach lessons, not just through chalk and textbooks, but more important, by who we are and by what our life stories tell about us.
When I returned from Operation Desert Storm, I had a new perspective of the classroom. I had had a chance to see children from the “inside” and that had made all the difference. I discovered that if I looked closely enough, I was able to see past their teenage angst and emerging bravado to a deep wisdom. I, the teacher, became the student, and the lesson I learned at that pivotal point in time was priceless.
Reader Marie G. Nuzzi lives in Albertson.