Vets? No, But They Write What They Know
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Now to our English teacher. He's Jim Ruland, a Navy vet. He teaches at a California community college and he's a writer, too. His course is designed for students with a strong interest in the military, but somehow that detail did not get into the course description.
This spring, I'm teaching an entry-level English composition class with a special focus on the military experience. Anyone could enroll in the course, but it was specifically designed for veterans, dependents of military personnel and individuals considering a career in the armed forces. However, none of the students who enrolled were aware of this special focus.
So imagine my surprise when I showed up to teach and found not a bunch of grizzled vets, but a roomful of young women, many in their late teens and early 20s, who made it very clear they weren't at all interested in the military.
Ms. DAMERES GUTIERREZ(ph) (Student): I was pretty shocked because I didn't know that it was on the military, and I didn't quite like that idea.
RULAND: Did you spend much time thinking about the military before taking my class?
Ms. GUTIERREZ: No, not at all. No time.
RULAND: That's Dameres Gutierrez, age 19, and her reaction was pretty typical.
Obviously, I couldn't continue the course the way I'd intended, but I couldn't scrap the curriculum, either. So I started with something timely and controversial to spark their emotions and drum up discussion. We read an open letter from Kevin Sites, the free-lance journalist who captured the footage of a Marine shooting an unarmed man in a mosque in Fallujah. The letter is frank, lively and honest; everything in our conversation in class the following week was not. A couple of students dropped the class. Since I'd done most of the talking, the failure was mine and I took it to heart.
For their next assignment, I asked my students to write a short essay about their relationship with the military. The word `relationship' threw them. A relationship was something you had with your parents or boyfriend, not the military. I explained that the relationship could be defined by virtue of being citizens of a country that uses tax dollars to send its military overseas, or maybe their relationship was shaped by the images they saw in the news or read about in the paper.
Ms. ROSIO PUENTE (Student): I'm Rosio Puente(ph), and I'm 22 years old
RULAND: Your first assignment, I asked you to describe your relationship with the military. Was this hard for you?
Ms. PUENTE: Yes, because when I first thought about writing the paper, I didn't feel like I had one, but--so it was really hard to come up with something. But as I was going through it, I realized that I actually do have a lot of connections to the military.
RULAND: Their essays were astonishing. One student wrote about her experience cutting hair at a Marine barbershop at 29 Palm, and how her perspective about her clients and changed after 9/11. An Iranian woman in her 40s wrote about how she lost a brother in her country's conflict with Iraq in the late 1980s. Here's Rosio again, reflecting on the essay she wrote about a relative who'd served in the first Gulf War.
Ms. PUENTE: Well, I think before, the way I looked at my Uncle Harry(ph) was kind of like this outside alien kind of thing that I didn't understand. But now I kind of feel like I have kind of inside knowledge of the way it is, and so I feel like I understand it better.
RULAND: Now the course is almost over, and my students are reading and writing about Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead," the salty memoir of a Marine sniper's experience in Iraq. They know what MREs are and the difference between a grunt and a squid. They've considered what it's like to go to war, and written about the challenges one faces when your spouse comes home in a wheelchair.
But most importantly, they've come to understand that the military is made up of men and women who are willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals; in other words, the same kinds of people who strive to better themselves by going to community college, which leads this English teacher to declare `Mission accomplished.'
CHADWICK: Jim Ruland is a Navy veteran and part-time instructor of English at Santa Monica College. A collection of his short stories, "Big Lonesome," will be published in the fall.
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CHADWICK: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.
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