Something special began on a warm Friday in November two years ago in an eighth-grade classroom. The bell for dismissal had just blared across campus and an explosion of life surged as students poured out across the quad. In my classroom, some of the usual stragglers huddled in a group, bent over their phones as they watched the latest trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron. The sound of the video was punctuated by an occasional comment on Captain America’s “cool uniform” and how “sick” Ultron looked.
“Hey, do we have school next Monday?” one of the boys asked in the group.
“Yeah, we’re off Tuesday,” another student replied, eyes still glued to his iPhone screen.
“Why can’t the school give us Monday off? I want a long weekend.”
“’Cuz it’s some holiday for, like, animal doctors or something,” yet another student replied.
“Dude, that’s a veterinarian,” one of my female students called from across the room, rolling her eyes. She pulled out her phone from the back pocket of her jeans and tapped the calendar app on the screen. She scrolled to the holiday and held the device out in front of her. “See, it says Veterans’ Day.” The student who popped the original question somehow tore himself away from Avengers and turned to glare at her. “Well, what the heck is a veteran, if you’re so damn smart.”
The girl retracted her phone and stared at the words on the screen. She contemplated it for a few seconds and shrugged. “Don’t know. Does it matter?”
The conversation ended there in the classroom. The question my student raised, however, echoed in my mind long after the front gates to our school were locked for the night. As I lay in bed that evening, I wondered to myself: Does it matter that my students do not know what a veteran is or why we celebrate this holiday? After all, this was not a question that would show up on a school test. As someone who lives a double life as a hospital corpsman in the Navy Reserve and as a teacher in the civilian sector, am I taking a student’s comment too personally? Would the desire to educate my students about our military and its intricate role in American history be motivated by reasons of shameless self-promotion? As the student herself put it: Does this really matter?
The truth is, it truly matters. Those who serve make up slightly less than 1 percent of our nation’s population, though the role we play has far-reaching effects for the remaining 99 percent. We are an integral part of American society. Our presence, our unity, and our mission provide for the safety and security that enable this nation to flourish. The freedoms we enjoy today were won by the millions upon millions of men and women who trekked through foreign lands and waters, carrying heavy burdens on their backs and a bright yet delicate hope in their hearts for a better future.
People seek out the Navy family for a myriad of reasons, but we all share a common denominator: a powerful desire to protect and defend our nation even at personal cost. Some are fully aware of this purpose from the first day they don their uniform, whereas for others, it is a subconscious truth that comes to full bloom over time. That sense of purpose is the lifeline that anchors all of us through the vicissitudes of our service.
Service members find their true value not in monetary rewards but when we can tangibly experience how each act we perform contributes to the security of our nation. Our sense of significance, however, is built on the relationships cultivated within our Navy family and, more critically, in the extension of these ties to our society. This then begs the question: As the 1 percent at the forefront safeguarding the American people, do we live in the shadows of our society? Are our rich naval history and traditions relevant in the 21st century, or do they now only exist as a passing sentence in an outdated textbook? Can we still recall the citizens to whom we dedicate our lives, and do they remain aware of us?
Answering these questions depends upon our actions. We must come out of the shadows. Now is the time to promote meaningful civic involvement with our community that extends beyond the occasional holiday. We possess specialists who are highly trained in fields of study that translate well into successful, sought-after career paths in the civilian sector. Through sharing our expertise, we can reach the minds of the next generation and develop meaningful relationships with the society we serve. The students in our classrooms are our future, and they bear increasing pressure in meeting the demands of pursuing higher education and succeeding in a competitive industry. As a force that represents some of the most courageous, resilient, and compassionate people in our nation, we can serve as beacons to guide our younger generation through the turbulence they are certain to experience as they grow into adulthood.
We can provide students of all ages with real-world connections between what they study in class and its application by discussing how we use foundational concepts in mathematics, science, and language to effectively carry out our duties in our individual rates. We can demonstrate to students how the indispensible skills of collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity that are highly promoted in modern classrooms enable us to create an effective working environment. Our commitment to mental and physical integrity make us ideal role models in encouraging students to adopt positive attitudes and engage in healthy lifestyles.
When we develop our leaders of tomorrow, we are simultaneously developing ourselves. In my years as an educator, I have learned that teaching is never a one-way street. I learn just as much from my students as they do from me. Children have a way of naturally inviting us to reflect on our own behavior, beliefs, and ideology. They represent life’s untapped potential and remind us that the journey ahead is long. They prompt us to remember that we as service members need to feel a sense of belonging with our community in order to thrive. It is the human connection that remains when all else falls away. Only through an open a dialogue with our community can we mutually learn from and offer support to each other. These measures will ensure that our Navy remains relevant to our society as opposed to existing in quiet separation.
As for my personal dilemma, I returned to school the next day and pitched the idea of a school-wide Veterans’ Day presentation to my principal. The idea received unanimous support from all levels of school staff. On the following Monday prior to Veterans’ Day, I visited five classrooms ranging from third through eighth grade. Dressed in my uniform, I shared with students the basic background about the structure of our military, the long-standing history of our Navy, and my experiences as a hospital corpsman. I was stunned at the way students hung on to my every word. Not a minute went by without a hand shooting in the air to raise a thoughtful question.
After each session, the teachers expressed their appreciation and commented on how much they learned along with their students. During the process, we also unearthed a few hidden heroes in our school. As it turns out, the paraprofessional and the husband of one of our teachers were both enlisted in the Navy. Instantly, with their newfound knowledge, the students saw them in a new light.
Immediately following the presentations, our school community was inspired to develop activities to express appreciation for veterans by writing thank-you cards, creating artwork, and incorporating naval history into our social studies curriculum. Students regularly visited during lunch and after school to ask questions about my military experience. Some even checked out books from the library to pursue further knowledge about our military.
In the following year, I moved to another school where I had the opportunity to interact with nine classrooms. I will never forget the thrum of genuine excitement and curiosity in the students. These initial efforts have touched the lives of nearly 400 students and connected them to the Navy that serves them with enduring devotion.
I encourage all who serve in the Navy or Navy Reserve to engage in their local school’s Veterans’ Day program. If your school does not have one, help them launch one. Imagine if our entire Navy were to share who we are with those we serve—together, we can create a truly united nation.