~ The Journey and the Stranger ~

§ An unusual classroom

Marty is hunched over a protractor, squinting hard at the angles on his paper and muttering to himself. Ben takes notice and fires off a smartass remark I don’t quite catch from the rickety desk where I’m checking their work. When Ben turns his back, Marty overhands a half-empty water bottle at him but misjudges — all that squinting, maybe — and leaves it a foot short. Off to my right, Zach is filming the exchange, managing somehow to mug from behind the camera. I look up at them and shake my head.

Welcome to my “classroom.” Today my Marines and I are lobbing artillery shells into the black hole at the center of Camp Pendleton responsible for soaking up all the light and heat that used to be, in its very recent past, steel and Composition B.

We’re riding the tail of a three-day exercise and look it, each of us at a slightly different point in an accelerating nicotine cycle. When the radio mercifully interrupts with new targeting info, everybody hops up. Or hops in. Population density is a constant concern in our makeshift Fire Direction Center — really just a canopy wedged between two humvees — so we spend a lot of time at its open edges. Facing out, if possible. We’re preparing to do this again someday soon, somewhere real.

§ Both sides of a story

Tolstoy said that all great stories are either about a man going on a journey or a stranger coming to town. But those two narratives are perfectly symmetrical, distinguishable only by point of view. For a military veteran, that makes the high school classroom an interesting place to work. I have no choice but to signify both: to my students, the journey; to my colleagues, the stranger.

When adults learn that I was a Marine officer before becoming a teacher, the first thing that happens is I have to answer a series of polite questions about how disorienting the transition must have been. The obvious implication being that those two identities seem so wildly disparate as to be incompatible. And when I say — as I always do — that it’s really not so different, it takes a beat for people to realize I’m not trying to be funny.

Of course there are some superficial differences. The night before Zach shot that video I gave a class out under the stars, assisted by a pair of headlights. Afterward I started back toward my sleeping bag and, in a state of cervine blindness, tumbled promptly into an ammunition pit. That sort of hazard is less common these days.

But, fundamentally, my job is the same. Military leadership and teaching are more about human relationships than anything else. The details of setting and purpose and dress code are almost incidental. If other teachers have difficulty relating to my experience, it’s only because when we contemplate our counterfactual life stories it’s the details that give our fantasies purchase. And the particulars of military life — especially in the context of two simultaneous and protracted wars — are unimaginable to most. That I could move so readily from that world to this one must be unsettling. I imply an uncomfortable closeness with the unknown.

Students, for their part, tend mainly to be astonished that I would ditch a job that not only allowed but actually required me to explode things, all so I could spend my days talking about algebra. They still see the military world as alien, but auspiciously so. After all, for someone at the beginning of a journey the unknown isn’t discomfiting; it’s aspirational. It’s the whole point.

A couple years ago I showed Zach’s video to my classes on Veterans Day. It was a big hit. The kids got to see what I looked like at 23. Joking around. Being serious. Happy. Exhausted. Helping people with their work. In other words, they got to see me — pretty much the same guy they shared a room with every day.

But as the clip went on, they spent more and more time focusing on my Marines — most of them not much older than high school kids themselves. They offered words of solidarity when Marty pressed both palms against his eyes, sore from 72 hours of what amounts to loud, high-stakes geometry homework. They laughed when Zach suddenly turned the camera on himself, thrilled to recognize a human impulse that predates the word selfie. They saw, I think, what strangers look like before we feel compelled to name them.

That video is ten years old now. I live a half-hour from where I grew up and teach math in the same building where I learned a good bit of it. Zach is back home in Illinois. I don’t know where Ben ended up. Marty is gone. We’re all on the far side of a journey we started a long time ago, standing at the edges of something or other. Facing out.

Note: A different version of this piece originally appeared on the PBS NewsHour blog.