MODERATOR’S NOTE: The author Audrey is an Army veteran, an artist, and a high school teacher.
On November 13th, I abandoned my own classrooms to speak to our government classes as the school’s only veteran – a belated veteran’s day talk, since the government teacher was on a field trip that day. The night before, I was pouring over old words from myself and from friends, trying to figure out what to say.
The week before, I cleaned out my car, a ritual I go through every few years.
I can’t carry a purse; I’m still at mental stage of a twelve year old, carrying a crumpled wad of cash in my pockets instead of using a wallet.
I’ve reconciled myself to the notion that the car has become my version of a giant oversized handbag, one that I can haul everything, including myself, in. I’ve got a tow chain in it that I liberated from the local army base for an art project and need to return soon, video cables and extension cords, spare cameras, photos of all the soldiers killed in Iraq, a few thousand pens (really, not like a couple dozen that have accumulated, but actually several thousand), NBC coveralls, and the oyster shell that Caroline gave me on the gulf march from where her house used to be.
The gulf march was in March 2006. We walked and rode for six days from Mobile Alabama to New Orleans Louisiana*, “we” being veterans mostly. I met Caroline there.
In the way I sometimes have to talk around things to get to them, I felt suddenly like I needed the oyster shell to explain to the students why we started this school year with a drum circle, before I could talk about Veteran’s Day. Caroline and this story about the Singing River, with the people linking arms and singing and wading into the river to drown rather than leaving their land to go on the Trail of Tears; that image still haunts me.
There is a woman who was at our youth conference on Saturday who is helping Iraqi refugees settle in this area. She was telling me some of the stories of the refugees leaving their homes, and how sometimes people hear these stories and think they are lying or exaggerating to make things sound worse than they really are to get sympathy. She said that when she talks to the families, it turns out that’s true, they are lying to officials to get into this country, but they are lying in the wrong direction. So they might tell an official that the mother was raped in front of her sons and that’s what is on their papers, but maybe the mother wasn’t raped at all. When she sits down and talks to them, she finds out that really the sons were raped in front of their mother, but the parents won’t say that in the interview because it’s a bigger shame for the family, and because they are trying to protect their children.
I was trying to sort through what I can tell the kids at our school, what quotes I can use, what they need to be shielded from, and why we need to shield them from stories about the war, when those children and our children are the same age. I found out that our teachers were getting in trouble at the start of the war for letting kids see pictures of things like the Abu Ghraib abuses … they were told they weren’t allowed to show those images to their classes or refer them to those sorts of websites. I can understand that, you know. I don’t think kids should be exposed to that either but that includes the kids in Iraq, so I’m at a loss at the double standard.
Nothing new, I know. I’m just venting a bit here, frustrated at having to alter the words of others so I can quote them in class because it’s okay for an Iraqi child to live through their parents being blown away at their side, but it’s not okay for an American teen to hear the F word from a teacher.
It was a sobering experience to talk to my own students about these things. I don’t always reveal that much of myself to them; in some ways it’s easier to do that to a room of strangers I’ll never see again. I have a pretty small comfort zone, and sometimes when it’s being pressed at from all sides at once, I lapse into full retreat mode. Sometimes painting fills that function. That’s where I’ve been lately, not writing or talking, just staying at school – often the last one in the building, painting on the walls of my classroom until it’s dark out.
I talked a lot about dehumanization in the government classes, and that’s where the words of combat veterans are better than mine, particular with this group of kids. The combat vets can talk about racial slurs and can bring that back to lynchings, which puts it in terms my students get.
Charlie Anderson, one of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, sings an old running cadence during a scene in Particia Foulkrod’s film, The Ground Truth. Charlie sang other songs during the gulf march, but for the film there was this cadence he was remembering.
We sang this cadence when I was in Basic Training; it’s called Napalm sticks to kids.
Very strange for me to sing, first off, in front of people, because I only do that in front of my daughter Claire, nobody else, not even the husband. And it was surreal as a teacher to be singing about mowing down school children, singing that to my students, and telling them that’s what I sang in basic training. It was one of those moments where I had trouble making eye contact with them.
This was the sanitized version I sang:
Grab your bombs and kill some people
Throw some napalm on the square
Do it on a Sunday morning
Kill them on their way to prayer
Aim some missiles at the schoolyard
As the teacher rings the bell
Look at all those kiddies cryin’
As the schoolhouse burns to hell
Throw some candy in the schoolyard
Watch those kiddies gather ’round
Lock and load with my M-240
Mow those little [fuckers] dirtbags down.
Some of the classes reacted in total silence. Some had nervous laughing afterwards, which their teacher asked them about, and we talked through that.
I told them I cleaned up the words, because we didn’t sing about mowing down the little “dirtbags”. One boy asked what I changed it from, and I said the F word, and he asked “fuckers?” And I said yes.
The teacher jumped in to correct him for using that word in the classroom, saying it was inappropriate, nobody asked him to guess the word, and so on. So I talked about what we shield our kids from, and the contrast between that and what we do to other people’s kids. At one point the teacher asked me if two wrongs make a right, and I wasn’t going to argue with her in front of her kids, but I’m hoping the kids understood that saying a curse word is not comparable to committing crimes against humanity, we are talking about two entirely different scales, and saying “fuckers” in that context in the way he did, which was just innocently asking if that was what the lyrics were, was not something they needed to be protected from.
So I stood there and I talked, and at the end, I didn’t know, did I just make a fool of myself, or did any of it sink in. One hour there was a girl who said she wanted to join the air force, I noticed her with her head in her hands. I didn’t have my glasses on, I thought she was maybe just bored. The teacher said afterwards that she’d been crying.
The next day, the teacher said that they had a sort of debrief in their classes; she said that it had a big impact on them, but beyond that, they talked about how the day was a coming of age thing for them, that they maybe lost some of their childhood innocence during that hour. That’s an unsettling thing to hear, I don’t know if it’s good or if it’s bad. It feels like too much responsibility to put on me.
They didn’t know, though, about My Lai, they hadn’t heard any of the quotes from people who were involved in that, they’d never heard about Hugh Thompson. One student asked me, if Hugh Thompson had shot the US soldiers involved in My Lai, would that have been treason? They hadn’t thought about what happens if one soldier sees another one committing a crime; what happens then, what are the options?
*For a video doc of the Gulf March go to http://www.jamesminton.com/, then click “film editing,” then click “Mile in Their Shoes.”