The Student Who Taught Me
I met Ted the second semester I taught at a community college—just a few short years ago.
He sat in the front row. His legs were too long to fit under the ridiculously small 1970’s desks we had then. The chair seemed tiny in comparison to his frame. He was a former Marine, 49, six-foot-five, and the oldest student in the class. Ted was even a couple of years older than the newbie instructor--me.
When he first spoke up, challenging me on an essay we’d read for the English comp class, I thought, “What am I going to do with this dude?”
His voice boomed off the concrete block walls of the classroom.
The essay we’d read for class that day, “The Androgynous Man,” was pure crap, Ted informed me. I later learned he’d been a drill instructor among his many other Marine Corps positions, so no wonder his lungs seemed to dwarf my pitiful, newly developing “teacher voice.”
You know what? That essay was pure crap.
And Ted was going to be Trouble with a capital T.
I didn’t know what to think about Ted. I thought I was prepared to work with military, former-military, and military-dependent students, but no one had mentioned Ted. I found I was dumb as a mud-stump.
Ted even had to explain to me what “Sergeant Major,” his last rank before retirement, meant. Even though my dad was a WW II Marine Corps vet, two of my brothers were Marines, and one brother served in the Navy, enlisted men all, ranks were fuzzy to me. I had no clue, until Ted, that S.M. is the highest rank an enlisted Marine can hold, and that the rank is not just another Sergeant. Sergeant Majors are few and powerful. They can and do talk back to officers.
Because of his “no bullshit” attitude, it had taken Ted a bit longer than it might have to achieve this high rank, but he was justifiably proud of the achievement. Ted seemed an anomaly to me at first, a Marine to the bone, an American patriot in the tradition of the best fighting force in the world, who was not afraid to point out flaws in the Marine Corps. In spite of my personal experience with my father and brothers, who are as different in their political views as any other randomly chosen group of four men, I had the dumbass idea that many military men and women were generally brainwashed into unquestioning support of their service branch.
In the years since he was my student, thanks to Ted and many other individual students, I’ve come to realize that there is no such thing as a “military” person. Each man or woman who is serving or has served may have shared the same training, the same job title, the same rank, the same duty station and more, but the military never truly “takes over” the person the way I suspected. Generalizing about military or former military members is not wise, is not accurate, and shortchanges them. They are individuals who may share a sense of camaraderie.
There has never been another Ted, that’s for sure.
Soon, I realized Ted was not my adversary in the classroom. It happened slowly, but I saw him nodding in agreement during class lectures. He visited my office with rough drafts of his papers. He was good at expressing himself in an essay. He was unfailingly polite, carefully considered my criticisms and suggestions, revising his papers to bring them up to A level. He worked hard.
We grew to like each other, and although our classroom banter was a little edgy, we gained each other’s respect. Ted will never understand how much his respect means to me.
There came a day, though, when Ted sat sullenly in the classroom. He wasn’t looking at me, wasn’t paying attention, wasn’t answering any of the questions I posed to the class.
I thought he had a hangover. I was a bit angry because I expected more of Ted.
Frustrated, I finally called on him by name. “What’s the matter with you today, Thaddeus? Celebrate a little too much with the boys at the club?”
“My nephew was killed in Fallujah last night,” he said, flatly.
Of course, the rest of the class members fell silent. Of course, the wall clocked ticked, ticked, ticked.
“Oh, Ted. I am so sorry,” I finally mumbled.
I will never forget those words, “My nephew was killed in Fallujah last night.” Never. The clock, and Ted’s face, and his long legs crunched up under the stupid too-small desk. The nephew was married, and had an infant son at home.
Ted was gracious, then. How could he be gracious? I don’t know, but he was.
“It’s okay. You didn’t know.”
I didn’t know anything.
Now, seven years later, he sits across from my desk. He is a friend. We chat for a while, mostly about his rose garden and his grandkids. When he leaves, I tell my office mate, newly hired to teach, about Ted.
“God, I was green,” I tell her.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“Ted taught me more than I ever taught him. I hope you have a Ted in one of your classes.”
I say it, I mean it, and it is inadequate.
But I do. I do wish her a Ted. Teds make teaching an honor, a joy, and incredibly worthwhile.
Thank you, Sergeant Major.