Veterans in our Classrooms

I have been very fortunate to be in my 21st year as a math teacher, including the last 19 years teaching 8th graders at Louisville Middle School.  Teaching, like every profession, has its plusses and minuses.  One definite perk of my career is the chance to make an impact in the lives of my students.  I sometimes forget this golden opportunity when I get caught up in grading papers and finding different strategies to teaching geometric proofs.  But in between covering the Pythagorean Theorem, the Quadratic Formula, and ‘Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally’, I try to sprinkle in some different things that make a positive influence on my kids beyond the world of mathematics.

And just to clarify for those of you that haven’t sat in an 8th grade math class since phones looked like this…

rotary phone

That ‘Aunt Sally’ thing has nothing to do with her poor manners.  It is an acronym for the order of operations.

One thing I do to influence my students’ perspective on life happens on my favorite day of the school year:  the Friday after Veteran’s Day, which is when our school holds its annual “Veterans in the Classroom” day.  13 autumns ago, I decided to try to put on a day where students could spend the day listening and learning from past and present military personnel.   Our first year, we were fortunate to have seven men speak in four 8th grade classrooms for the day.  The first year went well, so the next fall, I scoured the  phone book (remember those things?) to call various military organizations in search of more speakers to fill more rooms.  Year two got a little bigger.  After that, I started using our students to recruit friends and relatives to speak, and the event really took off.   This year, we were blessed to have almost 60 military personnel fill 17 classrooms for the entire day with their stories and experiences.  Many of our 6th, 7th, and 8th graders got to also experience things like learning to stand at attention and salute, the process of skydiving, tasting some delicious MRE’s  (‘Meals Ready to Eat’), and suiting up in Vietnam uniforms and equipment.

The success of the day is reflected the words and attitudes of the students.  It’s amazing how much more appreciative students are of the amazing freedoms, privileges, and opportunities that our country provides due to the courage and sacrifice of those whom have served in our armed forces for the last two centuries.  Most students have had a friend or relative that has served in the military, but few know much, if anything, about what that person did.  The words that our guest speakers share give our teens a much clearer picture of life in the military, and thus, a better idea of what dad or grandpa might have experienced.  Hopefully, this day has been a starting point to conversations at home.

Influencing students, though, is not the only reason I coordinate this event each year (with invaluable help from fellow staff members).  The other reason is to show my own appreciation to those men and women who come and speak.   Many of our speakers have come up to me to express their deep appreciation for the opportunity to share with our kids.  I have received letters of thanks as well.  I tell them that I put this day on as my own way to make a small repayment to them for the enormous debt I owe them for their service to our country.

I wrote in one of my first blogs about my  grandfather’s service in World War II.  He was a great example to me of ‘The Greatest Generation’ and their mentality of hard work, sacrifice, character, and selflessness.  He inspired me to become a student of World War II, pouring through books and watching various documentaries and movies.

Our special day at school has allowed me to build friendships with other men of this era through the past 13 years.   I can remember one year where Pat Engelberg, at age 94, leading a class of 14-year olds in calisthenics.  Carl Carmichael was another one of our speakers.  He would always bring an enormous red Nazi Flag that he brought home as a souvenir after fighting in Europe.  Each year, Carl would send me a lengthy hand-written note of appreciation.  He even gave me a picture of him from his military days!  He has not been able to make it the last few years, but he sent me a letter again this fall to apologize.  I was able to have a great conversation with him on the phone, and he was as generous as usual.  And like always, he called me by my given name, Andrew.

A long time speaker at our school was Ted Adamski, a paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne that jumped on D-Day.  He would come dressed in full military uniform complete with medals along with his own glowing blow tie!  Ted loved to tell one of his 8th grade escapades where the girl sitting in front of him accidentally splashed him when her long hair brushed the ink well from his desk.  I had to have him explain what an inkwell was to our texting generation.  Anyhow, Ted’s impulsive response was to grab the scissors out of his desk and give the young lady a haircut!  That didn’t go over very well with the principal!

Unfortunately, Ted’s deteriorating health didn’t allow him to join us this year.  But we were still very fortunate to have three World War II veterans speak to our students this year.  William Allen, who fought in Europe, proudly wore his Cleveland Browns jacket.  He could still remember when Otto Graham was quarterback.   Cal Calderone, a 94-year old Pearl Harbor survivor who eventually worked as a code breaker, has been a new addition for the last two years.   He is as spry, sharp, and active as a 74 year old.   His amazing story  as a musician who should have been entombed in the U.S.S. Arizona recently ran in the Canton Repository.

But one speaker has touched my heart more than anyone else.  I met the Reverend James Mason at church over a decade ago.  He was a former pastor in Canton, and his son, Dwight is my pastor at NewPointe Community Church.   I invited Jim to speak at our school, and each year he would come, extremely flattered and appreciative that I would invite him.  Jim is one of the most loving, encouraging, and generous men I have ever met.  He always writes me a letter to accept my invitation, and sends me a lengthy letter of appreciation after his visit.  In his letters, as well as our conversations, he greatly compliments me and encourages me as a teacher and father.  He always dotes over my three children—they love talking about him on our drives home after church.  At school, Jim is always very careful about allowing the other speakers to talk.  He even would raise his hand at times to get permission to speak!  But that embodies the serving attitude of Jim—he always is trying to lift up those around him.

Mr. Mason’s disposition and attitude of servitude is evident in the family around him.  I have been able to work with several of his grandchildren in our church youth group, and two others were students of mine at Louisville.  You can see his influence every single one of them, as they all display compassion and respect to those around them.

Jim’s military experiences were amazing.  He was on base in Honolulu during the Pearl Harbor invasion—he talks of seeing the red sun emblem on the Japanese planes flying overhead.  After our country entered the war, he decided to try to become a paratrooper, and got selected for the 101st Airborne.  The amazing mini=series, ‘Band of Brothers’, follows the E-Company of the 101st Airborne.  Jim belonged to the I-Company.   He remembers standing right in front of Winston Churchill giving a speech to a group of troops.  That speech was a pep talk for the upcoming D-Day invasion.  In the early hours of June 6th, 1944, Jim dropped down from the night time skies that were illuminated by German anti-aircraft fire onto French soil.

Jim’s health took a turn for the worse this past July, and it looked like he only had a few days, or maybe weeks, to live.  I went to visit him, and amazingly, he spent the next hour mentoring and encouraging me!  He told me his hope was to make it to our day at school in November.  Later on, several family members told me that he told them, as well as his doctor, that his goal, Lord willing, was to make it to our school.

And I am extremely proud and thankful to say that my great friend, the Reverend James Mason, was able to speak to our students this past week.  He even closed our assembly with some words to the audience, thanking them for the opportunity to come to the school, thanking his fellow speakers for serving our country, and thanking God for the health to come.  He then closed the assembly with a word of prayer

Thank you, Mr. Mason, for your impact on our students, and for your impact on me.  When I think of your life and the influence you have made on so many, the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:21 ring true:  “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

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