The sun is making frequent appearances in the Northwest these days. So it was amid a bright glare that I drove toward the little Oregon town of Sandy to meet with the first year teacher I'm currently mentoring there.
This was not an observation or a consultation. She'd asked me to be a guest speaker and give a presentation to her three Sophomore English classes. I'd worked with these groups before a few months back. Modeling a couple of lessons on writing voice, I was able to co-teacher with her for a bit and get to know her students. This time, my purpose was to be a resource.
Her classes are reading Tim Obrien's powerful book The Things They Carried. As is often the case, the class has benefited from having a Vietnam veteran come in and talk about his experience. Since O'brien, himself a Vietnam vet, reveals his own conscientious struggle with participating in this undeclared war, this teacher thought that my experience as a conscientious objector to the war would be a good balance. I asked her to have the students write down a few questions they would like me to answer. Their questions were predictable and fairly simple: Why didn't yo go to the war? What did your friends and family think of your decision? Did you know anyone who did go to the war? And then a few more substantive questions like, What would yo tell kids our age about your experience that you think we should know?
I perceived early on that I needed to set the context of Vietnam and how the U.S. got involved in the conflict. With all due respect to the veteran, all they had to go on was that "our freedom needed to be protected." Deep breath. Onward.
They were interested in the 1960s. High school kids are always interested in the 60s. By the time reviewed some of the history of the region, the turmoil of the anti-war and civil rights movement, and gave a brief overview of the Selective Service System (the draft) there was little time left. A brief attempt to explain conscientious objector status and levels of moral reasoning and then...that's all folks.
Hopefully some of these kids will think about all of this. Maybe when they finish the book they will understand Tim Obrien's statement after choosing not to leave the country or resist the draft.
"The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward, I went to war."
If nothing else, I'm pretty sure these classes understand the meaning of the word paradox.