Interestingly, in this election year, news from Afghanistan has been decidedly muted, or when reported, largely ignored. But the fallout from our decade at war also continues in towns across America, lost in the recent blitz of President Obama and Gov. Romney trading barbs and sound bites, now mercifully over.
Still, I haven’t been able to shake one such story.
When M. earned her master’s degree in education during the first Gulf War, she was trying to spend a productive year pursuing a career credential while her husband spent his in the Middle East trying to survive. It was by all accounts a good way to preserve her sanity. Once reunited, they left New England and started a family, eventually settling in the Midwest.
M. never imagined that her chosen profession would bring her back to the cradle of war. Her elementary school is in a community neighboring a major military base, and its halls are full of children whose parents are currently in uniform. In M.’s classroom there are three things she can’t combat: deployment, divorce, and death.
None of her pupils are exempt. In a generation where everything seems defined by digitally enhanced images and surround-sound stereo, they go home to get a dose of each passing day’s body count of American service members, topped off with a description of the gruesome deaths.
M.’s students know that Mom or Dad deploying to a combat zone means several things. It can include a move, with the custodial parent being all things to the family all the time. It also might mean moving in with a relative they probably don’t know well, living a different life without their parents. The student is still expected to have good grades, participate in activities, not cause behavior problems, and to soldier - no pun intended - on through the whole ordeal.
In this light, the bookends to M.’s past year nearly broke her. The first was a boy who arrived last December. He had been living with his grandparents for the past 18 months and hadn’t seen his parents in two years. Upon their safe return he had to digest a new state, a new school, a new teacher, a new family, and new expectations. His paradigm was "just add water and presto - instant family!" He had migraines for a month and struggled with his studies. It took M. an entire semester to get him to adapt, and finally succeed.
The other boy had been an A+ student. In April, he discovered that both parents were deploying this past summer. He was to go live with his grandparents, whom he’d seen only a few times. His implosion was immediate: he couldn’t concentrate, often broke down in tears, started fights, and gave up on school work. M. had to nurture him to the school year’s finish line one hour at a time.
Given these conditions, divorce usually occurs in the wake of deployment. After being shot at, deprived, sometimes maimed and almost always emotionally scarred for well over a year, the returning combatants sometimes find that they can’t cope with the responsibilities of the family left behind, or the family can’t cope with them. Blaming the war exclusively might be a reach, but M. admits the phenomenon occurs with alarming frequency.
Death is the one thing M. hasn’t yet dealt with in her classroom, but that could change at any time. A mother herself, she lets instinct take over and offers her students empathy, yet also applies some well-placed prods to make them resilient in the face of adversity. M. is struck by the callous references that young children have gleaned from the aforementioned media assault, but has seen their bravado vanish in other classrooms when the death of a deployed parent hits home.
Nothing she learned in grad school could ever have trained M. to face these three nemeses. She can’t tell the kids that a math grade is more important than Mom or Dad’s safety; it isn’t, and never will be. At the end of each day, all M. can do is remove her glasses - ignoring her own migraine - erase the chalkboards, and prepare for tomorrow.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.