I became a history teacher in 1997 after answering an ad in the Fairbanks newspaper. I had just graduated with my second degree, this time in American History, and one of the community colleges that offered classes on Ft Wainwright was in a bind. They had a history class scheduled but the teacher had dropped out. The class was all set to go in a week so I was hired on the spot. Basically I was the only one even remotely qualified.
So I started teaching soldiers about America.
My students were primarily active duty although there were also a few dependents and retired NCOs. In the beginning I was not a very good teacher - I stressed dates and people far too much and spent far too little time in discussions about why things happened. After the first year (and I apologize to all the students I had that year) I backed off of tests (requiring short papers instead) and stopped using the book entirely. My course became built around maps, film clips and long class discussions. This was how I discovered what my students wanted to know (the pilgrims and Revolutionary War were low on the list) and the many things they had never learned. It was also a huge learning process for me as I saw a slice of America that had never been part of my life before.
I grew up in the south and attended schools that all had black and white populations. In elementary school we were entirely mixed but in junior high, for reasons I've never understood, the black students were gone from every class I was in and started sitting on separate benches in the common areas and separate tables in the cafeteria. To a certain extent everyone split up at that point - rich kids in one direction, rednecks another, jocks another, etc. but the color line was stronger than all others and it stayed through high school. Kids I had known since the first grade became someone I only nodded to in the hallways (if that). In college, again in Florida, I majored in aviation and as it was the late 1980s, there were a ton of international students in my classes. Most of them were from the Middle East - Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan and quite a few from Iraq. Not a single African American student - but then again I was only one of twenty or so female students there too. By the time I got to Alaska, I had become insulated into my own industry and while I worked every day with Native Alaskans, there were very few other minorities I interacted with.
Then I walked into my first class.
At Ft Wainwright I taught classes that were always at least 50% African American. Beyond that, there were Hispanic students, Asian Americans, students from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, all over the Caribbean and on and on. I always had several Native American students and some from Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. They were white, black and brown, between the ages of 19 and 55 and deadly serious about their education or drifting into my classes as part of some larger drift that seemed to be taking them nowhere or somewhere depending on how lucky they might get.
In other words, I had a true microcosm of all of middle class America in front of me every week and my job was to teach them what it meant historically to be an American. I loved the job and I did teach them a lot but ultimately, they taught me far far more.
My white students knew more about the Pilgrims than anyone while my black students could quote chapter and verse of the Civil Rights Movement. My white students saw Martin Luther King as a black hero while my black students saw him as an American hero. My Asian students knew about the fall of Cambodia and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII while my Native American students spoke about the reservation system in ways that left all of us speechless. My Caribbean students lectured us on US foreign policy in their national politics while my Hispanic students were shocked when anyone did not know about Cesar Chavez. I introduced the big topics: the Civil War, WWI, WWII, etc and then we spun and swirled around each other with what some people knew and what others did not. Few students could explain WWI on any level which was one of the few things they all had in common. They also had a single voice when they asked about current events. But the most startling thing about them was how powerless they all felt. They were in the military largely because they had personal hopes and dreams for something more, something they could not find on their own. They wanted to find a job that would give them security, a house near a decent school, a nice car, a chance for the occasional vacation. They wanted the classic white picket fence American dream. College was seen as a step in that direction although far too many of them were not sure how college would really get them there. School was all too often a foreign country for my students (with the exception of a few who came from states that paid for college in return for enlistment) and they weren't sure at all how to navigate it or what to do once they left. They wanted more, but they didn't know how to get it.
These were adults who had never spoken to school counselors, who came from families that never attended college, who had never made up a resume or paged through a course catalog. One of my Native American students told us how he had used the same books as his parents (literally - his mother's name was written in the books assigned to him) in his reservation school and several of my African American students told us they had never sat in classrooms with white students before. They all had grown up with the big issue of getting by and now they were supposed to figure out what comes next and didn't know how to do that. They were working their butts off, doing everything anyone told them to do, but they weren't getting ahead and they wanted me to tell them why; they wanted someone to tell them just what they were supposed to do next to make it better for their own kids. All I could do was talk about Roosevelt and Malcolm X and Operation Desert Storm. But in every class I also found that history was a great jumping off point for how we lived and in every single class I was reminded of how many different lives there are in America - how many different stories. And I was reminded that sometimes working hard was not enough; that you could work harder than hell forever and it still might not get you much of anywhere.
I was reminded that for a lot of Americans the American dream seemed to be very distant indeed.
One of my sergeants had been stopped three times, on three different military bases for what he termed "jogging while black". We asked an MP in the class how this could happen and he said he didn't know - but he knew it did. One of my white students had been passed over for a promotion and was told by his supervisor that it had to go to a black soldier. He now questioned the worth and value of every single black soldier he worked with. One of my black sergeants told him the wrong thing had been done to him - but judging others based on that was wrong as well. They were frustrated over skin color meaning more than anything else, over not getting paid what they were promised, over being sent away more often then they were promised, over the difficulty of getting along in circumstance that seemed to reward those who played along and challenged those who questioned others. What can we do to change anything they asked me. What can we do to change our own lives?
We talked about politics, about voting, about writing letters to senators and congressmen. There are plenty of examples in American history when groups changed the country in a variety of ways and we talked about those things a lot. But no one in my classes was going to march on Washington to demand career counseling and we all knew it. What they wanted was mostly for the situation to change for their kids so that when they were in school they would be directed on a path that made college and a career something other than a pipe dream; something that was expected rather than hoped for.
Something that was theirs and would make all the rest of it, all the crap, somehow worth it.
We have heard a lot about the middle class in this election, a lot about working families and blue collars. That was the kind of family I grew up in, but my parents knew to point us in the direction of college from the beginning - they knew to introduce the idea from a very young age. (This was not the case for either of them when they were growing up however.) They not only told us we could be anything but also figured out how we could get there. This was what my students were lacking - the tools for achievement. Their frustration over this lack of information was constant and I often spoke with them during breaks and after class about making plans for the future; about crafting a map to the success they wanted. I tried to do what I could but honestly, I don't think it was ever enough.
I have always thought that voting was important, largely because I come from late 19th and early 20th century immigrants all of whom suffered from prejudice and discrimination and fought long and hard to get decent jobs and equal pay. But now when I vote it is with my former students in mind. I know that this country is full of people who have not had a fair shake. I know that the schools in this country are not equal. I know that you can work hard and still not get ahead. I know that not all poor people are stupid or lazy. (And I know that sounds harsh but we've all seen it suggested in the last six months.) I know being American still counts for something, but I also know that for many Americans it doesn't count for as much as others.
I've been thinking about my former students a lot in the last few weeks because while everyone seems to be talking about them in this election, I question how much they are truly valued. From what I know, once an election is over they are all too often casually left behind. I hope that is not the case this year by whichever candidate wins but regardless, I will be voting for those soldiers and their families yet again. Because I know how important they are to this country and what an uphill climb so many of them face.
We all vote for something; I vote for someone. And wherever they are, I hope that many of them have made it and are finally living the dreams they wanted so very much and were working so hard to achieve.