Memorial Day means something to me on many levels. I come from a military family. My father escaped the poverty of a Mississippi sharecropper by lying about his age and joining the Army at the age of 16. He wanted to see the world and did a backflip when they sent him to Panama at the ripe old age of 19. He met my mother there, a Panamanian beauty from Colón. They raised six children moving every few years to another camp or post or base. Being an Army Brat is a way of life; it’s a culture.
And so, it was with pride I accepted the invitation from one of our smallest but mightiest affiliates – the Federal Education Association, to visit some of our members. I often correct myself when I mistakenly say that NEA has 50 state affiliates. We have 51. Our 51st “state” is spread across the globe.
Our members live in places like Germany, England, Guam, Guantanamo, Seoul, and Okinawa. They serve those who serve us all. They are the American educators who work in Department of Defense schools teaching the children of American soldiers stationed overseas and stateside. They make me proud.
It takes about 18 hours of airtime to get from Washington, D.C. to Seoul, South Korea and then another three hours to Okinawa. It was worth it.
In Seoul, I visited schools in transition – closing one camp means relocating all the schools an hour South to a shiny new facility. One ancient school was boxed up with weeks of school still to go, and the teachers and support staff were as creative as any I’ve seen. They wanted their kids to have the benefit of every minute of learning time possible while knowing wisely that there was something different in the air that would make it hard to concentrate. It was more than summer coming. It was knowing that these buildings would be empty and ready to be torn down in another year; knowing they were the last of many generations of students and educators to fill these halls, and there was something nostalgic and respectful about it.
I met a teacher who would not be unpacking in the new school. Percy decided it was finally time to retire. He told me a story. He said that for years, there had been a tradition at the high school that the graduating students would sneak into the school before graduation day and plant some prank. One year, it had involved something around rotten fish and the next year, teachers had agreed to take shifts throughout the night to guard the school halls and guarantee an uneventful graduation ceremony.
Percy arrived for his shift before midnight. The teacher leaving told him there was a student still studying in the library (which Percy thought was odd – me, too.) He went to the library to find a student furiously writing a report. The student had had a lot of trouble that year. I didn’t’ get the details, but apparently if he didn’t hand in one final report of 50 pages by morning, he wouldn’t be allowed to graduate.
Percy is a Special Education teacher. He offered to help. The student said he was ok. He just needed time. Percy stayed with him all through the night even after the next teacher reported for the next shift. By the time the sun came up, the student was finished, and Percy had sat alongside him grading the pages as they were completed.
As folks arrived for the final day with graduation that afternoon, the paper was turned in, accepted with Percy’s assurance that the student had done the work and he had reviewed it. This young man was able to walk across the stage with his class.
It was a nice story, but Percy told me that wasn’t the end. The reason this student wanted so badly to graduate was that he wanted to join the military. With his diploma, he was accepted. A few years later, Percy heard that he was deployed to the Middle East where he was decorated for saving his comrades from an IED (homemade bomb). He and the others were safe due to his courage and alertness.
Percy had tears in his eyes. He said, “The reason I wanted to tell you this story is because nobody died. Because he was there, nobody died.” I told him he needed to go back further. I said, “Because you were there for him on that one night, he was there.”
We never know where our influence ends. Yes, it seems that a school in South Korea or Guam or Okinawa would have little in common with a suburban public school. But our colleagues who serve military families have the same heart as any educator. We love what we do. We love our profession. We love someone else’s kid.
It was an honor to visit these powerful educators who are fighting (as we all have) against an invasion of unnecessary tests and irrelevant “professional” development unrelated to the real needs of their students. I heard time and again in conversations with these passionate professionals, “Why doesn’t anyone ask us what’s working and what’s not? We know exactly what we need more of and what we never did need. The folks in charge have stopped putting our students at the center. We could help them make better decisions if they’d just let us.”
They’re frustrated. But they’re determined. Time and again, they told me how appreciative they were of their union for bringing their voice to powerful people (after all, their school board is the U.S. Congress). They understood that while they were a few thousand educators spread throughout the farthest reaches of the galaxy, that they had millions of colleagues who had their backs; who would carry their voices to senators and members of Congress.
And the voice I will carry in my head the next time we must march up to the Capitol to advocate for our friends in the FEA will be Percy’s breaking up a bit with tears of pride in a student he served for one lone night that changed a life and saved lives.
For Percy and his amazing colleagues; on behalf of three million NEA members; on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you for your service.