The first officer with whom I shared an office (interesting intersection there: officer and office, one holding the other) when I arrived here at West Point was the irrepressible Major (MAJ) S.B., who continues to be a dear friend even though she’s since moved on to other assignments. (She was the one who — all the way from Afghanistan — put me in touch with Lieutenant General Caldwell for the Kairos special issue.) MAJ S.B. has an ear for the wry twist on the military cliché, and I’ve heard her suggest that one “Move out and draw fire” as a way of endorsing a decision to voice a possibly unpopular opinion in a meeting, and ask a cadet if he needs to “Take a knee and drink water” after performing particularly poorly on an assignment. I tried to respond with my own wry or semi-ironic twists on popular clichés about teaching, often noting each day as I left the office for class that I was headed off to “touch some lives,” with the implicit suggestion of a critique of the missionary-pedagogical impulse we sometimes hear voiced in composition studies and in the popular rhetoric around teachers. (Think Mr. Keating and the unfortunate implications of that well-intended representation of the figure of the teacher.) But that’s the thing, maybe: despite the misgivings I’ve voiced in my last two posts about the institutional obstacles to good teaching, good learning, and good writing that I feel I’ve encountered here (and, yes, I do feel they still manifest their presence here, and they are uniquely institutional in nature), the most rewarding part about working at West Point has been the teaching and the everyday lived experience of those clichés of “making a difference” and “touching lives.” I’ve done some good, I think, and much of that good has been owed to the cadets with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.
I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to mentor cadets on how to approach the essays they write as a component of their applications for Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, and in numbers of scholarships won, West Point has most often trailed behind only Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and sometimes Columbia. I’ve helped contribute to that success, but perhaps that’s less of a way of touching lives than it is of being touched by cadet success. I’ve had a cadet ask me to speak at his commissioning ceremony, where he made the official transition from student to officer, and that felt good.
Yesterday, I was reminded of the other side of the work I’ve done here. I got word that a student I taught in my fall 2007 EN101 composition course had been killed on May 2 in Afghanistan by an IED.
When I got that news, I went back to my files and looked over what he’d written to me, and last night, I struggled to write a letter to his parents about how I remembered him.
He came to my course straight out of cadet basic training with the typical tendency toward being tentative that such an experience engenders: after one’s been tested and punished for two months for doing things wrong, there can often be some hesitation to venture any sort of answer or response. But he warmed up, little by little. He came to meet with me in my office. He sent me emails about wanting to do some creative writing, to write stories and poems and character sketches. He told me he did his best writing alone, away from others and away from distractions, and he liked to do a lot of it at once. He was quiet, thoughtful, sometimes a little shy and eager to deflect attention away from himself, but always smart and committed and more than anything else, sincere. Later in the semester, he told me that he had learned “the value of weighing the strength of my opponents’ arguments against my own,” suggesting an intellectual maturation that tried to bridge differences and see perspectives other than his own rather than dismissing them. I didn’t see much of him after that first semester in EN101, but he was always deeply respectful and earnest. In that first semester, he had a somewhat hesitant smile accompanied by a momentary downward flicker of his eyes — a gesture that said to me, “Hang on just a minute, sir; let me think this through” — that set him apart from some of his plebe classmates. Still, as I would see him in the halls in later years, he would develop a confidence and an ease that also set him apart, but it seemed to me a wary ease, a way that he was always taking things in and paying careful attention to what was happening around him. He graduated less than a year ago in May 2011.
My misgivings about the notion of “touching lives” have to do with the ways that they place the emphasis on the role of the teacher. To my mind, having taught here, even a lousy day in the classroom is almost always going to be better than a day not in the classroom: that’s why I do this. But the teacherly experience goes in the other direction, as well. We need to keep in mind the ways we’re shaped and affected by students. To, sometimes, remember.