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Teaching Vietnam Vets

classroomI was a naïve girl of 24 teaching English 101 in the spring of 1975 at Kent State University. I had already taught freshman composition for a semester, and I had been a student teacher at McKinley High School in Canton, Ohio, a couple of years before. I had a little teaching experience, but I realize now I had no idea what I was doing.

Among the twenty students I faced that quarter were seven Vietnam veterans. Or, more accurately, seven is the number I’ve stored in my head; at any rate there were a bunch. Because the war had “wound down,” as we used to say, these guys ended up in my Satterfield Hall classroom on the GI Bill. They were new to college and were starting in the off semester, in the spring rather than the fall. A few of these student vets dropped out of my class, I think. I remember only two of them.

One guy was probably a little older than I and was married. His hair was short, his face was clean-shaven, and his short-sleeved, button-down shirt was always tucked in. He spoke quietly. He turned in assignments on time, and, as I recall, he wrote cautiously about safe, limited topics. In a conference in my office, I tentatively broached the subject of his Vietnam service, and he answered politely that he wanted to put the past behind him. “I just don’t think about it,” he said. “I think about the future.” Looking back, I see him as tightly composed, just like his tidy clothes, expending most of his energy to maintain control.

He often recoiled from the other vet who sticks in my memory. He’d wince when this second guy—I’ll call him Jim–would start expatiating in class about the government and marijuana and the police. If you lived through that time (1975 was really still the sixties) and especially if you were in college, you know what I mean. Discussions inevitably turned to war and Nixon and “society,” and people would start ranting, and the conservatives would start defending the war or condemning drugs, or sometimes just purse their lips and shake their heads.

Jim had long hair and a beard and wore a fatigue jacket and scruffy jeans. He’d take up most of the oxygen  in the room, speaking loudly, waving his arms, looking at other students for reactions as he spoke. I don’t remember if I realized it then, but now I understand he came to class drunk or high most of the time.

 

One article of faith governed my teaching of writing: if students cared about the subject, their writing would be better. If they were invested in their arguments, their arguments would be both convincing and interesting. In the mid-seventies, for whatever reason, I thought a perfect hot-button topic was homosexuality. I thought it would get everyone fired up, and they’d write passionate essays about their convictions. No doubt, I also thought my gentle guidance and moral righteousness would open their minds, but I imagined myself as tolerant and accepting. I can’t remember how I set up the assignment, but “homosexuality” was the general idea. It didn’t occur to me that I might have gay students who would feel uncomfortably vulnerable.

I don’t remember the tightly-wound vet’s reaction to the assignment, but Jim asked if he could see me in my office. He entered, already talking, and wiggled in his chair and gestured wildly. He meandered just as he did in class, but kept repeating he just couldn’t write about homosexuals. Here’s why I remember this conversation. “Man, I don’t know what to say. What am I going to write?” he said. “All I know is that in ‘Nam some guys would take them out in the jungle and frag them.”

Maybe you already know the word, but, if not, tonight’s episode of PBS’s The Vietnam War covered fragging—the practice of killing your own men. Some grunts in Vietnam, for example, fragged officers who were unreasonably endangering their troops.

I told Jim he could pick another topic.

 

As the quarter went on, Jim’s attendance flagged, and he missed assignments. The writing he turned in was as disheveled as his clothes. He was failing the class. He came to me right before grades were due to plead for mercy. I told him it was too late. His writing needed a lot of work before he could attempt English 102.

He begged me for a C. If he got a D or F, he told me, he’d lose his GI Bill funding and have to drop out of school. He didn’t cry, and he didn’t get mad. But his conversation wandered everywhere, and he didn’t always make sense.  I wasn’t afraid amd never felt threatened, but I realized the guy sitting in front of me was unhinged. He was damaged. I told him I’d think about it.

In my earnest way, I took the issue to the head of the composition program, a handsome forty-something professor with whom my friends and I were in love. He was a liberal and no doubt passionately against the war. He was also a stickler for clear, concise writing. Everyone feared his classes on the poets John Donne and George Herbert, because we knew he’d eviscerate our papers. In his office, I explained Jim’s dilemma and mine. Was there a way I could justify a C? Was there any alternative to failing? The professor ‘s response was curtly unequivocal.  “What do grades mean if you hand him a C? He’s earned an F. You have no choice.”

This remembrance has no neat conclusion. I never saw or heard from Jim again, although I think of him often and wonder what happened to him.

I understand my professor’s arguments. I don’t know if Jim was telling the truth, either about the fragging or losing his financial aid. I know I passed Jim along to a 102 instructor, who’d face the same decision I had. I still have no idea what the right thing to do was. I gave Jim a C.

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