Tour of Duty

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Shortly before my son was born, a colleague asked if I wanted to teach a few courses at Saint Leo University, a college on the Little Creek Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach. Knowing I’d need the money to pay for my newborn’s cameras and coffee habit, I accepted. That was twenty-seven years ago. Since then I have taught courses about the great artists of western culture, the most influential women artists, other art courses, African American Literature, Creative Writing, Humanities, a variety of English courses, worked the writing center, and taught a course about journeys in literature and in life, about the metaphorical “road” we are on.

Saint Leo University is a catholic college in St. Petersburg, Florida, not that much different than where I went to college at Saint Bonaventure. Same size, seemingly the same traditions. Saint Leo’s, however, has in addition to its main campus near the gulf, extension campuses on military bases throughout the country. My students have been active duty and retiring military personnel whose discipline, motivation, and work ethic are unparalleled. I’ve made lifelong friends there, former students who kept in touch, and lost more than a few to the effects of wars. When I began teaching my students were commonly Vietnam Vets and active duty members just home from the first Gulf war. Post 911 brought the Post 911 Bill which pushed the enrollment higher than ever, and students came and went to Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. It wasn’t unusual on the first day for them to come in to class and recognize someone they last saw in battle. They’d embrace and conversations bounced about the room. Class would often start late. 

I’ve become friends with SEALS, Master Chiefs, and more. Since I teach a diverse list of courses, I often had the same student four, five, or even six times. This leads to connections I never experienced elsewhere. One student sent a box of goods from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to give to Michael, and another mailed me letters every week from Afghanistan. Too many have died, several returned with physical and psychological issues which changed the trajectories of their lives. Students with PTSD are common, and accommodations are made all the while knowing that all of these students will still surpass my expectations. A few continued their education to obtain post-graduate degrees, secured a faculty position at the college, and I have had the privilege to call them my colleagues.

***

On Friday May 1, the president of Saint Leo’s announced they are closing seventeen extension campuses including all those in Virginia. Sometime in the next few months I will teach my final class there, and it will not be face to face, which is sad for me. I didn’t want this to end; no one did, including the president.

I’m going to miss being there, I really am. I’ve left other teaching jobs without a backwards glance, but walking into a room filled with students who put their lives on the line time and time again, tour after tour, has been unequivocally the most humbling experience of my career. An email today tells me I might be able to continue to teach for the college online, but even if that is true, it simply won’t be the same; not without the same-room companionship that has endured with these people. Despite their experiences in battle, or perhaps because of them, they make it a point to be attentive, respectful, and appreciative, and they value the art appreciation courses because no one, I mean no one, is more able to know why we should recognize the beauty around us. I will very much miss being part of their lives. They’ll be no less attentive via zoom lectures, but the quick glance at a familiar face, the small talk between discussions, the eruption of laughter with these quick-witted, experienced students will be blatantly absent. There is no doubt it will not be the same.

Financially, it is no secret that the pay at small, private catholic colleges is minimal. That’s not why we stay. It’s the students, it’s the staff who are always in a great mood (maybe not always), and it’s the ability to allow mature classroom conversations to digress into sessions about common fears, hopes, and a belief in an absolute morality. Understand, these women and men are frontliners; they are the ones who have seen what no person should ever see, and then they stare at Rembrandt and Degas in awe, listen to Pachelbel’s Canon and cry, read Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried and fall silent in appreciation that someone else out there understands. The creative writing students always volunteer to read their work, in which a common theme is their disgust at conflict, the passion for home and family. All readings are followed by a few moments of silence while everyone composes themselves. My students are of all branches of the military, though some civilians occasionally fall into the mix. One evening last semester we spent two hours in deep conversation about Hemingway’s short story “A Soldiers Home.” It was like group therapy. This all smack dab in the middle of the largest naval complex in the world. The headquarters for Seal Team Six is a chip shot from our classroom.

The traditional student who moves from high school to college doesn’t regularly come to class with what these women and men have on their backs. Here, someone might say “Professor, I’m so sorry but I’ve got to be TAD next week” (Temporary Active Duty) just before some horn player outside blows out “Colors” half way across base and everything stops—teaching, driving, walking—it all stops for thirty seconds while they wait for the flag to come down and remember those who were lost defending it, some of whom used to sit next to them laughing about a Jackson Pollock painting, saying confidently, “See you when I get back.” Usually they do, but not always.

Teaching at Saint Leo’s is riddled with empty spaces like that. I will miss the extremes of being engrossed in student presentations completed with such attention to detail that I learn far more than I did when a student, only to slide into a few moments of reflection when someone passes along word about what was in the email he just received from someone’s wife. Widow.

Just before I started my first graduate program in the eighties, someone I am close to joined the Air Force. At the time it was exciting and romantic and thrilling. I remember how engrossed I was listening to the details in every single phone call and letter about her life in training, life getting ready for whatever might come after basic training and language school. My students here, too, say they remember that fire, that sense of something coming. Now, at the tail end of thirty years with members of the military both swearing in and leaving, and closing out and heading home, there isn’t much romance at all and there is very little thrill. No. There is only life interrupted, sometimes aborted, often derailed. But still they move on, point at the screen in admiration of Van Gogh’s Irises, and the conversation moves to them talking about the types of flowers they will plant next to their homes.  They are artists, these men and women, and they know the love and the beauty we can find around us. And as trite as this is, there is no other way to say it: What they’ve left with me has been greater than anything they possibly could have learned. 

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