I teach English at a community college in a military town. Names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.
Will sits across from my desk, trembling from head to toe. He looks very young, but I figure he’s at least 23 since he says he’s been out of high school for five years. Will has an intelligent, devoted wife who’s applying to grad school and a 3-year old son. Tall and thin, he has thick, light brown hair and piercing blue eyes.
Will’s wife, Sandra, my former student, came by earlier in the week to tell me her husband is upset about his paper. He hasn’t slept in days.
He’s done two combat tours and survived, yet he’s worried about his response paper for British Lit.
Sandra says, “Mrs. Bruce, can you do something? I keep telling him he’s smart, he’s a good writer. He just needs to get a rough draft down on paper.”
Sandra and I discuss strategies to help her husband’s writer’s block. She says she’ll try to get him to come see me.
Will sits in my office two days later. I’m glad he came; I like his sincerity. But he is in constant motion. I’m trying to ignore it.
I can’t say I’ve ever seen a man so restless. I’m vaguely aware that I’m in denial about what is going on with Will.
I try to reassure him. His paper looks great; he’s done a fine job with Blake and Coleridge. I think: Why is he trembling? Is it espresso? Red Bull? Was he like this before the war? He is apologetic, saying that in high school he didn’t take so long, worry so much over his papers.
While I’m talking with Will, my officemate Amber is finishing up her conversation with a muscular young student in a black t-shirt. A loud talker, Jake’s articulate, with an impressive vocabulary. They’re discussing the draft of his argument paper. Our office is small, and I can’t help listening a little, distracting me for a moment from Will’s jitters.
Jake must’ve written about his battles with the VA; Amber is telling him it’s good to be passionate in his paper, but maybe some of the language, the tone, is a bit too strong for a college argument. He shouldn’t use words like “idiotic,” or “foolish.” Jake has hearing loss from the war, and the VA says the damage is not from his time in the military, despite all evidence to the contrary.
“I went into the military with perfect hearing and I came out with hearing loss. They say it has nothing to do with the guns and the IED’s. I’m 24—where else did I get hearing loss?”
Jake is mad about the runaround he’s getting, but with effort, he’s contained. Amber is mad, but self-possessed, professional. I’m getting mad, too, and not at the students in my office. There’s another emotion trying to escape from my chest. I’m not sure what the other emotion is. It makes me clench my jaw.
Will glances at Jake, but without expression. Will talks a little louder, so I can hear him over the unintentionally loud guy with the hearing loss.
We continue our conversation about the poetry paper. I may be repeating myself when I tell Will he’s a good writer, not to over-think the assignment. He rises to go. His hand is dry, warm as he shakes my hand, his grip strong but not overbearing.
He leaves, but my brain is roiling. Once again I have seen what few Americans ever see and rarely concern themselves with, even if they watch Brian Williams on NBC every night.
I’ve got to do something. So I begin a blog entry, trying to avoid a harsh feeling of futility. Of sinking, sucking, slippery despair. Trying to find some way to be a witness, to give a tribute, to define and contain something that is amorphous, monstrous. Something that Will is working to conquer, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
I’ve proudly taught vets since 2003. I love what I do and I’m doing what I can to help. I’m not being flip, hard-hearted, or disrespectful. But by the time both Will and Jake leave my office, I need a therapy session.
Is it selfish to ask who’s going to help me?
Yes. It does seem incredibly selfish.
What can I know about what my students have gone through, are going through? The ones who have been to war, the ones who waited for them to come home, and the ones whose loved ones didn’t come home, or didn’t come home whole.
It has been a long war for all of us.
So I get up and go teach Creative Writing class.