“I miss my virginity.”
That was Dylan, a 25 year old student in our American Lit II class at a community college in North Carolina, where I’ve been an instructor for a number of years.
No, Dylan wasn’t speaking of the kind of virginity you may first imagine.
Near a military base, we have many vets of both genders in our classes, most of them logging in multiple combat tours. Dylan has been on three combat tours in Iraq, and is a single dad now working on his associate degree.
What prompted Dylan’s statement was the class discussion of a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse Five. In the story, Mary O’Hare, the wife of one of Vonnegut’s World War II army buddies, has just blasted Vonnegut for planning to write a book about the war. The source of her anger is asleep upstairs in footie pajamas—her young children.
You were babies, she growls at Vonnegut, and yet I know you’ll write the book as if you were men. You weren’t men; you weren’t John Wayne or Frank Sinatra, she hisses. You were children like our kids asleep upstairs. You’ll glorify war in your book, glamorize it, pretend you were big brawny men when you fought it, and people will keep fighting wars forever.
She hates Vonnegut for the book she believes he’ll write.
Sitting at Mary’s kitchen table, Vonnegut surprises Mary. He swiftly agrees with her that he and his pal, O’Hare, were children, in fact were “virgins,” when they fought in Germany.
Our American Lit class discusses the meaning of the word “virgin” in this context—that it doesn’t refer to sexual virginity but to the innocence of teenagers who have yet to fight their first battle.
Dylan pondered this discussion for a few seconds. Then he stated the line above that deserves repeating-- “I miss my virginity.”
The hair on my neck stood up. His terse comment chilled the stuffy classroom. Some of the other combat veterans nodded.
Dylan has been my student in other classes. He’s smart, no doubt about that. But he’s more than smart. He’s perceptive, analytical, and insightful. He’s wise.
He has been a warrior for us, the best kind of warrior. Sometimes I wonder how many U. S. citizens know, care, or approach understanding what our warriors have done for us.
Dylan probably won’t even mind me adding that I know he can be gentle, although I wouldn’t announce that to a crowd if I ran into him at a local pub on a Saturday night. He is confident, not arrogant, not the macho stereotype of the warrior. I’ll go further. I admire him, and the other men and women like him in my classes.
What they have seen and experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan I can’t come close to imagining, even though I watch the nightly news five nights out of seven. The conflicts that I see in sound bites, they lived in 3-D, 24/7.
Now they’re looking at me, for Pete’s sake, standing here hoping I have something to teach them. They are so eager to learn that they lean forward in their uncomfortable plastic chairs. They are my students, but I look up to them. They humble me.
Dylan is unique, but he is also just one of many warriors among us. He is the warrior who comes home from battle, makes a good life for himself, his family, his community.
He lost his virginity for us.
He misses it, and that is part of what makes him the man he is.