Thursday, January 7, 2010

The ABC’s of the NBC Class

I've been looking at old photos of my students from the Defense Language Institute. I have had so many excellent students. Even now, thirteen years later, many names and if not their names, then faces come to mind. This class was one called "Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare." I taught them the English for this subject.

I surveyed the class. The Africans surveyed me back. In the back, two young guy dressed in camouflage fatigues sat side by side. Curiosity smiled from their eyes. Another, their compatriot, seated in the right corner of the room stared boldly--insolently--with a cocky grin daring me… what? to teach him? The three were Salvadorian soldiers. Really just young cadets. All eyes focused expectantly on me: the teacher.

For a moment, I quavered: could I supply the knowledge each craved? Suddenly I grinned back: “One great week ahead!” was what we understood by it. Communication without words.

That week the Salvadorians let me in on some adventures--missing the bus and getting stuck in downtown San Antonio overnight. Laughing, I commiserated.

Then, dreams. A favorite topic of mine. Valenzuela sneered, “Yeah, I had a dream last night--” He looked around the room to make sure he had everyone’s undivided attention.“Yeah, I dreamed my father was killed in the war.” His cocky grin returned, his expression smug.“Did you ever wake up from a dream such as that?”(Top that one, his expression challenged). “No,” I sighed, “and I hope you don’t again either.” Silence. How to reach across to soften life’s fears?

Trust. I could feel it growing. Precious minutes at the end of every class period.The Africans shared, mumbled, spoke, laughed and swapped hard field experiences with the Salvadorians who’d trained in swamps and ate uncooked field in the field to avoid being spotted by the enemy.

I saw them raise and lower their barriers in class discussions. I felt them open and close doors to their thoughts.Valenzuela—often the angry one--continued to stymie me. His leadership, when unchallenged, became an eager child. But if it denoted any dare, his insolent grin appeared, and he sounded tough, surly. Even his sitting position appeared different from his Salvadorian compatriots, who seemed gentle, almost innocent in their relaxed postures. He sat, hunched over, wary, alert. Distrustful even in this simple classroom situation. Instinctively, I could feel it was this very distrust that made him such an excellent officer. He was twenty-six, a Lieutenant, and full of bravado forced on him too soon by a war not of his choosing.

This class was studying the terminology of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare. I didn’t want to teach it, but I had to. At first, I taught it as if the words were isolated from their lives. But the pictures these officers imprinted on my mind during the free moments in our class
made me realize WAR is more than terminology taught.The words I teach and they must follow in their combat will mean SURVIVAL to them.

The task ahead suddenly seemed ominous. Frightening. I wanted to save them all from needing such training.These young frightened Salvadorians who’d lost fingers ... the Africans who’d been fighting for thirty years ... the Honduran who spoke of guerilleros. I suddenly hated my job then. It seemed insignificant and hypocritical to touch on terms so close to their lifestyles that they might come to life while we teachers remained in the security of the artificial environment of our classrooms, spouting more war-like words, affecting the lives of yet other students. In spite of my misgivings, the "One great week ahead" grin triumphed.

I wasn’t surprised that our friendship lasted beyond the NBC class. I was their friend, their cheerleader, their game leader... Familiarity with these words took away some of the sting. Valenzuela shouted “BINGO!” with great fanfare at long last.Those army students from around the world taught me to value my life and freedom. I gave them a chance to talk about what they’d experienced. Our friendship was special. No words were necessary. I felt it all.

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