Sometimes, my teaching world just aligns itself so perfectly. Right now, well, that's one of those times. It's such a crazy, chaotic time of year, the time of year when many students start to dream about summer and their minds drift to a place that is far away from my classroom. It is this time of year that I reserve for reading The Things They Carried in my AP class. The kids love reading O'Brien's book about the Vietnam War. They get into it. They analyze. They evaluate. They laugh. They cringe. Some cry. It is really the favorite part of my year.
Today, we were discussing the chapter "How to Tell a True War Story". This chapter, I believe is really one of the most important chapters in the book. I contend that it establishes how O'Brien wants us to read his book-- not as a story about war, but as a one about men, children really, and their own emotions, relationships, loves, triumphs, and losses. In this chapter, Rat Kiley writes to the sister of his friend, Curt Lemon, who was killed when he stepped on a land mine. In the letter he sings the praises of his friend, and then tells the sister how much he loved Curt. He puts his soul right there on paper.
And the sister doesn't respond.
Later, Rat ties up a baby water buffalo and shoots it.
Over and over and over again. He shoots the hell out of that baby buffalo.
The speaker tells us that, when he tells people, women mostly, about Rat's story and about the baby water buffalo that they get sad. They cry sometimes. And the speaker says that response means they were listening. They missed the point. They don't understand war stories. Because war stories are really not war stories at all. They are love stories.
My students took this journey with Rat. They read the words that O'Brien left there for them. And they didn't feel sorry for the baby buffalo. They felt sorry for Rat. They felt so deeply moved by his story, that his grief was so overwhelming that his emotional response was to just hurt something. To just take his pain and put it on something else. That Rat was really just a child himself. Only 19 years old, only 3 years older than my students. And he was in a war and his best friend was just killed and he was a child. How do you process that grief? How do you tell that war story?
My students said some profound things today. They talked about bullets without names. And how a bullet in my gun, really, is no different than the bullet in the gun of my enemy. They mused on men, just children, fighting in war. They considered what a war story is really supposed to be. Maybe it is about love, and pain, and memory. It's not really about fighting or combat. It's about relationships.
It's about people.
These are days that are busy and chaotic. My kids can be unfocused. Their thoughts are of pools, and cookouts, and camp. For 45 minutes a day, though, their focus changes. It centers on the Alpha Company and the lives of Rat, Tim, Henry, Kiowa, Ted, and all the others. They consider the lives of characters, maybe, real men, and realize slowly, that deep inside themselves are the same fears, loves, desires.
That these are the things we all carry.