Today’s teenagers were in kindergarten when the planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. The “War on Terror,” which began a few months later, has been going on for most of their lives—and most of them can’t tell you much about it. Melinda (Allen) Barnes, an English teacher at Grenada High School, understands how her students feel. She was born in 1965—the year another war began—the war in Vietnam. The Vietnam War, lasting from 1965-1975, was the longest war in the history of the United States.
Mrs. Barnes, Mrs. Hopper, and Mrs. Chandler (the three teachers of the 229 10th grade English students at GHS) just completed a literature unit about the Vietnam War entitled “The Things We Carry” based on the novel The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Students listened to war-protest songs and read poetry written by soldiers after the war. They read the short story, “Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” about a young private’s eye-opening first day on the battlefield. They talked about the My Lai Massacre and the “ethics” of war, and the students were privileged to hear two primary source speakers with two very different perspectives: Bro. James Melton, a local pastor who did two tours of duty in Vietnam as a soldier in military intelligence, and Sally Whalley, who at the age of 10 was fortunate enough to escape Vietnam on the last helicopter out of Saigon before it fell to communism. Both speakers spoke eloquently about their experiences.
Bro. Melton talked about receiving, at the age of 19, his draft notice in the mail. He had been offered a full scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute and could have avoided the draft, but he chose to go to Vietnam and serve his country instead. He described buying himself a first-class ticket for a plane ride, de-boarding the plane in his uniform, and a passenger spitting on him and cursing him because the man thought the U.S. government was paying for him to ride first class. When he was placed on the waiting list for a second tour of Vietnam, he volunteered to replace a man who was married and had children. He described the war as the beginning of a spiritual journey for him that ended with his becoming a pastor.
Sally Whalley recounted her life in Vietnam, including that she and her eight brothers and sisters only received one teaspoon of rice each day in Vietnam. She described her mother sending her four youngest children to the American Embassy to get on that last helicopter out of the country, not knowing if she would ever see them again. The picture of that helicopter was on the front page of every newspaper in America—and Sally was one of the hoards of people on the roof desperately waiting to climb up the ladder and leave the country. She narrated her experiences about the journey on the boat to the United States and life in the Vietnamese refugee camp. She and her siblings lived with different foster families and she began 5th grade unable to speak a word of English. Sally ended her talk saying, “My experiences have taught me that God has a plan and a purpose for everyone. I do not even want to think about how different my life would be if I had not gotten on that helicopter.”
The unit culminated with a special project. Students read an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried. The excerpt mentions many things the soldiers carried—everything from M-16 rifles to grenade launchers to rations stuffed in their socks. However, the book mentions other things they carried. For instance, they carried fear of embarrassment and fear of dishonor. They carried their father’s expectations. They carried the weight of the world, but most of all, they carried each other.
After students read the excerpt, they were asked to write about things they carry. Mrs. Barnes says the writing from this activity is some of the best she has ever seen in her eleven years at GHS. Their stories are being printed anonymously into a book for each of members of the class of 2014 to keep. Here are just a few examples of some things these teenagers carry:
… the loss of my mother and not knowing my real dad.
…the memory of drinking coffee in the barn with my grandfather when I was little.
…the loss of my sister because her son will never know how great a person she was.
…my parents’ love for me.
…the memory of the last time I got to go fishing with my father before he died.
…the constant pressure my parents put on me to be and do more than I feel capable of.
…the responsibility of taking care of my father who was paralyzed in an automobile accident.
…regret—for things I’ve said and things I haven’t said.
…insecurity—even though looking at me, you would think I was the most confident and secure person around.
…hope, love, and fear of loss while searching for the One Who will never lose me.