My classes at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio often felt like a mini-United Nations. Every week, I would change courses and student loadings. I taught a very specific type of English to international military personnel, along with the language skills they needed to succeed in training bases all over the United States when they graduated from our Defense Language Program. Our school is broken up into three main types of English—General (focusing on basic vocabulary and language skills), Specialized (focusing on specific vocabulary necessary to various groups of expertise) and Instructor Development Section (focusing on training international teachers). Although I have taught English in all three areas, I preferred the specialized content because of the variety of students and topics I dealt with. One week I could teach terminology to pilots , the next Navy Seals, followed by an Electronics or Map Reading course to Army students. Each week I experienced a new group and adventure. I never feared my own lack of personal experience in these areas because I was a language expert, and knew how to draw out the experience of my students, who contextualized it all for us.
For someone like me coming from a small town but having a big heart for the world, it was a perfect fit. My knowledge of the world grew in leaps and bounds. I often taught both officers and NCO’s (non-commissioned officers) in the same classroom with completely different military and cultural traditions and backgrounds, and in spite of that, we jelled. We learned. We laughed. We shared. We grew. If I could build that bridge to them, make them feel completely safe in taking language risks, the potential for their experience to rise to the surface was phenomenal. I took on that responsibility with the utmost seriousness. My efforts paid off.
The constant flux of subject matter and student load challenged me. I lived and breathed my work, tailoring my presentation, the terminology and context to suit their needs as best I could. I loved my work load. The memories of one of the army modules and a specific group of students remain with me to this day. Right after that class I tried to capture it in a poem (of sorts).
The ABC’s of the NBC Class
I surveyed the class.
The Africans surveyed me back.
In the back, two young guys
dressed in camouflage fatigues
sat side by side.
Curiosity smiled from their eyes.
Another fellow in the right corner
stared boldly — insolently — with a cocky grin
daring me… 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,
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.
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,
So 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
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.