After years of protesting military interventions, life turns had me unexpectedly teaching literature and writing at a U.S. base outside Naples, Italy. It was my first up close encounter with soldiers, albeit in peacetime. I wasn’t prepared for what I found.
- “I loved boot camp,” a young man told his astonished classmates. “Why not? Three squares a day, clean sheets, and nobody stuck my head in the toilet like my dad used to,” he finished quietly.
- In a class of twenty, five had lost someone close to them to drugs, gangs, or random urban violence. “I’m safer in the military,” they said.
- Taking a chance, I pushed a painfully shy seaman to read aloud his English 101 essay. In loving, aching detail, he described his brother’s hands before and after drug addiction wasted his life. In the stunned silence of the class reaction, the seaman turned to me and gasped, “They got it. I wrote it and they got it.” He was a big guy with tears in his eyes.
- An incredibly talented young man who might have wrangled scholarships at any school explained why he enlisted. “My mom’s a prostitute, and she can’t keep doing that.”
- A Gulf War veteran back from fighting Saddam Hussein dropped bullets of sweat on my grammar worksheet. “Relax. You know this,” I advised. “I don’t know, ma’am. It’s kinda scary.”
I had my doubts about Shakespeare, but Folger editions with facing page glossaries and clear scene summaries, my soldiers dove in.
- On King Lear: “You know, if you retire, you can’t pretend to be chief anymore. Everyone knows that.”
- On Macbeth: “You just know what’s going to happen, and it makes you sick to watch.”
- Richard IIIengendered brisk discussion of leadership styles, just when Richard “lost it,” and how lack of loyalty to his men will bring down every leader. Richard should have taken a leadership class.
- Then came Othello. I hadn’t anticipated how intensely my soldiers would take the story.
“Hey, Miss Schoenewaldt, Iago’s the lieutenant, right? So why is he bringing down his own general? Nobody will want him after that.”
“That dude, Othello, was great at sea, but he sure messed up on land.”
“You gotta wonder if Othello ever heard of the C word, communication? He should have gotten Cassio and Desdemona together and just asked: ‘Yo, you guys balling or what?’”
For energy and passion, I’d take those conversations over grad school seminars any day.