On my drive to the gun range this past weekend, the occasional red leaf in the trees reminded me that summer is coming to an end. That explained why there were no kids at the range… they must have all been preparing for that first day of school.
With a few hundred rounds expended, I started the 20-minute drive back home. Along the way, I gave a bit more thought to kids going back to school. “School,” I thought, “It must be hard for kids these days.” As I drove by a few cows and through the intersections that pass for towns in southeastern Missouri, my mind drifted even further to thoughts about my school experiences. I realized I was very lucky to be a kid when I was and to have had the teachers I had.
First in a long line of tolerant and very encouraging teachers was my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Russert. I suppose like most kindergarten boys, I quickly fell in love with my teacher. Of course, I knew she felt the same way because of the attention she gave me!
It only took a few show-and-tells for Mrs. Russert to realize that I was fascinated with all things military. She allowed me to stand in front of the class and tell my fellow kindergartners about the “Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac” (a tale I recited often to anyone who would listen). She further encouraged me to draw all my battle scenes and pictures of military vehicles on a long stretch of butcher paper that she then hung above the chalkboard. I remember explaining each panel to her as she patiently listened.
During our “cowboy and Indians” unit, she allowed me to introduce stories of General Custer and the 7th Cavalry. At that time, I had a very cool MARX “General Custer” action figure and his horse Comanche. I am sure more than a few pair of 5-year-old eyes rolled when I started explaining how Comanche was the only survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
I suppose subsequent teachers (and my parents) thought I would outgrow my military obsession. Unfortunately for them, that didn’t happen. Rather, I simply focused my fascination. By third grade at St. Mary’s Grade School, I was in full-fledged Civil War mode. I only wore dark blue shirts and faded blue jeans—I thought it looked more soldierly. For breakfast, I drank coffee and tried to eat a very poor rendition of hardtack that I baked without my mother’s knowing.
It was while I was in third grade that I purchased the very first book of the library that I still maintain. Though my family was very generous supplying me with books and opportunities to go the library, what I really wanted was a book about Civil War uniforms. My big brother Joe let me read his subscription to Civil War Times Illustrated. In one of the issues, I found the answer to my desire: Francis Lord’s Uniform of the Civil War. I placed the order and anxiously awaited the arrival of the book… little did I realize that this book was the vanguard that would eventually amount to more than 1,100 linear feet of books.
By fourth grade, I was in full-blown CW obsession. When we had to choose a subject for the annual science fair, I decided to discuss and demonstrate the loading and firing of a Civil War musket and cannon. God rest the soul of Mrs. Giblin, my science teacher, who did not discourage the topic, but helped me explore the science of combustion, expansion of gases and the physics of action and reaction. I don’t know how I pulled it off, but my project received the first-place ribbon, due, in no small matter to Mrs. Giblin’s finding and teaching the science in a topic that interested me.
A year later, I finally reached a scholastic milestone for which I longed… we were actually going to have instruction in U.S. history! After a the first few months of class, we finally reached my nirvana: 1860 and the coming of the Civil War. In retrospect, I realize our teacher, Mr. Becker was very young and probably fresh out of college. Imagine how lucky he felt to have a smart-ale kid correct him on various accounts of U.S. history. He challenged me to put my “teaching skills” to the test and gave me a side project to develop a lecture for my classmates.
Good lord, my ears turn red to think about it 35 years later… My “talk” was 50 minutes of excruciating, hour-by-hour explanation of what happened during the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg. I am still afraid to “friend” former classmates on Facebook for fear, they too will remember that painful day. Of course, at the time, I thought I was absolutely brilliant. Mr. Becker was shrewd enough to give me the podium if that was what I was going to insist on having. After that day, I think I was probably a bit more humble and gave a few other kids a chance to answer his questions.
The next few years are a blur of girls, hormones, crackling voice and jeans that were simply too tight for any kid to wear to school. Graduating from parochial school, I landed in public school for ninth grade. That didn’t really help a kid who was struggling with his place in a crowd of his peers.
But, public school offered a greater variety of students and I soon learned I was not alone! Like moths to a zapper, history geeks can find each other in a crowded room. Soon, I was a part of an entourage that enjoyed going to hobby shops, building models, wargaming, collecting militaria, shooting guns, and blowing up things. Here is where I have to reiterate, “Man was I lucky to grow up when I did!” With my buddies, Briggs, Murph, Muns and Plager, I felt secure in my little corner of geekdom.
I believe we called our little group the “Fuselage.” We didn’t consider ourselves right wing or left wing. I know it is a stereotype of geeks everywhere, but Briggs and Murph had total access to the AV room, so they made many signs and posters for our “Fuselage” group.
We would sit in study hall and plot how we were going to steal the M5A1 Stuart tank on display in a neighboring town. Our teachers just smiled and shook their heads. After all, we were all good students and in the big scheme of things, our fantasies were harmless. Imagine if we were kids today and did any of those things! Man were we lucky to have the teachers who took the time to get to know us. They were able to evaluate whether we were a threat or just young, harmless war-mongers.
If ever there was to be an alarm sounded as a result of my actions, it would have been during my junior year. Our political science teacher, Ron Moen, gave us the assignment to design a utopian society. I took the project very seriously and wrote feverishly to outline the plans for a utopia. To my undeveloped, young mind, that utopia could not be described as anything short of a total fascist dictatorship, complete with a lengthy description of uniforms that the elite protectors of the society would wear.
Good grief… I am so fortunate he didn’t turn me over to the nut-squad then and there! Rather, when we were all asked to individually present our idea of utopia to our class and then discuss, my peers were quick to point out flaws in my plan. Mr. Moen indulged my fantasy and rather than using his position of authority to try to open my eyes to something, he put it in the hands of my classmates. That was a shrewd move on his part.
Finally a senior, I was faced with reality of having to decide what to do with my life after high school. Coincidentally, I discovered partying that year, so I actually gave my future very little thought. One might say I simply coasted to graduation. But I had good teachers. They had supported my interests for years. I am willing to bet they saw that I was sloughing off but continued to nudge me towards the finish line.
I was a lucky guy to have had a so many teachers who used their judgment as they guided me through the years rather than stomping my interests in the name of “zero tolerance.”
Nurture the child’s path,