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Virginia Journal of Education

Report from the Front

An Arlington teacher shares his experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and the classroom.

by Felix Herrera

"Mamosta, mamosta, bayarmatit [teacher, teacher, help me]," kids would say to me, in their native Kurdish, as I worked with them in the village of Zewee in the mountains of northern Iraq. As a teacher, I felt right at home with these elementary schoolchildren: It reminded me of my own classroom in Arlington, where I teach English as a second language to students from all over the world, many from war-torn countries. Both of my jobs, as a teacher and a soldier, are influenced by my own childhood experiences growing up in the midst of a bloody civil war in El Salvador, which served as an impetus for me to leave that country in search of a better life in the United States. It is this confluence of experiences that have shaped my worldview and have greatly influenced my teaching.

"Bayani bash [good morning!]," is the way I would greet my Kurdish class each day, practicing their language. As the rest of our team checked on other aspects of the mission, I would go into the classroom and try to do basic math or simple English vocabulary with students in order to build rapport. Inevitably, I wondered if this is how soldiers felt when they used to come into our classroom when I was growing up in El Salvador. Do the students feel as secure with me there as I felt when the soldiers were in my town? Do they think of me as a friend, the way I thought of some of the soldiers I got to know when I was little? Will my eventual departure impact them the way I hurt when soldiers left our town without even saying goodbye? Will they, too, one day leave their village in search for a better life? Will I someday see them in my classroom in Arlington? How would I deal with these students if they were in my classroom in Arlington today? These are some of the questions that went through my mind as our bonds grew stronger and the children began to see past my military uniform and the semi-automatic weapon slung across my back and began to see me as their teacher. I realized that ours is a relationship built on trust and mutual respect, one that was able to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers.

We tried to reach out and meet a variety of needs in Zewee. For example, after several months there we realized that there was a great need for a dentist. We learned that many in the village had never seen a dentist or been treated by one before. Our team sergeant and team leader worked through channels and managed to bring in our military dentist, who performed numerous extractions and other more complicated procedures for adults and children alike. Once again, trust and mutual respect made it possible for the children to let the dentist do his work, even when they could feel the painful results of the procedures. Their trust in us extended to the dentist and they allowed him to his job. Of course, some of the children, especially the very young ones, were a little scared of us after that, but nothing that the social capital we had built with them couldn't restore. Soon the bad memories subsided and we were back on good terms. In addition to the dental work, we also coordinated bringing in heaters and blankets and making small repairs to different schools. Our contributions were small, but the effects were tremendous. In the end, though, it was about honoring the relationships we had built. It was about helping others both for altruistic reasons and because it made us feel good. Helping others was our way of maintaining sanity while deployed. The therapeutic benefits we got from the relationships far outweighed the material things we provided for the villages.

As a child, I always wondered what motivated people to come to El Salvador and work with children like me. I remember an American missionary family who lived in our neighborhood. They used to conduct services at their home and distribute oatmeal to the local children. During the darkest periods of the war, journalists and NGO workers came to help shine a light on the conflict and expose the effects that the violence was having in our country. I remember once when our town was attacked, the presence of reporters and other observers made us feel a little more secure. During elections, international observers helped ensure the legitimacy of the process. While I was little and didn't completely understand the impact of these things, I gathered that the work these people did must be important. What I did not understand was why they would put their lives at risk. After I had left El Salvador and the peace process was underway, I was ashamed to see people from other countries coming to serve on the peace-keeping mission there to give Salvadorans the space to settle the conflict. It was then that I realized that I wanted to serve in such places, to help others just like many courageous individuals had helped El Salvador. After I finished my master's degree in conflict analysis and resolution, I decided to join the U.S. Army to serve my new country and the rest of the world as a Civil Affairs (CA) soldier. While it seemed ironic to some, this decision was consistent with my desire to leave El Salvador because of the war. I still feel that wars are the result of failed politicians and will continue to take place as long as we have imperfect beings in charge of things. My goal is to do my best to minimize the effect of war on innocent civilians. In the U.S. Army I have found a way to achieve that goal while serving the larger national interest. Now I am able to positive contribute not only to my immediate community, but to the world community.

Now, almost three years after my tour in Iraq, I am back in the classroom. I do not have any Iraqi students in my class this year, but I continue to keep in touch with some from last year. The dynamic in my classroom in Arlington is much the same as when I was working with students in Iraq. Many of my students here speak very little English and we have to take it easy to build the trust and mutual respect that serves as the basis for good teacher/student relationships, no matter what or where you teach. The word "mamosta" is only a fading memory now, but my experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan continue to inspire me. The students in Zewee confirmed to me that it is necessary to see past appearances and accept people for who they are inside. Many students in our urban areas are lost and disenfranchised, and their defense mechanism is to be aggressive, to put up a tough look. As a soldier I can see the usefulness of that, but as a teacher it's my job to build the trust and respect necessary to help students put down those walls. It is very easy to send a student to the office for disciplinary reasons, and believe me, some of them often deserve it, but the trick is reaching out to those students and working with the administration to send a clear message that they are important.

Our life experiences shape us in more ways than we even realize. As teachers, it's important to reflect on our practice and think how our experiences influence how we teach, and our expectations, not only of our students, but of ourselves. My experiences help me understand what my students are going through or what they might have gone through before they came to my classroom. My experiences help me understand that ESL students are potential professionals in the making and that it would behoove all of us to treat them as such. My experiences help me realize that hard work and dedication can go even further than talent. The former might get you there, but the latter will help you stay. In different ways, I make an effort to transmit not only academic content, but also the qualities that are necessary to succeed in life. Most importantly, my life experiences have taught me that it is good to dream, that in a life of difficulties and disappointments, it's only the dream and the hope that keeps us going. So I tell my students to keep on dreaming.

Everyone in the school community and community at large must come together and take responsibility for our young people. A sense of community, like that which exists in remote areas in Iraq, will help prevent youths from feeling isolated and neglected. Those Kurdish children are emotionally rich and feel appreciated. Our children deserve the same and we need to work together to provide a healthy and vibrant community where they can safely grow up and learn to be productive members of society.

Herrera, a member of the Arlington Education Association, is a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan and teaches at Wakefield High School.


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