Non-Fiction: I Had to Move On…
While I was still living in Massachusetts, I took the time to change my phone number to a local one and then sent text messages to everyone in my contact list, letting them know my new number. One of my old students replied and, much to my surprise, he said he was also in MA. My happiness turned to sadness as he informed that he would soon be shipped out to Baghdad for the second time in less than two years.
The following story is set in a Basic English class that I taught at a university in Puerto Rico, and based on a very painful memory this student shared with me and the rest of his classmates. I pray that he stays safe.
(All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the students involved)
“Does anyone know anything about Rick? He hasn’t shown up to class in a while and isn’t answering my e-mails.” I looked around at the blank faces and wondered how many understood what I had asked and if they even knew who Rick was. He was a very private person and rarely spoke with his classmates.
“You know who he is; he always sits in front, usually wears black T-shirts with—um—interesting messages, and always talks about wanting to enlist in the Army.” A few faces lit up in recognition, mostly the students in the front. Apparently Rick didn’t have any friends in this class. At that moment a tall, gangly young man stepped into the classroom, almost late, as was his custom. Penelope, who usually sat next to Rick, turned to him.
“Hey Josh, no sabes que se ha hecho Rick? Profe. is worried about him.”
Josh looked at me and shook his head no, mumbling: “Good morning Profe.”
I smiled and nodded at him, quite happy. That was the most English I had ever heard from Josh. Joshua hated speaking, especially in English.
Even though most of the students in this class shared his distaste for the language, I never imagined I would enjoy teaching Basic English at the University level as much as I did. At first the students were hesitant and angry at me, simply because I was the dreaded English professor, but now that a few months had gone by, many of them were more relaxed and comfortable and even called me by my first name. It was quite a rewarding experience.
“I know wha’ happen to Rick.” The entire class turned to Lugo as he walked in, possibly Rick’s only friend, who had lately forgotten to show up for class as well.
“Welcome, Lugo. You know what happened to Rick?” I decided I’d address the issue of his absences with him after class.
“Uh-huh. Se enlistó con el Army la semana pasada y se lo llevan mañana pa’ Iraq.”
I frowned, skeptical, and some students gasped at this bit of news. Much to my surprise, Kevin, who was always very respectful and quietly observing, spoke up.
“No, no. That’s impossible. I’m in the Army. I had to train for months before they considered sending me to Iraq. Rick must have just dropped the course.”
A few students in the back of the room said: “You been to Iraq? What was it like?”
I pointedly looked at my watch and said: “Well, I’ll have a chat with Rick later. He probably made an error and forgot to get in touch with me. Let’s get started…Last class we talked about how we must be very careful when providing information to our intended audience as we write an essay. If we don’t carefully revise what we write, our readers could be confused. We discussed the 6 areas we must check when revising our first draft. One of them is grammar. What is another area?”
Most of the students avoided eye contact while others frantically looked through their notes.
Joshua slowly raised his hand. I was elated that he would speak English for the second time in less than fifteen minutes! Trying not to appear too eager, I called on him.
“Profe…” He struggled for the right thing to say. “Professor…I want know about Kevin in Iraq.” He heaved a sigh and looked at me expectantly. That was certainly not the answer I had expected.
“Me too, me too.” Penelope jumped a little in her seat, waving her hand at me. “I have a…um…primo…” She looked at me a little helplessly. I scanned the room and saw 100% attention. Quickly deciding to take this as an opportunity to practice conversational skills, I addressed the class.
I looked around the classroom. “Well? Someone help her out. What’s the word for ‘primo’ in English?”
“Brother?” someone volunteered.
“No, no. Cousin!” Lugo said.
“Ah, si. Cousin. My cousin is in Iraq now. I am interest in know about Iraq.” Penelope finished.
Lugo raised his hand. “Misi, it woul’ be interesting to know stories about war now. My Grampi has a lot of stories abou’ Vietnam.”
The class murmured in general agreement. It was rare to see the entire class so motivated about a topic. Kevin had been growing more and more fidgety.
I smiled at him apologetically and asked:
“Kevin, we can have a small conversation about your experience in Iraq only if it’s ok with you.”
The roar in the class intensified. I held up a hand and they quieted.
“We are not forcing Kevin to share anything unless he wants to share. If he does, and if you have any questions, he will only answer those he wants to answer. Being in a war is not romantic; it is not fun and games and we are not going to pester Kevin about it. Is that understood?”
There were general murmurs of consent and I turned to Kevin again. He seemed more excited after hearing my little speech.
“I’ll share some of it.” His left leg began jumping in place very quickly. His eyes were gleaming and his breath began to come a little faster.
“Are you sure, Kevin? You don’t have to share unless you want to.” He looked so strained I wasn’t sure this was such a good idea, but he insisted on sharing.
“I’ll share, I’ll share, don’t worry. Not all of it, not all, but some. It’s very dangerous place, you know. It’s very hard and many times you don’t get to…um…bañarse?…ah, bathe for days and days.”
Kevin’s voice got louder with each word; his hands gesturing wildly in the air.
“You don’ know who is enemy or friendly. There are a lot of things you don’t see on T.V. They don’t want you to see…They don’t want you to know. You have to watch your back always, always. Can barely sleep at night. We gone to towns and had to fight. Even little children come with guns and scream and…it gets very very bad. You go into Army, you think you have cojones—oh, sorry, sorry Professor—You don’t know about real cojones until you go and fight. Then you know you don’t have any. You are scared shitless—sorry, sorry Professor.”
At this point Kevin is sweating and rubbing his hands across his face, eyes facing inward; a small, nervous smile sometimes decorated his face. The class, as well as myself, are captivated by his words. Even though he did not give many details, watching him was painful.
“Thank you Kevin.” My mouth and throat had gone dry.
“Have you killed?” Lugo asked in a low voice. In the sudden silence it sounded like thunder. I was startled by his question.
“Lugo, that’s not something we’re going to ask Kevin to share. He has been kind enough to share—”
“I’ll tell, I’ll tell. I have to tell.” There was urgency in Kevin’s voice and a panicked look in his eyes that stole my voice.
I nodded once, the classroom as silent as a grave.
Kevin was more fidgety than ever. He ran his fingers through his hair, licked his lips, shook his head, visibly steeled himself and heaved a sigh.
“I was with my team. We were ordered to secure the area. I was second in line. As a group, we have to protect each other, always protect each other so the mission can succeed. We went into this building. All dirty, tables broken, papers everywhere. Guns were firing all around us. The man in front of me shot. PratataTA!”—his hands provided the visuals of the firing guns—“Men went down, our mission was going well. I provided cover. I don’t know how many I shot. And then we hide. Enemy fire. So close, so close. Orders for the man in front to shoot the enemy. He had a clear shot. NO SIR, NO SIR, I CAN’T, he screamed. IT’S A KID, I CAN’T, I CAN’T, SIR.”
Kevin paused his near-screaming and shook his head. Smiled nervously, looking at the floor, eyes focused inward. He licked his lips.
“So much screaming was driving me crazy. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it. We were all going to be killed by this little kid. This little kid. Like my nephew. Small but twisted. So much hate. So much screaming. The soldier in front of me crying. Screaming and screaming… I didn’t think. I got up, left our protection and shot twice.”
I held my breath, and I imagined the rest of the class did as well. Kevin breathed heavily and shook his head. Let out a nervous chuckle and he looked up into my eyes. His eyes were no longer focused inward; they were haunted.
“We secured the area. I had to check the area. I went to see what I done. The kid was on the floor. The blood was in the dirt. His brains were splattered on the floor, leaking out. I could not move. A soldier shook me—he screamed at me. I had to move on…I had to move on…”