ALTAMONT — One wall in Lisa Chapman’s English classroom holds a bulletin board on which hangs amid scenic pictures and words of positivity and encouragement two decorative items — a large compass and a framed portion of a world map overlaid with the word “Explore.”
Her English classroom is a place where students take journeys to places they may never have gone without her as their guide. She takes them down a path not only of discovering the world around them, but discovering themselves in the process.
Each year, around Veterans Day presents a prime opportunity for students to step into a world mostly unknown to them, living in the United States at this time and at their age.
Chapman reached out and picked up the book on her desk by Tim O’Brien titled “The Things They Carried” and flipped through it as she talked of bringing this piece of literature to her students.
The story, although it is technically fiction, is written by a man who served in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart. The story is based on his experiences, and the characters are based on men he served with.
“It’s a book that with my kids, it’s really beneficial to move through together because it’s stream of conscious writing, so it’s very fractured. Sometimes the way the story comes at you, you get pieces then, in the war, and you get pieces 20 years later as they are trying to process what they lived through,” Chapman said. “It is sometimes confusing for the kids to keep track of the time jumps back and forth.”
“Year after year it’s one of the favorites my kids read. Parts are kind of tough to read, which is why we navigate through it together, because there is some violence. I tell them, ‘Guys, it’s war.’ And we talk about before we read the book that good and evil exists in each of us and in any given moment one of those things is going to win. We’re going to do a good thing or we’re going to do an evil thing.”
Chapman’s Labette County High School sophomore students spent the last week preparing to read the book by doing some background. They looked at websites and Chapman presented them with questions about basic facts because, she said, often her sophomores “can’t even place Vietnam in a timeline, like before or after World War I and II. And many are not sure where Vietnam even is.
“So, we spend some time talking about where, when, why,” Chapman said.
As a part of that, with some assistance, the students had the opportunity to participate in a very informative activity.
“Mr. (Lewis) Goins, who is our new librarian this year, took copies of Life magazine that we’ve had. Whoever was librarian back in the 1960s and ’70s kept these copies of Life magazine and he found them. He went through and found all the stories on Vietnam, and he set up, essentially, a tour. So, my kids spent three days in the library touring through, chronologically, Life magazine articles to see first of all the beautiful writing that the journalists were doing. Secondly, they got to see how it was presented to the American people and you could see the tone shifts as we moved further into the war. So they were seeing images and they could read pieces of the articles. They also had the audio that Mr. Goins provided to guide them through what they were seeing and what the article was basically about.”
The magazines enlightened the students to things like the My Lai Massacre.
“They would listen to that station in the library and look at me: ‘Did we do that?’ We did that. Which is why we talked about good and evil is in all of us and sometimes the evil wins, and in a war situation, sometimes you try to justify your stance, and perhaps, in the moment, they are justified. I’m not sure there are any answers for any of that.”
Having moved through the stations in the library, the students had the opportunity then to write a reflection about what they saw that shocked them, that interested them, that left them wondering and the feelings that they had.
“So we’ve done that. We should start the book today or tomorrow,” she said. “It’s a slow process, too, because we take our time through it.”
Once done with the reading, she said there is always some kind of culminating activity, which year to year varies depending on the sense she has of the class, as to whether it should be a writing piece or if it’s more project-based.
“For the last two years I’ve taught this book, I’ve had Dave Larsen (a decorated Vietnam War veteran from Parsons) come in. He sat down with my kids and spent the whole day in the room just sharing his experience, and he brings artifacts for them to look at and they get to ask him questions. We always prepare before he comes. We watch the documentary that Discovery did over his experience and the kids prepare questions to ask him. It’s just always a great fun time. The kids last year wrote letters afterwards thanking him and thanking him for serving. He is always so humble,” Chapman said. “This year I’m probably not going to invite Dave because his of his health … and because COVID is rampant. I don’t want to put him at risk.”
Asked why she would focus on teaching the students about war and Vietnam through her chosen book from among the numerous topics she could touch on, Chapman said, “My husband served in the Marine Corps. His father served in the Army in Vietnam. My father was in the National Guard during Vietnam but never had to go in country. My grandfather served in the Navy in World War II, so my husband and I both have long lines of military service in our families. So people who are willing to sacrifice in that way mean a lot to me.
“From the English teacher standpoint, I think it is beautiful writing and I think that it’s an important story for our kids to hear, not just the history of the war, but the idea they talk about things like: Is it more important to please your family and friends than it is to please yourself? Is it better to not live than to live with humiliation? When fighting a war should you feel bad about killing the enemy? Is feeling like you belong more important than feeling safe? Do you agree with fighting a war? Is it more important to be liked than to be respected? Is fear of the unknown greater than the fear of knowing?
“These are all things that come out of the book, that are not strictly war-based ideas, but just life-based ideas,” she said. “Our kids can connect, especially our kids today, with that struggle of belonging, what you do to belong, living with bad choices you make, of doing what you had to do in the moment to survive. That comes out of this story. And because it is a war story and there are parts that are a little violent, sometimes that grabs the attention of my more reluctant readers, who would otherwise not be as interested.
“My goal in my classroom, aside from teaching language arts skills, is to help students experience the human condition in ways they might not choose for themselves. This is not a piece of literature that the kids might pick up on their own. Some of the kids, it opens up avenues for them to be able to communicate things that they’ve experienced that they didn’t know how to communicate,” Chapman said. “You know the dangling participles and all of that fun stuff I can teach in the moment, when we are in a writing project we do those things. It’s not that we discount nouns and verbs and adjectives, but it is not our focus.
“I tell the kids that at this level in language arts the goal is communication. They have things to say that the world needs to hear, but if they don’t know how to communicate well nobody is going to listen. They will discount you every time and part of being able to communicate well is being able to present clearly, … but it also means knowing how to use the words and put the words together to create an understanding and an emotion in the audience you are trying to reach. That’s a lot of what we try to do,” she said. “English for me was a great choice to teach because it brought in a lot of my favorite things. I enjoyed reading and writing. I also enjoyed psychology and I enjoyed history. All of those things marry together in an English classroom because you experience all of it through words. That’s what language arts is about and that’s what we do.”