A Gift from Thomas

After teaching at the college level for over two decades, I have heard so many stories. And each new story doesn’t diminish the one before it.  All week I’ve been wondering which story to tell, which one to choose.

Then, Thomas came by my office just yesterday (Thursday of this week) and gifted me with this one.

For seven years, Thomas was a U.S. Marine. In an introductory email to me earlier this semester, he told me that the transition back to civilian life has been much more difficult than he ever expected and that this has been a primary source of struggle for him in his daily life.

Thomas is one of my ENG 091 students this semester. He sits in front and asks questions. Sometimes, he even teases me and gives me a hard time. Early in the semester, this made me wary. Then I realized he wouldn’t feel free to act that way if he didn’t feel comfortable in my classroom, and so I started to banter back–just a little.

Yesterday, after class, he asked if he could come by to see me. My regular office hours didn’t fit his schedule, and he wanted to make an appointment. I don’t know how many other faculty have noticed, over the years, that students don’t drop by in person like they used to. They are *much* more likely to email me a question than come by my office, even if they’re just in the next building over. So when Thomas said he wanted to come by, I made time for him.

He arrived at my office a full five minutes early. He folded his six-foot-long plus body into the office chair that I reserve for visitors. Shyly, he took out a paper out of his military-issued backpack. “This is my paper for the assignment you gave us last week. I’ve never written anything like it before. I want to know if it’s any good. Am I even on the right track?”

I had assigned Thomas’s class a 2-3 paragraph descriptive paper wherein they were asked to capture a specific place on campus using words. Thomas had explored the Life Science building with curiosity. He’d tried using all of the techniques that we’d talk about that week in class: figurative language, sensory details, objective and subjective details. It was all there in an interesting draft that was full of his voice. His sense of purpose was clear: look around at your surroundings every day. It’s too easy, his paper concluded, to take for granted where we work or go to school daily. Beauty, his writing reminded me, is everywhere. Even in a campus building that I walk by at least twice a day.

I told him that his paper was rich and meaningful and, most of all, well written, and he seemed stunned. He admitted that all three of his classes were going well this semester, and that being at GCC was finally helping him ease back into civilian life.

He told me that while a Marine, he had served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and near Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, he was charged with helping a town construct a potable water system. He was helping people have better lives in the most basic way. With war in the Middle East going on for years now, it’s easy to forget that our military provides so much humanitarian aid around the entire world, and this was one of Thomas’s jobs.

Suddenly, several emotions converged at once. I realized that this young man who had spent time in some of the most dangerous parts of our world, who had held weapons in his hands on a daily basis, had been intimidated by a 2-3 paragraph writing assignment. And, in a time when students don’t often elect to communicate face-to-face, he had summoned the courage to come talk to me in my office. He left my office with a big smile on his face. He’d done well on his draft. He made an important connection with a teacher, and, without even knowing it, he had brought me a tiny part of the world just by coming to my office. So then the biggest emotion of all washed across me, and it stayed with me all day: it is for these moments and interactions–it is both to collect and participate in these very stories–that I teach.


4 thoughts on “A Gift from Thomas”

  1. Me, too, Nicola! Thanks for reminder Kimberly. Sometimes I stand in front of the room and suddenly hear myself ranting about main idea (or….? and realize how petty I sound in comparison to what is going on in my students’ lives!


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