Survey of Literature teacher, Jean Fischer has been having her students read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for the last 10 years. Though fiction, the story depicts the experiences of soldiers while in Vietnam and after the war. O’Brien explores his emotions through his own service.
The book typically rates as a favorite of the students, and to enhance the experience, Fischer reached out to the American Legion and Spencer Public Library to recruit community members willing to read and discuss the book with the high school students. Though uncharted territory, Fischer has been thinking about his idea for quite some time. “This experience has been in the back of my mind for a while.” When [Principal] Elli Wiemers said that value beyond school was going to be used as a professional development goal, Fischer thought she should lead by example since she is a teacher leader, and added “I needed to find a way to connect my literature class to the outside world. I approached Robin Munson from Spencer Public Library to see if this was something that she would be interested in offering as an adult book read because I knew that she has done book club types of activities. When I want to help my students see what people do with literature outside of school, that is what people do.” After talking to Munson, Fischer contacted Steve Waller with the American Legion which she felt would be a good pairing since the book was set during the Vietnam War. Fischer felt that having the perspective of veterans who had served would bring a different experience and perspective than what the students would have when reading the book. Through those partnerships, the opportunity flowed together. “I went to my learning team, which is my professional development team, and worked through some ideas. I met with my instructional mentor coach, Michele Dirkx, and she helped me work through some ideas to really try to make this a valuable experience for the kids.”
In preparation for the discussion students read the book and prepared questions. Following the lunch provided by the National Guard, and brief introductions, the group of nearly 30, got started when Bill Kersting, retired mental health social worker, said, “When I read the book, one of the pages that really stood out for me was page 230. It’s talking about the detail, Tim, and others had when policing, or picking up, or taking care of the soldiers who had died in combat.” He read the page aloud which formed a clear image of the scene being described. “That page said a lot to me, and it said it because I wasn’t there in combat.” Kersting served during Vietnam from ’69 to ’71. He has talked to plenty of veterans who have come back and they are referred by the VA, or referred by their family, or they are coming in on their own and want to talk to somebody who might understand a bit about what they did or saw or had to be told to do in Vietnam in the ‘60s and into the middle of the next decade. “These were real, true-life events. Not everybody had this kind of a job, but everyone who was in that war could have been killed, could have been shot, could have been in danger, no matter where they served. The story was about being in the country. This man [pointing to Tim Brinkley, an SHS graduate from the class of 1967 and Vietnam Combat Veteran], was in the country.” Kersting added that there are others who live in Spencer who lived through that war, and they have a story to tell. Not one they want to tell necessarily to anyone, but one that they do share willingly, and he encouraged the students to respect and honor that.
Hearing the different perspectives, much of the discussion centered around emotions and how there were some things that O’Brien was unable to face. In those instances, he appeared to have taken his emotions out of the situation to make it easier to talk about, but then at times he tells the stories to put them back in.
Munson felt that O’Brien was a master at taking something very serious that was difficult to talk about and making it seem ordinary, but at the same time knowing the reality was that it was something very serious.
“For us, not having experienced that time period, it sheds some light on things that happened in Vietnam that you don’t get from a history book. What is your opinion of the writing not about the war itself, but about the emotional experiences that went along with it?” asked Fischer.
Frank Lehman and Leroy Spears, two retired Air Force, felt lucky to serve in the air unlike Brinkley who served on the ground.
Brinkley added, “I guess I was mainly interested that, when I looked into the autobiography of Tim O’Brien, he was against the war to begin with, and up until the time he was drafted, like I was, he didn’t want to serve, and he came so close to going into Canada. And his emotions. What was right and what was wrong. The time period was really different because at that time we were still facing communism. That was our main fall. We had just come through the missiles of October where Russia was trying to set up missiles in Cuba. They were taking over countries. We had just come back from Korea where communists were trying to overrun South Korea, and I think the attitudes of those of us that went over when we first went over was the idea that we were going to stop communism, that this was the patriotic thing to do.” Brinkley added that after they got over there, emotions were completely changed. They no longer felt like they fighting for the U.S., but rather, fighting to get back home alive. “That was the emotion that a lot of us continued on. The basis of we have no idea why we are there anymore. It was a futile attempt to stop communism, basically because it was political. It wasn’t military. If it would have been military, we would have been in and out in no time, but they made it such a political war.” The veterans felt betrayed by the government. “We became one of the biggest scapegoats in history when we returned for a job that we were forced to do. So our emotions were like being on a roller coaster. You started out with patriotism, and then you came back to a country that really didn’t care. We were treated very poorly. It was almost like we were being bullied by a nation, and to me that was the hardest part about coming home.”
Time ran out before the questions, and it was evident that everyone involved had been moved by the event. SHS junior, Kane Decker, enjoyed the book and the experience. He said he liked the descriptiveness of the book and how close it got him to feeling what they felt while they were there. He also liked the experience to discuss the book with the veterans and library personnel. “It was interesting because you got first-hand experience. With the book, he wrote it and it could be fake, over-exaggerated, or it could be real things that could have happened but didn’t actually happen. With the people here, like when they told stories about what actually happened to them, it was real.”
Fischer learned a lot from the experience and was thankful for the veterans and the library staff who participated, as well as to the National Guard for providing lunch. With honesty, student participant, Ryan Raye, shared that he doesn’t love to read, but that he liked the book. He said that he liked the experience because of the connections from the book to people who actually served in Vietnam and getting to discuss the book with them, which proved that Fischer had accomplished her mission.