11th graders at Bedford Avenue’s Automotive High School got a first-hand lesson in what it means to fight a war, to overcome adversity and to be resilient when faced with hurdles – all courtesy of a Vietnam Vet who spoke to the students at a lecture at the school Friday morning.
The students had been reading Tim O’Brien’s seminal short story collection on the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried” – a semi-autobiographical recounting of O’Brien’s experiences fighting in the war.
Teachers decided that the students would be best served and most engaged in the text if they could interact with a veteran face-to-face, and working along with the school’s principal, Caterina Lafergola-Stanczuk, arranged a visit from Anthony Wallace, a Vietnam Vet who grew up in North Brooklyn – to speak with the students.
“When students are able to witness their text in a real life experience it really gets their interest,” said Yvonne Davis-Henry, one of three English teachers whose students were present at Friday’s lecture. “Reading a story is interesting of course but having a back and forth interaction with a real life person makes it so much more engaging for the students.”
Friday’s event was coordinated by Theresa McIntyre, a staff developer at the school on behalf of the United Federation of Teacher’s Teacher Center. The Vietnam War is a subject she has been passionate about for several years, and with the Lafergola-Stanczuk’s support she was able to invite Philip Napoli, a professor of history and politics at Brooklyn College, who joined Wallace to lead the discussion about the war.
Wallace grew up in the Marcy Projects, got an Associate Degree, and began working as a clerk typist in 1967. Two years later he was drafted into the Army. And in January 1970 he arrived in Vietnam. In addressing the themes of the book to the students, Wallace talked about the physical equipment he carried as well as the mental baggage he encountered being part of a war.
His deployment was cut short however. Just four months later, he was the only one of four soldiers to survive an attack on their bunker. He had shrapnel lodged in his back, and he didn’t find out about his fellow soldiers’ death until the next morning. He told the students how he assuaged his feelings of guilt towards what happened – meeting with the dead soldiers’ family members, and keeping in touch through written communication.
Students were thoroughly engaged in the discussion firing a series of astute questions at Wallace: “How did it feel like to be a Christian but take someone else’s life?’ ‘What was the reaction when you came back home,’ ‘Were you aware of the political implications of the war,’” were just some of the questions the students asked.
“In the jungle, in the war, it was too late to worry about the political cause,” Wallace told the students. “You just wanted to survive, and I just wanted to protect my fellow soldiers. I almost lost my life but we must be able to stand up for each other.”
Wallace told the students he would do it all over again because he felt that as citizens we all have a certain responsibility towards their country.
“What was most amazing to me is that he doesn’t have a negative outlook on life despite everything that he has been through,” said Joseph Negron, 17, one of the students present at the talk. “Despite having been through something seemingly dramatic he has continued to stay positive, and it was great to speak to someone like that.”
And those were some of the very lessons the teachers and the principal in particular were hoping the students would take away from the discussion.
“It was unique experience for the kids to speak to a veteran who grew up in the same neighborhood as they did,” said Lafergola-Stanczuk. “It showed them that adversity cannot be used as an excuse to throw in the towel. It allowed them to see that you can use a negative experience and change it into a positive one.”
The principal and teachers at Automotive are hoping to introduce similar talks and lectures that will allow students to interact with their texts this way and allow them to truly experience what they’re studying.