Friday, April 07, 2006

More than a name

I thought this was a really interesting article. I didn't have the chance to go to the live reading, but what a concept for an english composition class.

More Than A Name

A class assignment at Tidewater Community College makes the war in Iraq more real.

BY STEPHANIE HEINATZ

April 6, 2006 VIRGINIA BEACH -- Jade Chandler-Haag knew she needed to make the call.

Weeks earlier in an English composition class at Tidewater Community College, Haag's professor, Rachel Blue Ankney, passed out a 24-page list of names.

The assignment: Pick one, and through an essay or a poem, write about the person's life. Make them real. Make people remember them.

When Haag selected Rachel K. Bosveld, she had no idea that on Oct. 26, 2003, the private first class was killed in a mortar attack on the Abu Ghraib police station in Baghdad.

Nor did Haag realize how little information about the 19-year-old soldier from Wisconsin would be available on the Internet or in newspapers.

It soon seemed, Haag said, that to preserve Bosveld's legacy as something more than one of 2,300-plus American men and women who have died in the war in Iraq, she'd have to talk to Bosveld's family - something her professor had suggested, but didn't require.

Haag knew she needed to make the long-distance call. She just didn't know how.

"I held the phone in my hand," Haag wrote in her essay. "Looking at the number ... I felt my stomach flip with nerves. I wondered what I could say to the mother of a girl who had died."

Haag thought of her own 6- and 2-year-old daughters.

"Would I want to or be able to talk about them and their lives if they were taken from me," she wrote.

Probably.

"I would want everyone to know how wonderful they were, no matter how painful it would be to talk about them."

Haag dialed, introduced herself and hoped for the best.

She never brought up the war. She only asked about "Rachel, the person - Rachel, the young girl from Wisconsin."

When Haag hung up from what turned into an hour-long conversation, the tears she'd kept inside sprang free.

She learned that Bosveld was buried on her 20th birthday. That she wrote letters to three elementary school classes back home. That she'd earned a Purple Heart in another attack before getting killed. And that in her free time, Bosveld was so thoughtful that she hand-wrote letters to members of her unit so they, too, could get something in the mail every now and then.

Haag still gets visibly emotional when she talks of "Rachel, a girl I would have hung out with.

"But tonight at 6 p.m., she and several other students given the same assignment will read their work as part of the college's annual literary festival.

The war was already very real to Haag - her husband and many of her friends are in the military. "But to be able to tell people about Rachel, people who may have never known her name before, well, I'm honored to do it."

Some students opted not to make that call, even when they had the phone number.

Tut Geth, who selected 20-year-old Marine Pfc. Juan Guadalupe Garza Jr., just "didn't have the heart to call them and ask them anything," he said. "I probably would have gotten more information. But it felt like a selfish act."

He used the only story he could find about Garza as the inspiration for his work.

According to the Defense Department, Garza was "killed in action" on April 8, 2003.

In Geth's poetry, Garza passed out toys and candy to Iraqi children before he died, even though he was told not to.


I reach out to you,
You feed me sweets to eat
And toys for when I play,
A man of honor in armor,
Has come down from the bed where angels lay.

Darren MacMartin, chose several names from the list, including a young Army specialist.

Officially, Paul J. Sturino died from a "non-combat discharge" on Sept. 22, 2003.

But according to the introduction to MacMartin's poem, "those who served with him remembered him for his humor and charm, and his uplifting spirit even in the roughest of times."


Man, you made it
easy, fighting
heat,breathing
dust, on the brink
of exhaustion

MacMartin also crafted a poem about Army Pfc. Bryan N. Spry, with whom he shared the same age.

Nineteen year
sold
should
be cruisin'
down the boulevard
listenin' to some
rock song.

But Spry, a "paratrooper on a mission" in Baghdad was, while in a Humvee, "forced to swerve" around a civilian vehicle. The Humvee flipped off the road and landed in a water-filled ditch, bringing Spry "into the blue, into the white."

MacMartin will remember this English class, and this assignment - and that was the point."I want my students to have assignments that mean something," Ankney said. "I could hand them an assignment to analyze a poem. But I'm not sure what that does for you once you walk out of the classroom."

I had a history course at Western Michigan University called "American History during the Vietnam Era" And part of my final was to interview a Vietnam vet and write a term paper on it. It was a truly amazing experience and an extremely difficult one. I basically wrote verbatum what was said in the interview. I didn't memorialize anyone, I didn't ad lib, I didn't impose my opinion, I didn't enhance with emotional, flowery rhetoric. I tried to write down the experience as the man I interviewed laid it out for me. My writing skills couldn't match the magnitude of the words he was speaking. I'm no Phil Caputo and I was quite embarassed at the time at my attempt.

I'm sure the students in the above article took time and care with their assignments and I'm most assured that they wrote with passion and emotion. More importantly, this assignment will share these soldiers as people and not just as a statistic on the nightly news. What a writing assignment indeed.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Darren MacMartin said...

Hi, glad to see that the story on our presentation has gotten some circulation. In addition to Tut Jade and myself, there were three others who read, and we actually had quite a turn out, which made all of this even more rewarding. Thanks again for posting the article here, I was suprised to find it somewhere other than the Daily Press site.

Reguards,

Darren

Sun Apr 09, 04:58:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Steve said...

Thanks for leaving a comment. Glad to hear that there was a good turnout at the literary festival. I really would have liked to attend.

It's kind of odd that I saw the story. The hotel I was staying at ran out of USA Today copies so I picked up a Dail Press that morning on the way to my work assignment. That article and the concept of the assignment really touched me.

If you don't mind me asking, how did your professor intially present this assignment to your class? What was the initial reaction from the class? The Daily Press article was too clear, did you try to contact the families of the people you chose to write about? Did you have a hard time finding information about these people?

Sun Apr 09, 09:04:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Darren MacMartin said...

The professor handed us a long list and told us that our final assignment for the semester would be based around the name we chose. After we had made our selections she continued on to inform us that we were to use our talents to write anything we want based around the name of choice, be it a poem, short story or essay. It is then that she told us the details behind the list of names. I then decided that I would be taking seven names. While some of the people in the class found the idea of contacting friends and family a bit much, I decided to try it, I wanted a look into the backgrounds of the fallen soldiers, if not to add to my work, then to at least grasp who they were as a person. The people I reached were all very kind, and once I divulged the task I was at, they all told me as much as possible. I only ended up turning in four of those pieces, the others, I felt, were subpar at the time of deadline. Those three would be continually worked on until I finshed them and mailed the only copies to their respective families. It just felt right, and I actually recieved a few letters of thanks back, so I knew it was well worth the while.

Sun Apr 09, 10:38:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Steve said...

Thanks for sharing with us Darren. It's definitely a strategy to get students to write with purpose and I'm sure the families appreciated the sentiment.

Tue Apr 11, 07:44:00 PM 2006  

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