Thursday, September 2, 2010


my first year teaching was at a rural middle school in skagit county.  i taught special education, resource room, which means that my students were mostly normal kids failed by the public school system.  my students would spend some portion of the day with me, but most of their day was spent in the general education classrooms.  part of my job was to work with these teachers to help modify or adapt the lessons and assignments so my students could learn and, hopefully in the process, feel good about themselves.  some teachers were better to work with than others.

one teacher, keith, a big bear of a guy was loved by all the kids because he was loud and boisterous.   his classroom packed full of odd art pieces from around the world.  he was driven to be a good teacher.  a failing student frustrated him and he'd work tirelessly to help them do better.  he had a natural curiosity about people of all ages and what made them tick.  more than once keith would strike up a conversation with me about me being a passivist.  he didn't quite believe it was possible for someone to be this way.  he'd come up with scenarios for me- what if someone was attacking my family?- to try to see just how far i would go to avoid violence.  he wasn't entirely convinced that i didn't need a gun in my daily life.

one day i hitched a ride with keith back into town in his small pick up truck.  he apologized for the clutter as he scooped up papers and such.  our eyes both landed on the floor of the truck littered with bullets.  he seemed sheepish about it, wanted to know if i was ok with having bullets swirl around my birkenstocks as we drove north.  i didn't mind.  i was perplexed.

bullets and guns mean something totally different to me than most folks in rural areas.  i associate guns with gang activity, robberies, self-defense.  i grew up in southern california and witnessed violence with guns involved too close.  i'm thankful i never actually saw anyone get shot.  i know very little about them even now- but i have a healthy fear of them and their ability to take life.  lots of folks around here associate guns with hunting for food, as does my husband and his family.  having a good hunter in your family earned you respect- gave you the opportunity to feed your neighbors.  the same tool used in very different ways.

turns out keith's association with guns was entirely different than either of those.  he told me his story as we drove up old pioneer highway.  keith comes from a long line of military men.  for generations the men in his family were career military folk, so there was little doubt that keith would join the services.  he looked forward to this.  during boot camp he was noticed for his sharp-shooting abilities.  he told me it was the first time he ever felt really good at something.  he was pulled from boot camp and given special training.  he was 19.

i won't show my ignorance by attempting to remember details about the particular south american uprising that keith was sent into.  i think it was Guatemala.  in any case, he was sent in with a special task force.  his pride swelled.  once there, he quickly realized that he was a hired assassin.  his skills were used to take out people that our government deemed dangerous.  slowly the reality of what he was doing dawned on him.  he said that he had always believed in the honor of the military and was proud of his country.  it was a shocking blow to realize what he had been made to do.

he served his time and upset his family by leaving the military to become a teacher.  he said some of his family wouldn't speak to him.  not long after he became a teacher he had a student from Guatemala.  her father had been assassinated.  keith believed that he had been the one that killed her father.   i sat there in stunned silence as he struggled with his strong memories and the emotions that pushed their way out into his eyes. 

he said that it was hard for him to deal with what he had done.  he felt like he had been tricked and used.  but he also was still proud of the shooting skill he had.  he explained that he went to the firing range to kind of take back control of his gift, of his curse.  it was a way of healing to learn that he could fire a gun without hurting anyone.  that he could fire his gun without being told what or who the target was.   he was a man with deep hurt healing himself with the very thing that had caused him so much grief. 

the courage of that still strikes me.

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