A few years ago, I mentioned Kent State to my university students. You know, First Amendment and all that Right to Assemble business. Only problem was no one in class had ever heard of all that mess at Kent State. They only knew of Kent State as a place where basketball was sometimes played well.
This is what is commonly called as background knowledge. The more background knowledge a person lacks, the less understanding they bring to the page when reading, the bigger the educational gaps.
When it comes to the subject of the American War in Vietnam there’s a wide canyon of misunderstanding and just sheer lack of knowledge. Naturally, I suppose, I make a point of trying to bridge that gap, in my writing and in my teaching.
Next Wednesday is Veterans Day. For many years now, I have spent every Veterans Day and every Memorial Day in DC. This year I won’t be attending those events because I am teaching full time at an Oregon high school.
My classes have been reading two texts, The Iguana Tree & Their Eyes Were Watching God. Regular classes are reading Stone’s book, and Honors is reading Hurston’s work. In each book, the main characters are seeking the same thing – freedom.
When I asked students what freedom is most of them replied that freedom is the right to do whatever one wants whenever one wants it. Of course, a quick follow-up of that revealed that they understand that a society based upon that definition of freedom is doomed to fail. At some point, like it or not, we have to think about others.
Thinking about others doesn’t come naturally for most of us. It is something we have to be taught to do. And yes, sometimes thinking about others is something we have to force others to do,which is why we have laws that tell drunk drivers to stay off the road and laws that require hospitals and restaurants to meet certain sanitation standards. It’s for the benefit of the whole.
My idea of what freedom is changed following that trip I made to Vietnam. I wrote about the moment that all changed for me in the memoir After the Flag has been Folded. (A terrific book you should read)
If you were to come into my home today, you would find bookshelves in my living room – two of them. Bookshelves in our den – three of them. Bookshelves in my office – two of them. And books spilling out around tables and dressers all over the house. And boxes of books in the garage.
Tim or I have read almost all of these books, or at least part of them. My favorite lately are the children books. Nothing makes me quite so joyful as reading to my grandsons.
Ever since I went to Vietnam and met a young man named Peter, books have embodied freedom to me. Peter told me of all the many attempts he made to leave Vietnam and how all of those attempts failed. When I asked him how I could help him, he replied, “Books.”
Even in 2004, he could not wander into a brick-and-mortar bookstore and buy any book he wanted. He could only purchase books his government deemed acceptable. I haven’t been back to Vietnam, but I suspect a lot has changed over the past decade. The Internet is a lot more difficult to monitor and regulate, as Syria has found out.
When I was a young girl growing up in that trailer park in West Georgia, our home was not full of books. We had Bibles and one set of World Books. I wore out the thin volume of poetry: I never saw a Purple Cow, I never hope to see one; But I can tell you, anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.
I have students today who live in homes where any book is a rare one. I have some students who recognize an education is their ticket to the freedom they seek. I also have students who consider school as a compulsory confinement, a type of enslavement to a system they resent.
Like the old Joni Mitchell song noted: Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?
Freedom is like that.
If you have a book in your home that you love, take time to thank a Veteran this week. Their service paid the price for you to be able to sit down and read any book your heart desires.
For many people across the world, it is books, not flags, that best represents freedom.