Person to Person

Who Has the Ball?

By Mal

I just returned from participating in the CCCC’s Veteran community for the first time.

Although I’ve researched on Veterans in higher education, and though I’m one myself, I’ve stayed on the outskirts of the community. Felt like the studied one, maybe, and didn’t want my research to make anyone else feel studied.

But there was a sense of “homeness” in the SIG group for me this time; some combination of minds that think in terms of inquiry and feet that move quickly to action. As a scholar in the land of the former I’ve missed the urgency of the latter. Deep down, I can’t quite shake the lived experience that one is a threat to the other. It’s no longer a logical problem—I understand how to be both an academic and forever a Sailor. But it is somehow still part of my experience as I work to meld my academic and veteran selves to be more intertwined.

Grad school is replete with opportunities to wear different hats: one moment the student, the next the teacher, one moment the parent, the next the child, one moment the Sailor, the next without a uniform. The multitudinous moments call for a mixture of all those postures. And all roles I have become adequately familiar with—except the Veteran role. Oh I think I’ve got it. My mind has got it. But twice in the last 3 years I stood up to present on Veterans research and my voice cracked and wavered as if I had never stood up before. I presented at C’s as an undergrad with far more confidence than this. Back then my voice was unwavering. I’ve spoken about sexual assault and controversial issues and no crack in my voice could be heard. Yet when it comes to being a Veteran and speaking to Veterans…I don’t know, my voice insists on sounding small.

I didn’t speak of this last week, but I think it holds some key to this inner controversy: The ethos of my teaching contradicts the ethos of my military self. When I teach a class of those who have not served, all I have to do is mention that I did, and that I fought fire in California, and that I’m a mom, and I have their respect. But when I taught my Veterans-only course, I knew that wouldn’t be the case. Military respect is rendered to rank and to the crisp uniform. Here I have neither. As a supervisor in uniform I earned my guys’ respect by working as hard as they did, and by sending them to do the job without me to grow them into my position—which they would soon move into.

Nearness through banter, distance through orders; equality through shared challenges, separation by willingness to go to bat for them at my own cost, and to keep from them the words from above that might dampen them. My guys. My shop. My uniform—on duty and off. But these are not my guys—they are their own men and women. And this is not my shop—it is a room I use for an hour a day. And my uniform? I never know what to wear in the morning because what you wear says everything about who you are and what values you represent and your position among your people. Civilian clothes don’t come with descriptions that fit those requirements.

And teaching? Yes, I have their obedience, but I want more than that. I want their trust. How can I carry the heaviest toolbox? How can I lead by perfection when my academic brothers claim the class is a place for learning–which is messy? And it is messy! In my Navy we checked off boxes together. My Sailor’s and I marked hours and days by flights, MAF’s, gripes, and maintenance boards filled with aircraft statuses. Messy was fixable—and intolerable. And only existent because someone hadn’t yet done their job. And now I must teach messy. I can—almost. But it feels all wrong: If an aircraft is partially down, there are still boxes to show why, and manuals that lead to way to completing the task. Students don’t seem to have boxes to check, and messy—yes, I can do that, but is it a good messy, or an irresponsible messy, or messy because of inexperience? My academic brethren say yes and know.

Upon the flight deck, in the belly of the aircraft, in the dark night of inexperience and handling ordinance, intuition and determination saved us. Experience and dark humor brought the scattered pieces of Navy life together, and with a good sprinkling of love for adventure and grit against the wind, we eluded panic and rose to the occasion as a team. But here in my class…oh! We got an award for our success! But we are aircraft with living pieces and no one to check the box to say if yes, we are ready to fly.

Who has the ball?