What Did You Do During the War, Daddy? Or, “Dad, We Have to Help Them.” Or “Into the Child, Again”

During Vietnam, my father was stationed in Antarctica, as a Sea Bee. https://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/museums/Seabee/Cruisebooks/postwwiicruisebooks/antarctica-cruisebooks/DEEP%20FREEZE%201967.pdf 

He liked to talk about his time in the Navy, and of course, he wouldn't have met my mom and I wouldn't exist if he hadn't been stationed in Rhode Island before he shipped off for two years in Morocco, New Zealand and then McMurdo Station in Antarctica. He had lots of pictures and, as I remember his stories now, I can smell his musty old Navy clothes and the old wooden chest where he kept his uniform and other souvenirs and memories in our basement. A few years ago, when my son was studying the Antarctic in Year 4, my dad sent all these pictures and his explanation of what he was doing there and what it was like to live in the Antarctic to my son for a presentation to the class. When my dad and son got to spend some time together this past summer, it was more or less all they could really talk about, especially the memorable photo of my dad next to an enormous walrus. Later, I tried to explain to my son how lucky it was that my dad was sent to Antarctica and not Vietnam, and that maybe if things had been different, we wouldn't even exist.

Once my dad finished his two year tour in the Navy, he got out because he didn't want to go to Vietnam. Soon after, I was born, and the rest is history. War shapes lives.

A new student started in my class on Monday. He is one of a couple new students from the Ukraine who have started in our school this year, but this one, because I had a little bit to do with him being in my class....this one has really brought the sad reality of the war in Ukraine out of the backround static of my everyday routine existence and really made me think about the war and how it shapes lives and how it's so easy to not pay any attention to the fact that lives are being lost and deeply forever changed by events happening right now.

The war in the Ukraine is almost a year old. When it started, I got in contact with a dear friend of mine who I have known for over 20 years, Amadeo, and his Ukrainian wife, Natalya. They own and manage a local bar called Liverpool, which I helped him open around the same time I started in this school, making sure the ex-pat teachers I work with knew where to find it and might enjoy a pint and a dance...but I had met Amadeo many many years before, at his previous bar in another part of town, in another life. I digress. The point is, my friend contacted me about helping Ukrainian refugees and I spoke with my school about what we could do and organized some of those efforts. https://valencialife.es/ukrainian-appeal-in-valencia-by-liverpool-bar-in-ruzafa/

The initial purpose and conversations with them was just to see where and how we could donate needed things to the refugees fleeing Ukraine, but the longer term idea was to find out how I could help bring the refugee children into the school where I teach. Needless to say, almost a year later, those things are happening at an ever increasing, and depressing, pace.

One unexpected part of this story is that last spring, my daughter started her own fundraiser with her friends here in school, making bracelets to sell to the school community and donate the money to the Red Cross refugee relief efforts. The initiative, empathy and leadership my daughter demonstrated through this project was so inspiring. I am so proud of her. She and her bracelet making friends raised almost 300€ (that's a lot of .50 cent bracelets!) and I got the school to match that for a total of almost 600€ to donate to the Red Cross.
My daughter had this idea, made the bracelets, made the posters, collected the money, recruited classmates, teachers and parents to help…because she needed to do something about the war…she had to help. Those were her words, “Dad, we have to help them.”
I digress, but my daughter's empathy and efforts really inspired me. Over the summer there were many more Ukrainian families coming to Valencia, and Amadeo contacted me about finding places in our school. Our school is way too expensive, and I discovered that there really wasn't much I could do to change that. But for the families that could pay for it, there was another problem...the level of English, which brings me back to my new student.

When school started in September, a girl from the Ukraine joined my class and it was immediately apparent that she had almost no level of English. The third day of school, I had a message from Amadeo, "Hey brother, thanks for taking care of V...we told her parents to tell the school that you recommended her and said you would help her adjust." No problem, dude. She knows some colours and a few phrases, like, "Can I go toilet?", but she has very clearly never listened to or spoken English to the extent or level in which she know finds herself immersed. It's very challenging and difficult and she has been in tears more than once, so worried about not understanding what she is supposed to be doing. But it is also awesome. She is very energetic and funny and has bonded with Russian girls in my class and they titter and giggle in their squeaky little voices about god knows what and she has already started raising her hand to read and participate in the class. It was her birthday last Friday...9 years old. Nine. Remember 9?

Last Monday I was asked to interview a prospective new student, also from Ukraine, and also with almost no level of English. I was asked to do this because I had been speaking with our Head of School and the Admissions director about helping more Ukrainian children attend the school by offering extra support classes. So, somehow, I have become Head of Ukrainian Admissions. The young boy has about the same level as the girl, but he is much more shy and tense and aware of the situation he is living in. It was the interview and subsequent "conversations" with him that really, more than anything, brought the effects of this war into perspective for me. First of all, he is in the school because I accepted him into my class. If I say "No, sorry, his level is too low" ...I guess the family looks for another school, or... I dont know. Also, other teachers I work with are already burned out and complaining about the everyday frustrations of being a teacher, so even though other classes have less students than mine, as a "leader" with my "coordinator" job title and reputation for my "pastoral" leadership and teamwork, I placed him in my class. And, again, this is where my daughters example really came to mind.

This family has had their entire life uprooted, destroyed, exploded. They have left their homes, their schools, their country, the only world the children have ever known, and come into our school looking for some compassion, help, learning, education...whatever. Are we going to turn them away because it's inconvenient to have a 26th student who doesn't speak English very well in class? Is MY existence going to be so disrupted by adding this boy to my class, or is this maybe the reason I went into teaching in the first place? When I told the family, there were tears, and I teared up as well. The boy started in my class on Monday.

And then I started to speak with him more intimately to get to know him, not just to ascertain his level of English as I did in the interview. His story...the way this 9 year old boy so softly and shyly related the story of what he and his family have gone through and how they have ended up in Spain, and in my classroom...I can't find the words to explain the feeling. The TRAUMA. I hadn't really spoken to the girl about these things in the 6 weeks that she's been in my class, but the boy...I could just see that he had different, deeper feelings about things that he needed to express. I had them both show me where they are from on the map. The boy is from Dnipro, https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-ato/3601097-missile-strike-on-dnipro-at-least-two-people-killed-in-explosion-at-filling-station.html, and the girl from Kharkiv https://euromaidanpress.com/2022/10/25/this-is-what-genocide-looks-like-russian-torture-chambers-in-kharkiv-oblast/.

Although I had gotten tangently involved with the refugee situation, I hadn't really followed exactly what's happening within Ukraine. It's fucked. Full stop. The boy more or less said so in those words. During our conversation, he would say something in his language to the girl...something serious...and she would respond...her face dark and eyes hard, so different from the giggling girl I'd come to know. I don't speak their language, but I am sure he was saying to her, "How do you say 'It's fucked up' in English?" and she would respond, "I don't know," and they look at each other and shake their heads..."Don't say anymore," I imagine she says. And then I say, "You've got to help take care of your little brothers and sisters, ok? Help your mommy and daddy." Trauma.

I have these two young children in my class, now. They are from Ukraine, a war zone. They probably wouldn't be in my class if I hadn't stepped in to help them get into the school and taken them into my class. I'm proud of that, and proud of my daughter for reminding me how important it is to have empathy and to help people any way we can. I'm amazed and so, so inspired by the resilience, strength and innocence of children. War shapes lives. Pray for Peace.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s