By Keith Massey
I was an Arabic linguist with the National Security Agency (NSA) before becoming a Latin teacher at a public high school in New Jersey. I have a lifetime obligation to submit everything I publish to the NSA for pre-publication approval, lest I even inadvertently release classified information. This article has received such an endorsement. The fact that I was in Iraq in 2004 is unclassified. Where exactly I was in this country and what I was doing there is still classified, but for my efforts I was awarded the Global War on Terror Civilian Service Medal.
As we now approach the end of the current school year, I want to reflect on last year. Once upon a time, I went to war. And last year, we all did.
In this thing…
When 9/11 happened, I felt a moral obligation to get involved. With a doctorate. in Biblical Hebrew and a minor in Arabic, I sent my resume online two days after the tragedy. I wanted to be in this thing.
The process of joining the NSA was long. A month after I first contacted the agency, I was flown from my native Wisconsin to Maryland for language testing. I vividly remember the Wisconsin National Guardsmen, dressed in camouflage, providing security at the airport in the wake of the tragedy. It certainly felt like a war was going on. But I wasn’t really into it yet.
I took the NSA language tests and then a polygraph. The logistics of bringing in a wave of new employees were still being ironed out. It turns out that such things took months, not weeks. I only started working there in June 2002.
Just a few months after I started, I was sent to train in the Iraqi Arabic dialect in preparation for the coming war. Now assigned to the mission in Iraq, my full-time job was to help our forces with the best intelligence possible. A year later, I was approached with an offer. The man who had been my mentor from day one said out loud the words, “Would you be willing to go to Iraq?” I mean, isn’t that why I signed up? I wanted to be “in this thing”. I agreed.
I was sent to a CIA training facility to be certified on the Glock 9mm handgun and M-4 assault rifle. I had never fired more than a BB gun in my life before this training, but I dutifully obeyed my instructors and came out in the end ready to go.
In the midst of it all, I met the woman who would become my wife. I had told him vaguely that I worked for the Ministry of Defence. But as I was about to leave, I told him that I worked for the NSA and that I was going to Iraq. This is where she could have given up on the relationship. I’m grateful that he didn’t.
I found myself on a plane which was about to land in Baghdad. The pilot was performing what is known as a corkscrew landing – a tight downward spin from a high altitude, spinning the plane just at the last moment to land on the runway. This minimizes an insurgent’s ability to hit us with a surface-to-air missile. So I was actually in Iraq. I was in danger. I was a dairy boy from Wisconsin who was now in a war zone. Was this really happening?
In this thing again…
Was this really happening? That was my thought in the spring of 2020 as we entered strict quarantine. We were suddenly teaching all classes virtually, making it up as we went. We teachers and educational support professionals were considered heroes then for pivoting as we have to continue educating under these circumstances.
We have made our way to the end of this school year. The following summer, the number of cases in many places dropped so much that we dared to hope that this case would come to an end. With low enrollment, districts planned to reopen the school with a hybrid model. Families could choose whether their children were in the building or remained virtual. Very few teachers had circumstances that gave them permission to teach virtually. Which meant the rest of us had been ordered to teach in our buildings.
A new school year started in September 2020. It is important to remember that vaccines were still not available. That first day, I had between five and 12 students in the room with me, the rest were virtual. In my district, students could choose to go virtual at any time. With the vast majority of our virtual students, we clearly had to plan the lessons around them, not around the students actually in the room with us.
In the months leading up to vaccination, we were teaching in the inevitable proximity of students and colleagues. We were in danger. I began to feel the same sense of terror and danger as when I was in Iraq.
Fall turned into winter, then winter turned into spring, at which time the vaccine was finally available. I got it the first second I could.
In the spring of 2021, I was now at one or two students enrolled in each of my five classes. One day I said to one of them, the only one in the room, “The lesson, as you know, is pre-recorded content. I guess the only added value I give you is when I say “Hello” to you in person. The student replied, “That’s why I come to the building.”
I cried then, and I still cry when I remember that moment. In the midst of this nightmare, no matter how dangerous the virus we were, this student needed people. As teachers, we must never forget that no matter what subject we teach, the most important lesson we teach is so often to be a caring presence.
Now let me explain why I feel, in retrospect, that last year was the second time I went to war.
Low level fear of attack
When I arrived in Iraq, it was still war. My biggest concern was the possibility of a mortar attack by insurgents. While I was there, two mortar attacks were directed at our base. In both cases they landed outside the 20 foot concrete walls that surrounded us. But we were the target. The low-grade anxiety of mortal danger was only part of the day there. I remember lying in my bed to sleep and wondering if I would be killed by an attack in the night.
Last year, I felt the same for me while doing my job as a teacher. We were in danger. I have vivid memories of being very scared and very cautious when we started the school year. I remember trying to avoid close contact with people, even while wearing a mask. The lingering threat was there, just as it had been in Iraq.
In strict quarantine, we could control our potential exposure. When we returned to our premises to teach in September 2020, we were unable to. We were in a constant state of potential infection. There was a faint sense of danger to our lives. We were in danger.
The camaraderie of it all
When you have gone to war with someone, you share an experience that creates a very special and indelible bond. This is the sentiment that Shakespeare expresses in “Henry V”, in the Saint Crispin’s Day speech, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” This fear of low level attack, when shared with someone, makes you comrades in arms.
I would serve in other deployments with people who had also served in war zones. On one occasion, I was one of three agents in an overseas social setting. Two of us shared war stories, while a third had never done such a deployment. He expressed a desire to not really be part of the conversation. I remember the two of us who had been there, we met eyes in a combination of pride and pain. We knew we were proud of our service, but we also both knew what the experience took away from us.
I felt that again last year. This experience certainly extends to other faculty and staff with whom we have shared the danger. This also extends to students who were hybrid with us last year. I noticed one day that a sophomore boy who was a hybrid from start to finish started the year shorter than me, but one day he walked into the room and I saw that he had exceeded. When I told him about it, he told me that a few other boys in our class, all virtual, but who he saw regularly in person, were now the same height. But, you see, it was only information. With him, it was experiential.
The absence of closure of an interminable year
My wife and I got married in December 2004 after my return. I will work two more years at the NSA, before leaving to become a Latin teacher. I’m very proud of my service there, but I also believe I’ve done even more good for the universe as a high school teacher.
I had left Iraq, but I learned with deep sadness that a place where I was eating while waiting for my flight was attacked a few months after my departure, killing many American and Iraqi soldiers, as well as employees of cafeteria. The base where I spent my time was abandoned a few months after my departure when an attack finally landed inside the walls, seriously injuring personnel. I wasn’t there, but somehow I never left. You can physically leave the war, but part of you is still stuck in it.
Likewise, last year never really ended in our minds. The ordinary rites of passage that tell us that a school year was over were either absent, or at least different enough that true closure did not occur. Last year for me, I just moved into a new year, still wearing masks and with a lot more students in the room. The last school year didn’t really seem to end for the simple fact that the pandemic didn’t end.
The crucial role we play
We went through a significant trauma last year. Very often, as teachers and support staff, the past year quickly becomes a distant memory as we enter the current year. We are ending the current year, but we still have to treat last year with reflection. Somehow we have to integrate the past year into our being as we move forward. We have to do this because our students also experienced their own personal traumas that year. And we must stand in solidarity with them because we recognize that they are also going through the worst year of their much younger lives.
And, as I said all that, I wonder if this current year has not been, in some respects, even worse than the last. This means that we would need to process what last year was all the more, in order to start surviving what we are going through now.
We have spent time in danger. We have lost people along the way. We are not completely out of danger yet. As we all try to rebuild this world, let us remember the crucial role we play in it as a school community. We band of brothers, sisters and friends.