Author Helen Thorpe Discusses Education in Military Life

By Helen Yoshida — September 25, 2014 3 min read
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From Helen Thorpe comes Soldier Girls (Simon and Schuster, 2014), a book that touches on the intersection of school and parental involvement in education and college access through the experiences of 20-year-old Michelle Fischer, 20-year-old single mother Desma Brooks, and 34-year-old beautician and salon manager Debbie Helton as they join the U.S. Army National Guard and serve in Afghanistan and Iraq shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Ms. Thorpe combines four years of interviews with emails, letters, diary entries, and other sources to transform these women’s individual experiences into a touching and fresh story of the sacrifices, support, and culture of women soldiers and their families today.

I caught up with Ms. Thorpe over email to discuss how schools can connect with military families dealing with deployment. For more on Helen Thorpe, read her 2010 Commentary “Coming to America” and Education Week Teacher Book Club discussion, both about her book Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age (Scribner, 2009).

BookMarks: At 20 years old, Michelle Fischer joined the Indiana National Guard in part to fund her college education and escape the drugs and poverty that existed in her family and home life. How can high schools in rural areas give students tools and resources to attend college to give them other options than joining the military to pay for college?

Helen Thorpe: By the time she left high school, Michelle had already visited the National Guard Armory twice, as both her junior and her senior prom were held at the armory, and she had heard the pitch being offered by military recruiters, as several of them had come to visit one of her classrooms. No college recruiter visited her in the classroom. Nor did any college host her junior or her senior prom. It would be nice to see recruiters from colleges or from scholarship organizations show the same dedication and drive that military recruiters display in getting to know young people.

BookMarks: Michelle attended four elementary schools and three middle schools because her family moved almost every year due to her mother’s inability to find steady work. What can schools do to help ease the transition for students who frequently move around?

Helen Thorpe: When curriculum is standardized across an entire district--which is worth doing if the district has a lot of poor students who are highly mobile--then a student has a better shot at picking up where she left off if she changes schools.

BookMarks: When her daughter Paige failed the 4th grade Desma Brooks was on her second deployment to Iraq. Astonished that no one told her until she returned from her deployment, Desma blamed herself for being in Iraq and Paige’s father for not knowing how to encourage Paige to do her homework. In what ways can schools keep military families updated about students’ progress? How can schools help children of military families stay on the K-12 track and graduate?

Helen Thorpe: Whereas active-duty military families live on military posts where schools work closely with parents who may deploy, it can be harder for National Guard soldiers to stay in touch with teachers remotely throughout a yearlong deployment.

Ideally, the Guard could work to educate teachers and faculty about the challenges that families face during deployments, to help teachers communicate better with parents who are gone. I should add, however, that Desma does accept some responsibility herself for allowing too much distance between herself and her children during her second deployment. She found the separations so hard that she insulated herself from the pain by distancing herself from her children, which she now regrets. So parents also bear some of the responsibility, too, for maintaining good communication with schools.

BookMarks: Who was your favorite or most influential elementary, middle, or high school teacher, and why?

Helen Thorpe: In high school, I had a very demanding English teacher, named Ms. Brown. She was famously hard on students. She had us write all the time--we kept journals, we wrote poetry, we wrote essays, we wrote short stories, you name it--and she gave us a lot of critical feedback. Her standards were very high, and she was difficult to please. But her writing assignments were also unusually fun and engaging. She was highly creative, and she kept our attention. I also learned a lot from her criticism. I knew she was always trying to help me grow into a better writer.

Photo by Helen Yoshida for BookMarks

Cover image courtesy of Simon and Schuster

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.