Law & Courts Commentary

War and Remembrance

By Susan Van Kirk — February 17, 2006 8 min read

How does one teach during wartime? In 1968, at age 22, I had the answer and few questions. In 2005, at age 59, I have too many questions and few answers. One question in particular haunts me: Did I serve my students well by not speaking out?

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An exhilarating time of great possibilities, 1968 was also a grim time of war. Graduating from college, I was a political moderate but a solid pacifist about the conflict in Vietnam. I argued repeatedly with my friends about the reasons for going to war, the government’s spin about what was happening there, and the casualty statistics for both sides. But when I began teaching in a public high school, personal views and professional responsibility were also at war. That the small town where I taught was conservative became quite obvious when I signed a page of my contract stating I was not a communist and didn’t plan to overthrow the government. I believed my teaching should reflect that community.

So what stand to adopt in my speech classes when discussing current events? While I believed I had the right to free speech, I decided on a neutral stance, encouraging students to speak out and back up their views with reasoned, civil discourse. I rebelled in less political ways, such as allowing my students to choose psychedelic yellow for the classroom walls and joining them in painting while listening to their views on the war. I was young, sure of myself, right in my convictions, and walking the neutrality line.

My 35-year college reunion, back in 2003, reminded me of those days. Ahead of its time, Knox College had filmed students during their senior years so that whenever alumni returned, they could observe their younger selves. Watching the 1968 video, I saw a much thinner me, with long, dark hair, laughing for the camera as I worked on a homecoming float. Next I saw seniors playing in a faculty-student baseball game. I was startled at the sight of a blond, ruggedly handsome friend who, for the sake of privacy, I’ll refer to only as Cleave. Intelligent, athletic, and personable, he seemed to do everything so easily. I remember Cleave often telling me that I was way too serious. “Susan,” he’d say, “you should enjoy yourself more. Life is short.” Then he’d laugh and turn toward his girlfriend, Gwen. An only child from a tiny town in southern Illinois, Gwen jokingly described her home as “a gas station, a church, and a few houses.” She had dark hair and deep-brown eyes; her smile was infectious and made her whole face beautiful. And she was my friend.

During our senior year, we both taught, got engaged, and set wedding dates two weeks apart in August. After graduating, I was hired to teach nearby in Monmouth, Illinois. You would think that Gwen and I were on parallel tracks, but there’s one distinction that set us apart: Cleave had attended Knox on an ROTC scholarship. He believed in fulfilling commitments and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve. In 1968, we all knew what that meant.


Cleave and Gwen spent a few months together while waiting for him to receive his notice to report. It came, and later he shipped out to Vietnam. Christmas 1969, I received a card from Gwen saying she hoped the war would end quickly and he’d come home so they could start their life together. After all, they had shared dreams. Meanwhile, my husband and I were in the small town of Monmouth, adjusting to our lives as married people and as educators.

My second year of teaching was humming along, and I was walking home during my lunch hour, whistling “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on a day I remember clearly: April 3, 1970. I grabbed the mail, walked inside our apartment, set it on the kitchen table, and opened a yellow envelope. I glanced at the capital letters and then read the contents carefully, my breathing slowing to a standstill. It was from Gwen, informing me—in that succinct, telegram way—that Cleave had been killed two days earlier in Vietnam.

Sliding into a chair, I could hear the clock ticking. All was quiet around me. Why Cleave? I thought. Why Gwen? For what reason? Nixon, I’d heard, was drawing down the troops. It had to be a mistake. I reread the words, then read them again.

My eyes filled with tears as I tried to calm myself. I remember very clearly, even after 35 years, realizing that I had to go back and teach. No calling in sick. No crying. One o’clock would come quickly. How could I get through the day? With a deep sigh of resignation, I made a plan: Build a small, dark room, put this horrible message in it, and close the door— temporarily. Hide the pain. I would go back to school, teach the rest of the afternoon, and once it was over, I’d come home and fall apart. It seemed like a plan, and I didn’t have a better one. So that was precisely what I did.

I don’t remember the rest of that day. Literally. At some point I must have spoken with Gwen on the telephone, but I’m not sure what we said; I blocked it out because it was too painful. Many years later, however, a door to that room opened unexpectedly, and it made me question my wartime neutrality.

It was a sultry July night in 1991. The Monmouth High Class of 1971 had invited me to its reunion. At dinner that evening, I sat across from John Critser, a former student I remembered well from his high school years. He had been a shy, soft-spoken teenager, and despite the crazy and irrational world we were living in back then, he always seemed so calm and logical. Twenty years later, he was a successful research doctor working at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Perhaps I’d remembered his class fondly because it was the beginning of my career and we were all young together. Now distinguished-looking, his hair a soft gray, John had mature, deep-set eyes. We talked about our families and spent a pleasant evening.

I had gone into teaching to consciously try to make a difference in my students’ lives. Simply sitting at my desk in tears wasn’t the way I had imagined doing that.

Later, saying my goodbyes, I spoke last to John, thanking him for catching me up on his life. It was then he said something totally puzzling.

“You know, I probably wouldn’t have been doing this work if it hadn’t been for our conversation.”

I hesitated. “What conversation?”

“You remember,” John said, “that day in your classroom.” He looked at me intently, waiting for recognition.

Softly, shaking my head, I reasoned, “You were in my class 20 years ago. A lot of time and many conversations have passed since then.”

He smiled. “Such an amazing moment in my life, a turn of events that you don’t even remember.” He paused for a moment. Looked up. “Well, you should know.”

He began quietly, his speech precise. “I vividly recall the year you taught my class,” he said. “My junior year. Vietnam was looming over me and my friends. I was afraid my lottery number would be called, and I wasn’t sure whether I should just enlist and get it over with or go to college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.

“On the other hand, I felt ‘serving my country’ was right. But the culture had me perplexed and uncertain. Monmouth was a conservative, patriotic town, and even my friends felt they should volunteer. The ‘right’ point of view was to ‘go over there and kill commies.’ There was a lot of pressure to join that parade.

“To add to that pressure, I had talked to my father, who felt the service was absolutely the wrong choice. College should be in my future and not barreling headlong into that ugly, dark hole that we were seeing on the television news every night. I wasn’t sure what to do. After all, I was 16.

“But one day, I decided to talk it over with you. Your door was almost shut, but I knocked and came in, and you were sitting at your desk. I hesitated because it looked like you’d been crying. So I asked you what was wrong, and you told me about your friend who had been killed. You’d just found out that day. You could hardly speak, and you were not the teacher I’d heard cautioning reasoned judgment. You spoke of what a waste the war was, what a waste that he should have died so young and for such a mindless cause.

“When I saw what effect his death had on your life, I thought about my parents. What if they’d received that telegram? Suddenly that war became very real to me. I had already argued with myself that killing anyone seemed totally against the grain of what I believed. So I left your room feeling like my dilemma was between being responsible for my own actions and doing what people thought I should do.

“After months of thinking about your sorrow, my father’s reasoning, and my own instincts and values, I finally decided to go to college and not enlist. If I had gone to Vietnam, none of this might have happened. My wife and my children, that is. And then there’s my medical research, too.”

And now he paused and looked directly into my eyes. “As young and naive as I was, I too might have disappeared into that darkness. If I hadn’t stopped by your room on that particular day of all days—well...”

That night, driving home from the reunion, I considered the many aspects of conscience and honor in wartime. I thought how remarkable it was that Cleave’s life—and death—had reached across a generation, touching so many other lives. I called Gwen that evening, and this time I remembered the conversation.

I had gone into teaching to consciously try to make a difference in my students’ lives. Simply sitting at my desk in tears wasn’t the way I had imagined doing that.

Recently I had coffee with John, who’d returned to Monmouth to visit his mother. He was flying to China the following week to work on a collaborative project that will help make the human blood supply safer and more plentiful. As I waited for him to return from the counter with our coffee, I read a short article in the newspaper. It said that a former U.S. helicopter landing field in A Luoi, Vietnam, is now a playground for small children—who know nothing about that war.

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