Economics is sometimes called "the Dismal Science," and I admit that I try to counteract this by bringing entertaining topics to my Economics as well as to my Math classes. My hope is that these topics will leave the student with a "hook" that will help them remember what was said. Alas, they also leave my husband (my worst critic) saying things like "don’t quit your day job." I know, however, that my classes are not going to encourage the deep introspection that goes on in classes taught in Philosophy and Religious Studies, and I generally don’t try for such life-altering discussion, beyond conversations about such things as the causes of wage differentials among various groups of workers. The reality of what goes on in my classes hit home this past week, however, when I learned of the direction the life of one of my students was taking. It was then that I wished I could have left her with more useful insights, beyond that of which statistical test to use in different circumstances.
My student contacted me this past week to ask if she could take her final exam early. She was preparing to move to Texas as she joined the Army, and would not be able to take the final exam on the day scheduled. I learned that after training she was to be stationed in Afghanistan. I was immediately overcome with a sense of wanting to protect her, to keep her out of harm’s way. I remembered the day not all that long ago when I was pushing my baby daughter across campus in her stroller, and heard myself say to a colleague "I just don’t want anything bad to ever happen to her." Of course, I was not able to make that a reality, and that instinct was not as strong with my student as it had been with my daughter. However, the need to protect someone more vulnerable was the same. It is ironic that I wanted to protect my student, while it was she who was going to a faraway place to protect me and my fellow citizens. We chatted about how she would resume her studies after returning from Afghanistan, and I wished her well. I was, however, deeply moved by her courage and by the encounter.
She is not my only student or former student who will be serving our country in the near future. Another student was a math major and was eagerly recruited upon graduation. After completing her training, she is now finishing her master’s degree, and will be commissioned as an officer only days after earning that degree. She, too, will be serving in Afghanistan.
As I try to imagine what life will be like in Afghanistan for my two students, I am at a loss. I wonder if I have taught them what they need to know to survive there. I know that my math major was particularly interested in cryptology when I had her in one of my classes, but I suspect that the skills she learned from me will be of little use in the deserts of Afghanistan. I wonder if I would have changed my teaching style if I was more aware of the fact that my students might be off to risk their lives in only a few weeks. I don’t know, but this reality makes me re-think the tone of some of my lectures.
And so I pause for a moment to think of these two students as they head off to defend our country. I wish for them safety and a speedy return, and hope that they know how much I admire their courage.
And at the same time, in this season that is often celebrated with the refrain "Peace on Earth," I ask myself and my readers how we can create a world where I don’t have to send my precious students, who are somebody’s children, off into harm’s way.