I had just enrolled in the graduate program at The Ohio State University when I read “How to Tell a True War Story” for the first time. The author, Tim O’Brien, was unknown to me, but I found the story, included in the book I’d be using to teach freshman composition, both fascinating and challenging. O’Brien tells the story of Curt Lemon, a Vietnam soldier who steps on a landmine, exploding high into the trees of the jungle. But the story isn’t really about Curt, but rather how the remaining soldiers cope with his death. And the narrator readily admits, the details of the story, well, they aren’t necessarily true, but stretched and edited and even changed to better get at the real truth, which is the feelings these soldiers carried through Vietnam.
Soon I encountered another story also by Tim O’Brien, “On the Rainy River,” anthologized in a book I was hoping to give my students as a supplement to the required reading. Here, O’Brien tells the story of a young man, barely out of high school, who drives to the edge of Canada hoping to dodge the Vietnam draft. It’s a surreal story that gave me chills. By the time I had read The Things They Carried, the novel comprised of woven short stories about Vietnam and the proper place where these two stories reside, I had fallen hard for O’Brien. My final semester teaching freshman composition, I taught the entire novel for the first time.
Fast forward, almost twenty years. Eventually I knew The Things They Carried would end up in my high school curriculum. When I ordered brand new textbooks a few years back, I was also offered copies of O’Brien’s novel. I jumped at the chance, eager to dive right in, but wary, too, knowing that the subject matter is sometimes graphic and provocative. The stories cover, among many other things, witnessing death for the first time, not living up to your parents’ expectations, and facing the despair that comes with failure. Tough stuff, not only for high school students, but adults, too. O’Brien has said in interviews that he wrote this novel for adults, and he’s surprised so many young people are reading it in their English classes. I’d say, however, that’s where the book belongs. Like the characters in the novel, my students carry so many things, often traumatic and disturbing, that I can’t see.
Reactions to the book have been positive. Having carried this book for a long time now, I’m still intrigued. I’m still trying to make sense of it, noticing again and again its beauty, complexity, and pattern. It has had such an effect on me, so much so that for the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to the book on Audible, mostly while driving back and forth to work. It’s only deepened my love. Last Thursday, while driving the dozen or so miles to soccer practice, I said to my son, who’s a Breaking Bad fan, that’s Bryan Cranston reading the novel. I can’t think of anyone else I would rather hear deliver the novel, and before we had parked the car, Nate had already asked if there was a copy of the book at home.
Next week, my students begin new material, moving on from their study of the novel, but I hope some of them carry it with them longer. Not long ago, I felt fortunate to hear Tim O’Brien give a reading in Binghamton on a rainy Saturday night in March. My wife, who came along with me, found herself captivated by his sincerity. In his remarks about The Things They Carried, he said, “A story helps us to feel and not just to think. It appeals to our whole being, our emotions and our intellect.” With that in mind, as a culminating activity, I assigned my classes the task of writing about something they have carried. It didn’t need to be a physical object, necessarily, but I told them it couldn’t be their phone. In the past, students have written about so many interesting things—a long held depression, the suicide of a close relative, and objects, too, such as a wallet passed down from father to son or a simple smooth stone that touching lightly provides comfort. I’m always surprised by what they share with me, and I’d like to think that reading the novel inspires the courage for students to tell their own stories. It’s my hope, at least, that as O’Brien said, students will see that telling stories helps us feel with a deeper understanding.
Since I always show my students a model essay, here’s mine. Those who have been reading my posts for the past few months will probably recognize some common themes.
The Pen I’ve Carried for Over One Hundred Days
It doesn’t seem like much, but for me it’s a big deal. I’ve been carrying the same pen around with me for over two marking periods. Over one hundred days. And no, the pen is nothing special. On the first day of school, before all the students—all of you—arrived, I went to a meeting empty handed, and someone lent me a black plastic pen, which I promptly bogarted upon leaving the meeting. It was shiny. It had black ink. It had a push-button tip. It felt comfortable. Most importantly, I later realized, it had a clip where I could attach it to my shirt. I think it was a promotional giveaway, too, because it also sports a little PSEA logo, which is the teacher’s state union organization to which almost all teachers belong.
Somehow, the pen has stayed with me. That’s unusual. And we’ve grown quite close. It may be in my school bag with all the papers I need to grade. Ugh. Other times it’s in my pants pocket, safely out of sight but right where I need it. Usually, I clip it to my shirt, and I’ve found I like it there. It’s handy. It makes me feel prepared. I’m ready to sign my name to that all important pink pass, to write one hundred at the top of a perfect paper, or to copy that ten word vocabulary bellringer assignment. And the clip, the ALMIGHTY CLIP atop the black plastic pen, has made it possible, at least it feels that way. It is the scabbard to my pen sword. When I have that pen clipped to my shirt, I am prepared for battle.
But all joking aside, though, there is an important lesson I’ve taken away from carrying that pen. I’ve always been a teacher that burns through boxes of pens like a wildfire. I typically lose them left and right, hand them out like candy at a parade, and generally buy them in bulk at the beginning of each school year. But this year, something clicked, and I’ve used almost one pen exclusively; and although I’ve almost lost it a few times, it’s still with me. For me, I guess, it proves that I’m capable of changing something about myself, getting better at something that I failed at, miserably. It reminds me of that line we read from Thoreau’s Walden, that this may be the year that drowns all your muskrats. Those lost pens, year after year, in a way were some of my muskrats. And yes, there are still other muskrats to be drowned but carrying the pen—weirdly enough—makes me feel better about it all.