High school, veterans share over a book

Monday, November 21, 2016
A Spencer High School literature class invited Vietnam War veterans to discuss "The Things They Carried," a fictional book about the Vietnam War. The class asked questions of the veterans, who gave their unique perspective on the war. (Photos submitted)

A Spencer High School English class took a unique approach to analyzing and understanding "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, a fictional book taking place during the Vietnam War. Rather than having a discussion amongst the students in the classroom, Vietnam War veterans met with the students to give further insight.

"I wanted them to have an experience with this idea that different people bring different experiences to what they read, so that affects the way they read a book," Jean Fischer, Spencer High School English teacher, said.

Fischer organized an interactive book analysis event after determining that the students could benefit from learning how literature can take different shapes to different people. When the survey of literature class for juniors and seniors was to begin reading the book, she contacted veterans.

"I asked them to read the book and I was a little bit cautious in asking that because I know that sometimes it can be a hard experience for them to talk about," Fischer explained.

The three veterans she spoke to all agreed to read the book and join the class for a discussion. The veterans included: Leroy Spears, retired Air Force; Frank Lehamn, retired Air Force and Tim Brinkley, retired Army. All three men served during the Vietnam War and were willing to discuss their experiences with the class.

Brinkley, a sniper with the 9th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War, said he found the book interesting. He said the book started with the gear the soldiers carried while at war but, goes on to demonstrate much more. He believes the basic insight of the book was not the gear they carried, rather the mental aspects that they carried even after the war.

"I was really surprised, the kids picked that up as we were discussing it. Being in the infantry and talking about war stories, I think the book captured that part as to what we carried when we came back home and what we had to deal with," Brinkley said.

The students asked the veterans what they went through during the war and how it affected them. Brinkley discussed how when he left they were ready to stop communism but, by the time they were to come home they were fighting just to stay alive. He said the concept of war changes 100 percent.

"I want them to understand the fact we brought home a heavier burden than we took over. And when we got home it was hard to explain to people what we had been through because you have to be there to experience it. It is like explaining to a blind person what the color blue is," Brinkley said.

Lehamn said the book was about a small town person afraid of going to the war and he almost ran away when drafted. However, the young man chose to take up arms and went overseas to fight. Lehamn believed that the mental strength it took to do what needed to be done was one major point to drive home for the students.

"It's really about the reality of war and how people get away from it themselves. They become a different person over there," Lehamn said.

Shelby Bang, Spencer High School junior, said her biggest take away from the meeting with the veterans after reading the book was how the veterans could connect with the story and how difficult it was for them to speak of it before.

"When they mentioned the fallen soldiers, I never thought about it. I knew it was hard to go through but, when he explained it from his point of view, he said it was more hurtful than actually being physically injured," said Bang as she explained about her new understanding she gained from the conversations.

She believes it was interesting to talk to someone who lived through the point of view the book was based on. She said she enjoyed meeting with the veterans and hearing what they had to say.

"To hear their story personally, instead of having to read it through a book and knowing it's not an actual story and it's made up. But actually hearing it from a person and their point of view is different," Bang said.

SHS junior Abraham Ortiz said the book was interesting and he enjoyed it. He said he did not expect to hear the veterans talk about the emotional things they carried. Going in to the meeting, Ortiz said he thought they would be talking about the physical burdens rather than the emotional and mental things they brought out of the war.

"It was a really nice thing to go through with the veterans. The way they connected their lives to the stories, that was really interesting to me," Ortiz said.

One of the biggest takeaways Fischer and Brinkley had hoped the students would gain from the meeting was the perspectives that can be gained through experience and how it can affect what you read. Ortiz said the connections and the perspective the veterans have, came as a surprise to him.

"The connections they made to the book., I wouldn't have been able to make those because I didn't go through a war. They did and they really connected to the book, that is the biggest thing I took out of this," Ortiz said.

Fischer said she hopes meeting the veterans will allow her students to better understand how an experience can help shape a book and how beneficial literature can be.

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