“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

Rob McLoone
Assistant Professor in English

Since roughly the beginning of the 18th century, soldiers and sailors have had a special relationship with writing, reading, and learning. About that time, the skills and technology an individual needed to perform what now seem like basic tasks—such as writing and sending a letter, keeping a personal journal, or acquiring and reading the latest novel—were suddenly becoming more available to a growing middle class. The power to connect with a larger world greatly appealed to professional soldiers and sailors who often had to endure long months and long hours at remote posts or put out to sea, miles away from family and loved ones.

Not too long ago, a student brought me a journal he had kept during his time in Iraq. The journal described certain aspects of his life in the military and some of the combat he had seen, including the loss of fellow soldiers. I should note, at this point, that he was a returning student, bravely putting himself into the mix with a classroom full of teenagers and twenty-somethings, and he had some uncertainty about using a word processor. The journal, with its worn edges, represented a tangibility he was comfortable with. It was also clear from the way he handled it that the small book held a certain personal weight (quite understandably). We talked about adapting a part of the journal for an upcoming personal essay assignment, and I encouraged him to type up the sections he felt were most important and to start thinking about how to fashion them into an essay. I didn’t read his manuscript at the time.

When I received his typed draft, I discovered something unlike anything a student has ever handed in to me, including anything of the “personal essay” variety. When I say this, I don’t mean to suggest there was anything shocking about it. After all, the realities of war, described by those who have lived them, never seem to rely on the overly sensational or sentimental. These things simply were. The paper was also not without issues in writing mechanics.

What made this essay extraordinary, rather, was its purpose. The essay did not set out to persuade, inform, or even to eulogize. It was testimony, plain and simple, colored throughout with a sense of deliberate inscription—a person making his mark, etching the plate, cutting away the letters in stone—for himself and for those he would remember. This veteran taught me a lot about the purpose of learning and the mission of Lansing Community College.

Today, literacy and access (to larger information and communication networks) continue to be essential to improving quality of life and creating opportunities, just as they were 300 years ago. But helping students find the space they need to craft public and private selves, and to integrate their past experiences into present endeavors, can be just as important as the career benefits a college degree provides.