Can

Tim Kelly
Adjunct Associate Professor of English

When he walked through the door and took a seat at the front of the classroom for the first time, I had to force myself not to stare. His black T-shirt, advertising a weight-lifting competition for wounded veterans, stretched tight around his huge chest, and his tree-trunk biceps looked like they might burst through the sleeves. I’d always had my preconceptions about body-builders, ideas about self-absorption and compensation issues, but he was about to remind of both the danger of preconceptions and something much more important.

On his last tour in Afghanistan, an IED had struck his Hum-V killing two of his fellow soldiers, ripping apart his left shoulder, and tearing off the majority of his right leg. In conversations after class, I learned of his long battle for recovery, his battles with the V.A., and some of the horror of his battles in war.

College was yet another battle, and as he worked through his physical recovery and rehabilitation, he also worked through developmental classes in reading, writing, and math. His determination to succeed and improve himself was medal-worthy. I have never had a student work harder. When I gave him suggestions for his essays, he thanked me, revised to incorporate them, and asked for more.

But he was not just interested in improving himself. He was not self-absorbed. In peer-review, he displayed a “no man left behind” mentality, frequently calling me over to his group but almost never with questions about his own work. He wanted to be sure he was giving the right advice to his classmates.

It would have been easy to think of the body building as compensation for the lost leg, but by the end of the semester I realized he was compensating for nothing. He wasn’t focused on loss or what he couldn’t do. He was focused on what he could do both for himself and for others. He couldn’t rebuild the leg, but he could strengthen the rest of his body. He couldn’t change the horrific events of his past, but he could educate himself and change the future. And he reminded me that the reason we teach is to help our students discover how much they can do.

He didn’t need me. Any decent teacher could have helped him improve his writing. I, however, needed him. I needed that reminder that education is always about what our students can do.