John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

On the Way to War with Teddy Bear and Memories of Mother

October 10, 2011John N. GardnerInsights0

John Gardner
President

During the week of the eleventh anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan, I had my own experience that moving brought home to me what this war is all about. It happened in my local airport, in Asheville, North Carolina.

As you know, airports are happy places and they are sad places—and often juxtaposed and simultaneously so. The occasion for this posting was an absolutely wrenching farewell between a young 40-ish mother and her late teens, very early 20’s daughter. Before they embraced for what seemed to be, understandably so, forever, and the mother could no longer restrain herself from sobbing, I had heard them talking about the daughter’s departure for Afghanistan. The younger was “in uniform”, all except for what I couldn’t take my eyes off: a pink teddy bear stuffed animal strapped to the outside of her backpack. I just can’t get this image out of my mind.

Some years ago we started something at the University of South Carolina known as “Move In Day” to be accompanied by the “Faculty/Staff Moving Crew”. It invariably was the hottest day in August. I volunteered for the event every year when faculty and staff in large numbers turned out to help the students move in, carry things to the rooms. Because of both my seniority and a weak back, I was assigned to staffing the cool aid stand.

I remember often seeing these very mature, in some respects, female students lugging their worldly goods in with the helicopter parents. You can easily imagine all the paraphernalia. Almost all of the females had their stuffed animals which was about the only differentiating item I could see which separated them from the males. I would often think of those stuffed animals as a poignant reminder of how both mature, and immature, sophisticated, and still childlike these students were. It was good for me to be reminded of that duality and ambiguity as I would be teaching them a few days later.

But I never thought of these young women taking those little bears to war. It is old men like me that send not only young men, but young women to war—and the latter with their teddy bears. This wasn’t like my own Vietnam era military experience.

I think I will never forget the young woman I saw this morning and how she spoke to me, without speaking to me.

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