A Letter to Two Heroes, Revisited On This Memorial Day

I have always remembered the reason for Memorial Day and Memorial Day weekend and have honored it by remembering those lost, going to a ceremony or two, putting flags in my yard, wearing red, white, and blue, or raising awareness through my writing. For me, the true meaning hit home twice, in 2010 and 2011, when two very special young men who spent time in my classroom paid the ultimate sacrifice, each with immense courage and bravery.

One is Sergeant Ronald A. Kubik, Army Ranger, and the other is Lance Corporal Nicholas S. Ott, United States Marine Corps.

Both are forever heroes.

On Friday, I taught my current journalism and English 11 students about these two heroes who sat in the same seats as them at some point in their lives. It’s important to me to keep Ron and Nick’s legacies alive with the hope that today’s generation can learn from them and possibly emulate something from each of their examples in their own lives. I am now toying with the idea of writing a curriculum unit for other teachers to use in their classrooms, not just necessarily focusing on Nick and Ron but on other New Jersey heroes lost in all conflicts.

Below is a letter to Ron and Nick that I originally wrote and posted in 2015. I updated it for 2017 as my thanks and tribute to both of them on this Memorial Day.

May 29, 2017

Dear Ron and Nick,

It’s been 15 and 13 years, respectively, that you were students in my English class.  You both sat at a desk for 180 days, Ron during 9th grade and Nick during 11th grade, and spent 50 minutes every day writing, reading, learning vocabulary, completing assignments, and earning your grade.  And during those 180 days, each of you made a lasting impact and taught lessons to someone who was supposed to be teaching you.

Ron, I will never forget how you read “Of Mice and Men” aloud in your best British accent, yet you read your part in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” with a thick, southern accent.  Laughter, that’s what I remember.  Pure laughter.  I remember you enjoyed writing, but as a freshman, you didn’t want to admit it.  How I wish I kept some of your essays and reflections, for they were good…much better than a typical 9th grader’s writing.  I remember your pride in your hometown, your blue mohawk, and your incredible effort on the football field, playing each game like it was the super bowl.  It wasn’t the same when you moved away, and there was a huge hole of missing spirit that couldn’t be filled by anyone else.  I am aware of the legacy you left at Manasquan High School and how you are still an inspiration in that building. Through the magic of social media, we caught up after you graduated and I enjoyed seeing the pictures of you in your band, and then as an Army Ranger.  I am sure the United States Army immediately knew that they were getting one of the best of the best. I know that you absolutely loved it when some of my students called you a badass merely from my verbal description of you. Then when they saw your pictures? Yeah. You loved every minute of their reactions and are still basking in that glow.

Nick, your smile and your work ethic are what I most remember about you.  No matter what it was you were doing, you always your best…in the classroom, on the field, on the stage…and you never, ever complained.  More often than not, you surprised even yourself by doing better than you ever expected, even though at times you weren’t a fan of what we were studying.  And that smile…that big, wonderful smile, with that impish spirit behind it…there’s no other smile like it.  I fondly remember your part in The Varsity Lettermen’s TWO acts for Hawkapalooza, working hard to perfect each routine, and selecting that perfect dress for your costume, the powder blue shift with the rhinestone broach.  That moment of greatness and sheer joy has never been matched on the Hawkapalooza stage since, except maybe the secret, surprise return of The Varsity Letterman the following year.  One of the best days in my life was the last time I saw you, when you were home on leave and stopped by the school for a visit after classes let out.  I was having an extremely bad day and wanted nothing more than to go home, and I got a call from the main office that someone was here to see me. That was the last thing I wanted, but my anguish was quickly replaced with excitement and happiness as I saw you round the corner of the hallway with that smile beaming as you walked down to my classroom.  We spent about 90 minutes catching up and talking, and those are the best 90 minutes I ever spent in my life.  While I don’t have a photograph of that moment, the picture in my mind’s eye is crystal clear, like it happened yesterday.

Words cannot express the extreme heartache and sadness that I, along with so many others, felt upon hearing the news that each of you had passed away.  In fact, I remember exactly where I was standing when I got the news about each of you.  Yet, upon learning that so many others were saved because of each of your actions, I had two new heroes to look up to for the rest of my life.

Not a day goes by when I do not think of both of you.  Several times every year, but especially on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I share your stories with my students who sit in the same desks that you did…stories of heroism, of bravery, and of courage.

I am forever grateful for the lessons you, the students, taught me, the teacher:

  • Actions, not words, matter.
  • Make your dreams a reality.
  • Put others before yourself.
  • Have an amazing life.

Thank you, Nick and Ron, for your lessons, for your sacrifice, and for leaving footprints along my life’s journey that can never be erased.  I will do my best to continue sharing your legacies and your stories for as long as I can.

With my utmost admiration, gratitude, honor, and respect.

Not everyone has a connection to someone to honor on Memorial Day. If you don’t, please visit my links below so you can learn more about Sgt. Ronald A. Kubik and Cpl. Nicholas S. Ott. You can also pick someone to learn about by visiting the NJ Run for the Fallen Honor Wall and the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial & Museum Wall of Faces.

Regardless of your politics, I urge you to take a moment this weekend to honor what the day means and stands for. Educate the young people in your life about the true meaning of Memorial Day and about real heroes like Nick and Ron and the thousands of others who gave their lives for the United States of America. Attend a local ceremony or service for an hour, and/or join in the National Moment of Silence at 3 PM Tomorrow.

Thank you to all the men and women who gave their lives while serving our country. I am grateful for your sacrifice and I honor your memory.

Until next time,

Jill

Image from NJ Run for the Fallen
Image from NJ Run for the Fallen
Image from Her Beautiful Monster - Mandi Bean
Image from Her Beautiful Monster – Mandi Bean

The Epiphany In This Moment…

I’m recovering from an existential crisis of sorts, undoubtedly fueled by a combination of current events, the reality of time, and the rousing of that evil entity known as self-doubt from its slumber. Please allow me to unburden myself…

I’ve been making progress on my novel, holding off on writing other words that are nagging to get out of my brain in order to remain focused on progress, but I’m stuck at a point with the main character and what is happening to her. That got the wheels of mediocrity spinning, and as I read what I wrote, I hated every word of it. I let it fester, and reread it all, and revised and edited, and still hated it. So I let it sit.

Then the inevitable happened, as it always does. I came down hard on myself for not making progress. I looked at the days with no progress and noted how each of them sped on by, just like the last 25 years did. I thought about things that happened 25 years or so ago and marveled that “wasn’t it just yesterday that happened?” I stopped and gasped as I realized that if the next 25 years goes by just as fast as the last 25 did, I’ll be in my seventies before I know it.

And what’s the frigging point of it all, anyway?

That’s the agenda of self-doubt, isn’t it? “What’s the point? Why even bother?”

So I was already feeling pretty crappy, letting my perceived inconsequential existence rule the roost as I moped about.

Add to the mix my varied emotions after learning about the passings of both singer Chris Cornell and a local powerboat race driver at a race I attended yesterday. The result has been one, giant mess of me, including tears and numbness with a side of insecurity-sprinkled gloom.

I talked things out with a friend today and I feel slightly better. Thanks, friend.

I thought about letting all of this continue to fester in my brain but decided to write about it instead. These are the words that need to come out today. Not words for my book. Not words for an article or a diary.

These words, here, need to be HERE, in this post. That’s what my gut and my heart are both urging me to do today.

I’m done fighting against the words that want to flow. When they want to see the light of day, I am going to let them pour out, even if they have nothing to do with my novel or are complete jibberish.

These words were elusive when I began writing this post, but lo and behold, here they are, waiting to be read by you.

I’m also done apologizing for being human.

Yes, the passing of Chris Cornell rocked me to my very core, even though I never met him.

Yes, I cried over the passing of a gentleman named David who I never met but photographed less than 24 hours before he died celebrating in a parade and less than an hour before he died gunning past me then out of the Inlet. Yes, David died doing what he loved, and I am keeping both his and Chris Cornell’s family and friends close to heart.

Yes, I am afraid I am running out of time. Big time.

Yes, I don’t know what path my main character is going to take and yes, sometimes I don’t know what path I am going to take, either.

Yes, I find writing creatively to be very challenging but I am going to keep writing and do my best to keep self-doubt in exile.

Yes, I find inspiration everywhere and observe everything.

Yes, I have a big heart.

Yes, I am human, and no, I’m not sorry for it.

Not anymore.

The only thing that is real is this moment. Everything else is either a memory or a fantasy.

Wait a second…isn’t that the point James Joyce tried to get across in Ulysses, anyway?

This moment produced these real and honest words of confession and healing and epiphany.

I am going to be okay.