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

Always Remember…

Ground Zero Spirit by Thomas Franklin
Ground Zero Spirit by Thomas Franklin

It’s been 15 years since my 4th day of teaching, which was September 11, 2001.

Looking back at the timeline of events on that horrendous day, I can picture exactly where my feet were when each happened.

My first real Journalism lesson of this year was my 9/11 Lesson (last week). The lesson and presentation include video clips of events that transpired on September 11, 2001. It’s an important lesson for many reasons, but mostly, it gives students an idea of exactly how much life changed that day both in the world of journalism and for us all.

I begin by explaining that cell phones didn’t have cameras, bags were not searched at public events, a digital camera with .75 megapixel camera was considered “state of the art,” political correctness hadn’t yet run rampant to the point of being utterly ridiculous, social media did not exist (and wouldn’t for four or so more years) and posts on the Internet by news outlets were updated only once a day.

Even with evidence, it’s hard for them to truly grasp what life was like as we woke up that day, and how quickly things changed. Before I show each clip, I speak about the background and have them watch with an observant eye for details with a chance to respond through both discussion and writing.

One part of the lesson is a documentary titled “Witness to History,” created by photographer Thomas Franklin in 2011. He’s the photographer who took the iconic Pulitzer Prize winning photo (above) of the firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero for the Bergen Record; I’ve had the privilege of hearing him speak twice at Garden State Scholastic Press Association’s Fall Press Day. “Witness to History” includes Franklin’s account of 9/11, as well as those of other news photographers’ and how each got the “shots” amid sheer chaos and destruction.

One might assume the young eyes watching this year’s presentation were desensitized to violence and pain because of what they see on social media every day in 2016.

They weren’t.

They shared what will stick with them, long after the lesson’s objectives are forgotten.

I’ll remember the priest who was carried out by the men who were helping,” wrote one student. The priest was Father Mychal Judge. As a part of this year’s presentation, I included a picture I took in June of his name on the Reflecting Pool Memorial.

Another wrote that while she doesn’t want to ever see something like 9/11 happen again, she wished our country was still unified, together, as one with flags all over. She explained that she hates seeing everyone judge others so fast on social media. “People didn’t hate each other back then over what they posted. They maybe didn’t agree but everyone was together.”

One wrote that he’ll remember the tears in the players’ eyes and the emotions during the Mets/Braves game clip from September 21, 2001, and the Yankees/Diamondbacks World Series Game 3 and Game 4 clips he watched (including Tino’s and Jeter’s-Mr. November’s home runs in the 9th). For him, that show of emotion by pro ball players as well as by fans from all over demonstrated the immensity of 9/11 and its aftermath.

Another wrote that as he watched President Bush throw out the first pitch at Game 3, he’ll remember the chant of USA and that Americans did not let party lines divide them. It didn’t matter that Bush was a Republican. What mattered is that moment brought the country together. While I summed up his response, a lot of the words here were directly from the student.

A student reacted that she was surprised it was baseball that got us back to normal, even for a little while. She said she didn’t like baseball, but if she lived during 9/11, she’d probably like it more because of how important the games were to our country.

After writing that he will remember strangers hugging each other and the looks on everyone’s faces as they watched the towers fall, one of my students wondered if people would be as willing to hug strangers or be as shocked if something like this happened today. “But I would hug and be shocked,” he admitted.

Someone remarked that he’d remember me saying the smoke could actually be seen from the Inlet in Point Pleasant Beach that afternoon. “That’s crazy but shows how close it was.”

One of the reactions that hit me hard was, “Wow. It really did happen.”

As I do each year, I ask my students to put aside their personal opinions and keep an open mind; to see the bigger picture; to see the important role of first responders/police/firefighters and the military not only on 9/11 but in every day life; to see the connection each of them has to this ugly day in history by looking down at their desk and realizing that Nick Ott or Ron Kubik might have sat right there, in the same seat (both were killed in action in Afghanistan, a conflict that was a direct result of 9/11).

I also ask them to visualize a teacher running out of the school in uncontrollable tears because someone she loved worked in one of the towers, or another teacher crying because her husband’s brother worked there too and she didn’t know he missed his train that morning and wasn’t there.

I hope they realize a lot of people surrounding them every day have a personal connection to 9/11 in one way or another. I end by telling them I wish I could take them all back to September 10, 2001, for even just 60 seconds so they can get a small glimpse of the way things used to be.

Every photo and video clip in my lesson still gives me chills. It seems like a yesterday but so long ago…my emotions are still raw, still new, and still filled with denial that something like this could actually happen here.

But the truth is, it did happen.

15 years later, and I still remember how much life changed on that day.

I’m sure you remember too.

It’s our duty to make sure that WE, AS A COLLECTIVE, NEVER FORGET, so the next generation also remembers the selfless sacrifices of so many and the legacies of those who were lost.

Thank you to all police, firefighters, first responders, military, and everyone who put our safety before theirs, no matter what.

God Bless America.

To learn more about Thomas Franklin’s photo, please click here.

 

Something to SEA: Memorial Day Clicks for 5/28/2016

sQUARE Collage

It’s Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to summer. Many years ago, I was like so many others and looked at Memorial Day weekend as a celebration and a reason to party. I could probably have a down payment on a new car if I had all of the money I spent at that time on bars and drinks on Memorial Day weekends alone. I didn’t give it a second thought, but looking back, it’s not something I am proud of.

As I matured and as the world changed, I experienced first-hand loss from the Afghanistan conflicts as two of my former students heroically died while protecting others. A few years ago, my town used to have a Memorial Day parade, but because of low turnout, they switched to a ceremony at a town park. When I found out the reason for the parade cancellation, I was quite upset:  the street is filled with parents and children for the annual Halloween parade. Apparently costumes and candy are more important than honoring those who gave us the freedom to wear costumes and eat candy in the first place, and to me, that is…

Wait a minute. As I type this I realize that my comments might be misinterpreted as shame. That is not my goal.

My goal is to educate and inform so that more people will take the time to honor and remember while they are celebrating and having fun.

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.

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 who gave their lives for the USA. Attend a local ceremony or service for an hour. Join in the National Moment of Silence at 3 PM on Monday, May 30.

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.

Read my letter to Ron and Nick from November 2015

Remembering Sgt. Ronald Kubik from Micromedia Publications

A Field of Flags, and Ocean County memorials including Nick and Ron from Micromedia Publications

Cpl. Nicholas S. Ott Memorial Fund

Hawks Hall of Honor

Free Memorial Day Printable from me

I’d also like to remember and thank Matthew Zegan for his service (1973-1994). Matthew is another graduate from the school where I work who was killed in a tragic accident at Fort Bragg.