There’s a box I dig through from time to time that is full of notebooks and files, things I feel I need to keep because they carry some memory I am afraid to lose as the ephemeral flickers and fades. The item I most often pick up and hold is bound with a shiny, black, plastic spiral. The cover is turquois blue. A vertical image of a US Springfield M1 Caliber .30 rifle rests neatly along the binding. It’s rare that I pick it up without heartfelt pain.
It is nothing, really, just a student’s project from many years ago, the summer of 2008 when I taught a tech writing class for a college in northwest New Mexico. It’s his final project, one that asked students to design an instruction manual. El, recently home from three Iraq tours, wrote on how to disassemble, clean and reassemble the M1. His hands remain strong and sure in photographs within the pages I now grasp.
My time with El began when I found him sitting—muscled arms crossed over an equally muscled chest—ten minutes early for the first day of class, which dictated the standard for every morning thereafter. He was always the first one seated, solidly holding down the room, it seemed, waiting for the rest of us to arrive.
His Navajo heritage echoed in dark eyes and black, military-shorn hair. His smile came readily; he joked with his classmates, and his intelligence emerged quietly through discussions of class material. But there was, too, an unmitigated sense of leadership in the weight of El’s presence, an unseen barrier setting him apart.
Together, however, there were 15 of us, an intimate number for a summer session, and we talked about many things, as is the case in writing classes: one must think to be able to write. And as often happens, the students became temporarily bonded through shared experience. Bonded enough that on our last day of class, the day of our final and their last project was due, more than one student was worried when El was not in his seat. There were further concerned glances when he had not arrived well after testing began. Continue reading