Meeting Heroes

So often, we hear the generation that fought in World War II is referred to as the “greatest generation.”  These were young men and women who stepped away from very comfortable lives to sacrifice and serve their country.  I am a “history buff” and World War II has always been an interest of mine.  Part of that may stem from my frustrations with my own father’s reluctance to talk about his experiences.  He was drafted out of the University of Maryland, served overseas in the 71st Infantry under General Patton’s command, rose to the rank of Captain on the battlefield, had major conflicts with the Nazi’s, and was with the American troops that eventually met head to head with the Russians coming from the east.  And to this day he won’t talk about any of it.   And I have written before about Emily’s father and his experiences in the Dutch resistance.  People of that generation made a difference in the world.  Yet, they have a humble, stoic quality about them as they reach this stage of life.  And their numbers, sadly, are dwindling by the day.  We have an obligation to remember what they did, how they served, and how their sacrifice made it possible for us to do what we do today.

With that as a preamble, I must admit I was overwhelmed yesterday, when our Upper School students were afforded the opportunity to meet true American war heroes.  Four members of the Tuskegee Airmen came to campus to talk with the entire student body and to make themselves available to meet with students and faculty on a more quiet, personal, and face-to-face venue.  The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American aviators to serve in our Armed Forces.  They were active from 1940 – 1952 and served our country with distinction during World War II.  The four gentlemen who joined us ranged in age from 87 to 91 years old.  These gentlemen had demonstrated to the world a sense of courage, sacrifice, service and patriotism beyond any expectation since before they left themselves and when they returned after the War, they lived in a society that was deeply segregated and discriminating in its practices.  However, these amazing heroes did what they felt was right.  These gentlemen were role models, the type that I don’t think many of our students have seen before.  They talked about their journey in life, when they made the decision to join and why, and what their role in the unit was.  The daughter of one of the Airmen never heard her father talk about his experience until one time at an event, when somebody else recognized him and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are in the presence of a member of the Tuskegee Airmen!”  She shared that she looked around, excited to see who that would be, only to discover that it was her father who raised his hand and nodded to the applause.  When she confronted him about why he had never told her, he apparently just smiled and said, “It was just me doing my job.  It was what I had to do.”  His humble nature and quiet confidence was in evidence even yesterday.

Not only was it important to hear them talk in front of everyone about their service, the training they had to endure that inspired me, but it was the quiet moment in the Library Conference Room, surrounded by students and some faculty members, that really got to me.  Talking in a very intimate and personal way, they shared heartfelt advice to the students as they made each person there feel that they were talking directly to them.  Grandfatherly in their approach and deeply personal in their demeanor, they shared stories about the change in language from being referred to as “colored,” to “negroes,” to “African Americans,” to “black.”   They talked about the tough times, but how important it was to work hard to get an education.  One said, “If anything, I realize we grew up in rough times, but you are facing harsher times.  The world is very different today and you have to get an education. You have to work hard. And you need to put some dreams out there and go after them.”  It was an amazing opportunity to hear them talk, to weave their stories in with life and advice.  One even referred to a poem by Rudyard Kipling, “If” and how inspirational that was to him.  Another talked about how he actually took great delight in learning he could help others and how important that was to him.  During the war he taught a Sergeant how to sign his name, so he wouldn’t just put an “X” on his paycheck.  In fact, he reminded the students, “Don’t ever “forget how much it means to you to help someone else.”  He ultimately went into education and made a career of helping others.

These heroic Tuskegee Airmen asked the students to focus on the right now and to not let the workload get to them.  They also talked about the importance of getting a college degree and how they needed to create a sense of direction in their lives.  One gentleman even remarked, “Don’t ever feel bad about failing.  You learn when you fail.  Get up and do something new, do it better, have a dream!”  In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the “Congressional Gold Medal” by President George W. Bush, and their service in the war has been highlighted in two major movies over the last decade, “Tuskegee Airmen” and “Red Tails.”   These heroes truly rose above the restraints of segregation and discrimination.  As a unit, they represented a level of confidence in themselves, in our country, and in the young people of today.  Have you ever heard that line “to stand in the presence of greatness?”  These four gentlemen are remarkable examples of that.  All went on to very productive and exciting careers.  They took great pride in how far things have come since their early days and they seemed to love the opportunity to share their story and advice with our students.

A very special thank you goes to tour Upper School Black Student Union.  They made the decision to contact them under the leadership and drive of junior Caira Blackwell.  We will be forever grateful to Caira for her determination to reach out to “the very best.”  It was quite a morning and a memory this history lover will never forget.

Beyond that experience, in typical Flint Hill manner, so much continues to swirl around us on both campuses.  While the Tuskegee Airmen were talking on the West Campus, a group of French students were invited to the White House to help greet the French President.  In fact, one of our students took the opportunity to shout out, in French of course, a greeting to President Hollande and the President responded directly back to him.  Arman Azad also quickly took a “selfie” picture of himself with President Obama and President Francoise Hollande standing right behind him.  Last weekend had our students performing in both the Middle School Talent Show and the Upper School Variety Show.  And there is amazing talent in both the student body and the faculty and staff.   Senior nights are underway as the season came to an end.  Last evening had the recognition of our US Dance Team and the Boys’ Basketball Team.  Coach Tom Verbanic and Coach Rich Thomas just returned from Dallas, where they were coaching the US National Football Team to a 48 to 0 victory over the Canadian National Team. And the list can go and on.  The amount of events and accomplishment continue to be the hallmark of our program.  This is why I love this great school and appreciate the constant opportunity to share the reports with you!  It is exciting to sense not just the energy of youth, but to see it in action on a daily basis.

On another note, please know we have heard your concerns over some features with the website. We have redone the navigation bar and put back immediate links to Academics, Arts, Athletics, and Summer Programs. We hope that helps folks. Please stay warm and stay safe.  I look forward to talking to you soon.