The fifth-graders are working on a month-long writing assignment that in their collective opinion is “humungous” and “mean.” Translation: ten pages, spelling counts, and no plagiarism. They choose a subject, research it and write what amounts to a glorified term paper. In our district, composition is taught as a variation on Ikea-furniture assembly, with “topic sentences” screwing snugly into blocks of “detail,” coherence and interest optional.
One of the boys I work with wants to write about “Native Americans.” He shrugged off my suggestion that he narrow the topic: “It’s all on the internet.” Another kid chose gray wolves. When I told him I’ve written about efforts to reintroduce wolves into their former habitats, he said, “That sounds kind of boring.” A third said he wants to write a biography of a football player, and that’s when I surrendered without protest. Their teacher has already approved the topics.
Another kid, not one I customarily work with, approached me with a question: “You ever heard of D-Day?” When I assured him I had, he asked if I could help. Out of his backpack he pulled a volume I mistook for a school yearbook – a history of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. His great-grandfather belonged to the Red Devils and was among the men who jumped into the darkness over Normandy early on the morning of June 6, 1944. In the book, the boy showed me a photo of a young sergeant seated behind a desk – his great-grandfather.
In my experience, this was a rare moment. Most students do everything, even washing their hands after sneezing, under duress. This kid, a rather mulish proto-jock, was beaming. It was the family connection, of course, history made personal, and the first thing he wanted to write for his paper was the dedication – to his great-grandfather, who is still alive. I had to help him with the spelling of almost every word, and I resisted telling him he might want to read Six Armies in Normandy by John Keegan and A.J. Liebling’s World War II Writings. Beaming has its limits.
But I indulged a remembrance of Liebling’s eyewitness account of the assault on Omaha Beach, reported from his perch in an LCIL (Landing Craft, Infantry, Large). Three crew members were killed by an artillery shell. Of the ten landing craft in the group carrying Liebling, four were sunk before their cargo of one-hundred forty men each could be unloaded. Liebling remained shipboard and didn’t make it to shore until June 9. He describes the experience in “For Bunny Rigg -- Cross-Channel Trip” (Mollie and Other War Pieces, 1964). Writing of a sergeant named Angelatti from Cleveland, assigned to a tank crew, Liebling says:
“The tanks had been headed for that beach and should have helped knock out the pillboxes. It hadn’t been the tankmen’s fault that the waves had swamped them, but the sergeant said disconsolately, `If we hadn’t fucked up, maybe those other guys wouldn’t have been killed.’ He had a soldier’s heart.”
I might get around to telling the justifiably proud fifth-grader of the footnote Liebling added to The Honest Rainmaker (1953):
“The way to write is well, and how is your own business. Nothing else on the subject makes sense.”