The endless war

By Keith Massey

I was an Arabic linguist at the National Security Agency (NSA) before I became a Latin teacher at a public high school in New Jersey. I have a lifetime obligation to submit anything I publish to the NSA for pre-publication approval, lest I even inadvertently divulge classified information. This article has received such approval. The fact that I was in Iraq in 2004 is not classified. Where exactly I was in that country and what I was doing there are still are still classified, but for my efforts I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal.

As we are now moving toward the end of the current school year, I want to reflect on last year. Once upon a time, I went to war. And last year, we all did.

In this thing…

When 9/11 happened, I felt a moral obligation to get involved. With a Ph.D. in Biblical Hebrew and a minor in Arabic, I sent my resume online two days after the tragedy. I wanted to be in this thing.

The process of joining the NSA was lengthy. A month after first contacting the agency, I was flown from my native Wisconsin to Maryland for language testing. I can vividly recall Wisconsin National Guardsmen, dressed in camouflage, providing airport security in the wake of the tragedy. It certainly did feel like a war was on. But I wasn’t yet really in it.

I passed the NSA’s language tests and then a polygraph. The logistics of bringing in a wave of new employees were still being sorted out. It turns out that such things took months, not weeks. I did not start work there until June of 2002.

Just a few months after I started, I was sent for Iraqi Arabic dialect training in preparation for the coming war. Now assigned to the Iraq mission, my full-time job was to help our forces with the best possible intelligence. A year later, I was approached with an offer. The man who had been my mentor from day one said out loud the words, “Would you be willing to go to Iraq?” I mean, isn’t this what I actually signed up for? I wanted to be “in this thing.” I agreed.

I was sent to a CIA training facility to be certified on the Glock 9mm handgun and M-4 assault rifle. I had never shot more than a BB gun in my life before that training, but I dutifully obeyed my instructors and emerged at the end good to go.

In the middle of all this, I met the woman who would become my wife. I had told her vaguely that I worked for the Department of Defense. But as I was getting ready to ship out, I told her I worked for the NSA and that I was going to Iraq. This is where she might have bailed on the relationship. I am grateful she did not.

I found myself on a plane preparing to land in Baghdad. The pilot was performing what is known as a corkscrew landing—a tight rotation downward from a high altitude, turning the plane just at the last moment to land on the runway. This minimizes the ability of an insurgent to hit us with a ground-to-air missile. So I was now actually in Iraq. I was in harm’s way. I was a boy of dairy farmer stock from Wisconsin who was now in a war zone. Was this really happening?

In this thing again…

Was this really happening? That was my thought in the spring of 2020 as we were entering strict quarantine. We were suddenly teaching all classes virtually, making it up as we went along. We teachers and educational support professionals were viewed as heroes back then for pivoting as we did to continue educating under those circumstances.

We managed our way to the end of that school year. In the following summer, case numbers in many places dropped to such a point that we dared to hope this thing might be coming to an end. With numbers low, districts planned for a reopening of school with a hybrid model. Families could choose for their children to be in the building or to remain virtual. Very few teachers had circumstances that gave them permission to teach virtually. Which meant the rest of us were ordered to teach in our buildings.

In harm’s way…

A new school year began in September of 2020. It is important to remember that vaccines were still not available. On that first day, I had between five and 12 students actually in the room with me, the rest were virtual. In my district, students could opt to go virtual at any time. With the vast majority of our students virtual, we clearly needed to plan the lessons around them, not around the students actually in the room with us.

In those months before we received the vaccine, we were teaching in unavoidable proximity to students and fellow staff. We were in harm’s way. I began to feel the same sense of dread and danger as when I had been in Iraq.

Fall turned into winter, and then winter turned into a spring at which time the vaccine was finally available. I got it the very first second I could.

In the spring of 2021, I was now down to one or two in-school students in each of my five classes. One day I said to one of them, the only one in the room, “The lesson, as you know, is prerecorded content. I guess the only value added that I give you is when I say ‘Good morning’ to you in person.” The student replied, “That’s the reason I come in the building.”

I cried then, and I cry again as I remember that moment. In the middle of that nightmare, with whatever danger from the virus we were experiencing, that student needed people. We must never forget as teachers that alongside whatever subject we teach—the most important lesson we give is so often just to be a kind presence.

Let me now elaborate on why I feel, in retrospect, that last year was the second time I went to war.

The low-grade fear of attack

When I arrived in Iraq, it was still a war. My biggest worry was the possibility of a mortar attack by insurgents. While I was there, two mortar attacks were directed at our base. In both cases, they landed outside the 20-foot concrete walls surrounding us. But we were the target. The low-grade anxiety of life-threatening danger was just a part of the day there. I can remember lying down in my bed to sleep and wondering if I would be killed by an attack in the night.

Last year felt much the same to me as I went about my job teaching. We were in harm’s way. I have vivid memories of being very afraid and very careful when we began the school year. I can remember trying to avoid any proximity to people, even while wearing a mask. The lingering threat was there, just as it had been in Iraq.

In the strict quarantine, we could control our potential exposure. When we went back in our buildings to teach in September of 2020, we could not. We were in a constant state of potential infection. There was a low-grade feeling of danger for our lives. We were in harm’s way.

The camaraderie of it all

When you have been to war with someone, you share an experience that creates a very special and indelible bond. This is the sentiment Shakespeare expresses in “Henry V,” in the speech on St. Crispin’s Day, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” That low-grade fear of attack, when shared with someone, makes you comrades in arms.

I would serve in other deployments with people who had also served in war zones. On one occasion, I was one of three agents in a social setting abroad. Two of us were sharing war stories, while a third had never done such a deployment. He expressed envy that he wasn’t really part of the conversation. I remember the two of us who had been there, we locked eyes in a combination of pride and pain. We knew we were proud of our service, but we also both knew what the experience took out of us.

I felt this again last year. This experience certainly extends to the fellow faculty and staff we shared danger with. It also extends to those students who were hybrid with us last year. I noticed one day that a sophomore boy who was hybrid start to finish had begun the year shorter than me, but one day he walked in the room and I saw that he had overtaken me. When I mentioned this to him, he told me that a few other boys in our class, all virtual, but whom he saw in person on a regular basis, were now similarly tall. But, you see, that was just information. With him this was experiential.

The lack of closure of an endless year

My wife and I got married in December of 2004 after my return. I would work at the NSA for two more years, before leaving to become a Latin teacher. I am very proud of my service there, but I also believe I have done even greater good for the universe as a high school teacher.

I had left Iraq, but I learned with deep sadness that a place where I ate a meal while waiting for my flight out was attacked a few months after my departure, killing numerous U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, as well as cafeteria workers. The base where I spent my time was abandoned a few months after my departure when an attack finally did land inside the walls, severely injuring some personnel. I was not there, but in a certain way I have never left the place. You can physically leave the war, but a part of you is always stuck there.

In the same way, last year never really ended in our minds. The ordinary rites of passage that tell us a school year was over were either absent or at least different enough that true closure didn’t occur. Last year for me simply evolved into a new year, still wearing masks and with a lot more students in the room. The last school year didn’t really seem to end for the simple fact that the pandemic didn’t end.

The crucial role we play

We went through a significant trauma last year. So often as teachers and support staff, the last year quickly becomes a distant memory as we press into the current one. We are finishing the current year, but we still need to process last year with thoughtfulness. Somehow, some way, we need to incorporate last year into our being as we move forward. We need to do that because our students also experienced their own personal traumas in that year. And we need to be in solidarity with them as we acknowledge that they also are processing the worst year of their much younger lives.

And, as I have said all that, I wonder if this current year has not been, in some ways, even worse than the last. This means that we would only all the more need to process what last year was, in order to begin to survive what we are going through now.

We have spent time in harm’s way. We lost people along the way. We are not yet completely out of danger. As we are all trying to rebuild this world, let us remember what a crucial role we as a school community have in it. We band of brothers, sisters and friends.