Fifteen minutes after school should have been dismissed last Friday afternoon, school buses idled outside Hollin Meadows Elementary. Its 500 students sat on the cafeteria floor, watching themselves on CNN. On the projector screen, they saw two of their classmates being interviewed live, and they saw something they’d been a part of only minutes before, their principal, Jon Gates, interviewing their former teacher, Jim Wise, with a video-linkup that, on the eve of Veteran’s Day, connected an Army Reservist in Taji, Iraq with the students he taught for two and a half years.
“We’re going to head across the country and over across the seas and we’re going to go to Taji, Iraq,” Gates told the students in the moments before their teacher’s face filled the screen. When Wise appeared, a tremendous cheer exploded through the room.
Wise told them about his mission overseas. “My job basically is to go out and work with the Iraqi army to make them better and stronger so that one day Iraq can be a free and democratic country.”
“You were a schoolteacher the last time we really saw you Mr. Wise,” Gates said.
“The last time you see me, Mr. Gates, I was not only a school teacher but I had a pony tail,” Wise, who was sporting a standard military crew cut, replied. But he added that some things hadn’t changed that much. “Training is just kind of an adult level of teaching. I’m able to use a lot of the same things that I used in the classroom, which will probably scare some of the students.”
Several students had the opportunity to question Wise. “What have you learned from this experience?” one asked him.
“I could probably go on for hours about what I’ve learned. I’ve learned that all the bad things you hear and read about what’s going on here, that’s just a small part of it,” Wise said. “We often take a lot of things for granted that we have. When you see what’s going on here on a daily basis — it’s amazing what we’ve been blessed with and what we’ve been given and I hope we can do more with it. Life is very difficult over here.”
“I think the biggest thing is just realize what you have and be thankful for it.”
With Wise was his Iraqi translator, Hamoud. When Wise introduced him, the students cheered Hamoud as loudly as they’d cheered their teacher. Later in the interview, he asked Wise if he could give a message to the students he’d just met. “I want to tell you only one thing. I want to thanks all the American families because your units here, they help our country to grow up, how to be a safe country, and really help us. They give us our freedom.”
“We want to tell you we’re proud of you, we miss you,” Gates said to Wise, “happy Veterans Day.”
“I miss you more than you know,” Wise told the students, his mouth contorting slightly as he looked into the sea of faces thousands of miles away. In the back of the room, a line of children raised handwritten signs. Together, they read, “Hi Mr. Wise, Hollin Meadows is proud of you.”
“IT’S REALLY EXCITING,” said fifth-grader Andre Sananikone, a student of Wise’s last year who was interviewed on CNN. “He’s a very brave person, and a great teacher as well.”
“I felt excited because I haven’t seen him in a while,” said Levaughn Davis, who was also interviewed live. “When he left I was kind of sad. My uncles were in the Army. They came back this year. They came back okay so that gave me hope for Mr. Wise.” He laughed as he described how his teacher used to tell the class that if they got the bathroom dirty, they would have to scrub it with a toothbrush.
Gates said this was the second time the school had spoken to Wise via a video link. He surprised his students last June with a similar conference. Both experiences required complex logistical coordination involving the school system, the military and Freedom Calls, an organization that uses technology to connect soldiers overseas with their families at home.
“Mr. Wise is an important part of our school family. We want to see him and know he’s okay,” Gates said, adding that the pressure put on the students by the event could have made for a disaster aired to millions of people. “We asked them to sit for over an hour. It was dismissal time. It was Friday afternoon. It was the perfect storm.”
But the students kept their composure. When Gates needed silence, he clapped three times in rhythm, hundreds of them responded by shutting their mouths and clapping back. “I’ve never been prouder to be a principal of this school, to see our kids do such a phenomenal job,” Gates said.
“I’ll take a few hits for the buses being delayed. But we won’t do this for another lifetime. The next time we see Jim, hopefully he’ll be walking in in person.”