A Teacher Called to Active Duty Learns What She Means to Her Students

A high school Spanish teacher realizes the impact she has made when she is deployed as a Marine reservist. 

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- Posted on Aug 25, 2020

Marie Nuzzi

I popped open my front door in Long Island, my arms overflowing with cards, boxes and bags stuffed with colorful tissue paper. I put the goodbye gifts on the kitchen table and sat down with a sigh. I’m going to miss these kids so much, I thought. Today had been my last as a Spanish teacher in a public high school, at least for the foreseeable future.

A Marine Corps reservist for 12 years, I’d spent one Friday a month and two weeks every summer as an interrogator and translator in the intelligence field. It was meaningful work, and I was proud to serve—with the comfort of coming home in the evenings. Now, however, I’d been called to active duty for Operation Desert Storm.

Other reservists had been called up, but I didn’t believe it would happen to me. Then I received my activation notice on February 4, 1991. I read the letter, almost shaking from nerves, my mind spiraling. What will this mean for me? In two weeks, I would report to Camp Pendleton in California, but for how long? Would the Marines send me to Kuwait after that? Who would take care of my students?

The next two weeks went by in a rush. Who should get my power of attorney? What did I need to pack? I told my principal, fellow teachers and students all I knew. “I’m sorry I have to leave you,” I said. “I’m going to California to work for the Warrior Training Command.”

Some of my students were visibly nervous. “Are you going to be okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

I wanted to believe that, but I had no idea what to expect or how I would cope without having school life to ground me. Though I had a reputation as a tough teacher—“Watch out, she’s a Marine!”—I cared so much about my students. Not just their grades but their feelings, challenges and well-being. I poured my heart into teaching. Did the kids know how much they meant to me?

I looked at the pile of gifts on my kitchen table, guessing they held perfume, candy and other traditional going-away presents. I unwrapped a box and unfolded tissue paper to find...a Bible? I opened the note attached.

Dear Miss Nuzzi, This is my most prized possession, my Bible. Prayer is so important, especially in times like these. I want you to have it.

My breath caught. A sophomore girl had passed on something to me so meaningful, so personal! I picked up a brown paper bag with a note from an eleventh-grade Boy Scout. This is so you don’t lose your way in the desert, it said.

Inside the bag was a small compass. Another box held a Saint Christopher medal from a student who was always drawing in my Spanish class. Sorry about the doodles, his note read. Other kids gave me lip balm and hand cream for protection against the desert sun.

With each gift, my eyes grew wider to the real message of teaching. We touch lives not only through classroom les­sons and textbooks but by who we are. And that connection goes both ways. I cared deeply about my students, and they cared about me—enough to send me these tokens of themselves for my journey into the unknown.

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