My Pearl Harbor Day tribute is to someone who was not there, was not even born yet, but who has spent decades teaching high school history students about it and other major events in our nation’s history in a way that makes them proud to be Americans. He’s also my brother.
“The Salute” By Tim Cullen
I never served in the armed forces. My brother Terry, a Marine in Vietnam, suffered multiple wounds when his unit was ambushed near Con Thien. Med Evacs and a talented surgical team saved his life. Four uncles, six cousins, three nieces, and a nephew have also served our country with distinction. By donning the uniform, my relatives earned the right to salute the flag. I did not. Whenever the anthem plays, I stand with my hand over heart.
One reason I did not take the oath was medical. Asthmatic since childhood, there was a question as to whether I could have passed the exam. Then there was my draft number. Just this side of 300, the draft board met its quota before mine came due. Still, if called, I would have gone. Raised on the concept of duty to God and nation, this was never really an issue. To me, Canada meant ice hockey, not political protest. But I never had to make that choice. Mom breathed a bit easier and I took a job in New Jersey.
That didn’t mean they cancelled the war in my absence. And it was clear that someone had been drafted in my place. Most likely poor, probably of color, he was walking point while I wrote out lesson plans. And each day, a transport plane would land at Pope Air Force base, the flag draped coffins off-loaded to be shipped home, and other men’s families were left to deal with their grief.
I discussed this issue with my father. His response was clear. “Teachers are called to service as well. You might fight on a different battlefield, one a great deal safer than your brother’s, but the war is real and the outcome critical.” Pop spoke at length that evening. Not about contract language, pension rights, or retirement benefits. Rather, he talked about high standards, positive discipline, and faith in the calling. In his mind, I was a missionary-scholar in the Jesuit tradition, working to free those trapped in darkness. “And one last thing.” He noted, “You are going to lose some along the way. It will hurt.”
As he predicted, there have been casualties. Each felt like a body blow. Yet as tragic as these deaths were, there was a perverse logic in them. Illness, accidents, even the suicide could be explained in quantifiable terms. I accepted their passing for the simple reason that I was powerless to alter either biological laws or manic depression.
A second group has been more difficult to rationalize. There are those students dead in spirit. Trapped by addiction, domestic violence, and hopelessness, they waste away in a haze of anger, bitterness, and despair. Late at night, when sleep will not come, the face in the mirror asks once more, “Could they have been saved? What did I miss?”
Then there are the survivors; those youngsters brought back from the abyss. Given up for drowned, they were saved. Reaching into the darkness, we were able to swim to the surface. Whether by God’s grace, hard work, or simple blind luck, it matters not. They made it. Periodically, one will drop a note, or stop by to visit. And on those are the evenings, the ghosts retreat for a few hours and sleep is easier to find.
My father was correct. Teachers, like soldiers, are engaged in a battle for hearts and minds. Indeed, The Infantryman’s Creed, could serve as my opening comments to our newest staff members.
I carry America’s faith and honor.
In the race for victory, I am armed with a fierce will to win.
I yield not to weakness, hunger, cowardice, fatigue, or superior odds.
I forsake not my country, my mission, my comrades,
I forsake not my sacred duty to (educate).
I am relentless. I am always there, now and forever.
Where brave (children) fight, … there I fight as well.
This explains why I teach my students military history. The lectures focus not just on the battles but also the need for discipline and loyalty in combat. I ask each to imagine himself at Trenton, Antietam, or the Chosin Reservoir and then answer the question, “For what do we fight?” I ask each if he will take responsibility for the survival of a classmate. I ask each to take the answers and apply them to their personal lives.
This also explains why my classes participate in the American Legion’s various activities. If young adults are to understand the concept of American exceptionalism, and prepare for the day when they will assume ownership of this heritage, their learning experience must go beyond the written text. When veterans speak at our Memorial Day program, judge an oratorical competition, or discuss the meaning of a simple line drawing, their presence transcends the boundaries of time and place. These men and women form a living bridge between the present and the past; they personify the dictum of St. Francis to “Preach the Gospel; (and when) necessary, use words.”
My life has been spent as a teacher. I serve not with a rifle but a pen. My purpose in life is to protect the young from the shackles of tyranny. It is a noble cause. I am proud of my calling. But I never forget that faceless young man who took my place in Vietnam. Nor do I forget that the young people in my classroom live under a flag made strong by the blood of others.
Symbols have meaning. Perhaps the most graphic example of this is the salute. This simple gesture tells all who see it that there are people willing to give their life to protect an idea. It assures us that the walls are secure and guards have been posted for the night. It conveys to each American that she shall not come to harm on this watch.
The right to salute is an honor earned by wearing the uniform. It is to those who took it upon themselves to earn this right, that I dedicate my service in the classroom.
Tim wrote the above for his thank you speech on the occasion of receiving an award from the American Legion. His daughter sent it to me; he refuses to brag on himself. He’s been honored many times during his amazing teaching career; he is truly one of the great ones. Just ask Lori Ziganto:
“One of the other reasons that I chose to home school (none of my reasons are religious ones) is that too many public school teachers push their beliefs and personal agendas already. Of course not all; there are many, many fabulous school teachers out there (shout out to Mr. Cullen and Mr. Franke, two of mine). But, far too many do and it is spearheaded by their own Teachers Unions.”
Just this past June, he was honored by Princeton Princeton at their commencement ceremony. There is a bio that kinda glows in the dark posted here