Forest Hills — Northern High School teacher Faith Shotts-Flikkema remembers how she felt when she saw the tears on a former soldier-turned-custodian’s face.
Students at Northern High School exiting a Veterans Day assembly had slowed when they saw him, the same head custodian they passed every day. But that day, they stopped and told him thank you.
He said no one had ever thanked him for his military service before. In fact, he told her, when he came back from Vietnam people threw things at him.
“Something happened in my heart in the hallway that day,” Shotts-Flikkema recalled.
The power of that first Veterans Day assembly over a decade ago still sticks with Shotts-Flikkema. Her heart led her to incorporate into her history classes letter writing to World War II veterans. She recalls that some of the recipients wrote five-page letters back to the students. The veterans’ hearts, too, were moved. One said that no one had ever asked him about his experience before.
‘In the end it’s not about gender or race. It’s about the answer to the question, “Can I trust you?'”— veteran Bradley Aho
Fast forward to today. Shotts-Flikkema now teaches psychology as well as history. She had an aha moment, a heart-led insight: The topics that students were studying in psychology — leadership, motivation, sexism, and stress — overlapped with the history lessons she taught.
“We want the students to … go beyond the textbook to bring ideas to life,” she said. This recognition of the interrelatedness of history and psychology led to an idea: What if students interviewed veterans about their experiences with these four psychology topics?
But she wasn’t sure if students would want to do so. She knew they’d have to be invested to make such a personal encounter with a veteran a meaningful and honoring experience. So, she pitched the idea and asked them to vote on whether to move forward. All but one student affirmed the plan, and a new way to build empathy and understanding was under way.
Recruiting volunteers was easy, Shotts-Flikkema said. Some veterans had been participating year after year in her letter-writing experience. She knew service members from her church and community, and students, too, had family and friends who served.
Before individual interviews, five veterans participated in a panel discussion on Nov. 1 during class time. Sea, land and sky were represented, with two veterans who served in the Marines, two from the Army, and one from the Air Force.
‘I learned that to motivate and lead you have to … let the other person know you care about them.’— Arman Singh, senior
Shotts-Flikkema moderated the discussion, but the students directed it with their questions. There was never a lull in the back and forth. As veterans answered thoughtful inquiries from students, another classmate was ready with a new question or followup.
And the questions were not easy: “Why did you join?” “Do people treat you differently because of your gender?” “With all you know and have experienced, would you join again?”
Air Force veteran Bradley Aho said that the military is all about leadership.
Denny Gillem said he still leads after his retirement from service in the Army; he owns the largest military talk radio outlet in the country. He was motivated to enlist, he told them, because of the structure of the military.
“I am a guy who likes a solid organization,” Gillem said, “where everyone knows what they are supposed to do.”
Rick Dorsey, also from the Army, sat next to him. He interrupted and said he knew the real story about why Gillem joined: “Because you like polished shoes,” he said with a laugh as he pointed to his colleague’s well-shined footwear.
Fatima Ahmed, the sole female on the panel, said she joined the Marines for adventure, travel, and because people doubted her. “I wanted to prove them wrong.”
‘We want the students to … go beyond the textbook to bring ideas to life.’— Faith Shotts-Flikkema, psychology teacher
A student asked her, “Do people treat you differently because of your gender?” She acknowledged that there is bias but that some things are changing, like boot camp obstacle courses that are altered for smaller stature.
Gillem had a different take: “That’s one topic that I didn’t deal with, because it was barely being considered when I was in active duty. As an infantryman, I would be horrified to have a female in my unit because she doesn’t have the same muscle mass or bone density.”
Aho agreed, and added, “the ladies are tougher than the guys. In the end it’s not about gender or race. It’s about the answer to the question, ‘Can I trust you?’”
Senior Arman Singh knows a little about trust and leadership; he is one of the captains of the football team. “I learned that to motivate and lead you have to … let the other person know you care about them,” he said. He showed this quality in the choice of “leadership” as the theme he would focus on for this experience: “Another student didn’t have a partner so I chose that.
The value of the stories the veterans shared was evident in Arman’s response.
“We got two different opinions on women in the military. Both sides kept their opinion and learned. In politics now, hypothetically, if I argue with someone about why my choice is the best and the other argues about why he’s bad, there’s not going to be any ground where I am going to learn or shed light on the situation. If you get both sides you can still keep your opinion, but also understand someone.”
Arman hopes to play football after high school. He learned that it is possible to join the military and then do something else after a term of service, including going to college.
He’s not waiting to put leadership into action, though. Arman was one of the first to volunteer to present at the Veterans Day assembly on Nov. 11. He will focus his remarks on leadership.
The next step after the panel discussion will be for students to choose which of the four psychology topics to do additional research. Shotts-Flikkema will work with each student to choose a veteran to interview.
Students will use critical thinking to weave primary sources, data and information into a presentation, one that will be shared with classmates and with the veteran interviewed. The veteran’s story itself remains at the heart of the project.
“I hope there is long-term change that honors our veterans,” Shotts-Flikkema said.