Trasa Cobern: The Medal of Honor lesson – Ordinary people can do extraordinary things

I expected a week of superheroes when I signed up for the summer graduate program Medal of Honor Legacy: Cold War.

Having grown up in a military family and on Army bases, I knew all about the Medal of Honor. It is given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of ... life above and beyond the call of duty.” Only 3,506 have been issued since it was first awarded during the Civil War. Most since World War II have been given posthumously, and there are only 70 recipients still with us.

Therefore I jumped at the chance to attend this workshop at Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge during my summer hiatus from teaching American history to 11th graders. I was interested in the Cold War aspect of the program, but far more so in the Medal of Honor Legacy piece. We would get to meet a medal recipient and hear from the Medal of Honor Foundation about character development. I wanted to hear about these superheroes.

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James McCloughan jokes with teachers after speaking to them at Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge on June 19. (Photo by Darryl Moran)

James McCloughan jokes with teachers after speaking to them at Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge on June 19. (Photo by Darryl Moran)

I came away disappointed -- and for good reason. While Medal of Honor recipients do indeed perform heroic deeds under extremely difficult circumstances, they are not superheroes.

James C. McCloughan, a combat medic who served in Vietnam, spoke to our class. He is not superhuman, nor does he even try to be. He is humble and genuine, loving, and funny. As I watched him during his talk, or when he sat down with us for lunch, I saw a regular person who acted bravely and saved the lives of many men with whom he served. Then he returned home and taught social studies to middle and high school students for almost four decades. He also coached football, wrestling, and baseball. He touched the lives of more than ten thousand students.

Medal of Honor recipients did not act heroically to receive an award. In almost every case, they acted to save the lives of others.

McCloughan told me that teachers are warriors, too. Like soldiers, we have a bond that can’t be broken, and we protect and support one another. At education conferences, we are impatient hearing about classroom management from those lacking teacher experience. Like soldiers, we will listen to those who have been in the thick of it, who have stared at 60 pairs of young eyes looking for information and direction.

Teachers respect and cheer on colleagues who have acted with “gallantry and intrepidity.” Medal of Honor recipient Patrick Brady says intrepidity is doing something for which you could get court-martialed, but then it works. Teachers do this in classrooms every day, all across the country. We don’t always follow the curriculum, or pay attention to mandates from above, or listen to administrators. We do what is best for the kids in our classrooms.

It boils down to individuals and the relationships they form. We teach people, not content.

Medal of Honor recipients did not act heroically to receive an award. In almost every case, they acted to save the lives of others. And they don’t claim the medal as their own. They are caretakers or trustees of an honor that belongs to all those who served, those who made it home and those who did not.

Iraq veteran David Bellavia, who will receive the Medal of Honor Tuesday, understands this. In "House to House: A Soldier’s Memoir," he wrote, “I witnessed the best of the human condition – the loyalty, the self-sacrifice, the love that the brotherhood of arms evokes. I am complete for having experienced that.”

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Teachers are much the same way. We don’t do what we do for the money, or social respect, or even to touch the future. We teach children because we love them because we want to care for them and guide them. We are their caretakers, their trustees.

I didn’t get the superhero experience I expected. I came away with something far more valuable. I learned about ordinary people who do fantastic things. “Each and every person has the potential to do something extraordinary,” Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bacha says. That’s a message I want to take home to my students.