The first stripes I ever earned

Note: Originally posted a shorter version of this last year on my 20th anniversary on Linked in, and this is also over on Medium

It’s remarkable for me to think that today is the 21st anniversary of my discharge from the Army. (and tomorrow is the 26th anniversary of my enlistment).


What a long time ago that was. And what a lasting mark it left.

I enlisted after leaving college — I had started at Georgia Tech at 17 studying computer engineering, but quite frankly, was unprepared to be a serious student at the time. I knew it, and they certainly were able to figure it out after a year or so. I joined the army both to pay for school, and because I wasn’t really sure what else to do as an 19 year old without a master plan.

I served five years active duty in what would be the interlude between the two Gulf conflicts, as a moderately good Arabic translator. (I’ll always hold myself up against the native speakers I served with — ‘moderately good’ was a pretty good standard to achieve). I was fortunate to make several life long friends during my years of service. And saddened when I learned of incidents in places far away from their homes and safety where a few lost their lives. The job was demanding, and rewarding, and has nothing to do with what I went on to do as a professional after I left the army. And yet it has everything to do with how I still do things on a daily basis.

It’s a trite thing to say, but I grew up in the Army. I met the woman that would become my bride. I learned what it takes to be relied upon, and to trust my team. I learned how to plan, and to know when to adjust. I learned to ask the people with experience to teach me. And I learned to teach with what little experience I had gained. I learned how to let others lead, and to lead myself.

Almost every lesson I learned in the Army still applies today:

  • Sleep when you can.

  • Eat what’s offered.

  • Go to bed tired.

  • Wake up ready.

  • Serving is an opportunity.

  • Leadership is earned every day.

  • Improvement always takes effort.

  • The person next to you will probably be in a position to save your life some day: treat her accordingly.

  • Be humble.

  • Complain less.

  • Do more.

When I left the Army, we moved to California and I dropped right into the technology career I had paused when I joined. I was fortunate to find a boss that valued the skills I had gained, and generous enough to overlook those I hadn’t yet developed. He was reasonably confident that if my time in the Army had taught me anything, it included a reasonable amount of discipline and willingness to figure it out.

I still rely on those skills daily

Educating the Boy: an update

Last year, we agonized over the recommendation for us to defer the Boy's start to first grade.  Just as we had done the year before over his step up into kindergarten.  

When we went into the last group meeting in kindergarten to inform the teaching team that we were going to willfully ignore their judicious nudging and go ahead and move the Boy into first grade, there was a long, contemplative pause from the other side of the table. 

"Just to be clear," the kindergarten teacher said, "we strongly advise you not to."  

We nodded. We felt our guts clench. We thanked them for their advice. And we repeated our decision. 

In the weeks after the end of the school term, we argued a lot. This decision was stressful, but figuring out how to make sure the Boy wasn't set up for failure was even more so. Once we were clear about our decision, the teachers and aides had put together whole bags full of prep material to help us make sure that the Boy didn't lose any of the precious academic territory he had gained before first grade officially started up again. There was an entire sack of short, pre-selected easy reader books. And word charts. And handwriting templates. A notebook to work on writing assessments with. Oh my God, getting him to write a line about his day was a Herculean task. Filling a whole notebook?  And getting the Boy to sit down and concentrate on any of this while the sun was shining outside and the whole summer was tempting his attention away was an exercise in parental futility. Mostly left to my Bride, as she was with him during the day.  And there was little joy to be found. 

Halfway through the summer, with the frustration mounting, we found a new resource. To be clear: I'm not paid to endorse Wyzant. I have no relationship with the company, and have never used them before. I can't even remember how we found them.

I think one of us typed "DearsweetJesusweneedarealtutorinhere" into the magic google box one day, and there it was at the top of the list. 

Wyzant is a marketplace for tutors to connect with students/parents. They list what they know, and what qualifications they have. You type in what you're looking for, and the magical computer elves pull together a matching set. You contact the tutor, interview them and agree a rate. And all payment is handled through the website. Simple. 

It's made even better because you can leave and read comments and reviews on the tutor - sort of like a for tutoring. Except respectful. 

Overall, this is a service that rocks. 

I found a tutor that had taught elementary school reading for several years. She has another job now, but she still enjoys teaching, and had a good approach. The first trial session, she skipped the "See Jane run to the garden" book, and said "Let's write a story together about the pirate Velociraptor that tried to eat Luke Skywalker."

The Boy was hooked, and sanity was restored. 

The tutor incorporated some games into learning that we just didn't know. Stuff they clearly teach in the "how to hold onto the attention span of a 6 year old boy" class in teacher-school that isn't available to your average parent.  So we signed him up for two sessions a week through the end of summer to supplement the bedtime reading and normal reinforcement stuff, and breathed a sigh of relief. 

Back to School: the true test

When school started up, I admit we held our breath a bit. The first days turned into weeks, and all reports were good. The homework was coming back fine, and it seemed like the Boy was doing well. 

We met his teacher (not the same first grade teacher the Critter had), and she seemed both serious and attentive. The kids like her, and the Boy was full of stories. 

One day, he came home with a completed exercise they had been working on in class. How many syllables does a word have? To complete the exercise, each child's name was written in large text on a grid. The student was to say the word out loud, count the syllables and fill in the blank. 

The Boy did great. (Never mind that his 2's & 3's were backwards. That happens as they start out.)

"Nick... 1"

"Helen... 2"

"Jimmy... 2"

"Kristina... 3"

"Sa-yum... 2"


I laughed and wrote a note to his teacher.  In his defense, I explained, in our household 'Sam' usually does have two syllables. Maybe more if he or I are tired. You don't have to scratch very hard to find the appalachia in that boy.

I got nothing back from the teacher. She is good. And serious. And not much on sense of humor. 

When it came time to have our first parent/teacher conference, both my Bride and I didn't know whether to dread it or feel hopeful. We had a death grip on each others' hands walking into the school. We felt good about our decision, and there wasn't any doubt that the Boy was enjoying school. I had asked him the week before what his favorite part of school was. 

"Writing," he said, without even looking up. 

"Writ... huh? Did you just say 'writing'?" 


When we got into the room, the whole group was there. Not just the primary first grade teacher, but the reading instructor, his other 'specials', and the new principal of the lower school grades. 

Oy. This should be fun. 

We started off with pleasant introductions. And then the gushing began.

He has done so well!  He sits and concentrates - look here at what he wrote this week! He is attentive and making tremendous progress, and is right where he should be. 

The principal just smiled and said he wished all his conferences would go so well.

Six weeks later, and we had our second conference. With more of the same.

Overall, he's doing just great. Whether it was the tutoring (which we've kept up), the work we continue to do with him, the first grade environment, or just time ticking away on the calendar until it hit some mysterious turning point, we don't know. He loves school. He even likes his tutoring sessions. And he has found the joy of reading somewhere in there. Which makes me extremely happy. 

No one ever said, "OK, you guys were right" - the teachers are in the awkward position of having to plan for every scenario, and couldn't have predicted how well Sam would respond to tutoring, or the passing of time. They were right to err on the side of caution in making their recommendation.  I both get and respect that.  But it also shows that no one knows your own kid like you do. So trust your instincts. (And, I still would've liked it a little bit if they said "you guys were right.")

The best part of all, though, came in this last teacher conference. 

His first grade teacher was relating a story towards the end of the discussion. 

"We were out in the hallway, and some of the children were eating their snack. Sam stopped and asked me what I was going to have for snack. None of the children in any of my classes have ever asked me that before. He's such a kind little boy." 

There's nothing she could have said that made me more proud. 

Boy, I am glad that you're making strides in your academic learning. But I'm prouder than anything that you're still that sweet, funny little kid that we love so.