The Johnson City Press dropped in on second-grade students Friday at Woodland Elementary School to observe them doing their “clock time” math exercises — or so they thought.
Students in teacher Mary Archer’s class appeared to tolerate the Press’ presence, but when their role model, hero and long-distance pen pal, U.S. Army National Guard Lt. Johnathon King, bounced through the door fresh from Kuwait, they went berserk.
“One big hug, right here — c’mon,” King said, as he was mobbed at the head of the classroom.
The questions and comments gushed out.
“I get to see my first army man!”
“Did you see tanks?”
“I saw a lot of tanks,” King said with a grin, taking a seat on a cushioned rocking chair as the students squirmed in and out of their seats. “I brought something back for you guys. Would you like to see it?”
Turns out King brought back a dead and encased camel spider, one of the ever-present natural features of his sandy habitat over the past year. It was a whopper.
“Is it alive!?”
“No. No, it’s not alive.”
“So they attack the camels?”
The questions went on and on, and the excitement and gratitude was reciprocal.
“This is a method we used to learn to write,” Archer said. “They’ve each been writing him, and he’s taken the time to write them all back and more. The students have talked to him on a cell phone, and he even made a DVD for the class. It’s become very personal. It has connected students to real life, and it has made them more aware of what’s going on around them.”
King, 25, who said he plans to begin training in the police academy, is a Johnson City native who went to Cherokee Elementary, Science Hill High School and East Tennessee State University. He picked up a stack of letters that had been sent by the students and thumbed through them with a big smile on his face. Meanwhile, outside the classroom hung a long line of pictures and letters on the wall that had come from the opposite direction.
“These kids mean the world to me,” he said later. “This is only my second day back. I could be doing just about anything, but this is where I want to be. My hope is they can serve as an example to someone when they get older. That’s what I got out of this — being able to answer their questions and to help them learn and experience things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. It’s a great feeling.”
Archer displayed a book in which each student related to their friend in their own personal way, mostly done with crayon and pencil, but thoughtful and expressive nonetheless. King also showed the students a DVD he’d made during his deployment. The kids chattered and launched out shouts when ships, weapons, troops in and around tanks, a huge airplane and other sights appeared.
One popular display was King sitting on a camel. The camel was staring straight ahead into the camera. King was holding a handcrafted sign that read, “Do you like my ride?”
“This was a pretty neat surprise,” said Madysen Quay, who leaned over her desk in the classroom’s front row. “I learned a lot about what it’s like overseas. He sent us a stuffed camel and it cost $200 to ship. He asked me in one letter what I wanted to be when I grow up. I want to be a teacher.”
Student Noah Cook said he knew King was going to come back to Johnson City at some point, but he was so excited after King appeared that he had big-time trouble staying in his chair.
One guess as to what Cook wants to be when he grows up. Yep, a “military man.”