It’s the Fourth of July and while so many otherwise respectable people are arguing over whether a $2 flag pin shoved awkwardly into the thin breast panel of a Tommy Bahama shirt before the barbecue is really an act of patriotism… I wanted to shine the light on an AUTHENTIC act of patriotism.  Below is an excerpt from my book that was originally written to provide an illustration of what “intrinsic motivation” looks like.  Now I am relying on readers to process the metaphor and apply it to teaching.  It may be a leap for some.  But the story of Pat Tillman’s sacrifice trumps your lapel pin and should give pause when you bow your head this afternoon and ask God’s blessing on the carne asada.

CORPORAL TILLMAN (From “The Lights of El Milagro”)

I had taken a personal business day on the morning of September 11, 2001. Anne woke me up and told me to turn on the news and I did so, right as the first tower fell. There was fire and smoke and for a moment it was hard to see the building through the grainy debris. Then we could see nothing at all.

We had just returned from New York City a few weeks earlier. In August, we had taken a family trip to the East Coast to introduce Keenan and Kira to the wonders of Washington, DC, and the big city. Later, when our children were trying to process the horrific television footage shown over and over and over again—they kept coming back to the people whom they had met in the South Tower.

“What about the security guard that told us how to find the elevator?”

“We don’t know, Kira…he may have taken the day off….like I did.”

“What about the lady that sold the Statue of Liberty bears on the ground floor…do you think she made it out okay?”

“We don’t know about her either. We don’t know what time she comes to work.”

“Remember the police officer who sat next to us in the deli? Wouldn’t he have run straight to the building? He was so cool. Didn’t he say he lived in San Diego when he was doing his Marine Corps training?”

“We’ll try to find out, guys. There may be a way to track him down.” (There was, by the way. During lunch I had taken his picture. When Anne went to New York on a business trip a year after 9-11, she returned the deli where we had met this burly Port Authority officer. Anne asked at the counter and they recognized his picture. He was alive and well and working at the Smithsonian in Battery Park.)

We remember what we are equipped to remember.

Impossible questions. Impossible confusion that only a child could capture in elegant questions about the welfare of others.

Like you, I watched for the next few days, and weeks, and months, and even years…the smoke-filled city, the ashen horror. I have visited Ground Zero. I have touched the very spot of earth that has become our nation’s holiest shrine. I have prayed there. But I have yet to find closure.

The heroic stories that emerged on that fateful morning will frame our history books for as long as we exist as a nation. Perhaps Chapter 23 will be called something like The Dawn of a New Millennium. There will be small shaded boxes amidst the crystal clear photographs of a Wall Street fireball. The boxes will memorialize everyday working citizens, in the right place at the wrong time, driven by sheer terror and a will to live and help others live too. They will forever be heroes, somehow symbolizing what we want generations of children to internalize as the American Spirit.

And one shaded box will be reserved for one of the boldest among the 9-11 heroes. Corporal Pat Tillman was not in New York that day. He contributed later in the subsequent war to rout the Taliban out of the mountains and caves of Afghanistan. After weeks of helplessly watching television’s account of an attack on America, Corporal Tillman felt compelled to serve.

He could have just donated money to the cause and that would have been sufficient. After all, he was a multimillionaire and there was plenty more where that came from. He could have volunteered to help train some army rangers. After all, as a free safety in the National Football League he was among the strongest, the fastest, the most athletic, and the most fit young men in the history of civilization. He could have just popped in to visit on a USO tour. After all, he was famous, photogenic, and tremendously marketable. He could have just joined the National Guard or Knights of Columbus or Big Brothers or United Way, for God’s sake. After all, that too is real service.

 Instead, Pat Tillman resigned his position with the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL and  joined the Army Rangers to avenge the attack on America that took place on 9-11.  He didn’t need or ask for anything in return. He refused all media interviews and  requested that the Army conceal his whereabouts. His brother, a professional  baseball player, joined him in the same unit. While the NFL went on playing Sunday  football games, Corporal Tillman, on a soldier’s wages, followed his sense of   mission to Afghanistan and the general public lost track of him.

I didn’t though. I wondered what would drive someone to trade all the fame, fortune, adulation, and rare lifestyle of a professional American athlete to join the army and crawl through caves looking for shadows.

One night my family was enjoying ice cream at Ghirardelli in the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego. I was two spoons into a small sundae when Anne asked, “Did you hear about the football player that was killed in Afghanistan today?”

“What football player? I didn’t hear any news today.”

“I heard a report that a former NFL football player was killed in a battle in Afghanistan.” And I felt the strangest chill. A cold wind on the back of my neck. A whisper of snow that falls from a tree branch and is trapped inside your collar.

“Please tell me that’s not true.”

Keenan picked up his cell phone and checked the news. “The soldier’s name was Patrick Tillman.”

For the next ten minutes I quietly finished my ice cream. I was numb. My tears filled the bowl. I could not look up and I could not speak. As my children sat quietly and finished their ice cream too, I felt their tiny hands on my back. “It’s okay, Dad.”

I wept even as I wrote this. Intrinsic motivation ought not to cost so much. But it often does.

Happy Fourth of July.  Now let’s bring our troops home to Teach for America!


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  1. Julie Urda

    Beautiful story which leaves me thinking. Toward the end of reading, a big sign flashed before me shouting, “it’s about following your heart–follow your heart”….. That’s what led me into teaching, the listening and following along my heart beating path. At the start of my career, I had occasional self doubt: Will I make a difference? Touch lives? Lead children to reach all of their academic goals? Somewhere along the way, I could have changed my direction heading off into some distant horizon, however, I remain–standing strong. Why? Because my passion is teaching and I care about the children at Mueller, all children. Like the NFL football player who stepped away from playing his game to fight for what he believed in, I think about the teachers at Mueller who teach and inspire daily, fighting for positive change. Something powerful, mighty and meaningful stirs one to stand up, take action and work for something or someone greater than oneself. Sadly ending in death, Patrick Tillman’s story will live on.

  2. Pingback: CHILDREN GROOMED TO SOW OUR FATHER’S PEACE « “El Milagro Weblog”

  3. This is a great wealth of information that you are publishing to the world. I need to bookmark this web site so I can visit next week and remain in touch with any future updates.

  4. Pingback: A GENERAL’S LAMENT | “El Milagro Weblog”

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