A soldier’s canvas

Published 9:22 pm Saturday, February 7, 2009

Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder. And in the business of education, educators often hear the beauty in the poetry of our students on the stages, fields and classrooms of our schools. Dorothy Fagan, a local artist, once reminded me that “art talks to you” – the real trick is to know when to listen, and part of a good education is honing the listening skills. Turns out that beauty too, can be in the ear of the beholder.

Nansemond-Suffolk Academy’s 23rd Annual Art Show came to our campus and found me walking the halls with our neighbors to marvel at the eclectic talents of this region’s artists. More remarkable was watching this beautiful canvas come to life as 150 artists brought their works to our Lower School, making it an art gallery in short order. Over 700 pieces found their way onto our Lower School walls. And while I am new to the full breadth of how this enterprise works, I wondered about the 60 first graders, times two hands, and whether it was true that the students were mindful not to touch any of those 700 works of art – they were!!

And while I was engaged in listening for those few works at the Art Show, my ears did encounter a story that struck me as a work of art. Shift gears with me and let me share with you a Thursday afternoon gathering with my new friends at the Suffolk Rotary Club. Rotarians come together in a splendid fellowship that is bound with a sense of service to the larger whole – and there are artists in there too! Yes, beauty can be in the ear of the beholder, and little did I know what art was about to be revealed to us Rotarians in the room.

Email newsletter signup

His name is Lieutenant William Johnson and he is a 1999 graduate of Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, and a 2003 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. Lt. Johnson’s presentation had all the appearances of being a good one – he was in uniform and had a projector and photos at the ready. And when he stood before the Rotarians, he apologized for not talking off the cuff and, rather, would read some words he had written. Later, his dad, a fellow Rotarian, told me that his son had sat down and put pen to paper in one sitting.

And from that sitting, we were introduced to the realism of Lt. William Johnson’s military career. I think that like any veteran of today, war is an experience that only a few can understand – and fewer truly appreciate. We often see the pride in the faces on the television screen of families whose children return from Iraq to warm embraces. But even high definition television cannot capture the essence in the likes of Lt. Johnson.

Before us was this young man, whose decade away from NSA found him far from the comforts of the classrooms we so proudly espouse as safe and substantive. In his own matter-of-fact delivery, so solidly grounded in what we have come to know as the VMI character, he told the story of himself.

Only ten days prior to September 11, 2001, Lt. Johnson quipped that he “nonchalantly agreed to a three-year tour with the Army.” In his final two years at VMI, he and other members of that prestigious Corps girded themselves as Afghanistan and Iraq became the focus in the War on Terror. After graduation, Lt. Johnson found himself an officer in an infantry division in Iraq. As an American Civil War history buff, I remember soldiers’ stories about the boredom of just waiting for something to happen, but today’s soldiers are engaged in the “rapid transition” this war theater demands.

The picture being painted by Lt. Johnson then found him applying to the canvas a story of a soldier, who, while fooling around with his M16, was asked to be more careful by another. The soldier then pointed the M16 at the face of his critic and said, “don’t worry, if I meant to shoot somebody, I would do this….” Those would be the last words the critic would hear – the last of another’s innocence.

This was about the moment that every Rotarian’s attention was fixed on the figure before them. In another brush stroke, Lt. Johnson’s darkest duty found him packing up the belongings of a close friend who was killed in action. Two images now confronted us, the end of a friendship, and the sobering reflections of Lt. Johnson directed to pack the belongings of the deceased to be received by the family. There were letters from the family: “Son, we miss you and we are so proud of you. Please be safe, Love, Mom.” and “You are the light of my life, I can’t wait until you are back so we can plan our wedding.” How Lt. Johnson prepared the return of his friend’s belongings is how the family would be presented the souvenirs of his service, a lasting snapshot, some clothing and equipment, but no embrace of their lost son.

Every school in this community can take credit for the Art Show that the sons and daughters of our classrooms created. I came upon a young student in the hall who was staring wide-eyed at one of the 700 pieces of art – her mesmerizing gaze fixed on the work before her. I took a moment after Lt. Johnson delivered his speech, and found our Rotarians in much the same gaze – relishing in the art that is Lt. Johnson…and so many other sons and daughters not yet revealed. We were just lucky enough to have heard this art, the art that is Lt. William Johnson, here, in Suffolk, Virginia.