By Rebecca Xu
Dale Yessak. Pete O’Hara. Dawn Laumeyer. Doug Bird. These four people don’t seem to have much in common besides the fact that they work here. One teaches English, one teaches social studies, one teaches math and one is an assistant principal. Their classrooms and offices are scattered across the school. However, these selected few are related in a way that some say runs deeper than blood – love for one’s country. All of them have served in the U.S. armed forces.
“They’re surprised. Very surprised, since I’m a pretty laid back person,” said Laumeyer, on her students’ reactions when they first find out that their math teacher was in the Marines. “I’ve mellowed out in old age.”
That’s exactly how many students here feel when they first discover that one of their teachers was a soldier back in the day. The truth is that the numbers of veterans choosing education as a second career are increasing. According to The New York Times, federal education officials estimate that 2.5 percent of the people who have left the military since 1987 are now teaching or soon will be. Upon going into education, the four teachers here often draw inspiration from military experiences and use it in their work.
Dale Yessak has first-hand experience in the Cold War in his 23-year military career. Almost 25 years ago, in October 1983, Yessak’s unit of the military, the 82nd Airborne Division, invaded the nation of Grenada to put down a coup of Communist Cubans. He also witnessed the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
After his colorful experiences in the army, Yessak chose to pursue teaching. He said it was a natural outgrowth of what he always did in the military.
“Most of the time I was in the army, I was teaching young people complex tasks. That’s what I’m doing here. I like working with young people, and so this was a way I could continue to work with young people,” he said. “The only thing is I can’t make them do push-ups.”
“Mr. Yessak incorporates his past life experiences into our classroom to make it more lively,” Brittni Novak, a student in Yessak’s International Baccalaureate Language A1 class and junior, said.
Social studies teacher Pete O’Hara, who was also in the army for 23 years and served in the Gulf War, often tells the story about an army tactic that they used in the war. He said that they would choose an enemy target, devastate it with artillery and shoot out little leaflets that explained to the survivors how they could surrender. O’Hara uses this anecdote as an example in his psychology class to demonstrate how the human psyche is affected in such situations.
O’Hara’s army experiences also influence him as the head freshman football coach, and he said that he uses a few methods he learned in the military to motivate and organize the team.
“Especially when a football player needs a little extra encouragement, there’s a set of old army tricks I’ve learned,” he said, laughing. “They’ll know what I’m talking about.”
Unlike Yessak and O’Hara, Doug Bird was in the Marine Corps. After seven years of service, he decided to go into education for similar reasons as the two army veterans.
“When I got out, I wanted to continue to serve,” Bird said. “I thought about doing a variety of things, but ended up going full circle back to education.” He said that he enjoyed training young Marines and saw a natural connection to teaching high school.
Bird taught mathematics here for four years before becoming an administrator two years ago. He said that he still uses values from the Marines in his work.
“If I have some challenges I need to face, it’s my work ethic and my commitment that get things done. There’s no doubt that my time in the Marine Corps was really my most formative time. Definitely, I was an adult, but as I look back in different periods of my life, my Marine Corps experience helped me out quite a bit in just becoming who I am,” he said.
Perhaps the outlier of the four teachers is Dawn Laumeyer, the math teacher. The most obvious reason is that she’s a woman, a challenge in itself during the ‘80s in the Marine Corps.
Laumeyer said, “Well, you’re always treated differently, especially in the military which is a very, ahem, testosterone-driven thing. You had to deal with certain attitudes that men had against women. I had to learn to give as good as I took.”
After retiring from the Marines, Laumeyer graduated from college and became a teacher. Her experiences in the military continue to affect her teaching.
“When I first started, I was very structured. I didn’t allow a whole lot in my classroom, to be honest,” she said. After 13 years, she said she has mellowed a bit, but her “Marine voice” comes out sometimes during discipline.
The one thing Laumeyer said she learned was that anything is possible. “That’s one thing you learn in life. Once you achieve something that’s something nobody can take away from you. I was a Marine, I became a Marine, I’m proud of that. Nobody can ever take that away from me. I graduated college with honors. Nobody can ever take that away from me. That’s the one thing that I learned, that if you set your mind to it, you can do anything you want.”
That includes being a teacher.