Teacher returns to duty after Iraq

Welcome: Gone since Jan. 31, Marine reservist Chris Gonzalez will be back in the classroom Nov. 3.

October 25, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Chris Gonzalez was the teacher who let the kids chew gum in class, took them to Washington Wizards basketball games and always had candy on hand to reward a good grade.

At 24 and closer in age to many of his pupils than to his colleagues at Murray Hill Middle School in North Laurel, Gonzalez was loving his first five months of teaching.

But it all came to a halt Jan. 30, when Gonzalez, a Marine reservist, was called to duty in Iraq.

School administrators informed students of Gonzalez's orders on the morning announcements. His last day of school was Jan. 31.

Yesterday, after nine months of worrying and waiting, a black stretch limousine brought Murray Hill's favorite social studies teacher back to school - in full Marine uniform, waving from the sunroof. As the limo rounded the school driveway, more than 100 screaming pupils dressed in red, white and blue, and holding small American flags, gave him a star-spangled welcome.

But that was only a preview of the patriotic extravaganza that awaited Gonzalez inside the school.

Swept away in a wave of children, he made his way to the gym, where the crowd roared and the school band played the Marine Corps anthem.

And Murray Hill Middle School breathed a collective sigh of relief.

"We were always concerned; it was extremely tense around here from February until the end of the [school] year," said Principal Carolyn Jameson of Gonzalez's absence. "Every time there was something on the news, students would say, `I think I saw Mr. Gonzalez on television.'"

A corporal in the Marine Reserve, Gonzalez belongs to the state's first Marine unit called up in the mobilization of U.S. forces and one of the first units to enter Iraq. The 160-member Bravo Company of the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion is trained to conduct surveillance and gather information.

"It was heart-wrenching for him; he had to leave in the middle of the year," Jameson said. "And it was very, very tough for the students, but we all pulled it together.

When Gonzalez came home Sept. 16, Murray Hill's faculty decided to have a Chris Gonzalez Day.

"The kids love him, the staff loves him; the whole school came together around this," Jameson said.

In the short time he was at Murray Hill, Gonzalez forged a strong bond with the middle-schoolers in his classes.

"He wasn't like a teacher; he was like someone you could talk to," 12-year-old Jourdan Smith said yesterday as she waited for Gonzalez to arrive.

Seventh-grader Cheenean Douglas, who was in one of his classes last year, remembered when Gonzalez told them that he was going to war.

"He said they had called him down, and the class said, `We love you,' and `We hope you come back OK,'" she said.

Yesterday, with red stars painted on her face, Cheenean watched Gonzalez walk back into Murray Hill Middle.

Gonzalez took his seat alongside his parents and grandmother, who joined him in the limousine ride, and soaked up two hours of accolades.

"Families take care of each other, and we're taking care of a very special teacher that we all missed for eight months," Jameson said.

When the school year started in August and Gonzalez hadn't returned, Jameson said, she never considered hiring a new social studies teacher.

"The question was not, `Who is going to teach Mr. Gonzalez's classes?'" she said. "The question was, `When is Mr. Gonzalez coming back?'"

The faculty sang a song that a colleague wrote for Gonzalez, and one teacher read a poem that she had written for Gonzalez, titled "One Man, A Teacher."

A former student read him a tribute.

"When you left, everyone was so upset and we were scared, especially when we heard about shooting and firefights," she said.

Then Gonzalez took his turn.

"This is honestly the best thing that anyone's ever done for me," he said, knowing that the students wanted to hear about Iraq.

"We saw a lot of bad stuff-death, destruction - and sometimes you ask yourself, `Is it worth it?'" Gonzalez said.

The answer to that question came to him one day as members of his unit searched truckloads of Iraqis headed for Baghdad.

"I didn't expect people to be so nice. They were driving by cheering, giving us thumbs up," he said.

"Then I knew that it was all worth it."

But Gonzalez said he's looking forward to civilian life, getting back to the classroom and bringing his Iraq experiences to the social studies unit on the Middle East when he returns to school Nov 3.

"Thank you for making it so hard to leave," Gonzalez told the Murray Hill community. "Thank you for making me feel missed. And thank you for this welcome back."

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