Father uses son’s death to teach, learn
WASHINGTON – High school government teacher Greg Commons did not try to hide his tears as he stood before his students. His pain was part of the lesson.As photos of his son Matthew flashed on a screen, Commons explained each one to his students at Annandale High School in Annandale, Va. There was Matt sitting on the roof of a Humvee. There were the Army Ranger buddies posing in dark sunglasses, a photo that earned them the nickname the “shade squad.” Later, a grainy black-and-white video taken by a Predator drone above eastern Afghanistan in March 2002.”You’re going to see Matt and Brad get killed as they come off the helicopter,” Commons said. Then came the blurry image of two soldiers shot down as they stepped off a Chinook, their bodies falling into the snow.As he has each year around the anniversary of his son’s death, Commons set aside one period in each of his classes Friday and Thursday to talk about his son, civic duty and a battle that killed seven soldiers. Matt is honored by a headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, and Commons has lobbied Virginia lawmakers to create a new license plate in memory of fallen soldiers. But the most powerful tribute from father to son has come through teaching.For 90 minutes on each of the two days, the students in Commons’ class stepped away from their review of the legislative branch and government spending to get a glimpse of how the events after the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001, affected their teacher and his family. Such lectures show that Sept.11 and its aftermath are rapidly becoming part of the history taught in U.S. schools.”Thanks for letting me share my son’s story with you,” Commons told his students. “It’s hard for me to do this, but I’m so proud of him. … I’m a lucky father. I got to talk to my son before he died. I told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me, too.”Cpl. Matthew Commons was the youngest of the soldiers killed March 4, 2002, in a battle named for Takur Ghar, the rugged mountain peak where it unfolded. The 21-year-old was among a team that tried to rescue a Navy SEAL who had fallen from another helicopter.The lesson Commons gives is quiet. Students don’t debate the tactics or politics of the war on terror. The former Marine neither encourages nor discourages military service. Instead, Commons talked about community service, telling the students they should find ways to volunteer, even through tasks as small as cutting the grass for an elderly neighbor.”My government class has to do 20 hours of community service … and I know you complain,” Commons told a class Friday. “Community service is a lifelong commitment.”There is another message. “I think it’s important for you to know there is a face to this war,” he added. “Some of you are going to go into the military after high school, and it’s not easy.”Commons, 55, who sold plumbing supplies before earning a bachelor’s degree in history from George Mason University in 1996, has always used stories about his family in class. His students have heard about all four of his sons.In December 2001, not long before he was deployed, Matt visited his father’s classroom while Commons was a history teacher at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Fairfax County. Matt, dressed in his uniform, spent a day talking to seventh-graders about life as an Army Ranger.Commons remembers their walk to the parking lot that afternoon. “He said, `Dad, this teaching thing is really neat,”‘ Commons recalled. “He said, `I think when I get out of the Army, I’m going back to college and I’m going to be a history teacher like you.”‘To commemorate the first anniversary of Matt’s death, Commons showed his middle school students an episode of the television show “7th Heaven” about a soldier who died in Afghanistan. The show was dedicated to Matt and other soldiers who died in the war on terror.When Commons moved to Annandale in 2004, he put together a more complex and emotional presentation for the high school students. That year, the Discovery Channel produced a reenactment of the battle that the students watched. They see photos of the Rangers in Afghanistan, images of an al-Qaida bunker on the mountain, and photos of Matt’s funeral.But Commons lets his students know that the war hero also was once a teen-ager like them. Matt flunked out of college, Commons told them, because he “perfected his snowboarding skills instead of his academic skills.” Told by his father he’d have 60 days to find a job, Matt joined the Army.Commons, who has kept the slim build of a Marine, paced around the lecture hall during the presentations. At times his voice cracked and his eyes welled. Other times, he laughed aloud, joking about the blond-tip highlights Matt had in his hair at a photo taken outside an Army recruiting office. Other teachers sent some of their students to hear Commons’ lecture. “The kids get to see me as a human being,” Commons said after class.After class, Luan Cao, 18, said Commons had told his students about Matt’s death on the first day of school.”We’ve always known about it,” Cao said, “but we never could feel what he felt losing someone like that.” Over lunch, Cao and his friends wondered aloud how difficult the lesson must be for Commons.”While we were watching, I was thinking if that happened to me, I probably couldn’t do it. Watching the footage from the Predator, that was pretty intense,” said Mustafa Es-Haq, 17. “I saw both of them die, and I thought that must take extreme courage.””When that scene popped up I looked down,” said Noman Sarker, 17. “I didn’t want to see it.”It was hard for Commons, too. Students in his Friday class didn’t see the Predator video. Commons cut it because it had become too painful to watch.Sunday, Commons and his family plan to go to church and visit Arlington Cemetery to mark the fifth anniversary of Matt’s death. Next week, Commons and his students will return to a lesson on how Congress makes laws.