When Fritz Polk's U.S. history class began studying World War II and Vietnam, the theme of heroism grew into a project to better understand and connect with the heroes in the students' lives — including those who are currently serving in war zones.
"It all started when I said to my students that they were heroes, which they quickly dismissed," Polk said. "But I insisted and that led to questions about the qualities and character in heroes that they identified in people they knew."
Polk asked his students to write a personal reflection that included heroic influences in their lives and how they might be heroes themselves.
Then he asked that they write letters to a hero of theirs, detailing the qualities and attributes that made the hero someone to emulate. Polk then called for a creative representation of their chosen hero, with a collage, drawing, slideshow, or a care package sent to a member of the military.
Polk's son-in-law, Capt. Dylan Garrison, 26, a civilian contract pilot, is currently stationed at Kandahar Air Force base in Afghanistan. His nephew, Kailen Withers, 25, is third-generation Navy — a corpsman, which is the equivalent of an army medic, serving with the 7th Marines in Afghanistan.
Fifty students from the five sections of Polk's course elected to send care packages to military personnel mostly through Garrison. Others sent packages to Afghan children, which Withers distributes during his tours through villages with Afghan translators and military.
As the project came together, Room 504's desks and tables were covered with mailroom accouterments — priority mail boxes, customs forms, rolls of packing tape and mailing labels.
One student, Dominic Frye, a junior and a member of the school's Key Club, raised $100 toward postage and supplies for "Operation Care Package.
"I want to go into the Marines myself, so this means a lot to me," Frye said. "The military are our heroes."
Since the project began last month, Garrison has updated the class with Facebook posts detailing the recipients of the class' outreach.
Senior Eliza Elsbury chose to send a care package to an Afghan girl, including a handwritten letter along with a jump rope, a hat with an owl perched at the crown and a denim tote bag full of school supplies she sewed herself.
"Remember, that getting a good education is one of the most important things that you can do and will make a huge difference in your life," Elsbury wrote. "Most of all, remember that you are an important person."
Polk sees his students growing toward a more meaningful grasp of heroic action — and a stronger sense of purpose in their own lives. He said Withers and Garrison might return home before the end of school year, so he will ask both men to visit his classes, meet his students and share their experiences.
"We have been following a common theme all year in all our units, and that is that American History is made by ordinary people, just like themselves, who choose to do extraordinary things at various points in their lives," Polk said.
James Fenton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter @fentondt.