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Kevin Cullen

A lesson for the ages

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / November 12, 2007

Jim St. Clair has been teaching kindergarten for 32 years, mostly at the Amigos School in Cambridge.

And for many of those years, he would be frustrated when Veterans Day rolled around because he couldn't think of a meaningful way to explain to a bunch of 5- and 6-year-olds why they didn't have school that day.

Then, about 15 years ago, he was thumbing through a children's book called "The Wall," about a boy who visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington with his father, looking for the name of his grandfather on the wall. At about the same time he found that book, he came across some research suggesting that kids got more out of books when an adult reading to them made some kind of personal connection between the book and their own lives.

And it was at that moment that Jim St. Clair thought of Eddie Cunningham.

When St. Clair was in fifth grade, growing up in Brooklyn, he met Eddie Cunningham on a subway train. They went to different schools but hit it off immediately. There was just something about Eddie Cunningham that made you want to be friends with him.

In his teens, St. Clair found himself entering a high school with 1,600 boys, and he didn't know a soul. But then Eddie Cunningham sought him out, shook his hand, and watched his back. One day, sitting on a stoop, Eddie taught him the facts of life. Eddie had a confidence that never veered toward arrogance.

In 1967, when Eddie was 17, he dropped out of school to enlist in the Marines. A year later, Eddie was part of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion of the 26th Marines, and they were flown by helicopter into the Cam Lo River Valley in Vietnam. On Sept. 16, 1968, the Marines of Echo Company were doing sweeps, looking for the enemy, when mortar shells rained down on them.

Private First Class Eddie Cunningham was killed in action, on a day when 20 other Marines died and 135 were wounded, just west of Cam Lo.

Back home, Eddie's death shook Jim St. Clair. Years later, he went to the wall in Washington and found Eddie's name - Panel 43W, Line 003.

He passed his fingers over the smooth black marble.

On Friday afternoon, in a brightly lit classroom, 19 kindergartners sat, knelt, and lounged on a multicolored rug as Jim St. Clair opened the book "The Wall." He told his students they didn't have to come to school on Monday and he wanted them to know why.

St. Clair is a big guy with silver hair, and when he speaks, the kids, for the most part, pipe down.

He started reading the book, and then he put it on his lap and told the kids about his friend Eddie who got killed in the war.

A couple of boys who were nudging each other on the rug stopped and sat up rigidly.

"I was sad," St. Clair said. "I went to his funeral. Then I went to this wall, and I found his name."

He told the kids there are more than 58,000 names on the wall.

"When I touched Eddie's name," he said, "I remembered him."

St. Clair began reading again. The boy in the book meets a veteran in a wheelchair. He sees an elderly couple weeping near the wall.

At one point, the boy in the book tells his father, "It's sad here."

The father replies, "It's a place of honor."

Jim St. Clair seemed lost for a moment, in another time, another place. But then he held up a flash card. The word "honor," in bright, green capital letters, was written on it.

"Honor," he said. "Who knows what honor means?"

Paloma Pellegrino's hand shot up. She has dark hair, olive skin, and bright eyes, and on Saturday she turned 6 years old.

"It means remember," the little girl said. "It means we should remember."

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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