WINSTON-SALEM, NC — Over the past eight years, Christopher Simmons has transformed his classroom at Meadowlark Middle School into a safe space for students with special needs.
“If they need anything,” he said one afternoon after the last of his students left his room, “that door is open.”
A bright room decorated with posters about decimals and percentages and an American flag, Room 602 was also a sanctuary for Simmons after his years adrift following forced medical retirement from the military.
Helping a student solve a math problem, Simmons feels a world away from Fallujah, Mosul, Baghdad, and all the trauma and depression that resulted from serving in a war zone, where he was always in alert and still fearful of being killed. or have to kill.
Simmons credits the military with helping him become a better teacher. He doesn’t give up on students, just as his drill sergeants have never given up on him.
But his military service, what he once considered his life’s calling, no longer defines him.
Something else does. These children.
“I’m not a soldier anymore,” Simmons said. “I am a teacher.”
Getting to this point, where he could freely shed his image of himself as a soldier and embrace the profession of teaching, was his own uphill battle, which nearly broke him.
A natural evolution
Simmons was born in Lumberton, then moved with his family to Florida.
Her struggles at school started early.
“I couldn’t grasp the language. I couldn’t read,” Simmons said.
Early in special education, his parents and teachers worked together to find ways to help him with what he now assumes is called dyslexia.
Simmons took speech therapy, went to tutoring after school, and was held back by his parents.
Even after he started to understand the concepts and get good grades, he couldn’t get rid of the idea that he wasn’t as smart as the other kids.
One day, he joins the Boy Scouts. Something clicked. He felt comfortable and confident, feelings he had never experienced in class.
“The organization, the structure,” Simmons said. “I understood.”
The army seemed a natural progression. He dropped out of high school, earned his equivalency diploma, and enlisted in the military in 1989.
When he put on the uniform, all those lingering feelings of inadequacy, of being the kid who needed special help with his schoolwork, dissipated.
He liked the way the military taught things, breaking down difficult concepts and tasks. He passed the tests with top marks.
“You’re taught step 1, step 2, step 3 in such a way that you can’t fail, and I started to excel in that,” he said. “That’s when I realized, ‘I can do it’.”
Simmons served in the infantry during Operation Desert Storm from December 1990 to late May 1991.
A few years later, he went to UNC Wilmington and then joined the National Guard in order to supplement his salary while teaching schools in Davie County. While in Davie County, the United States went to war with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Early in these conflicts, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided to increase the number of National Guard units deployed to both theaters. Simmons’ unit was called up, so he left the classroom to serve in the field artillery, supporting the troops on a “beans and bullets” mission.
“We were bringing supplies and weapons from Kuwait to Mosul, Tikrit and Balad and other [forward operating bases] around Baghdad,” Simmons said. “It was one of the most dangerous jobs there.”
On his first mission, a man with an AK-47 got out of his Toyota truck and opened fire.
The truck Simmons was in was not damaged, but it was rocked.
“And that was my introduction to driving on the roads in Iraq,” he said.
Another time, his convoy passed what appeared from a distance to be a man sitting on the side of the road dressed in traditional clothing.
It was actually a camouflaged 55-gallon barrel filled with fuel that exploded as the convoy passed. The flames quickly engulfed the fuel-covered vehicles. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
“Those who were trying to kill us were constantly studying us,” Simmons said.
In total, Simmons estimates his transport unit was hit more than 200 times on his first tour.
Within three months of ending his tour, Simmons was back in class, a dizzying transition he likened to going from 120 to 20 miles per hour.
“I’m in Iraq doing my thing and three months later I’m teaching elementary school kids,” Simmons said. “I had no time to process the trauma I had encountered, no time to re-adjust to anything. It messes with your mind.
After several months back in class, one of his students became particularly disruptive. This sparked something in Simmons, and he stormed out of class, realizing he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be around kids. He quickly resigned and volunteered to return to Iraq.
He was done with education.
“I was going to be a soldier until I was 55,” he said.
Back to class
Unresolved trauma, which led to depression, destroyed that plan. Simmons fell into a dark place.
At one point he tried to kill himself, something he’s willing to share because “people need to talk about this stuff”.
The military forced him into medical retirement after a series of tests indicated he was unfit for service.
Shaken but determined to get better, he sought advice from a veterans hospital and began to restore his sanity.
A problem remained. He needed more money. His military retirement was not enough to pay the bills.
One day, out of the blue, he received an email from an Iredell County superintendent who needed an exceptional children’s teacher. Simmons took the job out of desperation.
“I took it out of necessity, not desire,” Simmons said.
As he got used to being in the classroom again, something magical started to happen. He began to see himself in these students, children with learning disabilities who needed extra guidance, instruction, and someone in their corner to tell them that they were important and capable.
Simmons arrived at Meadowlark in 2015, teaching math to students with special needs in grades 6-8. He leads the school’s students against violence everywhere, or SAVE, Promise Club, and he and his children take care of the American flag outside of school every day.
Director Matt Dixson said Simmons always puts the kids first.
“Anything that can reach or benefit children, he’s willing to do that,” Dixson said.
As for the children?
“He’s fantastic and cool,” one recently said as he left Room 602.
Simmons sets high expectations for his students. He is relentless in making sure they reach them.
“We’re not going to settle for what a test says or what a data point says,” Simmons said. “We’re just going to work hard and push ourselves until we can find who we really are.”
For all that Simmons has given his students, what they have passed on to him is something far greater.
When a struggling student understands a multiplication problem, when they’re invited to a former student’s graduation, or receive a card from a grateful parent that says, “Hey, my kids love you Simmons realizes he has found his purpose.
Not in uniform, but the classroom.
“I realize,” he said, “there is no greater job than helping these kids believe in themselves.”
If you or someone close to you is having thoughts of harming or killing yourself, you can confidentially seek help through the Military/Veterans Crisis Line by calling 988 and dialing 1, texting 838255 or by chat at http://VeteransCrisisLine.net.