By HOPE CAMPBELLPublished on: 09/12/07
I knew a kid once — his name was Chris Patton.
Chris could be intimidating in appearance. He was tall — a towering 6-foot-4, a little more with his boots on, had long blond hair that fell just below his collar, and a thick beard. But then we spoke, and I sensed his gentle nature and I heard the caring tone to his voice.
Hope Campbell, a Gwinnett County teacher, said Chris Patton 'had an easygoing way about him that seemed to make just about everyone comfortable. Yes, he was a great big teddy bear.'
Chris Patton, 21, died on Sept. 1 in Iraq while serving with his cavalry unit. Patton, a Lawrenceville native, enlisted in 2005.
Chris Patton had 'a passion for doing what was right and just,' writes Hope Campbell.
He had an easygoing way about him that seemed to make just about everyone comfortable. Yes, he was a great big teddy bear.
I met Chris in the fall of 2004 when he was a teacher's aide for one of my colleagues. I sort of adopted him as my aide, and he began sitting in my AP psychology class because he was so interested in the subject. We worked it out so that he could join the class and become a student instead of my aide. He became one of my favorite students ever, and to think that it all happened sort of haphazardly.
He became so involved in AP psychology that he volunteered to participate at our annual Brain Expo Day at the Atlanta zoo. He prepared a lesson on how drug use affects the brain and presented it to middle schoolers who attended the zoo on a special Friday to learn more about the brain.
Chris was a good teacher — he could connect with the kids, and they listened to him. It was a great day. His mom, Melanie, volunteered to chaperone, and I enjoyed getting to know her.
Not just the academic sort, Chris was active in our drama department, performing in several plays during his senior year. Perhaps the most memorable role was as the mute king in "Once Upon a Mattress." Knowing his verbal lines were limited to the end of the play, Chris poured his energies into creating a character that exuded physical comedy in every turn.
As the year progressed, I noticed Chris always dressed up for school spirit days and that he was genuinely liked by everyone. He was a friend to all types of kids because Chris looked inside people, seeing who they really were, and didn't pay attention to the way they dressed, what color their skin was, or what their religion was.
One day Chris told me he was planning to enter the military after high school. He was a smart student with good grades and a supportive family — he could choose any path he wanted, including drama. He told me that if other people were making the sacrifice, he would too — that he was called to do this. I tried to understand, but I desperately wanted him to stay home and be safe at a nearby university. Chris was not content to go that route.
When he enlisted, he scored high on the all the tests. He had his pick of assignments, but he chose infantry, telling me that he was no different than any other soldier and didn't need any special privileges. Once again, I tried to understand, but I just wanted him to be safe.
After he graduated, he visited the school often when he was home on leave, but the last time I saw him was different. During that visit, he told us he was being sent to Iraq. My stomach sank, but Chris had a way of making you feel that everything would be OK. We talked for a while and I told him, "Please be safe" as we parted. This big kid had become a man, a strong soldier who was admired by all those who had watched him grow up. And in all the best ways, he was a student who had become a friend. It was the last time I ever saw him.
He deployed to Iraq Oct. 29, 2006. I thought about Chris frequently and prayed for his safe return. His younger brother, Nick, was now a senior at CGHS, and when I saw him in the hallway, I was reminded of Chris, and I wondered how he was faring on the other side of the world.
On Sept. 4, I arrived early to work and checked my e-mail. When I began to read, I saw one with the subject "Chris Patton," and I knew immediately what had happened. I didn't even have to read it. Chris died in Baghdad Sept. 1. I felt so much sadness it was really hard to teach that day.
After my classes were over for the day, I sat with the 2005 yearbook and remembered. I looked at his picture with German Club, his senior photo and the photos of his drama performances.
Chris wrote in my yearbook, "It's been great fun this year. I'll see you later, hopefully."
Oh, how I wish we were going to see him stroll through the doors of CGHS again with his easy smile, relaxed manner and gentle nature.
I read the dedication his parents wrote to him in the yearbook: "You are a blessing and a joy to us. Your intelligent, creative, humorous and insightful perspective on life continues to amaze us. Outside the box doesn't begin to describe the way you think. You are a tenderhearted yet passionate warrior, fighting fiercely for what you believe in. We know whatever you do, you will fight for what is right, and you will treat people with compassion. Your strength of character honors us. ..."
These words perfectly described Chris and his passion for doing what was right and just. And now that Chris is among those we will always count as fallen soldiers, I realize that we were the ones who were truly honored by his strength of character.
I knew a kid once — his name was Chris Patton. That kid became a man, a soldier. And he will never be forgotten.
Hope Campbell is a teacher at Central Gwinnett High School.