"My dad was a World War II POW," she told me. "He was the 24th American captured by the Germans. He was actually thrown out of a plane over Lille, France, after his oxygen mask was shot off; the other soldiers threw him out of the plane to save his life. He spent 42 months in POW camp, Stalag 17B. My high-school sweetheart served in Vietnam. He did make it home, but he was killed in a car accident just before we were to be married."
And Cothren was disturbed by reports from her fellow teachers that students were lazy about standing during the Pledge of Allegiance each morning -- Arkansas state law still requires that the pledge be recited. She knew that the students were guaranteed a free public education. But she also realized that they weren't guaranteed their desks. She took it from there.
And it worked.
"At the end of the day when the veterans came in," she told me, "as they filed in, I had tears pouring down my cheeks. There wasn't a dry eye in the room. And I was so proud of my kids, because they stayed to thank the veterans after the bell rang. Kids congregated in the hallway just so they could thank the veterans. So did the other teachers."
Cothren had called some local television crews to come witness the event. Afterward, one of the photographers asked her to come over and speak with him for a moment. "I need to talk to you," he said. "I'm a Vietnam vet. And I just wanted to tell you that until today, I'd never been welcomed home."
"That made it all worth it," Cothren told me.
She's received her small share of flack. One online commenter suggested that the taxpayers had earned the school desks, a criticism that irked Cothren. "If it weren't for the soldiers, we wouldn't have to worry about paying taxes."
But in general, the support has been overwhelming. The story of the Cothren desks passes from brothers to sisters. She wants to re-enact the scene, she told me -- but only when others have forgotten it, so that it will still have that same impact for the kids.
We can only hope that her message isn't forgotten. We didn't earn our rights -- our men and women of the armed services earn those rights for us. This Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for the people who put their lives on the line to guarantee us those rights. And let us remember, together with Cothren, that same message of thanks each and every day.
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