Come to class with one of STA’s best-loved teachers

| May 7, 2015 | 0 Comments

St. Thomas Academy students in a 1950s classroom. Courtesy St. Thomas Academy.

Dave Ziebarth showed a clip from the movie “Saving Private Ryan” as his third-hour world history class at St. Thomas Academy began a section on World War II.

He didn’t use the memorable scene of the bloody D-Day assault at Normandy.

Instead Ziebarth showed the last few minutes of the 1998 movie, when it’s clear that Private Ryan — the last of five brothers, the other four having been killed in the war — will indeed be saved, yet all but one of the platoon sent to save him dies.

Ziebarth peppered the blue uniform-shirted cadets with questions, offering them things to keep in mind and questions to ask themselves.

Asked what makes Ziebarth such a well-respected teacher, Cadet John Ingebretsen said, “He relates things we’re learning in class to our lives, and that makes it enjoyable and helpful.”

Classmate Cameron Johnson added, “I appreciate the way he treats students as students, not as kids.”

Ziebarth, who is in his 35th year teaching at the Mendota Heights college-prep military high school, led the class into discussing how many people lost their lives in the war, how many noncombatants were killed and how many soldiers sacrificed their lives.

Students in a science classroom in 2009. Courtesy St. Thomas Academy.

Students in a science classroom in 2009. Courtesy St. Thomas Academy.

“We need to keep in our heads that World War II is not just about the numbers,” Ziebarth advised.

“The number of deaths is so big it’s really hard to grasp it,” he added. “The cost of human life is on such a massive scale, you have to bring it down,” and, to make that point he said, director Stephen Spielberg narrowed the focus of “Saving Private Ryan” to the lives of a small platoon of soldiers, all of but one who die so that one man may live.

As the clip starts, Ziebarth suggested his students keep this question in mind: “Was it worth it?”

Cadets’ eyes never leave the screen.

More tough questions

When the film clip is over, Ziebarth asked, “What makes that one guy so important? A question to ask yourself is, what makes you so important?”

The St. Thomas Academy students learned that their teacher had a personal loss in the war when Ziebarth clicked on his computer and pulled up on the screen a copy of the letter that his grandmother received from the War Department. It told of the death of her son — Ziebarth’s Uncle Stan — who volunteered to take out a German position, died tossing a grenade to do so, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

“When we talk about war, there are huge costs with it,” Ziebarth said, but asked paradoxically, “Think about whether or not World War II was worth it. What would the world be like if Hitler wins?

“When we glorify war, there is a really ugly human cost we don’t like to see,” Ziebarth added, “but we had to do it.”

Ziebarth brought the human cost of post-war stress to the lesson with personal anecdotes about his father and a favorite teacher who for decades wouldn’t talk about the war in which they fought.

He spoke of “the burden of warfare” and tried to help his class see the connection between the reluctance of “the Greatest Generation” to talk about their war experiences and both the struggle that Vietnam War vets faced and the post-traumatic stress disorder today’s military veterans are dealing with as they return to civilian life.

“What’s different today? Why don’t we unite as a country now the way we did then?” Ziebarth asked.

A personal touch

Cadet Johnson told of screwing up on a test and getting “the best lecture I ever got” from Ziebarth, and classmate Colin Glass said he appreciated the way Ziebarth makes expectations very clear. “I like the way he tries to get to know you as a person and wants you to succeed inside and outside the classroom,” Glass said.

Ziebarth allowed his students to see him as a person, too.

He told the class about viewing “Saving Private Ryan” at the Grandview Theater in St. Paul back in 1998.

In the segment of the movie that he screened, Captain Miller, the character played by Tom Hanks, whispers to Private Ryan (Matt Damon) just before he dies, “Earn this. Earn it.”

“He means earn these nine lives” who died so he could live, Ziebarth explained.

As the movie concludes, Damon’s character ages to the point where he is a gray-haired man, standing in front of the grave of Captain Miller at the military cemetery in France and addressing Miller in his grave:

“Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”

Ryan’s wife comes up to him, and he asks her: “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”

Ryan’s wife answers, “You are.”

When the clip stopped, Ziebarth admitted, “I always tear up when I see that scene, when he asks, ‘Am I a good man?’ ”

He pointed out that in that final shot, viewers don’t just see the headstone cross marking Captain Miller’s grave, but scores more in rows in the cemetery.

Ziebarth added one final lesson: “All of these sacrifices were made to save our lives, you and me.”

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