WESTBROOK – Last week presented a big cultural adjustment for William Leque, who returned to his teaching post in Westbrook High School after 20 months away on active duty.
Leque, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, left the country in 2011 to serve on a joint task force on the horn of Africa to help keep violent terrorists groups from gaining power and laying roots in volatile countries in a proactive effort to protect the United States.
“It was a cooperative effort working with partner nations to ensure security. We were keeping undeveloped violent extremists areas from becoming fruitful hot spots for that kind of violence,” Leque said.
Leque, 40, spent last week getting used to being back in his classroom after two long-term substitute teachers held his position until he returned. The geometry and algebra teacher, who held the position for the past five years while simultaneously serving with the reserves, knows it’s also an adjustment to the students, as well.
“I don’t have a single repeat student. They all think I’m the new guy,” Leque said.
But the “new guy” is happy to be back in the classroom and ready to get to know his students. So far, he said, they are aware he served in the military. He has fielded questions about whether he killed anyone and saw any violence – the answers to both are no – but he is looking forward to talking to the students more about what he did do and teaching them a little more about what its like in other parts of the world.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know them better and having those really good conversations. You have to develop a certain type of relationship first before you can talk to them about it,” Leque said.
Leque keeps a map in his classroom to help him with his stories. Not many people can pick out Djibouti, Africa, where he was stationed, but many know the countries it’s bordered by – Ethiopia and Somalia.
He also said he doesn’t think his students understand there are enlisted men and women serving overseas right now who are just like them, only one or two years older. According to Maj. Michael R. Steinbuchel, public affairs officer with the Maine National Guard, 15 enlisted men and women from the greater Portland area are serving overseas in the Army and Air Force at this time.
Superintendent Marc Gousse, a former Navy veteran, said having Leque back is great for the district.
“It’s a win-win. An individual does service for his country and comes back and does service for kids,” Gousse said. “We certainly missed him.”
Leque has a few tricks up his sleeve and a long list of military stories and skills he says will help him in the teaching role and as a coach on the basketball court.
“There are things you’re supposed to do and things you want to do. I had a strong desire to serve. This is just a different way to serve, I guess in the micro sense,” he said.
Leque said he was originally notified he was headed overseas in 2010, where he was slated for a job based on Iraqi activities, but President Obama began pulling troops from the area and Leque was reassigned to a job on the horn of Africa. His last day at Westbrook High School was in June 2011 and he shipped out in September, leaving behind his wife Amanda and two children – a son Abram, 16, and daughter Eve, 9 – in their Portland home.
These days, leaving loved ones is different from how it had been in the past, said Leque, because there are more ways to quickly keep in touch. Access to sites such as Skype, Facebook and other media allows couples to talk often. But, he said, that access comes with a price of its own, trying to have forced conversations with children and listening but not being able to help with spouses’ problems.
Leque said he’s happy he can talk to them all in person now, and the leave helped his son grow up and become a man before his own eyes. His daughter may have taken the absence the hardest, but she’s especially thrilled now that he’s home.
“I think with any job, you can carry over skills from another job if you have the right perspective,” he said.
Along with listening, Leque also learned to create structured environments and improved his public speaking skills.
“Talking to military guys isn’t that different than talking to high school students – you just have to learn to be less direct,” Leque said.
On Monday, Leque shadowed the former math teacher, by Tuesday he had already taken over the class and on Friday the students had their first quiz.
A few students did not finish the assignment before class ended and had to stop back into his classroom to wrap up the quiz before leaving for winter vacation. Some were particularly concerned about how the test would affect their overall grade.
“Don’t be too worried about it, it’s just a practice test, to see where you stand,” he said to a nervous student. “You’re a hard worker I can tell. You’ll do just fine in my class.”