One Day#039;s Notice

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 3, 2003

When the phone rang in Lytelia Berry's fifth-grade class, it could have been anyone. It could have been a parent calling about a child or someone in the main office at Troy Elementary School needing information.

Instead, when Lytelia Berry picked up the phone at 9 a.m. Monday, the voice on the other end told her that she had one day to pack up her belongings and put her life on the line.

&uot;I was in the middle of class and I picked up the phone. They said it was the 383rd division and said I had been called up and reassigned to a new unit and that we were going to be deployed on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.&uot;

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Berry said she was surprised, but not shocked.

&uot;I had been on alert,&uot; she said. &uot;When you know you are already on alert, you start to accept the possibility that things like this can happen.&uot;

Berry didn't tell her students who had been on the phone -- at least at first.

&uot;I didn't tell them, but then after I told some teachers and the principal, they felt it would be best to let them know.&uot;

The news that their teacher would be leaving them immediately had an emotional effect.

&uot;Some started crying,&uot; she said. &uot;Then I started. I left and then came back to school later in the afternoon and some had already written letters.&uot;

Troy City Schools Superintendent Hank Jones said Berry's absence would leave a hole on the fifth-grade wing, but the students will still receive a quality education.

&uot;We've known that the possibility was there, so we had made some arrangements to make sure the class was covered,&uot; he said. &uot;The principal at Troy Elementary, Geoffrey Spann, had been working on it and they'll have a certified replacement immediately.&uot;

Still, the loss of Berry to parts unknown and dangers unfathomable will be difficult.

&uot;We wish her the best. We hope she'll be back to us as soon as possible,&uot; Jones said.

Berry had been a member of a quartermaster's company stationed in Brundidge, but said she would be transferred to a new company, effective immediately, based in Georgia.

She said she would not know where in Georgia she was going, what her responsibilities would entail nor the nature of her ultimate mission and location. Predictably, many of the details of her deployment were shrouded in layers of military secrecy.

All the students in her fifth-grade class knew is that their beloved teacher was going away and she could be exposed to some dangerous situations.

&uot;I was not prepared to leave my students. I can call them that: my students. We've grown that much together,&uot; Berry said.

But in addition to students losing a 40-year old first-year teacher on short notice, Willie Berry was losing a wife and two young men were losing their mom.

&uot;We had been preparing at home from the time I joined,&uot; she said. &uot;Not a day has gone by that we don't reflect on the choices I made.&uot;

Those choices involved joining the armed forces in 1996 and re-enlisting in September. After graduating from Troy State, Berry was looking for a way to help pay for graduate school so she could pursue her true passion -- teaching.

&uot;I joined not really knowing what the future would be,&uot; she said. &uot;Even after I graduated, I didn't know if I'd have a job and I knew the part-time military would be good income. I wasn't really thinking I'd be called up and the money was too good.&uot;

So the Zion Chapel native registered at age 34, just squeaking in under the 35-year old cut off limit. Since being switched to active alert status, Berry said she had to sit down with her husband of 21 years and sons to discuss the consequences of her part-time job.

&uot;We've always prepared,&uot; she said. &uot;We sat and discussed it. Still, I never anticipated actually being deployed.&uot;

She also said she was bringing one last lesson to her fifth-graders.

&uot;I just think it's extremely important that, any time you have an obligation, to try to fulfill it to the best of your ability,&uot; she said. &uot;I'm a soldier and will fulfill my obligation. I just want them to pray for peace and remember what I've instilled in them.&uot;

And though she has taught her fifth-graders about international politics, American war and patriotism in Social Studies class, she said the real message to her students was a simple, yet powerful truth about individuality.

To those students that she may not see move on from fifth-grade to middle school, she wanted them to remember the following:

&uot;Remember they put the label on, you have to take the label off.&uot;

Stephen Stetson can be reached at