Students give teacher sendoff before deployment

CHAMPAIGN — Tech. Sgt. Kendra Bonam is leaving for South Korea on Wednesday — and she hasn't started packing.

The days have been crazy busy as she copes with leaving her fourth-grade class behind (just before annual testing), getting to her daughter's basketball game, fighting the weather and preparing her family.

So she hasn't had time to get nervous about her 36 days near the border with North Korea, one of the world's most explosive regimes.

"I'm sure I'll be a little nervous when I get there," she said.

Bonam got a five-star sendoff Monday, when Kenwood Elementary's students and staff all gathered inside a packed gymnasium to say goodbye.

They brought homemade signs, screamed her name, made her feel missed before she even clocked out.

"I'm going to miss all you guys," she told them, "especially my little kindergartners."

An Army veteran now serving in the Air National Guard, Bonam will be setting up and then helping to manage an exercise in preparing the guard for a real-world war.

She's careful not to give away details of the exercise for security reasons.

But she has a lot to say about her love for her family and her Kenwood students.

The feeling is mutual, Principal Lisa Geren says.

"Kendra is an amazing woman," Geren says. "She is the epitome of strength and kindness."

Bonam, who turns 36 this month, joined the Army when she was 19, soon after graduating from Centennial High School.

"I wanted to earn the money to go to college," she says.

It worked. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois and just finished a master's degree in educational leadership at Eastern Illinois.

After her enlistment ended, she re-upped in the Army National Guard and then the Illinois Air National Guard.

She loves the military life, as does her husband Jerry, who is in the Guard and works at the UI.

They have a son, LeJerrius, 17, and a daughter, Jada, 10.

Jada is very impressed that her mom is going to South Korea. She's curious about the country, and wants to see what its money looks like.

She has even learned dance moves in Gangnam style, popularized by South Korea's Psy.

"This is the first time I've had to leave (on a deployment) since my daughter was old enough to remember it," mom says.

She went to Germany while she was in the Army National Guard, but this is her first trip to Korea.

She is not excited about the prospect of eating Korean food.

"I'm a big fan of American food," Bonam says.

A bigger concern is keeping in touch with her family, since her phone plan doesn't cover South Korea.

"I will have access to the Internet and we'll talk via Skype," she says.

And she worries about her pupils, who are headed into state testing time.

"I do feel like I have prepared them well," she says. "But 36 days without their classroom teacher is going to be a struggle. They don't want me to leave."

She's using the time away as a teaching moment: about the concept of time itself.

"They're still try to get a handle on what time means," she says. "South Korea is 15 hours ahead, so when we talk the time difference will be part of the lesson."

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