All That They Can Be?

by

05/16/2012

Neighborhood: Bushwick, Ridgewood, Uncategorized

The local recruiter is at my classroom door again and I really wish he’d stop doing this. When I explain that there are designated areas throughout the building for him to speak with students or ‘potential recruits’ as they’re called in his line of work, he apologizes profusely. In fact, his demeanor and etiquette is always polished and perfect, like something he’s read in a book or heard at a seminar. He reveals his hallway pass and apologizes once more. Never again, he says. It’s just that this time it’s important. Can he please have a word with Ernesto?

I like to think I have the final say on these matters, but Ernesto is already out of his seat and calling the man sir. His normal slouch has been corrected and a hand keeps his baggy jeans from falling below the waist. They shake hands and a heartbreaking gleam of admiration washes across the boy’s features. I quietly close the door while they confer in the hallway.

My respect for the military is boundless. The pride of belonging to a military family for generations is an integral part of who I am, yet I would be lying if I didn’t admit to seeing these recruiters as somewhat of a threat to New York City schools. A salesman in a crisp uniform is still a salesman with a quota to make, be it used cars or young, beating hearts.

I realize these people are simply doing their job and that Ernesto is also looking out for himself. Next year he’ll have housing and benefits. He’ll practice teamwork and the art of discipline, something he’s sorely in need of learning. Yet I also know that Ernesto doesn’t have a father in his life. His mother works tirelessly to support him, and perhaps if family dinners were eaten at home, business at the local recruitment center would not be quite as good. Suddenly there’s this man in uniform, this really cool guy who knows exactly where he stands in an uncertain world, and he’s waiting in the hall, the lobby, the school library, because he really wants to talk to you.

More often than not, it’s the quiet ones who return to show off their own uniform, peeking clean shaven cheeks and bristly heads into the doorway. The faculty always stops to make a very big deal: How’s it going? We miss you around here. Do you have any idea how proud we are?

When Ernesto’s time comes he simply can’t wait. He’s finally done with this place. Out of here, man! But did his recruiter somehow beat me? Did I fail Ernesto by not steering him in another direction? It bothers me every time it happens, seven years worth now.

“Look, Ernie, you take care of yourself, okay? Make sure you visit after boot camp.”

And then…

“Ernesto, don’t be a hero, okay? If it happens it happens, but don’t you go looking for it, alright?”

I get a great big smile and one last fist bump. Then it’s up the hall, down the steps, and straight out the door.

JB McGeever, a graduate of Stony Brook-Southampton’s MFA program, teaches Writing and Literature in NYC public schools. His stories and essays have appeared in Hampton Shorts, The Southampton Review, Newsday, and Thomas Beller’s Lost and Found: Stories from New York. The student in this essay appears under a pseudonym.

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