I’ve only seen an Army recruiter once in the halls of the uber-wealthy, suburban high school where I’ve taught the last ten years. He looked lonely—all dressed up and…no one to recruit. Sorry dude, but everyone here has better options, other resources for moving out into the world and paying for higher education. No one need risk life or limb to attain his or her dreams.
This was far from the case with my former employer, an inner-city school where military recruiters racked up so many recruitment bonuses that I’m convinced they were slipping the accommodating principal a little something-something under his desk for the opportunity to troll. He, in turn, provided recruiters full run of the place, including access to teachers’ grade books. I was surprised that something I had assumed was as confidential as students’ grades were now the province of some douchebag recruiter with a buzz cut and pocket full of promises. Grades teetering on or below 65 put him on Level Orange Alert, as failure might impede his timely delivery of this year’s crop of warm bodies to boot camp…not to mention the timely delivery of his bonus check. He’d kick into high gear, becoming an aggressive, no-limits soldier in the recruitment wars of lower-middle-class, African-American cannon fodder.
I was becoming a no-limits soldier my own bad self, clinching my teeth through whatever grunt-like, TMJ-inducing indignities needed enduring to get warzone seniors through their last year of high school. If that involved sweet promises of weapons training and access to lethal toys, so be it. My standards had slipped: I pandered, I cajoled, I donned lampshades, and I kissed military recruiters’ asses.
As part of my new lampshade-on-head, rose-in-teeth war on student ADD, I’d even started reciting a little Master P in my best Jane Hathaway voice. It always garnered a couple of seconds of bemused and bewildered student attention:
From every soldier to soldierette
From every killer to cadet
Playa hatas get wet
True [n’s] march; playas step
We no limit soldiers
I thought I told ya.
Even though the lyrics are really about recruiting an army of black youth in the war against white oppressors, I found myself drawn to that twisted little internal rhyme: “we soldiers [pronounced “soldiahs”] / We told [pronounced “toll”] ya.” This off-kilter, slant rhyme played over and over in my head: as I marched past kids whipping one another with chains, on my way to class in the morning; as I glanced at kids in cuffs, being tucked into the back of one of the two permanently assigned police cars parked outside my window; and as I opened my grade book for douchebag military recruiters, who then held some kid’s feet over the fire. In fact, I began to see myself as a kind of “no limit soldier,” educating by any means necessary—even if it involved going against everything I’d come to believe about an outsized, military-industrial complex that didn’t seem to play by the same rules everyone else did. These little fuckers were going to finish high school; I didn’t give a shit how many got conscripted into the military on however many false promises.
The woman who’d recruited me to teaching, another old hippie teaching English down the hall, was still holding out for the dumb-fuck ‘60’s idealism that had gotten us into this teaching mess to begin with. She’d flat out denied the military recruiters access to her books and caught hell for it from my douchebag principal. She had tenure and liked the sport of screwing with the little Napoleonic tyrant. It wasn’t that hard to do, but I couldn’t see the benefits. When I’d interviewed for the job, I had hitched a ride with my shit-hot sister-in-law. He’d gone gah gah trying to impress her, never asking me a single interview question. For her benefit, he trotted out the impressive array of paramilitary tactics with which he attempted to maintain control of his school: po- po shakedowns, weekly locker searches, and frequent parking lot visits from Team Drug Dog. As we sped off in the BMW purchased with proceeds from her husband’s lucrative coke dealership, she laughed that we should have had the car’s interior detailed before the interview. I laughed, too, albeit nervously. I’d just had a new employee epiphany: my new principal had a dick for a brain…and his militaristic management style gave him wood.
Needless to say, he loved him some Jr. F’n ROTC. I began to see him as the reincarnation of that pimply-faced kid with the “Bomb Hanoi” button on his lapel that Diane Arbus had captured in her creepy Viet Nam era RNC photo. Jr. ROTC had taught him everything he knew about life, and he prided himself on having the largest ROTC chapter in the state…hell, probably the world. This dubious achievement had been strategized with military precision, first by requiring all students register for a certain number of electives but then stealth bombing virtually every elective other than ROTC into near extinction. “Guess you’ll need to head down to the gym to hang out with the ROTC officers ‘til we can get this sorted out. Hey, would you like to handle the weapons?” Consequently, our ROTC drill team filled an entire football field. Nothing is quite as bone chilling as football field lights reflecting off of a sea of silver George Patton helmets, as white-gloved teens flip white, wooden guns into the air, catching them in perfect, synchronized harmony—a harmony, by the way, discernible in no other aspect of campus life.
The year I blew out of there for greener (i.e., whiter) pastures, someone set the school on fire every day for an entire month. My douchebag principal would come over the intercom, barking commands from the office war room: “Teachers, do not let anyone out of your room for any reason!” His interruptions, increasingly frequent and shrill, sounded the clarion warning: Take cover! My blunderbuss pretense of military-like control has failed! “Students, there are far too many of you going down to Wal-Mart in the morning and stealing. We are receiving complaints from the management!” Snicker. “Teachers, do not hand out pointed scissors to students in your classes.” WTF! “Students, please stay out of the large mud hole at the construction site beside the school.” Laughter. The Maginot Line has been breached! Ragged, disorderly retreat underway!
Thank God the dbag principal was eventually promoted to dbag superintendent. Presumably the new six-figure income would make his little war-profiteering racket less…imperative.
If America’s schools function as microcosmic mirrors of American society, the reflections in this particular mirror were frighteningly accurate. Here was the vast, over-funded military deployed frequently and at great expense on missions of glorious patriotic purpose but dubious merit. The inevitable retreats are covered with face-saving proclamations; its leaders are lavishly rewarded and hopelessly empowered the ease with which candy is taken from babies. Exploitative Mission Accomplished.
A couple of years later, I was momentarily alarmed when a big-body, hoopty ride rolled up next to me in the Winn-Dixie parking lot. Young black men in uniform were hanging out the windows, hollerin’ my name. I looked around into the laughing faces of five former students, clearly elated at my teetering grocery-bag consternation. A few inquiries determined all would soon be deployed to Desert Storm. As I offered up the feeble, “I’ll be thinking about you guys,” I was drawn back into those dark, foreboding, rage-filled thoughts I hoped I’d left behind at that God-forsaken high school. What a fucked up way to get access to higher education!
Master P’s “We soldiers/I told ya” ceded to Stevie Wonder: “They had me standing on the front line,/ But now I stand at the back of the line when it comes to gettin’ ahead.
“Mother fuckers be listenin’ to da wrong music,” I mused on the drive back to Buttermilk Biscuit suburbia…where all the children are good looking…and don’t have to die to get ahead.