“Good morning, First Sergeant,” they replied in unison, standing straight and still.
The Young Marines is an education and service program reaching 10,000 youths around the nation and overseas. Of its more than 300 units, only one is dedicated to students with special needs.
Founded in 1993, the Kennedy Krieger program serves 24 students at a high school for children who cannot be accommodated in traditional schools. Bob, a 16-year-old sophomore from New Windsor, has autism. Cornell, a 17-year-old junior from Glendale, has an intellectual disability. Other students have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or brain injuries.
Price-Butler, known affectionately as First Sergeant around the Baltimore school, is not a trained teacher. Yet, 10 or 20 years from now, she is the Kennedy Krieger educator most likely to be getting e-mails and baby pictures from Bob and Cornell and the other Young Marines.
“I wanted to do something with my life,” Cornell said, “and I found this.”
The Young Marines curriculum emphasizes character and service. Price-Butler teaches about the military and its history, and about such values as obeying one’s parents and tucking in one’s shirt without being told. The group collects toys for needy children, sends care packages to troops, visits veterans hospitals and marches in parades and color guard ceremonies.
Cornell joined the Young Marines in sixth grade. Price-Butler works with both middle and high school students at Kennedy Krieger, giving the program a rare measure of continuity.
“Cornell had a pretty rough year in eighth grade, so it couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Sarah Wright, his mother. “He did not like being in the club at first, with the discipline, because it made him accountable. [Price-Butler] was a kind of person who did not take any flak.”
At one point, Price-Butler suspended Cornell from the Young Marines for some long-forgotten transgression. Today, Cornell has attained the rank of staff sergeant.
He is quick to note that such promotions do not come easily. “They’re not just given to you,” he said. “You have to work extra, extra hard to get them.”
Price-Butler was born in Macon, Ga., and raised in Rochester, N.Y. She found her life’s path at 14, she said, when she saw a commercial for the military and “fell in love with the uniform.”
She enlisted at 17 and trained as a radio operator at the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command in Twentynine Palms, Calif. She transferred to the Marine Corps Reserve in 1983, married and had two children. She was activated in 2003 and went to Iraq with a support battalion. For nine months, she crisscrossed northern Iraq, making sure fellow Marines were getting paid and fed and notified of news back home.
Responding to an ad posted at her reserve unit, Price-Butler came to Kennedy Krieger in 2000. She had no experience as an educator, but the job description sounded much like the work she was already doing. “I knew that I loved the Marine Corps, and I like empowering leaders. That’s what the first sergeant does. The first sergeant develops leaders.”
In Friday’s class, she spoke of the importance of the coming holiday.
“What is the purpose of Memorial Day?” Price-Butler asked after her students had been placed at ease and seated.
“Memorial Day is about the people that died in the war,” a young man replied.
“The birthplace of Memorial Day is where?” Waterloo.
“At first, Memorial Day honored the men who blanked in the Civil War?” Died.
She crafts lessons with help from other Kennedy Krieger faculty. Serving her students means finding handouts at different reading levels and giving exams both orally and in writing. She teaches military terms in a game modeled on television’s “Jeopardy!” and military drills in an exercise akin to Simon Says.
“A lot of people think she’s strict,” Bob Nobles said. “But you just have to follow her instructions.”
Bob joined the group in the ninth grade. In December, he traveled across the globe with his first sergeant to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“One student ate only five things. One didn’t sleep,” Price-Butler recalled. One got food poisoning before the group had boarded the first plane. But the trip earned her fresh respect from parents.
“First Sergeant took five special-needs students on a plane to Hawaii, God bless her,” said Sharon Nobles, Bob’s mother. “When she speaks, these kids straighten right up and listen.”