By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Last of three articles.
They marched like heroes across a scuffed stage floor, beneath a ceiling with peeling paint.
Carrying small gold chevrons and tiny American flag emblems they had earned during the past few weeks, they roared in support of each other and leaped from their seats when every name was called.
Monday was "Crossover" day at the Freestate Challenge Academy -- the day that marks the transformation of the school's students from candidates to cadets.
It was a spartan ceremony held in a tattered auditorium at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, northeast of Baltimore, where the school is based.
There were no parents, no balloons, no bouquets.
It was just 128 boys and girls from Maryland and the District -- youngsters who had been told they were failures -- marking in many cases their first triumphs and those of their fellow cadets.
"They love me," said Aquilla Harper, 16, of New Carrollton, who received a thunderous ovation from her peers when she crossed the stage. "It makes me want to cry. It's overwhelming."
Their achievement was modest, yet momentous.
They were the survivors of the 170 or so teenagers who had signed up to attend the rugged high school program the National Guard runs for youngsters who have dropped out of school and need a second chance. Some had been in trouble with the law. Others had been expelled from their old schools. A few had been incarcerated.
All had withstood the two-week, boot-camp initiation course called "Hard Core" that starts the challenge's five-month academic semester. Hard Core began July 12 and ended July 26.
Plenty of other candidates didn't make it. Some were sent home for fighting. Others got homesick. One kept falling out of his bunk bed. Another went home because his mother missed him.
Others just couldn't blend in with the program.
"If you came here to make a change in your life, you have to be motivated to do that," one of the male students said.
Now they were all members of Class 33 and could continue with their studies at the base toward a high school equivalency degree. Graduation takes place in December.
"I'm very proud of you," David Marsh, the program's lead counselor, told them Monday as they sat in the cool, dim interior of the theater.
"You could have gone home. This is a voluntary program. You chose to stay here. You should be proud of yourselves."
The cadets, dressed in gray shorts and white T-shirts, were admonished by their instructors to sit up straight and keep their hands in their laps. But they burst into celebration when program coordinator Linwood White began to call them to the stage to shake hands with the staff.
The loudest applause came for those who had endured the most. Several cadets who had the most trouble with the school's obstacle course were cheered the longest.
Others were recognized for special qualities. Stephon Ellis, 16, of Southeast Washington got an ovation when his name was called.
"I got a lot of support here," he said afterward. "I help other people out, so they just showed me love."
Another cadet, Christopher Thompson, 16, of Pocomoke City, Md., who had gotten sick to his stomach the first day of Hard Core, was singled out by White for exemplary conduct. "That's the kind of cadet I like to see," White said.
Behind them now was that painful first reveille at 5:30 a.m., and the instructors' tips on shaving for the boys -- "anybody else in here don't know how to shave? Go with the grain!"
They had done calisthenics at sunup, learned "right face" from "left face," marched to the instructors' cadence calls -- "your left . . . your left . . . your left, right, left."
They had grown hoarse from yelling, "Yes, sergeant!" and "No, sergeant!" They were introduced to military field rations: Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs. "Warfighter recommended, warfighter tested," the labels said, although one student wondered: "Did they cook this food before they packaged it?"
The girls had weathered a Leadership Reaction Course one sunny Saturday in a quiet clearing in the woods.
There, working in teams of 12, they solved problems such as moving a steel drum across a simulated chasm using planks and rope within 15 minutes. Distracted by the appearance of a turtle, or an unusual insect, students were forced to focus their energies and their egos on complex physical tasks.
There was friction. "Girl," one student said to another, "who put you in charge?"
And there was humor, as when one student shrieked at the appearance of a large insect.
"I'm sorry," she said to her comrades. "It hopped on me."
Boys and girls had gone through a "confidence course" -- a series of difficult wood and rope obstacles arrayed in the forest that proved to be a challenge for all but the fittest and trimmest. The course forced many to face up to fears and physical limitations.
"I'm not going to do this," one boy said as he attempted to climb onto a balance beam. "I'm not going to break my neck. I can't do it."
"Stop saying 'I can't,' " one comrade urged.
As the ceremony was winding down, the cadets filled the theater with one last cheer: "Freestate!"
Don't let up, their instructors urged them. And don't give up.
As White told them: "You've got a million more things to do."