Thursday was Career Fair. While my fourth block of ninth graders would be excited, I was anxious. We would miss another class in our Romeo and Juliet unit, and momentum was sometimes hard to maintain in this English class of 27 students.
Besides a couple union locals and AT&T, there were only three major parts of the fair: military services, vocational programs sponsored by the school district, and one university, University of California – Berkeley. All the students in my class have been identified as “limited English proficient,” which means that none of them speak English as their main language. A few were born in the United States, but most had been here only a few years and had emigrated from Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, South Asia, and several other countries. Ages ranged from 14 to 18 years old.
The options open to my students at the Career Fair were military service, auto finishing, or admission to one of the most competitive educational institutions in the nation. While some of my students will have a shot at UC-Berkeley, for many the most exciting and realistic option is the Army, Navy or Marines.
The Armed Services clearly target high school career fairs. Beleaguered by falling numbers, the U.S. military services will spend almost $251 million this year on recruitment and will hire almost 20,000 recruiters, according to the Central Committee for Conscien-tious Objectors. The population often targeted: low-income youth of color, regardless of citizenship. In a recent shift, more and more immigrant students are joining the armed forces as an opportunity for employment and a chance for higher education.
By the time my class got to the Career Fair at the end of the day, there were only a few representatives left. As my students finished the short lap of booths, I wanted to return to the classroom so we could get a little something done with Romeo and Juliet. As I tried to round up my troops, I noticed nearly a dozen students – both male and female – clustered around the Marines’ table. They were watching a video about basic training, culminating with the Marine graduation. My students were enthralled. Their desire to stay at the Career Fair was not a simple avoidance of Shakespeare, but a true interest in the video.
In the video, soldiers struggled through a forced march, obstacle courses, the mud and the canned rations. Students who thought 45 minutes of homework an almost insurmountable challenge watched with excitement and hope that they too would become Marines. Most of all, my students were captivated by the “documentary’s” conclusion: the graduation ceremony. The now crying recruits who survived basic training are welcomed into the Marine family. My students were hooked. They grabbed bumper stickers, posters, pencils, and registration forms.
When we finally made it back to the classroom, I drew a diagram on the board with “What They Advertised” and “What They Didn’t” heading two columns. The students, not yet seeing my ploy, rattled off all the great things the Marines and the other Armed Forces advertised: jumping out of airplanes, traveling around the world, learning about guns and other “cool things,” money for education, friendships, and service to country.
Then we brainstormed what they didn’t advertise, and I asked what recruits were being trained for. Students then talked about war, killing, and the possibility of being killed. I asked what would happen if a soldier did not believe in the war or if the war was against the country one was born in. From this students spoke of their identity, many proudly proclaiming to be Mexican or Colombian.
Students were not pleased to realize that they might die or have to fight against Colombian guerrillas or in Mexico or Cambodia. These were my students’ “home countries.” In trying to achieve the advertised and escape the liabilities, José suggested simply deserting if a war should break out. This was met with approval since commitment to the U.S. government was undermined by connections to other countries and because their desire for military service was not to “defend freedom” but rather to have the advertised experiences.
While both boys and girls were initially excited about the military, as the conversation began to focus on violence a few gender differences appeared. After a couple boys expressed excitement for shooting, Yasmin rose to her feet to talk about the seriousness of violence and death. Sara added that the whole point of the military was violence and that students were taking the military much too lightly.
The moral authority of Sara and Yasmin changed the tone of the conversation. I then asked, “Who do you think mostly fights these wars?” The answer led us to how low-income youth of color and immigrants, much like the students in this class, disproportionately fight America’s battles. Luckily, the video itself proved this. While students saw white recruiters and white sergeants in the video, they pointed out that the ranks were filled with African Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders and other youth of color.
In my last teacherly maneuver, I asked how college education might resemble the Marine graduation. While the Marine training program and graduation was a four-month process, we talked about the struggle to achieve a four-year degree. Both contexts offered the struggle, goal-setting, belonging, and reward that students wanted.
We never did get to Romeo and Juliet that day. But amid days of frustration, here was a solid 20 minutes. All 27 students were engaged. Students gave examples, rebuttals, and insights as the initial diagram evoked a discussion that explored military service, the value of life, and the racial and class ramifications of military recruitment.
My question was no longer how do I get through Romeo and Juliet, but how do I make every day like those 20 minutes? The engagement of the students reflected their interest in the perennial teenage and human concerns of belonging, service, and ethics: many of the same questions that I realized are in Romeo and Juliet.
When Mercutio dies defending Romeo’s honor and family estate he shouts one final realization: “A plague o’ both your houses! They have made worms meat of me.” Mercutio realizes too late the price he must pay for allegiance and belonging to the Montagues. I told my students that some of them may decide that military service is the right option, but everyone should know the truth behind the advertising.
Using students’ motivation for belonging and challenge, our country finds the means to recruit disenfranchised youth into the military while systematically discouraging college by dismantling and under-funding scholarship and loan programs. Our college application, testing, and funding process is labyrinthine for those without college-educated parents. At my high school, military recruiters are more available and visible than school counselors, who average one to every 600 students.
When will we begin to truly encourage and guide our youth through the higher education process with its own elements of belonging, challenge, and service?