Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Finding a Way Out

On the first day of the spring semester, Gill walked into Jeff Kaufman’s classroom and asked him about his score on the U.S. History Regents exam. His history teacher commended him on his score, one of the highest in the class, and Gill’s blank expression turned into a half-smile.Kaufman then asked him if he thought about college and Gill was silent. “I see you’re still planning on joining the army,” Kaufman said. Gill nodded and left the classroom.
“I find it a disgusting reality that the kids basically, no matter how bright they are, feel like they have no better option,” said Kaufman in a later interview. “The fact is they don’t have an alternative. Of course I’m concerned about them being sent to war, but I approach it as an economic reality.”

Finding a Way Out

Carl Gill, a senior a EBC High School takes a break between classes.

Carl Gill, a senior a EBC High School takes a break between classes. Jamie Oppenheim/COVERING EDUCATION

By JAMIE OPPENHEIM

It’s not that Carl Gill doesn’t want to go to college. He does. In fact, the 18 year-old senior at East Brooklyn Congregation (EBC) High School for Public Safety and Law said he eventually wants to study electrical engineering.

It’s just that the Army will pay for it. “I want to do it on my own,” said Gill, with a shy lilt betraying his Caribbean roots.

Gill turned in some of the highest Regents scores for his class, showing more promise as a college student than many of his classmates. Still, he decided to join the military, becoming one of four out of 60 seniors to do so.

On the first day of the spring semester, Gill walked into Jeff Kaufman’s classroom and asked him about his score on the U.S. History Regents exam. His history teacher commended him on his score, one of the highest in the class, and Gill’s blank expression turned into a half-smile.

Kaufman then asked him if he thought about college and Gill was silent. “I see you’re still planning on joining the army,” Kaufman said. Gill nodded and left the classroom.

“I find it a disgusting reality that the kids basically, no matter how bright they are, feel like they have no better option,” said Kaufman in a later interview. “The fact is they don’t have an alternative. Of course I’m concerned about them being sent to war, but I approach it as an economic reality.”

The school, a one-story brick building the size of a city block, is located in East New York, Brooklyn, a notoriously high-crime neighborhood. In 1990, 109 homicides were reported in this neighborhood. The rate fell to 17 last year–much lower than in previous years, but still high compared to other Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Gill said he has seen stabbings and gang fights in his neighborhood, one of the reasons he said he wants to leave. Kaufman, who was once a police officer in East New York’s 75th Precinct, said that neighborhood safety has improved a lot since the 1980s and early 1990s, although he still admits the neighborhood has safety problems.

In the last week of February, the neighborhood experienced four shootings in a 24-hour period, according to published reports in the New York Daily News. One of the incidents involved the shooting of fifth-grader, Samantha Edgars. She was sent to Brookdale University Hospital in Brooklyn where she was said to be recovering. Three of the shootings were fatal.

Gill’s school is slated to close in 2011 for repeatedly failing to meet academic benchmarks on achievement tests and to improve its dismal student attendance rates. The school had a 69 percent attendance rate last school year. In the 2006-2007 school year, the school received a “D” on its annual school progress report, a report that measures school improvement across the city.

So, in a school where a little over half of the seniors graduated last year and students often skip classes, Gill stands out academically. He is rarely absent and always on time to class. He is one of the school’s highest performing students and made the school’s honor roll last semester with an 86.5 grade point average.

In style and culture, Gill blends in with the rest of the school population. Like most EBC students, he wears baggy jeans, a T-shirt, a black and white scarf, and giant diamond stud earrings. He has a large outline of a cross tattooed on his left forearm that he got over the summer. He said he got it not because he’s a religious church-goer, but because he’s obsessed with crosses.

In 2006, Gill moved to Brooklyn from Guyana to live with his father, Carl Gill Sr., a boiler repairman, and his stepmother, who works as a nurse’s aide. Gill’s biological mother lives in Barbados, said Eslin Sparman, another EBC teacher, and the teen plans to visit her before he heads to basic training in July.

Gill said he misses Guyana because there were more activities for him. He used to play cricket for a club team. Now he plays soccer with some of his neighborhood friends, but its not organized. After school he said he usually heads home and studies then plays video games on his Play Station 2 and surfs the Internet on his laptop.

Gill said he started thinking he might join the Army around the time he arrived in this country. His grandfather served in the Guyanese Defense Force and when Gill Sr. arrived in the U.S. Eleven years ago, he tried to join the Army too. Gill Sr. was 35 at the time, and was told by the army that he was one year too old to enlist.

Gill sat on the idea for a while and revisited it again last summer when he decided he was ready to get serious about his future. While on his lunch break at the Winthrop Beacon Center, the tutoring center where he worked, he met with a recruiter on Eastern Parkway and Utica. The recruiter told him that life as a soldier was just like being a civilian except you can’t get fired, Gill said. Job security is somewhat of a worry for Gill. “I see on TV people losing their jobs and houses.”

For Gill, the Army represents a chance to leave behind his everyday life in East New York, a place he said he is not fond of, and experience something different. “I just don’t like it here. There’s too much violence,” he said. The way Gill sees it, the Army will give him a chance to travel to places like Germany or Japan. “It will open my eyes to different stuff,” he said.

When asked if he was worried about getting sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, Gill said it hadn’t crossed his mind. The recruiter didn’t mention those options outright, but said his placement depended on his job assignment, Gill said. He said he doesn’t think he will get sent to war, but if he does he’ll be ready because that is part of the job.

Going to Iraq and Afghanistan may not be the first thing on Gill’s mind, it was one of his father’s first thoughts. “My son, I love him dearly,” Gill Sr. said in a phone interview. “I was a little sad in my heart, not in my face. My hopes are to see him go to college and be successful and make himself a man in his life.”

But Gill’s father also recognizes that life in the military can be positive transformation for some. “I like the military life too. It’s a very good life for a young man, to come out of the streets and teach you discipline, respect for life.”

Marilyn Rodriguez, a teacher at EBC, said that recruiters seldom come to the high school and they usually only come to talk to students who have already enlisted; however, she did say that recruiters will constantly call her and ask for the list of students whose parents didn’t sign opt out forms, forms that if not signed by parents will allow the military to have access to their child’s information for enlistment purposes. Rodriguez said she doesn’t send the military the list.

At other schools, such as Lafayette High School in Bensonhurst, military recruiters are more aggressive in their recruiting efforts. “They would come every day if they could, but we don’t let them up,” Elaine Ghrael, the school’s college advisor, said. “They tell kids they are going to get a good education. I’m not a big fan because I’m a college advisor. I do realize it’s a good option for some.”

Ghrael said she is aware that recruiters target certain lower income inner-city schools. “I live in the suburbs and they don’t target students like that.”

Some EBC teachers believe that the military can be a transformative experience and present options that some students would never have. EBC gym teacher W. Alva De Freitas actively encourages some students to enlist. “Some kids are not cut out for military life and they can get grants and loans and some kids aren’t cut out for college,” he said. “The military gives you all the opportunities. They give you medical, dental, an education and you serve your country. That’s what you should do because your country serves you.”

De Freitas, came to this country from Grenada to play professional soccer for the now defunct Cincinnati Comets. He also served in the military as a presidential honor guard in Washington D.C. He doesn’t just shepherd students to the armed forces, he also suggests college if he feels that it’s viable financially and academically. “They get out of the ghetto life and they’re not in this little world here, East New York. They get to see the world.”

For Gill, the military will offer him a chance to escape some of the senseless violence he sees in his neighborhood that he said he just doesn’t understand. Yet an uncertainty surrounds his future. He said he dreams of moving somewhere nice, peaceful and warm after he finishes his service commitment, somewhere far from the violence he sees in his neighborhood.

“There’s just a lot of violence here, stuff that kids should not be open to. I’m glad I’m not out there,” he said referring to the streets of his East New York neighborhood. “In 10 years, I see myself being happy. Doing what I love doing, engineering.”


2 comments:

Jesmi said...

good post.

heating systems said...

I quoted the website for you, yet you expect them to write something diff. than what’s there. Good luck.