Military recruiting in public schools can be disruptive

The local Army recruiter is at my classroom door, and I wish he’d stop doing this. He needs to speak to a student in my English class at Jamaica High School.

When I explain that there are designated areas for him to speak with potential recruits, he apologizes. In fact, his etiquette is always spit-shined and gleaming, like something he’s learned at a seminar. He shows me his visitor’s pass, smoothed against a lapel, and apologizes once more. Never again, he says. It’s just that this time it’s important. Could he please have a word with Ernesto?

I like to believe I have the final say on these matters, but Ernesto is already out of his seat and calling the man “sir.” His slouch has been corrected and a hand keeps his jeans from dropping below the waist. They shake hands and a heartbreaking glow washes over his face. I shut the door while they confer in the hallway.

The pride of belonging to a military family is an integral part of who I am. My grandfather and great uncle opened a furniture store on Long Island in 1949 with nothing but a pair of Purple Hearts between them after serving in World War II. My father enlisted during the Vietnam era.

Even so, I see recruiters as something of a disruptive presence in schools. A salesman in a crisp uniform is still a salesman with a quota, be it used cars or young, beating hearts.

I know this man is just doing his job and that Ernesto is looking out for himself. If he signs up, he’ll have housing and benefits. He’ll learn teamwork and discipline, which he needs. I also know Ernesto’s father is not in his life, and that his recruiter knows this. His mother works tirelessly to support him. Perhaps if his situation were different, business at the recruitment center would not be quite as good.

In 2015, the Army recruited 1,440 high school graduates into active duty from NYC, Westchester County and Long Island. I realize that federal law and city regulations require that military recruiters get the same kind of access to students as trade school and college recruiters. But the recruiters’ sense of unregulated access is what bothers me. In fact, in 2007, school officials reminded principals that military recruiters should not be “given unfettered access to students in classrooms, cafeterias, gyms or other areas of the school building,” according to The New York Times.

Of course, some students will enlist. And more often than not, it’s the quiet ones who return to show off their uniforms, bristly heads and clean-shaven cheeks. They peek into the doorway, and teachers always stop to make a big deal: Hey! How’s it goin’? Do you have any idea how proud we are?

When Ernesto’s time comes, he can’t wait. Graduation is over and he’s finally out of here! But did his recruiter somehow best me? Did I fail the kid by not steering him in another direction? I think about it every time it happens, 12 years and counting.

“Look, Ernie, you take care of yourself. Make sure you visit after boot camp,” I tell him.

And then . . . .

“Hey, man, don’t go looking for trouble. No Superman stuff, OK?” I say.

He gives me a smile and one last fist bump. Then it’s down the steps and out the door.


J.B. McGeever is a teacher at Jamaica High School.