As Dennis Danziger watches his students graduate, he wonders what will happen next.
“Bravisimo! Bravisimo!” Ms. Williams, the beloved Italian teacher, sang as her blue-robed students reached from the graduation processional to give her a hug and a few last words of thanks.
Some students flashed a thumbs up, shot the peace sign or slapped high-fives with the handful of us teachers who greeted them before they passed through the chain-link gate and crossed onto the Venice High School football field. They were heading toward their seats and their high school diplomas.
Victor Soleto, a linebacker who racked up 34 absences/tardies this semester (the District has no attendance policy), tipped his mortar board toward me and shouted, “Hey Mr. D., I guess this means I passed your class.”
Toward the rear of the line I spotted another of my students, Angel Vasquez, his ever-present wrap-around sunglasses covering a swathe of his chiseled face.
He looked out of place here as he did everywhere I saw him. Sitting in the back corner of my classroom he seemed to be almost sitting outside, looking in; wandering alone around campus balancing his books and his government-issued lunch in one hand while picking at his food with the other, he looked lost; jumping up and grabbing the doorway’s crossbeam and doing fifty rapid fire pull-ups to show off his strength and his cut biceps, he seemed unaware this was an English class.
I learned through his essays that Angel wasn’t always the 5’6,” 135-pound athletic machine he is today. Before he signed a letter of intent with the US Marines, well before his eighteenth birthday, he was a scrawny kid apt to be ignored or bullied.
But his future family changed him. He regularly met with his recruiters. He woke hours before school and ran four or five miles through the streets of South Central LA to prepare for future assignments. After school he traveled home, ate, changed, then jogged the three miles to the recruitment station, put in two hours of weights and exercises, then jogged back home only to wake and do it all again the next day.
In May, when it was Angel’s turn to teach my class, an assignment I give every year, a ten-minute oral presentation focusing on each student’s passion, Angel lectured on military fitness, then demonstrated his daily exercises. His classmates looked on in awe as he hit the floor and did reps of two-handed, fingertip, and one-hand push-ups. His classmates, more than a few of whom were or are gang members, applauded and urged him on.
Now at graduation, I watched Angel as he marched in quick, measured steps across the dusty track that rings the football field. Unlike his classmates who fidgeted with their robes, re-combed their hair, waved to a loved one or slapped a buddy on the back, Angel gazed straight ahead, all business.
Following a rousing version of The Star Spangled Banner I walked home, thinking about tony Palisades Charter High School up the coast a few miles, the place I taught for 13 years and where within an hour hundreds of students, many well-off and university-bound, would be receiving their diplomas.
Stopped at the light on Washington Boulevard, I surveyed the stores and shops in front of me: The Tobacco Trader, Foster’s Freeze, 99Cent Store, Taco Bell, the type of places many of my Venice students, most of whose formal education ended today, will wind up working. If they play it right, one day they might manage or even own one of these places of business.
As I crossed the street, I could hear the names of my Venice graduates over the loudspeaker, each followed by light applause. I thought about Angel Vasquez, a kid about whom I know little other than the fact that he likes to play Grand Theft Auto, and in two weeks he’ll be bunking at Camp Pendleton.
Six or eight months from now while my former Palisadian students are criss-crossing the nation, scouting out campuses like Stanford, Brandeis, Georgetown and Brown, Angel Vasquez, strapped inside a bulletproof vest and toting an M-32, will be patrolling the streets of Kabul or manning a check-point in Kandahar or possibly fighting inside the Syrian border.
Despite their economic differences, my Venice and Palisades graduates shared at least one thing in common: in order to walk the stage today every one of them had to complete 40 hours of community service during their high school careers.
Which made me consider the commitment of quiet, inconspicuous, C average Angel Vasquez. He has volunteered to perform four years of community service in order to make America safe so the rest of us can get on with our pursuits of happiness.
And as I settled in front of the evening news, I wondered why all our high school graduates, male and female, as well as those who’ve dropped out along the way, don’t have to commit to a year or two to our nation’s well-being—why that task so often lands upon the poorest among us, upon those who have fewer options.
It seems so unfair.
And so un-American.
Image credit: The U.S. Army/Flickr