By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The teacher of this JROTC class is Sergeant First Class Gerald Prudhomme, and he's finishing lunch, some sort of leftovers in Tupperware. He shakes Leal's hand. "I'd like to see if you could come out and do some inspections next week," says the older man, who spent 23 years in the Army. The students wear uniforms once a week and are inspected for tidiness while lined up in formation. A lot of the kids resist the uniforms, the teacher says, either because they're mocked or just because they're regarded as seriously uncool.
Leal schedules some Army class presentations with Prudhomme for the following week. When the teacher takes his last bite of lunch and mentions the discipline problems he faces, Leal shakes his head. "He's E7, he's commanded a lot of soldiers—to get disrespected by a high school kid..." he trails off. "On a regular line, you have a kid who comes in thinking he's a badass, you can correct it. But here, it's different. Once we were here and a kid fell asleep on us. I was so pissed, but I didn't say anything."
His frustration is borne out a moment later when he drops by the JROTC classroom with Prudhomme. The students, mostly juniors and seniors, are supposed to be working at their desks, but mostly they're talking, laughing and fiddling with water bottles and cell phones.
"Hey—where was you the first half of class?" Prudhomme calls out to a skinny kid in a red Adidas jersey. The teenager sullenly returns his gaze and mumbles something unintelligible.
"Hey—what does P.S. mean?" a girl with glasses says.
"P.S.?" asks Prudhomme.
"Yeah, you know, like at the end of a letter."
Leal answers. "Postscript." He sounds tired.
Another kid pipes up. "Well, what about R.S.V.P.?"
"When you have to call and make a res-"
The kids cut the teacher off. One rolls his eyes. "Yeah, we know what it means, Sarge, but what do the letters stand for?"
Leal rubs his head and grabs his beret. "Google it," he tells them and turns to leave.
Answering questions after their recent workout at the recruiting station, the teenagers infuse the interview with the easy banter of friends who have known each other a long time.
"I want to become a mechanic, and the Army will help with that," Borjas says. "I don't got to worry about money or nothin'." He adds proudly that he's the first in his family to serve in the military.
"And your mom hates me for that!" Garcia jokes.
Borjas laughs. "I told her, I ain't gonna lie to you—I might not get a scholarship, and the Army pays for college."
"Hey," Garcia interjects. "You hear about Louis? He was locked up."
"Really?" Borjas says. "I thought he just straight disappeared."
Garcia shakes his head. "Remember when they killed his brother in eighth?"
"It was ghetto," Borjas says.
Garcia nods. "All them gangs—I got jumped by Bobby Hudson in seventh-grade knock-out."
"You got jumped? I didn't get jumped." Seventh-grade knockout, they explain, is when the younger kids are hazed by the eighth-graders at the beginning of the year.
"We had some good times back then," Garcia says. "We had Ms. Jackson, and that other one—"
"She looked like a catfish!" Borjas says. They laugh.
Garcia is the youngest of four children born to parents from Zacatecas and Jalisco. His father died when he was 3; his mother cleans houses. Borjas' parents came to Texas from San Luis Potosi more than 20 years ago. His father, a tile tradesman, died of lung cancer last year, and his mother is an assistant teacher. They live in a small, tidy house off of Kiest Boulevard, where the living room is lined with shelves of fabric flowers, porcelain figurines, plastic rosaries and a framed photo of Borjas' sister in a fuchsia quinceañera dress. In the center of the room are two glass cases full of trophies. There are small gold "perfect attendance" awards, computer Olympiad medals on colored ribbons, math and science fair prizes, and an enormous, statuesque trophy of gold plastic and marble whose plaque reads, "Mr. T.D. Marshall."
Mike Borjas was always a good student, his mother says on a recent afternoon. A small woman with curly dark hair that frames her face, she says she volunteered at Clara Oliver Elementary when her children were students there, mostly to keep tabs on them and make sure they did well. Mike, a gangly kid with glasses, was especially gifted at math and science, as evidenced by an entire shelf of awards. Last spring he bought an old gold Monte Carlo with the money he'd saved working construction and stacking store boxes, and with the help of a mechanic installed a motor. He did the stereo and speaker work himself.