Nervous as can be, I entered the Massachusetts Student Trooper Program at the State Police Academy in New Braintree on July 25. I did not know then how this opportunity would change my life.
My mentor in the Andover High School Career Mentoring Program, Officer David Milne, made me aware of this program. After applying and interviewing with a representative from the American Legion, I learned that not only was I accepted into the program, but that the American Legion was sponsoring me.
Before our parents left us at the academy early that Monday morning, the state troopers addressed them. They told them that the Student Trooper Program is not a camp. They are not camp counselors, but are professional state trooper trainers. They told them there would be "no kayaking or pony riding" that week. They also said that of the 100 students who had been accepted into the program, 95 students showed up that morning, and that not all 95 would graduate on Friday.
The first day was by far the hardest mentally. The drill instructors were in our faces teaching us to be disciplined and to always pay attention to detail. We walked in a straight formation and carried our heavy suitcases to the gym. Before we knew it, we were holding the heaviest pairs of socks and shirts, because we had to continuously unpack and re-pack our bags in 15 seconds or less. They inspected the items we packed to make sure we followed the packing instructions they had sent to us.
I cringed when they found some make-up in my bag. Three troopers screamed at me from all angles and called me "Lady Gaga," a nickname that continued when they found that some of my shirts had designs on them and the in-seam on my shorts was only four inches instead of seven. They also found a pill in my bag and immediately called the medic over. The drill sergeants screamed at me and asked me why I needed that pill. I didn't know anything about the pill. (My dad had used the same bag on a trip and it was a pill for stomach upset that he had packed!) Another student in the program brought her teddy bear, a decision I know she regretted!
If you dared to look the drill sergeants in the eyes they called you a "screwball" or "knucklehead." When we addressed the troopers, our greeting always began or ended with "sir" or "ma'am." Although the first day was draining, the instructors taught us lessons they learned at the academy: pay attention to detail, never get distracted, and stay strong.
Throughout the week we memorized and recited two important police codes multiple times each morning and evening. One was called the "Honor Code" and the other was called "Discipline". The Honor Code was: "Sir/Ma'am, student troopers are persons of integrity. They do not lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate those that do, Sir/Ma'am." The Discipline Code was: "Sir/Ma'am, discipline is the instant willingness to obey orders, respect for authority and self reliance, Sir/Ma'am". If the platoon didn't say the code in absolute unison, you had to keep reciting it.
As the week progressed we participated in physical training and actual police training. We drove police cars at high speeds around obstacle courses. At the high and low ropes courses - by far the hardest courses I have ever done - we learned how to work together. Special units from the State Police told us about their important jobs. Presentations ranged from the canine unit, S.T.O.P. (the state police S.W.A.T. team), CSI, state police helicopter, bullying, law, and computer safety.
Although we all missed our families, friends and especially our cell phones, the last day of the program was a sad day for all of us. There were 89 of us at the graduation ceremony on Friday (yes, six kids dropped out). Of course all of us student troopers had to stand for the duration of the ceremony and not move an inch! We stood in the "position of attention" or "parade rest" for over an hour. In the "position of attention" we stood with our hands in a fist by our side, our backs straight and our feet turned out with our heels together. In "parade rest" we stood with our hands clasped together behind our backs, our shoulders back and our feet shoulder width apart. We were all in unison as we went from position to position and received our diplomas.
During our graduation ceremony we learned about a student trooper who had attended this program five years ago. He entered the military after graduating from high school and died in Afghanistan recently at age 22. He sacrificed his life in an explosion and saved the lives of many of his fellow troopers. He didn't back down in his duty even though it meant his death. His father was at our graduation and his speech touched not only our hearts but also everyone else's in the room. It made me realize how much risk law enforcers and those in the armed forces take on. After the ceremony was over and we could relax our positions, I broke down and cried.
I realized through my tears how much I learned in this program and how much all the friends I made meant to me. Although I won't miss waking up at 5 a.m. and precisely making my "rack" (bed), and screaming the Honor and Discipline Codes, I will miss so much about this experience. Every person I met changed the way I look at my life and gave me a stronger idea of who I am, what I am capable of, and what jobs I might want to explore. My respect and admiration for law enforcers and the military is now deeply ingrained.
After the graduation, my drill sergeant, Dana Lavigne, told me she was very proud that I stuck it out. She said it is a difficult thing to throw yourself into a program not knowing what you might face, and not giving up when faced with adversity. It was a very challenging week, but it was also one of the best weeks of my life.