Full Mettle Junket

For gangbangers and delinquents, Project Challenge boot camp is a last chance to avoid prison

Pre-Challenge is only a condensed version of the program. Phase movement is less of an issue.

"You have five days to prove that you want to be here," Pisano says. "You have to have an open mind, a willing attitude and a commitment to change. If you come to my program, I guarantee you success."

When his speech is over, Pisano booms: "On your feet." Everyone rises and sounds off with, "One, two, Challenge." They stand at attention.

A CI comes to the front to address the students. All CIs are intense and come packing a military background. Volume is how they get their point across. The CIs line up at the front of the room to be introduced, glaring at the kids.

"This is a hand-selected cadre staff, the best of the best," says the CI. "You will follow what they say, not question, not whine. Keep your eyes off the cadre until you earn the privilege of looking at them."

The CIs are turned loose, and it's organized bedlam. They mob the audience like squawking vultures and drop vocal bombs. They yell at these kids as though they'd burned their house down.

"I SAW YOU LOOKING AT ME UP THERE. WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?"
"I'M NOT MOVING OUT OF YOUR WAY, YOU MOVE OUT OF MINE."
"GET THAT SMILE OFF YOUR FACE. NOW."

It'll be a long week for anyone who doesn't like to be hollered at. A short one for those who can't deal with it. Some will soon ask to go home.

Even a student who abides by the rules will get dressed down by a CI. The staff knows that if a kid can't handle a week of this, he'll never last five months. Space at Project Challenge is precious. Not everyone who wants to stay will be invited back.

Many don't respond well to this first wave of verbal abuse. Those who fail to show respect are put into the Iron Chair--backs flat against the wall, the punished squat in an imaginary seat. In a matter of seconds, there are five victims sweating and straining against the wall.

The Iron Chair is only one tool the CIs use to enforce the rules. The Ranger Thinking Position puts a student on his stomach with his elbows on the floor. The back is arched so the unfortunate Ranger can rest his chin on his upturned palms. They're supposed to be thinking about what they did wrong. Pained expressions suggest otherwise.

Though the CIs have an arsenal of muscle-crippling weapons, pushups are the currency of the camp.

CI Marty Hammonds says enforcing the rules is key in earning respect from the students. Most of them were able to trample over their parents' attempts.

"Mom and Dad see the tears, and they want to make it better," says Hammonds. "That doesn't work here. We're immune to the tears."

Lunch period is usually the best hour of a high schooler's day. You get to hang with your friends. Lunch time is chill time.

Not at Project Challenge. The meals are as regimented as the rest of the day.

The four platoons line up outside the dining hall. If a CI comes through the door, the first person to see him must sound off, "Make way." All students put their backs against the wall and allow the CI to pass.

Inside, each person goes through the salad bar and then the hot-food line. Students must side-step, eyes forward and absolutely no talking. Those who disobey are dropped for pushups.

Trays are taken into the adjacent dining room. Long rows of tables are surrounded by chairs on either side. Plastic salt and pepper shakers are the only table decorations.

A student comes to the table, places his tray down and stands at attention behind his chair. He must wait for the person across from him to arrive and do the same.

The second person sounds off, "Take a seat."
Then both yell out, "CHALLENGE."
If the routine is not loud, enthusiastic and in unison, a CI will make them do it again. Some pairs take almost 10 tries before they can eat.

Taylor from blue platoon stands up in the middle of his meal. He stands at attention and addresses one of his CIs in the appropriate manner.

"Sir, CI Dowler, sir," says Taylor. "Mr. Taylor requests permission to speak, sir."

"Speak," says CI Jeff Dowler, a graduate of the program. His joy at being on the other end of this routine is apparent.

"Sir, may I get a glass of juice, sir?" says Taylor.
"JUICE? YOU WANT SOME JUICE?" interjects CI Chris Cusick.
"HE MUST THINK THIS IS BURGER KING. HE WANTS TO HAVE THINGS HIS WAY," says Dowler.

Taylor cracks a smile and sits down. The CIs will yell at any opportunity. Most of the kids learn when the CIs are doing it to get a laugh.

There are plenty of humorous moments dished out in the dining hall. It's the CIs, though, who are allowed to be the comedians, usually at the expense of the student.

"Murphy, get up here," Hammonds tells a member of his platoon during lunch. Murphy, 16, became a father at 15. Hammonds wants to know if Murphy knows the Barney song so he will be able to sing it to his kid. Murphy says he doesn't.

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