The first day of the police academy is often referred to as "Hell Day." This is a misnomer, because it implies that the other days are going to be something other than hell, which they are not.
On my first day, I arrived terrified and exhausted, clutching a black duffel bag that had worried me for half the night. I had received a list a month before training began and every last item on the list had to be in that bag. I stood in formation and listened in disbelief as a drill instuctor told the whole recruit class to spill their bags on the ground.
Two hundred pairs of white gym socks, 100 white T-shirts, 40 gray sweatshirts, 20 water bottles, toothbrushes, combs, plain black baseball caps, running shoes, cross-training shoes and black leather boots -- all of this and more came spilling to the ground and settled at our feet.
One poor man in our class had added toilet paper to his bag. The drill instructors voice pierced the cold November air the way a jet plane slices white streaks through a clear blue sky.
"Whats your name?" she screamed in the mans ear.
"Maam, my name is student officer White, maam."
"I cant hear yoooouuu!" she called back.
He repeated himself, louder this time, and she said, "Enough! Are you trying to make me deaf?"
He looked dejected, but not as dejected as he did a few minutes later.
"So White," she began, the corner of her mouth turning up in a smile. "Did you think that the state police was too damn cheap to buy you toilet paper? Did you honestly believe we would not give that to you? What the hell were you thinking, White?"
"Maam, my wife packed it for me, maam. It wasnt my fault, maam."
"Oh she did, did she? Well, isnt that nice?" Then she turned to address the whole class. "White didnt have to pack his own bag. His wife packed him toilet paper." She said it with a smile. Then the smile was gone. Looking him dead in the eye, she screamed, "Does she wipe your sorry ass with it too?"
We were ordered to repack our bags while troopers screamed at us as though it had been our idea to spill our belongings all over the parking lot. When we returned to the dormitory building, I glanced at the clock. I had been a Special State Police recruit for 45 minutes. In 12 weeks I would be a police officer. I began to wonder why this had seemed like a good idea. Why did I want to be a police officer?
I am asked this question often. My mother is the most persistent.
I always answer: "Because I love that I can walk into a room and people feel safer. I love that people trust me with their fear and their vulnerability and their pride. They trust me to make decisions that they cant or wont make. I love that when women or gay people are taken advantage of, I can be part of the solution. I love that theres a job in the world that values peoples lives above their wallets. I love the people I work with because they believe in me."
Before the sound of the national anthem rises in the background, let me say that I am also well aware that there are problems within the criminal justice system. I know I could spend my time picketing police departments instead. I could write articles about police brutality and laws that hurt instead of help and laws that help but arent enforced and a government that allows bad police to take advantage of their role in society. I could rant and rave and catch a cold, standing on the street in the rain holding a sign.
But I dont.
Instead, I am a good piece in a complicated puzzle. I believe that changing from the inside is more productive than opposing from the outside. There will never come a time when there are no cops; but there is always room for better cops.
By the time I graduated from the Special State Police Academy, I had a realistic knowledge of my limitations as well as the ability and the drive to surpass many of them. That graduation day was a day of pride like no other. I marched into the gymnasium with the 19 other recruits. We moved as one. For the duration of our training we had stood as one, run as one, dressed as one. We had gone to the gym, the ropes course and the classroom as one.
We walked in formation, taking three turns before we finally arrived at our seats.
I scanned the crowd for my family.
Eventually I saw the small swatch of fabric from the skirt my girlfriend had put on that morning. The ball of motion on the seat next to her was my 6-year-old half brother, Dylan. Sitting next to Dylan was my first girlfriend, Bear; next to her was my dad, and next to him were Mom and my stepdad, Roy.
Bear and I had split up the year before, but she was the first person who had told me I could do this. She is family, too; she needed to be there. My current girlfriend was angered by Bears presence, but she tried not to let it ruin the day -- even though I knew it would ruin the next few days. Dylan, untainted by the years of conflict that surrounded him, was waiting to try on my badge.
I saw my mother and father exchange a rare smile. My mothers expressions had an added touch of pride. If her eyes could talk, they would have said, "Thats my girl."
Watching my mother, I remembered the day I learned that having someone on your side isn't necessarily a good thing. That was the day she called me at home to tell me that the roads were too icy for me to drive to the police academy the next day.
"Have you seen the weather channel? Theres going to be a huge storm. I dont think you should go in the morning." She said this with all the innocence of someone who has never been in a military environment -- as though not going were actually an option.
"Mom, this isnt elementary school. You cant write me a note."
She didnt get it.
"Mom," I said, switching the phone to the other shoulder as I re-pressed the crease in my uniform pants, "do you understand what Im doing here? Im not learning about police officers. Im becoming one. Have you noticed that the police are still at work when it snows?"
"Well, I dont like it," she said. I figured that was fair. I told her Id drive very slowly and try to call her during lunch break.
But I didnt get the chance, because I was busy hearing all about her from my drill instructor, the same one who had tortured White on our first day. I was standing in the lunch line waiting to pay for my carbohydrate-laden meal when she appeared, grinning.
"Who loves you, Wicks?" Her voice was loud. Loud enough to get the attention of the 75 troopers who were eating and the entire recruit class that was standing on line with me. "Maam, I dont know, maam." I sounded off, with no idea what she was talking about.
"Your mother loves you, Wicks." She didnt say it; she sung it. It sounded like a funeral march to me.
"She loves you so much that she called the academy this morning, just to make sure you got here safely."
"Say it, Wicks," she barked at me.
"Maam, yes, maam," I yelled. "My mother loves me, maam." The instructor smiled.
And so it was for the rest of my time at the academy. Any time anything dangerous was about to occur, the drill instructor would ask, "Wicks, do you want to check in with your mom?" Id be hanging from a wire, 60 feet off the ground, and Id hear a tiny voice yelling from below, "Who loves you, Wicks?"
"Maam, my mother loves me, maam!" Id yell back, knowing -- even as I said it through the clenched teeth and stern expression of a future police officer -- that it was true.
On graduation day, after the diplomas and awards had been handed out, the drill instructor reappeared.
"What is the count on deck, class?"
"Ma'am," we yelled in unison, "the count is 20 highly motivated, truly dedicated, rough, tough special recruits, ma'am."
And then we waited to hear her last words to us: "Class dismissed."
She had always given us directions. Now there were none. We all stood a second or so longer than we had to and then went to find our families.
My mom had tears in her eyes. Roy, who is not a big hugger, actually hugged me back when I reached for him. My dad, who is a big hugger, wrapped his strong arms around me and I allowed myself to feel good. I let Dylan wear my hat. Bear wanted to see my diploma. When I handed it to her I said, "I could not have done this without you." And it was true. The truth is I could not have done it without any of them.