Jul. 22—When rising ninth-grader Jadin Robinson decided to participate in a summer enrichment program at Meadville Area Middle School, she figured it would give her something to do while school was out and offer a chance for some of the hands-on learning that she prefers.
She did not anticipate spending about 30 minutes each day in boot camp-style drill instruction.
And she definitely did not expect to find herself in the role of the take-no-guff drill sergeant, leading marching squads through the middle school hallways as they chant, "Bulldogs — we are the dream!"
"He tricked me, really," Robinson said, standing at ease in the school hallway that moments before had served as makeshift parade ground for students participating with Robinson in the five-week summer session of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mentoring Program. Just inside the classroom door beside her, "he" — Harrison Dixon, the mentoring program instructor Robinson had referred to — was chatting with students as they transitioned from their 30 minutes of drill time to the day's final 90 minutes, which would be spent working on drama and filmmaking.
Robinson described herself as not especially talkative or social, and more likely to shake from nerves during a presentation than to assume command of a platoon — which is not to say she doesn't have service aspirations.
"The first day I told him I wanted to be in the military," Robinson recalled, explaining that she hopes to be a combat medic when she's older. "So he's like, 'Who's ready to do this?' Nobody raised their hand. Then he asked, "Who's not ready to do this?' I raised my hand so fast — and he's like, 'You're sergeant now.'"
Five weeks later, Robinson barks commands at her classmates as though she's been doing it, if not her whole life, then certainly longer than just a few minutes each weekday for a little over a month.
Getting more than they bargained for was a common theme among the 21 students participating in the program coordinated by Armendia Dixon, who helped secure the Pennsylvania Department of Education grant that supports both the mentoring program's efforts during both the academic year and the summer.
"Only students who have done well during the year can participate in the summer session," Dixon said. Each day, participants spend time in a wide variety of settings, experiencing a diverse lineup of academic disciplines. An hour in the garden is followed by an hour tinkering with robots; 30 minutes on English and communication skills are followed by a lunch break, then 30 minutes of drill time before they end the day with a foray into filmmaking.
The drill instruction — which is somewhat less intense than that seen at Parris Island, but still very much in a similar tradition — was added this year, Dixon said, to emphasize the leadership skills that are implicit in the other activities.
"I think that one of the most difficult things was for them to know that their classmates could lead them — that they could learn to be good leaders and follow each other," she said. "They've learned to work together."
Rising eighth-grader Khaliah Manning decided to participate in the program at Dixon's recommendation.
"It seemed fun," she said.
And the experience has lived up to her expectations, Manning added, citing the variety of topics and her fellow participants as two of the things she liked most.
"I personally liked acting, and Mr. Watts," she said, referring to Ted Watts Jr., the professional actor leading the filmmaking workshop, "he's been in actual movies before, so it's a trustworthy class."
While Manning enjoyed being in front of the camera, rising eighth-grader Maria Herrera confidently took command behind the scenes, directing one of the scenes that the group filmed. The brief scene, selected by Watts, was drawn from the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties" and was one of several scenes set in schools that the students worked on.
Herrera's scene focused on three central characters, but involved numerous members of the program.
"The scene is in a crowded hall, so we needed a bunch of extras crossing the hall a lot of the time," Herrera explained.
Watts, who had come to the program shortly after working on a movie set in Pittsburgh, said that Herrera took on responsibility for interpreting the scene, rehearsing the extras so that they fit into the scene appropriately.
"The students are really sharp — and they listen to her," Watts said.
Participants will be able to take a record of their experience with them in the form of the various films they made, he added.
They'll be taking other valuable experiences with them as well, including some benefits they weren't expecting.
Harrison Dixon, who introduced the students to the basics of military-style drill, said those benefits include experience working together as a team.
"They're learning how to trust the people around you," he said.
Robinson, the student Dixon selected to lead the drill exercises weeks ago, never saw herself as a drill sergeant despite previous experience raising her voice when dealing with her two siblings at home.
"I'm actually glad he picked me," she said. "I think it's a good experience for the future."
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.