CHAMPAIGN — Monday was an emotional but happy day at the READY Program in downtown Champaign, as staff members welcomed back a graduate who's officially a U.S. Marine.
Marcus Taylor started attending the READY Program, the alternative school for Ford and Champaign counties, after being expelled for two years from Champaign Centennial High School, said Donna Kaufman, the director of alternative education for the regional office of education.
He recently completed Marine Corps Recruit Training in San Diego.
Taylor, who is 18, came for a lunchtime celebration in his dress blue uniform and was full of smiles as he talked with staff members about his experiences so far in the Marines.
"We are so proud of you, young man," said Orlando Thomas, who is the Champaign schools' director of pupil services, who works with Champaign students who are at the READY Program.
Taylor told Kaufman, Thomas and others about his experiences at boot camp, alternately smiling and sometimes staring down at his hands, fidgeting in bright white gloves.
He spoke of how he learned to swim in three days in full gear, because he didn't want to have to stay back and become a part of another company.
He talked about how he didn't dare talk when he got five minutes for his meals, because talking might mean he and a group of other recruits might be punished by having their meal ended early, which meant they'd be hungry.
He said he felt like a Marine after climbing a mountain - known as "the Reaper" - as a part of The Crucible, the final phase of boot camp.
"When you get to the top, you're basically a Marine," Taylor said.
While he said he's still the same person as before boot camp and as a student, he admitted some things have changed, like his morals.
"Everything I stand for is different," he said.
And he's more confident now, too.
"I could run through that wall," he said, indicating a wall in Kaufman's office.
After Taylor's leave is over, he'll return to Camp Pendleton for more training, and then will be trained in an occupation.
He said he's still feeling out the lifestyle of a Marine and may serve his enlistment term and then go on to college.
If he does, he said he wants to pursue something hands-on, like engineering.
But he may stick with the Marines.
"If I love it, I am going to make it a career," Taylor said.
Kaufman said Taylor was the kind of student who took advantage of opportunities and support services while at the READY Program.
"He worked very hard," she said, and even won student of the year there.
He participated in the Champaign schools' Summer Youth Employment Program, after which an administrator reported to Thomas: "This kid has something special ... he will do something great."
Vickie Bierman, a former READY teacher who now lives in Tennessee, forged so close a relationship with Taylor that she attended his graduation in San Diego.
She said she taught Taylor at READY a couple years ago and was impressed by his eagerness to learn.
"I just always felt like our connection helped me encourage him to do something bigger," Bierman said in a phone interview. "I was just extremely proud to see him have his own achievement."
And that's exactly what his success in boot camp has been — an achievement stemming from his own decision to succeed.
That stemmed from his education at the READY Program, she said, because Taylor understands he couldn't have joined the military without a high school diploma.
Taylor's dad, Champaign resident Darrin Short, said he surprised his son at boot camp graduation in San Diego, calling that experience "a blessing."
"I'm happy and proud of my son," he said.