There was an unusual graduation exercise last week in the Glendale Public Library.
It was for 20 young men and women who had completed a course that was part military, part academic and all hard knocks. They were the second graduating class of the California National Guard's IMPACT program in Glendale.
They were selected for the training six weeks ago based on two characteristics: little success in the past, little hope for the future.
The morning of Oct. 26, after six weeks' training, they were sent back into circulation with one mission accomplished and the expectation of many more.
In blue academic robes, the graduates took the first row of seats in the library auditorium. About 50 parents and well-wishers were behind them.
Anyone who wasn't there missed a surprisingly snappy affair. It concluded with a state bureaucrat who gave a talk worthy of a Louis Gossett Jr. soliloquy.
The star, IMPACT director Col. Charles L. Miller, was delayed by an airline mix-up in Sacramento and almost didn't make the ceremony.
In Miller's absence, Capt. Milton Meyer, the Glendale unit coordinator, improvised. He called on the keynote speaker, Glendale College board member Phillip Kazanjian, an attorney and commander in the Navy Reserve.
Kazanjian recommended two heroes to the graduates--President Abraham Lincoln and Judge Joseph N. Sorrentino. Lincoln, he said, failed in business and failed at politics once before he succeeded at making history. Sorrentino, he said, was a combat veteran at 17--a veteran of New York gang warfare--before he joined the Marine Corps and eventually graduated from Harvard Law School.
An award was presented to Cadet Suzette Beauchamp, the most improved.
Just in time, Miller strode into the room and onto the stage. He stood tautly in dark, velvet-striped military trousers and a sweater that outlined a trim, muscled torso. He spoke in a theatrical voice.
"IMPACT is an acronym that stands for Innovative Military Projects and Career Training," he began. "You like that, huh?"
Miller said IMPACT began in 1977 during a conversation in then-Gov. Jerry Brown's infamous blue Plymouth. He said the governor thought out loud: "There must be something we can do about the high unemployment rate our young people are experiencing . . . the tremendous high school dropout rate . . ." and a program was born.
The pilot, in Oakland, focused on pre-military training. That proved inadequate, Miller said.
"Not everyone wants to go into the armed forces. . . . So we refocused."
It has settled upon 108 hours of academics, 32 hours of military skills and 40 hours of pre-employment skills--"in other words, how to get a job, how to keep the job and, the big thing is, the acceptable, behavioral patterns out here in corporate America."
IMPACT has seven sites, the last two having opened in San Diego and Glendale this summer. About 5,000 cadets have graduated. Miller said 80% have been placed--52% in full-time, unsubsidized employment and the rest in school or in the armed forces.
"Now, it's a small percentage going back to school," Miller said. "But you have to realize these young men and women did not believe they could learn. Didn't believe in themselves."
Miller closed with his parable of the chickens. The cadets already knew it.
"Why can't chickens fly?" he asked. "You'd be amazed at the answers you get. 'Too fat. Too skinny. Wings have been clipped.' All kinds of reasons."
"The only reason chickens don't fly is because they don't believe they can."
This, he said, was an ancestral adjustment to the chicken coop.
"They would fly and hit those walls and hit those ceilings," Miller said. "Pretty soon, we took the wire mesh down and the chickens just run along the path. The mommy and daddy didn't believe they could fly. They never bothered to even expose the little baby chick to fly."
Miller didn't leave his cadets in doubt about his meaning.
"Try your wings," he said. "Set your goals high and go for it. If you want to fly, fly."
Afterward, parents of the graduates hugged them for joy. Some gathered around Miller to thank the IMPACT staff.
He shook off their praise.
"It's because of your support," he said.
"Until now," one woman insisted, her son has "never completed anything before."
For six weeks, students attended class five days a week, all day. Then it was time to test their wings.
The next Monday, Cadet Beauchamp dropped by the IMPACT headquarters in the Employment Development Department on South Central Avenue to see employment counselor Michael Simms.
Simms had an interview lined up for Beauchamp at the Broadway.
At the beginning of IMPACT, Beauchamp had assessed herself in a questionnaire. It said she performed poorly in school, had family and financial problems, and didn't know what she wanted to do. She had scored 28 on the armed forces exam, barely high enough to enlist.
Now Beauchamp was ready to ace the interview. And if she gets the job, it will tide her over until she can take the armed forces aptitude test again.
Her next move will be to the Navy.