My Dream by the Hudson River This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

March 25, 2014
We all have dreams that last for years and years and, even if only in small ways, begin to define us. My dream was to attend a college located on the banks of the Hudson River. On the back roads of New York, soldiers march, Humvees wind around curves, and you are greeted by the far-off sound of gunfire. This is the United States Military Academy, located in West Point, New York. This was my dream.

West Point has produced many great generals: Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley, Lee, Grant, MacArthur, Petraeus, and Westmoreland, to name just a few. It has produced presidents and astronauts – and the finest Army officers who ever lived. They call the corps of cadets “the Long Gray Line” – gray because of the uniform color, long because it stretches back more than sixty years before the Civil War. Every June, 1,000 more join that line, standing shoulder to shoulder with those who came before. My goal was to be among them.

I first visited West Point when I was in seventh grade. I remember drinking in everything – the tradition, the values, the goals, and the precision. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The campus was gorgeous. Overlooking the Hudson River, the gray stone of the academy rose up like a fortress. The green of the vast central parade field known as “the Plain” was perfectly kept. This was where many of the men I admired had started their careers.

An unathletic kid with decent grades, I never thought I could make it into West Point. Fifty pushups in two minutes? No way. Despite this, I never forgot about my dream.

Freshman year found me swimming on the varsity swim team and qualifying for the sectional championships. Fifty pushups in two minutes was not as hard as I thought. My grades were better too. I was an A and B student, but more importantly, I was showing leadership. I was selected to attend a leadership seminar; I was on the board of directors of a nonprofit. I started thinking I just might have a chance at my dream after all.

At the end of that year I attended a military academy forum with a representative from West Point. Seeing the photos made me sit up and take notice. I had forgotten how beautiful it was. I listened intently to the cadet. When he asked for questions, I had just one: “How do I apply?”

I returned home with an envelope full of information. I would need a nomination from a state Congressional representative or a U.S. senator, great grades, and to show that I was a leader.

The next three years were a blur. I was obsessed. I hung the timeline for admissions and nominations, and two posters of West Point, on my closet door. Every morning I looked at the posters and thought, That is my goal. Today will bring me one day closer.

When I had a hard swim practice and wanted to skip laps, I recited the cadet honor code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” When I didn't feel like studying for a test, I remembered the grades I needed to get into West Point and pulled out the books.

I worked my body harder than ever before. When not swimming, I lifted weights and practiced the Army Physical Fitness Test in my basement. The spring of my junior year, I started track. I found I could run miles without stopping. I took on another leadership position, becoming a manager of the girls' swim team.

Then I started wading through a sea of paperwork. I called my congressman and my senators, sent letters, talked to many cadets, and checked my file daily for updates.

I suffered my first setback a few months later when I was not accepted to the Summer Leadership Experience at West Point. This was not a huge deal – most accepted cadets did not attend – but it made me uneasy.

I looked at my application and decided my SAT scores were not high enough. So I took SAT prep courses, and my scores began to improve. I felt I was back in it, but the process was difficult. Of course, it's supposed to be difficult. If a prospective cadet gives up because he can't figure out the paperwork, how could he be expected to persevere when he is cold, wet, hungry, tired, and carrying a hundred-pound pack up a hill? With that in mind, I kept pushing forward.

I attended Boys State, a program run by the American Legion in which 1,000 students set up a mock government in the span of a week. Here's the curveball: the counselors are U.S. Marines.

During that week we were given a small taste of military life. We learned to march, make our “rack” to regulation, and eat dinner in under ten minutes. We were always moving. Up at 5:30, we were making our beds, measuring the sheets with our pens, creasing the corners at 45-degree angles. At 5:50 we lined up. At six on the dot, an explosion would come from the stairwell in the form of a United States Marine corporal. One morning he realized that we had been sleeping on top of our made beds to save us the trouble of making them in the morning. That afternoon our sheets and blankets were torn off our racks. Even for me, it was trying at times.

I returned from that week questioning whether I wanted more. I had visited some civilian colleges that I ­really liked, and they offered things that I would miss out on at West Point. I also kept remembering what that cadet at the forum had told us. He had said that when he was sitting in the woods in the rain, holding an M-16, he would often envy his friends who were enjoying the civilian world at home or at college. But he also said that on these nights, he knew that if he was with them, he would always wonder what it was like to sit in the woods in the dark and the rain, holding an M-16.

I kept telling myself that story and my determination returned. I began writing my essay for West Point. The process was getting harder and more confusing. My civilian college search was suffering. I was falling behind.

Finally the day came when I realized I had to choose: I could apply to the military academy or pursue a civilian college, but I couldn't do both. I knew what my decision would be.

For more than four years I had dreamed of West Point. I knew it would be hard. I knew there was always a chance I could end up dead long before my time. West Point has a large cemetery right on campus, filled with graduates. Too many of those graves are new. However, I had always seen this as a small price to pay. I wanted to be the one who, when things got tough and the world seemed to be crashing down, men would turn to and ask, “What do we do now, sir?”

Finally I made one of the hardest decisions I have ever faced. I removed the West Point posters from my closet door and put them in the trash. I had done nothing but dream of West Point for more than four years, but I gave that dream up.

Two mottoes of the U.S. Army I have always loved are “Never falter, never quit” and “No retreat, no surrender.” I retreated and I surrendered. I faltered and I quit. I failed. I violated the ethics that guided the men I admired most. I feel I made the right choice, but part of me will always regret that I didn't at least see if I could be accepted.

The long gray line will march on without me. I will never know what it is like to sit in the rain with an M-16, or to stand a watch. I wasn't strong enough. I wish I had been, but there are other things I want to accomplish, and they are my new mission. Whenever I pass that spot on the Hudson and see that mass of stone rise up, I will smile sadly. Quietly, I will recite the cadet honor code and wonder what could have been.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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