Andrea Watson didn't used to be the early morning type, but now that she's decided to stay at the government boarding school for dropouts, she has no choice.
She must be dressed and out the door by 7:30 to avoid slip-ups that could get her kicked out. Strict rules at the Job Corps school in Cassadaga also say no tongue studs. Now, as she feels the hole in her tongue closing, her life holds more promise.
Here, away from the Buffalo street corner where she used to hang out late at night with her friends, the 19-year-old can do more. Earn a driver's license, a diploma and certification as a business technologist secretary. Before long she could earn double the minimum wage, consider college and a trip to California.
Watson has been using this place to change herself from the sort of person who threw a girl down the stairs for spitting in her face, as she did when she left school as a senior last year.
"It's going to be hard but I got to," she said. "If not, I'm going to be lost in the world."
Until the day she dialed the number from the Job Corps ad she'd spent months in her East Side home watching TV as her mother told her to do something with her life.
On this autumn morning in this little town, she was doing something. She'd been five weeks at the school on the grounds of the old hospital.
She has decided to be strict with herself and get up earlier than she has to. At 6 a.m. she is among the very first to put her bare feet on the cool linoleum floor to beat the crowd and dash to the shower.
This way she gets to the cafeteria in time to hang out before her first class. She finished her breakfast of a couple hashbrowns and moved to sit next to a Buffalo friend.
It's easy to be good here, said Anthony Gadley, 24, who left high school freshman year.
"I was dealing in drugs, gangs, in and out of jail. All kinds of trouble," he said. "I don't do none of that no more."
His three kids in the city know daddy's in school. He's promised to make their lives better and get a nursing home job.
A friend and Job Corps graduate who now owns a hair salon recommended this. The federal government program, which began 40 years ago, has 222 sites nationwide. George Foreman, Job Corps' most famous alumnus, learned the boxing - and the cooking that led to the George Foreman grill.
THE WORK WORLD
The idea is to help young people ages 16 to 24 start careers rather than slide into poverty. They may stay for different amounts of time, up to about two years. While most here didn't finish high school, some have diplomas but need a way out of dead-end jobs.
Job Corps pay helps people afford to stay. Biweekly stipends go up to $50. For clothes every four months, $100. Childcare expenses, $150 a month. Pass the diploma exam and earn $250. Certification in a trade - pharmacy assistant or plumbing or carpentry - $750. Finish both for $1,200.
The school says the math works for taxpayers, too: For every $1 spent, $2 is saved because working graduates pay taxes and spare welfare.
A friend sitting with Gadley and Watson had passed his tests after a year and three months. He'd buy a car for work with the money he'd earned. "I get that today," he said, proudly.
It's not quite 8 a.m., and Watson had time for a smoke. She joined a cluster out puffing in the cold. She wants to stop her three-a-day habit, but few do. A guy beside her figured that of the 270 students here, only 10 don't smoke.
"It's a stressful place, so they take up smoking," explained Gary Voss, a teacher Watson calls "cool." Many here have never lived away from home before or tried to get along all day and night with a group of strangers.
Watson manages, using her predilection for keeping to herself. "People say I have a funny attitude because I don't talk to everybody," she said. Better to be cautious. "Some girls are fake up here. One minute they like you and one minute they don't."
Even though it can be stressful trying to get along with three roommates, there are nights when they stay up to talk.
One, a young woman from Angola had been picking up odd jobs, cleaning toilets for Burger King. She'd tried and failed to save enough money to move in with her boyfriend. Now she's thinking she'll soon be ready to rent her own place.
Another, from Fredonia, nearly quit her nursing home studies. She didn't want to wipe the bottoms of old people. But her parents found a compassionate spin: If the residents could do it themselves, they would.
RULES AND GOALS
Watson picked secretarial, keyboarding training because it could lead to travel and a good job checking tickets for an airline. Such goals and the work it takes to achieve them are urged on with reminders posted all over the grounds. Metal signs repeat mantra-like from one building to the next: Individual Accountability. Growth. Safety. Respect. Commitment.
Voss had his handwritten version posted in his classroom: "No sleeping!", "Respect each other," "Dress properly," "Mutual respect," "Listen effectively," and "Most important: Don't be funnier than Mr. Voss."
Watson is fond of admonishing those who ignore them. Someone said, "dammit," and she smiled. "That's a dollar fine, dude," she joked.
When a young man closed his eyes and leaned into his jacket as if it were a pillow, Watson cried, "Wake up, boy!" To a young woman in a fuzzy-blue off-the-shoulder sweater, Watson said, "That's dress code." The girl's bra strap and tattoo were showing. She was new.
Watson is not used to the ban on the "N word." "It's hard for me to lose," she said. Watson was fined for saying it to her sister on the phone, even though the racist insult is an endearment when spoken from one African-American to another.
At $1 a curse word, her next paycheck would be docked $6.
At the front of the class, Voss gave the day's assignment: Calculate expenses for a glimpse of life on a paycheck. They would subtract expenses from a monthly income of $1,200, based on the 40-hour-week, $10-an-hour jobs the school is training them for.
Watson typed into the apartments.com listings for Atlanta, where she has family. A one bedroom for $539 a month appeared. The picture showed a sunny living room with a striped couch and a vase of gladiolas. "Look at it, though. It's nice," she said.
She also found promise looking online for an Atlanta job: Some secretarial work paid $30,000 to $55,000 a year!
More calculations followed. Include entertainment. "You owe it to yourself. Pay yourself. You gotta have some fun," Voss said. Watch out for buying coffee, he said. That habit can climb to $3 a day, or $60 a month. McDonald's once a week, $20 a month.
Watson despaired. Her total, with a sneaker purchase, came to $1,317. "I can't live on $1,200 a month," she said. "Man, this is crazy. I'll be broke, man."
The non-smoker, who said practicing her Jehovah's Witness faith was a life priority, came closest to the mark at $1,280. One young man, even after figuring the savings if he quit smoking, still had $1,570.
Voss encouraged them: Consider a roommate. Take a second job.
Voss, who figures he'll be paying off his student loans until the year 2019, wishes someone had done this math with him.
He admired his students for subjecting themselves to this rule-ridden life including nurse visits to pee in a cup for drug tests. "They got all my respect in the world for just signing up," he said. "These guys make my day." He praised the class. They weren't like the young woman he had just talked to about her sour attitude.
Watson was like that when she first came.
Gossip was hard to take. Girls who stay in the dorm instead of going to the recreation hall to play pool or watch movies get talked about. When Watson came, word was she had AIDS. Check my file, she told her accusers, until the talk stopped.
The people she picked for friends helped. The New York City big sister type said she knew that homesickness Watson felt for her mother. And then there was Jobs Corps director Andrew Carpenter and the umbrellas he passed out free to everyone one rainy Tuesday. This man who runs one of the top-rated Job Corps in the country knows her name by heart.
"He cool people," she said. "He real cool." The kindness has warmed her. "I used to be real mean," she said.
She still has pages left to finish in her Job Corps goal-setting workbook. But she has answers for "What can you do to get to the top?" Be independent. Never be late. Stay focused. For adventure, she'd just signed up for something she'd never done before in her life, a hike to a bear cave. She'd been warned she'd have to climb rocks and a mountain to get there.
Compared to this, Buffalo was dull. And dangerous.
If she were back home living in her mother's house, she knows what she'd be doing - watching TV. Selling marijuana. Hanging out at night at the end of her street.
She used to go there with friends to remember an old friend. Not that long ago, when he stopped by that same corner, someone with a gun came by and shot him.
For information, call Job Corps: 800-827-0175