As Brandon McClendon donned a red sash, his cap and gown and marched Friday with the 155 other members of the Cortland High School Class of 2018, he may have been thinking back to when he was about 11 or 12.
He was a troubled kid; his mother Melissa Alvord said hardly a day went by that she wasn’t called to pick her son up from school because he was in trouble for fighting.
“They couldn’t handle him in regular school, he was a danger to himself and others,” Alvord said.
McClendon describes his younger self as lost and self-loathing.
“I blamed myself for everything that happened to me,” he said earlier this week, the abuse he experienced and his father leaving when he was 3 months old.
He rebelled against authority, especially teachers. His behavior landed him under the Persons In Need of Supervision program, a juvenile diversion service through the Cortland County Probation Department.
Eventually, McClendon agreed to attend George Junior Republic school in Freeville, which specializes in teaching at-risk youths. He spent a year there and during that time he started thinking about the type of person he wanted to become, particularly after his grandfather died when he was 14.
“Not only had the closest person to a dad I ever had, died, but my mom deserved better,” he said. “I started thinking about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to become and how I wanted to get there.”
Around the same time, a social studies teacher he had previously clashed with at George Junior offered to help him work out. McClendon started losing weight and feeling better about himself. He started to want to prove wrong the people who had thought he couldn’t succeed.
Much of Friday night’s commencement ceremony speeches from the class salutatorian, valedictorian and administrators, focused on success: the many forms it takes and how overcoming adversity is one sure way to achieve it.
That’s a lesson McClendon has already learned.
With hard work and better behavior, McClendon returned to Cortland High School in the ninth grade and doubled up on classes to be sure he graduated with his class. McClendon had no study hall this year and last summer he took summer classes to keep on track.
Instead of being angry with them, McClendon remembers when he started caring about what teachers thought of him. The ninth-grade social studies teacher at George Junior, the 10th grade guidance counselor and English teacher at Cortland all became role models.
“I didn’t want to let them down, they were going out of their way to help me shoot for the stars and go for it,” he said. “I couldn’t stand the thought of failing after how far I’d come.”
But more likely than dwelling on the past, McClendon was probably thinking Friday about what comes next.
“For me, this is just the beginning,” he said. McClendon will be shipped July 23 to boot camp in Paris Island, South Carolina, with the U.S. Marine Corps. He joins four other classmates in embarking on a military career after graduation, as School Resource Officer Rob Reyngoudt pointed out during Friday’s commencement ceremony. After applause for each graduate who is a military recruit, Reyngoudt also asked audience members who have served or are currently serving, to be recognized.
The SUNY Cortland Park Center Alumni Arena was filled with applause.
McClendon says joining the Marines is another path to shaping the man he wants to become.
“I want to protect those I love and to be part of something bigger than myself while holding on to structure,” he said. “Having something teach me morals, how to be a good father and teach my children morals one day. To me that meant the U.S. Marines.”
Senior High School Principal John Zarcone said it was a pleasure watching McClendon grow up over the years and he credits the support McClendon got from both his family and faculty for getting him to graduation. But that’s support; the rest is McClendon.
“It says a lot about Brandon himself, the changes he decided to make,” Zarcone said.
McClendon wore a smile and a red sash emblazoned with the letters USMC, as he headed back to his seat with his diploma in hand Friday night. He was ready to shift his tassel and take the next step toward his future.