After my week in hell, courtesy of Sgt. Dickens, I finally broke down and told my husband everything going on at the academy. He was sympathetic and gave me a fantastic full-body massage that night. When I told him of my plan for returning to the academy on Sunday, he helped implement it and encouraged me through my tears.
Sgt. Dickens could point out anything he wanted at Monday morning inspection but he would never again be given the chance to complain about my hair touching my collar. I loved my hair and so did my husband. But I was determined to finish what I started. I took my inspiration from Demi Moore in the movie G.I. Jane deciding if sacrificing my hair would help—it was a small price to pay. My resolve only grew stronger with every snip.
I arrived at the study session Sunday night with short hair for the first time in my life. I just wish I was one of those women who looked good with a butch cut. My head looked like an egg with a nose.
Monday morning at physical training I made it over the six-foot wall for the first time. I was so excited I forgot to run the twenty-five yards to complete the event. It didn’t matter, the entire class was cheering and Sgt. Listberg gave me a huge hug. Everyone said it was because I was ten pounds lighter without my hair.
Sgt. Dickens never batted an eye at my shorn locks that no longer had wisps hitting my collar. Even short, he found a piece of lint on my back pocket and gave us ten push-ups. I knew I wasn’t out of the woods, but it was nice to have some of the pressure off. Unfortunately, my roommate became the next target.
If we wanted to communicate with our advisors, we had to write a memo. We were given light blue paper, told to print in all capital letters, and not to scratch out or erase anything. The blue paper showed the erasure lines. Misspelled words were another no-no. When we finished our memo, we handed it to our squad leader and he in turn gave it to our class leader. Both would review and correct each memo, giving back any they found with problems.
Donna decided she was tired of Sgt. Dickens and squad advisors coming into the classroom and monitoring us while we focused on schoolwork. If an infraction was seen during class, we were pulled outside on the next break and given push-ups. We all held our breath when one of our superiors came into the room. Donna was right; it made it hard to concentrate.
Donna wrote this in a memo to the academy staff. It was first given to her squad leader and next to our class leader, and then turned in. The next morning was the reprisal.
During morning inspection Donna was asked to step front and center. She was then asked if she wrote the memo. It had her name on it, but I guess Sgt. Dickens was making a point. Her squad leader was called up next and asked if he read the memo and if he agreed with Donna’s analysis. He stated he did and yes he agreed. Cadet Clark, the class leader, was called next. He also stated he agreed.
Sgt. Dickens asked if anyone disagreed with Cadet Chavez. Not one person stepped forward.
“The entire group of you,” said Sgt. Dickens, “are nothing but a class of fucking babies. I’m embarrassed to be your sergeant. I’m embarrassed you think you can be police officers. Not fair?” he screamed. “Not fair? I’ll show you ‘not fair!’ You will each turn in a ten-page memo by tomorrow morning on what is not fair in life. You will proceed with one hundred push-ups this morning and twenty hill runs after class to give you a start on your memos. One of us will now be in the classroom at all times and you will learn what ‘fair’ is all about. Cadet Higgins you may lead the class in push-ups.”
And so it began. If we stopped or got out of sync, Sgt. Dickens was in our face. We struggled through. During class we weren’t just pulled out during break, we were pulled out during classroom time and told to do more push-ups.
The Push-up Club did not exist that day.
After our classroom torture was finished, we headed to the hill for our twenty hill runs. Once those were accomplished, we headed back to our dorms to begin writing our memos. I didn’t go to bed until 0230. Donna cried for hours. She felt horrible about the entire class being punished for her memo. I tried to explain to her that Sgt. Dickens was psyching her out and she had to toughen up.
We turned our memos into our squad leaders before breakfast. Some came back, and cadets spent breakfast rewriting the page that had a mistake. The memos were eventually turned into the sergeant, and our classroom time continued to be hell that week. I lost count of the number of push-ups we did.
Wednesday, according to our calendar, was expandable baton training and we had to bring them to morning physical training. There was no inspection and we spent the day learning the ins and outs of controlling someone with a baton.
My biggest fear was having my baton taken away and getting beaten with it. But we learned techniques for keeping the bad guy from accomplishing this. I also learned why we did so many push-ups. I could barely hold the baton by the end of the day, and I’m sure I would have dropped it three weeks before. After completing baton training, we had permission to carry our batons on our duty belts.
Donna was talking about not returning after the weekend. I made her promise she would come back but I had my doubts. Sgt. Dickens was singling her out during inspection and she could do nothing right. The psychological abuse was terrible.
My age played a huge factor, so it didn’t affect me as hard as younger cadets. It was the physical requirements that were killing me. My body was breaking down. My back ached constantly, my joints were unbearably painful, and my muscles cramped continually. My age had caught up with me.
Friday finally came and we left for the weekend.
I called Donna several times and she said she would return. I wouldn’t believe it until I actually saw her Sunday night at the study session.
My weekend consisted of lazing around and doing as little as possible. It didn’t matter that the house was a mess. Keeping the ice packs in place under the Ace bandages on my arms and legs was my first priority.
I felt somewhat better by Saturday night. My husband took me out to dinner and, with the help of few margaritas, I regaled him with an edited version of events. I didn’t tell him what awaited me on Monday. I made the entire academy experience sound like a lark. He was glad I was doing so well.
I left at two in the afternoon on Sunday and made it back to campus for study group. My class advisor had the short straw that week and he was in the classroom ready to prepare us for the test. His name was Cpl. Tsisonnee, pronounced Tis-on-knee. He was quiet and had not interacted much with the class. I needed advice and decided to speak with him after we finished.
He told me he had been informed of my transgression the previous Friday. He asked what I was going to do about it. I told him I needed to change Sgt. Dickens’ mind and somehow redeem myself. Cpl. Tsisonnee said it would be hard and it would take a lot of heart.
There was that phrase again. Sgt. Spears from STPD had used it too. Cpl. Tsisonnee said he believed in me and that I could succeed if I truly wanted to. I left feeling better.
The following morning no one looked at me but my two friends. Word had spread and I was not a person you wanted to be seen with. Rocco and Donna were my only allies. I think everyone else was surprised I’d returned.
For physical training we headed out to the POPAT training field. We were taken through the obstacle course, and I got to drag the dummy for the first time. It wasn’t easy.
Next, we headed to the fences. The chain link was not a problem because you could get a toehold in the fencing. The six-foot wall was a nightmare. There were five of us that couldn’t make it over. Rocco was one. Donna, though, made it over on her first try. Rocco and I decided we would head back out that evening and work on the wall some more.
Morning inspection was a nightmare. My shoes were perfect but not according to Sgt. Dickens. He stepped on my toe and then complained I had dust on my boot. He also complained about my hair wisps touching my collar. It didn’t stop there. He gave the entire class twenty push-ups for each infraction he found. He watched me like a hawk, and I managed to pull through the punishments.
During our first week, we were given school identification cards. We attached them to our shirt pockets. We were told if we lost an ID card it would be like losing our police badge and the punishments would be endless. A cadet reported his missing badge to our class leader, and Cadet Clark reported it to the sergeant. Sgt. Dickens told us to be at the running track for lunch.
Before the lunch punishment, we had to take our weekly test. I only missed five of eighty-five questions and had the fourth highest score in class. It was a relief but I was more worried about what was ahead because of the missing ID card. We double timed it to the track and saw Sgt. Dickens waiting for us.
There was a flock of large black birds on the football field and Sgt. Dickens told us one of the birds had our ID card. We started chasing the birds. Sgt. Dickens then shouted we needed to beg the birds to give us back the card.
We begged loudly saying, “Here birdy, birdy, give us back our ID card, please.”
We ran across the field and through campus following those damned birds. It was the first day of college for non-cadets and the students got a real kick out of us yelling at the birds. This went on throughout the entire lunch hour.
Sgt. Dickens then told us the birds had left the ID on the hill at the water tower and we could look after class. Starving and dehydrated, we headed back to the classroom.
We ran the hill that day until we couldn’t see straight. I think the only reason we were allowed to stop was that several cadets looked as if they might pass out.
When everyone left, I stayed behind to do my ten punishment hills. Cadet Clark told me he had to stay and monitor me. He waited at the bottom of the hill. A young cadet by the name of Philip Rodriguez (P-Rod) stayed behind too. He told me he didn’t want me to do the hills alone and he ran by my side.
As we ran, he told me about himself. I was incapable of speech at this point. Every breath was a struggle. Cadet Rodriguez was twenty years old and would be turning twenty-one in a few weeks. He’d worked at a county jail until he was old enough to attend the police academy.
He said he admired me for coming when I was so old. I didn’t take offense. I was feeling particularly ancient and just happy to have someone with me. He chatted the entire time and didn’t seem to mind that I had no breath to spare. Fortunately, I didn’t have any food in my system to throw up or I would have.
Cadet Rodriguez told me he was struggling with the weekly classroom tests and asked if I would consider tutoring him. His contribution would be shining my shoes nightly. We made a deal.
After we finished the hill runs, I went to Rodriguez’s room with my notes and boots in hand. His roommates were busy shining their boots and said they wanted to participate in the study session.
The cadets passed around my boots while I reviewed my notes. As the weeks went by, more cadets joined us in that small room and I also had a study group at my breakfast table on Monday mornings before the test. I found a way to be useful.
The next day I began the Push-up Club. During each ten-minute break I worked on my push-ups. Rocco joined me. We added one push-up per day’s session and I kept track of our totals for the entire day, week, and month.
Including our morning punishment for inspection, the Push-up Club did 843 push-ups our first week. It started with just me and Rocco, but soon we had about ten cadets joining us. I don’t think they needed to do the additional exercise but Sgt. Dickens and our advisors noticed our efforts. Anything that made us look good was on the agenda. The staff told us repeatedly that we were pieces of shit and not fit to wear a badge. Doing extra push-ups took the value of their threats away and gave us an edge.
Finally, Sgt. Dickens gave permission to wear our duty belts so we no longer had to carry it with us everywhere. They issued us blue guns so we could practice our draw. Blue guns are hard rubber imitation firearms, matching our department issue gun. Thank God I had gone out shooting before the academy and knew what kind of gun I had.
By the end of the week my fellow cadets treated me normally, but Sgt. Dickens was not happy. On Friday, I was given an additional ten hill runs for dropping a piece of paper on the floor in the hallway. We only had five hills to run as a group that Friday and the entire class ran my ten with me. As I ran, there was a litany going through my head.
“I will never call Dickface Dickless again. I will never call Dickface Dickless again. I will never…”
And on it went. I knew this recitation would probably come out at the worst time and I was doing myself more harm than good. Saying those words got me up those fucking hills when I didn’t think I would make it.
Sgt. Dickens was right. He made my life hell. But I had survived.
And I only had fifteen more weeks to go.
The day of our first classroom test arrived. After more torture at morning physical training, then breakfast, then inspection where we earned eight hill runs, we sat down for our test. Bubble sheets again. It was multiple choice, but for every question there were at least two possible answers.
We were able to leave the room when we finished. I was third out the door and felt I did well. Cadet Clark, our classroom leader, who we had elected the previous week, was the first to finish. There was a machine for grading in the secretary’s office outside the classroom. When approximately ten bubble sheets were turned in, they were gathered and run through the machine.
My test was handed back and I only missed three out of eighty-six. We all managed to pass, but there were quite a few scores in the seventies. We were told this was the easiest test we would be given and we needed to study harder. It felt good to be out of the bottom of the pack for a change.
Next, each squad was given a package of stencils and one black cloth marker. We were told to stencil our last names on the back of our white physical training T-shirts. The top of the letters had to be two inches down from the collar.
It was a disaster. The male cadets made mistakes left and right and T-shirts were thrown in the garbage. When it was my turn to stencil, I had no problem. It was easy. Word got out. It was decided I would stencil while cadets shined my boots. A great trade off!
The next morning, for the first time, Sgt. Dickens said, “Nice boots, cadet.”
It was almost impossible to hide my smile. I whipped through the push-ups in elation.
We could carry a backpack for our binders and classroom supplies. I carried everything but the kitchen sink in mine. Ibuprofen, Kleenex, Band-Aids, sun block, and chemical ice packs were only a few of the items. As word got out, cadets began raiding my supplies regularly and I earned the name Momma Ivy. I think we nicknamed everyone. It was our way of making our group a family. We became proud of those names.
Tuesday and Thursday mornings were defensive tactics. Sgt. Tillman was our instructor. He was in his late forties, in fantastic shape, and basically kicked the shit out of us. We were hit, knocked down, and handcuffed until our wrists were raw. I had bruises everywhere. Ice packs became my new best friend. My roommate and I bought a small refrigerator for our room and I was able to keep the packs frozen. It was cheaper than the chemical packs, though I still carried those for emergencies.
During the first and second weeks of defensive tactics we learned how to fall. We were tested on falling forward from a standing position, turning our heads to the side (so we didn’t break our nose), and landing just on our palms and toes. It’s hard not to use your knees to break your fall, and some of the cadets had difficulty but eventually we all succeeded.
We also started learning pain compliance techniques—wristlocks and joint control. The painful part for us was practicing on each other.
Proper search techniques were taught as well. I learned men like to hide things in their “junk.” This means I had to search their “packages” thoroughly. The male cadets had a harder time searching the women than we did the men. We all had to get over our mental rebellion and learn to grope and be groped. The TSA had nothing on us.
My arms were twisted and I was thrown to the ground too many times to count. I would limp to my room after training, take more than the prescribed amount of Ibuprofen, apply ice packs while changing my clothes, and then head to breakfast.
Rocco and I began skipping dinner, eating a power bar, and working out. We were barely keeping up in physical training and our POPAT practice was beginning the following week. By the end of my second week I had lost ten pounds and Rocco twenty-three.
My roommate, Donna, and I were becoming good friends. She had been in the Army for four years and worked at a grocery store before coming to the police academy. She was thirty-two years old and wanted a better life for her son. She was single and her mother was keeping her son while she attended the academy. She told me she didn’t really like the military but dreamed of being a police officer. She was getting her asthma under control and had moved to the middle of the pack when running.
Once a week we did not run together but did a personal best run. I was proud of Donna’s advancement, but this put me dead last. Rocco finished about a quarter mile in front of me and everyone else was able to cool down while waiting for me to cross the finish line. I was then given two minutes to rest before hitting the weight room. Physical training was my worst nightmare.
I was also struggling with push-ups. Sgt. Dickless, I mean Dickens, pointed me out as a weak link for his class. He seemed to spend more time on my morning inspection than on other cadets. He loved giving everyone push-ups for my infractions. I didn’t receive all his attention but it was apparent he wanted me gone.
When we were out of his hearing, the entire class referred to Sgt. Dickens as Sgt. Dickless. It became second nature to call him by this nickname. I was also incorporating the “F” word in my vocabulary. It seemed to be how every cadet talked and it was becoming just another word. I never swore much before the academy, but the only way to describe a hill run was to call it a “fucking” hill run. No other word did it justice.
Sgt. Dickless decided I was doing improper push-ups by not going down far enough. He told the class he was adding five hill runs every day until I could do them correctly. The class was pissed and I received angry glances.
Class leader Clark said he would help me out that evening. He showed me a proper push-up and I could barely complete ten. If Sgt. Dickless was going to be watching me, the entire class was in trouble. I added push-ups to my nightly workout routine.
That week we did five extra fucking hill runs every day with Sgt. Dickless screaming at the bottom about whose fault it was. Mine, because I was a forty-five-year-old woman who couldn’t do a proper fucking push-up.
By Friday, I was beyond spent. We did our hill runs at the end of the day, including the extra five for my improper attempts. Cadets began heading to the dorms to collect their things for the weekend. I was walking next to Rocco.
“Sgt. Dickless,” I said with feeling, “is a fucked-up piece of shit.”
I was grabbed by the arm and spun around. Sgt. Dickens had a hold of me, his face red, veins popping.
“I will see you immediately in my office!”
Rocco gave me a look of complete horror. I gave him a small push in the direction of the dorms and immediately turned myself toward Sgt. Dickens’ office and began marching. This was like being in grade school all over again. I was forty-five years old and being sent to the office. I swore I would not cry.
Sgt. Dickens was staring at his computer and waited about five minutes before speaking to me. I knew this drill. I’d used it on my own children.
His voice was low when he finally spoke, “Why are you here, Cadet Ivy?”
Before I could answer, he went on.
“You can’t run, you’re overweight, too old, and you are not cut out to be a police officer. Is this a joke to you?” he demanded. “Will your social club give you a certificate if you complete two weeks of the academy? How about making it easy on everyone by going home today and not returning? Let me add this: If you come back Monday morning, I will make your life a living hell.”
I believed him. My stomach was a quivering mass of jelly, but I looked him straight in the eye.
“I became a police officer because I can do the job. I apologize for my lack of respect today, but I will be back on Monday.”
He shook his head and told me I would have ten personal hill runs on Monday after class. He then dismissed me. I didn’t cry, at least not until I was in my car and heading home.
I had now made the worst possible enemy.
Day two at the police academy began at 0430 hours.
A cadet squad leader knocked on our door the previous evening to inform us we would need to meet before physical training the next morning and work on straightening up our marching and formations. And there were some, like myself, who needed to learn basic commands.
We were in front of the dorms at 0445. It was already warm. As we lined up, the space beside me was noticeably empty. Another cadet asked where my partner was. I explained what happened the evening before. Everyone moved down one spot.
My roommate was one of two cadets to drop out the first day. The other was a male cadet from squad three. It was at this point that I swore to myself I would survive the academy. I was not a quitter.
We learned about-face, quarter turn, marching while turning a corner, and standing at attention with our toes pointing out so the sergeant could stand between our feet and inspect us up close and personal.
We then marched to physical training. As much as I would come to dread our early morning workouts, the marching was great. We marched and sang to cadence. One of the cadets, fresh out of the military, knew every cadence imaginable. They were funny, entertaining, and inspiring. Our voices rang across the campus.
Sgt. Dickens was waiting when we arrived. The yelling began and we were introduced to our PT instructor, Sgt. Listberg. He turned out to be a great guy but we weren’t aware of this on the first day of PT. After warm-ups we went on our first run. Sgt. Listberg told us it would be the last mile we ever ran at the academy.
He was correct. Wednesday we ran two miles.
I was a slow runner and placed in front to keep the pace. Another female, Cadet Higgins, was put in front too. She ended up dropping back because of her asthma and barely finished the mile run. I finished, but I could tell my pace didn’t offer a challenge to the other cadets. I had work to do.
We were taken into the weight room next and put through Sgt. Listberg’s idea of a power workout. There were thirty-one torture stations set up. Every sixty seconds he blew his whistle and we moved to another station. Arms, legs, wrists, butts, and thighs were all given a workout. The only good thing was Sgt. Listberg turned on some great 70s classic rock music. Through the pain I remember George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” and Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” blaring through the speakers.
After the workout, we had to jump with both feet together to the top of the gym’s bleachers. Then we ran back down and began jumping our way back up again. This went on until the end of class. I had no idea your teeth clack when you land on both feet but I learned. My head was killing me. We double timed it back to our dorms, changed into our shirts and ties, and then headed to breakfast.
Eating was again a difficult task because of my shaking arms and hands. God forbid we spilled anything on our ironed white shirts; it would mean changing before inspection. Somehow I managed to get food into my mouth.
My table mates were the other two female cadets with a few un-athletic male cadets joining us. Our “cliques” were already forming.
Cadet Chavez sat next to me. He was obviously as stressed as I was. He was an emergency medical technician sent to the academy in order to be part of a SWAT team. He was twenty-seven years old, fifty pounds overweight, and worried about what he’d gotten himself into. He was told the academy would be a piece of cake, but he was having doubts.
I had them too. We made a pact to complete the academy and help each other out. We weren’t such an unlikely friendship; we were both in over our heads and needed to lose weight. It felt great to have a friend and he was also in squad five with me. We would suffer together.
And suffer we did. Our first inspection was horrible.
Sgt. Dickens as well as all six squad advisors managed to find something wrong. And they found plenty. Our ties were the improper length. Our shoes were not shined to a high gloss. We had lint on our black pants. Several of the guys did not have a close enough shave because they shaved the night before to save time in the morning.
In all we were given eighty push-ups and six hill runs. The push-ups were done on the spot and the hill runs to be executed after class. I also found out why we practiced a duck stance earlier that morning. Sgt. Dickens placed one foot between my boots, put his face an inch from mine, and began the inspection from the top of my head down to my toes. I know my last ob-gyn appointment was not this thorough.
It was a relief to enter our classroom and begin learning.
The first two hours every Monday would be with Lt. Griffin for report writing. He talked and told stories more than he taught us report writing, but we enjoyed him tremendously.
Our binders were explained to us. A schedule was located in the front of the first binder and encompassed the entire eighteen weeks of the academy. All our lesson plans were outlined, which explained the four-inch thickness of the binders. We were told we would get a break every hour, but most importantly we were not to fall asleep in class. We could stand up in the back of the room, but there would be hell to pay if one of us was caught sleeping.
Our first lesson from our binders was on the history of policing. Robert Peel created the first organized police unit in England called “Bobbies” in 1829. He was our founding father and his ideas lived on in modern policing. And on it went. I found most of what I learned fascinating.
After a lunch break, it was back to the classroom. Sgt. Dickens stuck his head in and did some yelling on a regular basis but learning was the focus. We had different instructors for different lecture modules. My brain wanted to explode by the end of that first classroom session. I actually wish it had, because waiting for us were six hill runs we’d earned that morning during inspection.
The hill consisted of a quarter mile of switchbacks up a steep, rocky dirt path to a water tower. It looked like a nightmare. It was. Add in the 109 degrees outside and hell was preferable.
We had water bottles at the bottom and took drinks between runs. I was the second to last person to the top on the first run. We were all going at our own pace. One of my roommates slipped and fell. She twisted her knee and sat out the last few trips to the top.
We were all focused on the hill and didn’t notice when Sgt. Dickens showed up. I was taking my last trip upward.
“What the hell are you doing?” he yelled at the cadets waiting at the bottom for the stragglers to finish.
“Are you individuals or a team?” He demanded, “I want your punishment done as a unit. Start over and get it right this time.”
Higgins, Chavez, and I turned around and went back for our classmates. We formed two lines and ran six more hill runs together. We were then released for the day. I was too tired to eat and went back to my room. I ironed my shirt for the following day and tried to shine my shoes to a high gloss but failed. Sleep was all I could think about.
I passed out until 0430 hours the next day, woke up, and did it all again. We were given 110 push-ups at morning inspection and ten hill runs. I could barely move my arms during class, and taking notes was excruciating. I thought Friday would never arrive. I was gigged (gig is like a demerit) for my boots each morning. Our class could do nothing right.
My thinking began to change that week. I had always respected police officers but my admiration for them grew even more. We were constantly under stress. It was explained as being similar to what it’s like as an officer on a patrol shift. Being a police officer was stressful as well as deadly and if we couldn’t handle it we needed to go home. It was not shameful to decide policing was not for you. It was smart, or so they taunted us.
I struggled with my decision to become a police officer on what now I considered a whim. Did I have what it takes? Could I handle the stress?
Friday finally came and we were released at 1600 hours. I was too tired to make the drive home. I called my husband and begged his forgiveness. I spent the weekend working on my shoes, typing my notes, and organizing my binders.
Sunday evening at 2000 hours we had a study group in our classroom. All but two cadets attended. The two missing didn’t arrive for physical training on Monday morning. They decided a career in law enforcement was not right for them. My roommate with the hurt knee was one of the two who didn’t return. I was down to one bunkmate. The bathroom schedule became much easier.
Cadets Donna Higgins, Rocco Chavez, and I were a team. Higgins stuck by us because we accepted her. Rocco and I were the slowest, most un-police like cadets at the academy. We weren’t treated badly by the other cadets but we knew they didn’t think we would make it. Donna was faster than us and in good physical condition. She fit, though. Together we were stronger.
Our first classroom test was the next day. If we didn’t pass, the decision to stay would be out of our hands.