01/06/2011 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ultimate Sacrifice

I love this time of year when the seniors in the classes I teach start receiving admissions offers from universities. Sometimes I'll take a few minutes of class to make them announce, like a joint press conference, their good news, a culmination of years of hard work, triumphs over the gangs and drugs and violence and despair that plagues the neighborhoods in which most of them live. First generation college students about to change family history. Except that many of those young men and women, because of where they were born and the circumstances under which they were brought to this country, probably won't be able to attend any of the universities that have offered them a spot because their families lives below the poverty line and they will not be eligible for any financial aid.

Some Americans believe these students should not have been entitled to get this far, that the education we have provided them with is a sort of stolen intellectual property. I cannot make a legal case against this argument but whenever I think about it I am reminded of the funeral of twenty-year-old United States Marine Private Andres Rosales (not his real name). His sister, Cynthia (not her real name) was a student in my AP class five years ago and on the damp spring morning of his death, her friends took me aside before class to apprise me of the devastation and ask for her assignments. Later that day, they told me and some of my colleagues the time and place of the memorial service later that week.

Family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and more than a dozen marines in full dress packed a small Catholic church on Main Street in South Los Angeles. A young priest in white robes led the service, mostly in Spanish with an occasional English translation. Sweet voices accompanied by vibrant guitar chords filled the chapel. Just about everyone was dressed in bright colors as had been requested by the grieving mother who had, days before, fainted in her living room from what she said was the sight of so many people wearing black.

Cynthia tried to sit with her family in front of her dead brother's closed casket but after a short while she had to be carried by her friends to the priest's office. She returned later to take communion, then outside, in the parking lot, some of my colleagues and I took turns holding her up. Her parents, still caring for a much younger son and daughter, remained stoical, their faces eager as they accepted condolences.

Moments later a procession of cars stretched nearly a mile long across Slauson Avenue en route to the final resting place of this young man's body at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. There, his Marine comrade pallbearers all dressed in white slacks and white gloves placed his casket on a white wooden cart pulled by two stunning white horses. A flock of doves was released into the air. They circled us beneath darkening clouds and seemed to disappear into the ozone before miraculously returning to their white whicker cages.

More marines fired rifles into the air to honor the fallen soldier. One blew taps on a shiny bugle. Eight more Marines, slowly and with great deliberation, folded the American flag that had draped Private Rosales's coffin. Each made a triangular fold, then handed it to the next Marine, saluting him. At first they were stone-faced as they fussed over the stars and stripes but by the time bundle of the red, white, and blue cloth was handed to the last marine, they were trembling. As the last soldier presented the flag to the parents of Private Rosales's, he could only briefly look into the eyes of the grieving mother. He appeared himself to be weeping.

Mr. and Mrs. Rosales accepted this flag, nodding their heads, as if receiving instructions for how to go on with their lives. The mother held it to her breast.

I saw many of my former students at the church and then at the cemetery. Lupe, Henriquez, c/o 2004, told me that she had grown up with Private Rosales and that she remembered him as kind and soft-spoken and determined. I asked her where he had gone to high school.
"He went to Locke, she told me."

"He should have gone to our school," I told her. "We would have made sure he got into college."

"What for?" Lupe said. "He wouldn't have been able to pay for it anyway."
I didn't know what to say. I felt stupid for what I'd said and overwhelmed suddenly by Cynthia's prospects for the future. (As it turned out, her brother had taken out a life insurance policy for several hundred thousand dollars before deploying to Iraq and that benefit would, along with paying for this elaborate burial ceremony, pay for her college education, but of course I had no way of knowing that).

I think Lupe read the distress on my face and tried to let me off the hook: "Andy was pretty stubborn about joining up. He wanted to be a soldier from the time we were little kids. He was really happy when he got into the marines. We had a party for him four months ago right before he went away. He told us not to worry. He said if he died at least he would die proud."
I just hope that Cynthia and Lupe and all my students and former students can live proud.