St. John’s Military School helps Lawrence teen discover his potential

It’s 6 a.m., and Macio Palacio is up for breakfast. He’s going into class early to work on his art project, a drawing of a phoenix for his little brother, who’s named Phoenix.

Palacio’s got a full schedule: art, integrated science, Spanish, civics, Algebra II and English. After school, he plans to work out with friends at the gym.

But added into what seems like a normal schedule are additional activities. Palacio has JROTC for his eighth-hour class. One of his extracurricular activities is shooting on the rifle team. And before breakfast every day, Palacio and his 222 schoolmates line up in formation.

Palacio, a former Free State High School attendee, went to military school this year. It wasn’t what he expected from his senior year, but since heading to Salina to go to St. John’s Military School, he’s made many friends and sent his life in a new, positive direction. After attending the school, which holds fifth- through 12th-graders, he will graduate Saturday.

0645: Breakfast

Palacio, 18, sits at one of Alpha Co.’s breakfast tables, looking over homework before heading to art class. He’s taking extra time on his drawing before class starts to get ahead.

Coming to St. John’s was a shock for Palacio. His mother, Anita Bray, spoke with her husband and Palacio’s grandparents late last summer about sending him there, and it wasn’t until all the pieces fell into place that they told Palacio he’d be going.

“At first I was fighting it,” he said. “Once I got here, there was really no point in fighting. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Bray had seen her oldest son get into fights and lack confidence she knew was inside him.

“We didn’t want him to think of it as a punishment,” she said. “It was trying to recognize that it was an opportunity, that it was a big world out there and he could meet other people.”

But Palacio has seen the advantage to going away for his senior year, even if many of his friends in Lawrence didn’t know where he’d gone.

“I’m not afraid to say, ‘Yeah, I mess up.’ Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody messes up,” he said. “But the biggest problem is that people have trouble learning from it. But with me, I started to realize that it wasn’t for me.”

0750: Advanced art

Palacio draws a curve with his pencil, then traces back over it with his eraser. He’s getting the line just so — after all, he wants everything just so with his art.

“I think my problem is being a perfectionist. It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” he said.

Now in the advanced art class with six other cadets, Palacio didn’t showcase his talent when he came to St. John’s. In fact, his love of art sometimes got him in trouble in Lawrence. He started drawing as soon as he could hold a pencil and would doodle through classes. Once, at Free State, instead of taking notes in math class, he drew his teacher and the notes on the board behind him.

Then, a few years ago, he got involved at Van Go Mobile Arts, 715 N.J., and produced two benches. His raw talent is what makes Palacio stick out, said Scott Weideman, St. John’s art teacher.

“It’s very innate to him,” Weideman said. “In this class, he’s a role model, a mentor.”

Palacio’s art has taken off. A drawing of a skull made it into a statewide art show, and he’s designed a fellow cadet’s tattoo. He hopes to put his skills to work and has applied to the Kansas City Art Institute.

0840: Integrated Science

Glue, cardboard and spray paint sit around Palacio in his science class. He and his classmates are building rockets, which they’ll launch outside in a couple of days. The learning environment is intimate; most classes are kept to 12 to 14 cadets.

Pam Kraus, integrated science teacher, watches the cadets and instructs them when necessary. Kraus never thought she’d end up teaching at military school, but the bonds she’s formed with her students have been valuable.

“We become their surrogate family,” Kraus said.

The bonds Palacio has formed with fellow cadets have earned him friends from Colorado, Wisconsin, New Mexico and many other states. St. John’s has students from all over the United States and six countries.

“They say friends here are friends you have for life. I’m hoping that’s true,” Palacio said.

While he misses his friends in Lawrence, the relationship he shares with his cadets is different. The guys wake up in the barracks, eat meals, attend classes and participate in extra-curricular activities together.

“We live with each other, so everything we do helps each other,” he said. “Alpha Co. — that’s my brotherhood.”

1150: Mess

The cadets get out of class early to fall into formation before lunch. It’s a special day — the general who is speaking at graduation is visiting. Cadets join their companies and fall into formation, marching around the school’s campus to drums and horns.

Palacio marches with Alpha Co., which is mostly juniors and seniors. He’s a squad commander, which means he monitors cadets’ rooms for cleanliness and makes sure they’re in bed for lights out.

“It got me used to a different structure. I learned to be a leader,” he said.

With the military environment also comes punishment for breaking the rules. Palacio’s been written up a couple of times, but other cadets aren’t so lucky.

During class, one cadet can be seen outside walking the square, following a path in the stone and saluting at each corner. Palacio said he likely was sent out there for misbehaving during class. Two other cadets are sent into the foyer during mess to do push-ups.

When no other forms of punishment work, cadets are relegated to rat status. They wear different uniforms, must run everywhere, walk with their heads down and aren’t allowed to speak to others. During mess, they have to do PT, physical training used for punishment. Only when they’re finished are they allowed to eat.

1430: JROTC

For his last class of the day, Palacio locates features on maps using a military coordinate system and protractor. It’s a skill he could use if he chooses to join the Marines or Navy.

Palacio has two cousins who are Marines, his mother used to want to be a fighter pilot, and he’s spoken with recruiters. Even if he chooses to pursue his art instead, Palacio doesn’t regret coming to the school.

“It was me having another chance to make things right,” he said.

His mother has seen him do a 180 with his grades and his attitude. Once an introvert, Palacio seems much more excited and happy when he and Bray speak on the phone.

“He’s a completely different person,” Bray said. “He’s growing up.”

Bray said she sent him to military school to show him how many opportunities he could have in life. On May 14, she’ll get to see her son graduate in a military uniform and move on to the next phase of his life.

“I knew he was going to graduate, but he has completely exceeded what we expected,” she said. “The hard choices are usually the right ones to make.”