«So you’re coming to Annapolis (West Point/Colorado Springs/King’s Point)! What to expect during your four years by the Bay, or at another service ...»
So you’re coming to Annapolis
(West Point/Colorado Springs/King’s Point)! What to expect during your four years by the Bay,
or at another service academy. A summary of 22 years listening to midshipmen at the US Naval
Academy For the USNA Class of 2013
Bruce E. Fleming, Ph.D. Professor of English, USNA
The Good News
Congratulations! You’re coming to Annapolis, the U.S. Naval Academy—or one of the other
service academies (though I’ll talk only about Annapolis, a lot of what I say here is true of the others as well). Maybe I’ll get lucky at the end of August, after you’re done with plebe summer, and have you in one of my plebe English classes, required for all students: we have several levels, however, and I only teach two sections a semester, for a total of about 40 students out of a plebe class of 1200. So probably not. If you don’t get me, you’ll get the results of a computer lottery that slots you into a schedule that works. Thus you’ll get one of my civilian colleagues, all of whom have a Ph.D. and have been here for a while, or a military instructor, almost all of whom have an M.A. and many of whom have just arrived. The same is true in your other required courses, where you’ll be placed depending on how well you do on the placement exams you’ll take during the summer. If you are at any service academy but Annapolis, the civilians will all be fewer, and not so entrenched. Annapolis has had civilian professors since its founding in 1845; it seems to be a point of pride of the administration to claim that there are equal numbers of civilian and military instructors. It’s not true—there are far fewer military than civilians, and the military instructors (who typically stay only 3 years, as opposed to a career) are concentrated in subjects like Leadership, Ethics, and Law, Naval Architecture, or some of the Engineering departments.
Still, in English we have some uniforms too. Probably you’ll be too zonked out being a plebe to notice: I’ve had students who can’t remember who their teachers were from the semester before.
Or is that the fault of the professor/instructor?
Top Gun As I write, it’s May, so all but a small handful of members of the USNA Class of 2013 (a number you’ll say many times in marching cadences, in an attempt to bond you together into a unit) have heard that they have been accepted, and have sent in their counter-acceptance. For many of you, this is the fulfillment of a dream: perhaps you saw “Top Gun... in the 4th grade and have wanted ever since to fly. I know you’ve also seen “A Few Good Men” and can all quote Jack Nicholson’s famous speech verbatim, and can probably also do “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” without a script. Maybe you had a family member come here or to one of the other service academies; maybe you’re the first in your family to do so. Probably, in any case, you have a history of military service in the family. Of course, there are exceptions. I remember a young woman in the 1990s whose parents who had been self-professed anti-military hippies.
Still, they came through for her when she said she wanted to go to a service academy: “We want you to be happy,” they told her.
That’s what all parents should say: many don’t. Many of you are coming with an intense army of supporters and cheerleaders who have made clear to you that your coming is the fulfillment of their dream too and you really don’t have much of a choice in the matter. Perhaps your school guidance counselor or principal (who may have treated you with new-found respect when it was announced you’d gotten in) is one of them, perhaps your father most of all or Uncle Bob, or your whole town. You’re probably feeling the heat: will you succeed? I can’t let them all down! Some of you may feel this is as much Dad’s decision as your own: for your sake, I hope not, because things are going to get hairy when you start to realize the real nature of the Academy as opposed to the hype. But to that below.
One thing is clear: the US Naval Academy hype machine is one of the most effective on the planet. Those of you who have dreamed of Navy since forever have seen the stirring promo videos with the swelling music, the spotless whites, the whipping U.S. flag… and been so motivated you wanted to cry. You’ve talked to garrulous alumni who begin to cry themselves when they speak of their time, now so long ago, at Annapolis. In my experience the cloud of nostalgia begins to blanket the Yard as of the moment our First Class become Ensigns and Second Lieutenants on Graduation Day. Graduates typically mind-dump the bad and retain the sense of great intensity: it was all so loud, and so unrelenting, but now it’s behind you, and the world seems open, so why complain? You’re young, you’re outta here, and the world is suddenly open to you. Plus, you don’t want to let down the team by letting on what it was really like.
Apparently at Annapolis, and by extension the military as a whole, there’s no such thing as fixing things, because by definition they ain’t broke. (That conviction that we always have to blow sunshine is one of our worst enemies, and we’re the ones who encourage it. Go figure.)
I regularly have to remind students before vacations or break to be polite to the people in the airports who will want to fawn over them, as they’re (you’re) so nice looking in SDB (double breasted black—though called Navy blue—suits, very flattering and very adult on guys, frankly less flattering to girls). One of my third class asked me last year: “Sir, what would they say if we told them the truth?” My advice: don’t. Just smile and say “thank you sir/ma’am.” After all, they’re paying for it (current U.S. government figures place the cost of a midshipman education at $350,000, with West Point $100,000 more—and that’s what’s reported to high schools that count the “scholarships” their students get, so you probably skewed the numbers of your high
school tallies) All those taxpayers who are bankrolling you love to come see you in action too:
you’ll feel like a fish in a bowl, with lots of tourists watching you come and go on our picturesque campus. Tourists think female mids are especially interesting: “Look Mabel, a girl one!” There are more tourists at Annapolis than at any other service academy, because they’re so isolated and Annapolis is so close to Washington, D.C. Our campus is part of the Ye Olde Annapolis tour, so you’ll get used to seeing guides in 18th century costumes leading around tourists, or the local Naval Academy ones reciting all the lore. Get used to being looked at. After all, part of your job is PR—the administration has gotten clear about that in recent years, and you’ll hear over and over that you’re the “face of the Navy.” Your job, that is, is to look neat in your uniform and keep our paymasters happy—the taxpayers. Some of you will resent this, and resent being animals in a zoo. You’ll hate drill and pray for rain on parade days, but the tourists love it. Live with it. You may have thought you were training to be a badass Marine, but in fact you’re here in part to look good.
Perhaps you visited my class as a “drag” when in high school. If so, I sometimes ask my plebes if they have any advice for you. “DON’T COME,” they all chorus. I tell you not to pay attention to that advice: “They just want to keep it for themselves,” I say. But that’s a lie. Actually this contact between someone on one side of the Wall and those on the inside is always striking to me: the kids with long hair and civilian clothes really have no clue, and they’re just the way my plebes were a year ago. The gulf is striking. The plebes probably pitied you, what you don’t know that is. That’s what they tell me, at any rate. I’m writing this so you know something of what they know. Maybe that way the gap will lessen.
As it is, the gap is huge. I assigned a paper to plebes just last year and picked a topic on a whim (it’s an exercise in focusing on the topic; the topic doesn’t matter): How My Views of the US Naval Academy Have Changed Since Coming Here. I was floored by what I got. Almost every one of close to 40 papers contrasted the golden pumped-up glow of pre-arrival with the horrified realization that we’re nothing like what the outside world thinks we are, and nothing like what they wanted us to be. It was the beginning of a long discussion.
Most of you are incredibly idealistic. I’ve been a member of the Admissions Board and have read countless (not usually too well written) professions of patriotism and longing to serve, the stuff that brought you here. Probably you’ve had a Blue and Gold officer who told you the usual stuff about more astronauts from Annapolis than anywhere else per capita, higher flag officer rates of Academy graduates, and the vast network of alumni and citizens proud of your military service who stand ready to make you a success in civilian life after your time in the Navy or Marine Corps (the latter about 20% of our student body, rising from about 15% in recent years). So you probably feel you’re doing the right thing, and you’re going to be rewarded for it. Doing well by doing good, as we sometimes say. They don’t tell you that astronauts are largely a thing of the past and that the upper ranks are being filled by women, minorities, and ROTC graduates: the times they are a’changin’. Nor do they talk to you about the necessity to re-tread if you get out after your five years of service (more if you fly), by which point you’ll be 30, or the necessity to do so in your mid-40s if you do a “career” of 20 years.
Plus it’s a free education. I know you’ve heard someone tell you with a snicker that it’s “free” but shoved up your behind a nickel at a time. You’re uncertain what that means. But it still beats the astronomical cost of college elsewhere.
About half the class, perhaps some more, are the hyper-motivated ones who think they’re coming, finally, to the shrine of all that’s good and pure, a kind of modern-day Camelot on the Severn. Maybe you got tired of unmotivated goofballs at home. Maybe the challenges weren’t challenging enough. Maybe the guys weren’t studs. Forget that, you say to yourself; you’re putting it behind you. You have made it! You’re coming to a place where all the students got 1600 on their SATs and can do 25 perfect pull-ups without breaking a sweat.
If you’re of this group, you long for challenge. You were always the standout in high school, probably the football team captain, the debating champion, the marathon runner. You love succeeding, and you love the chance to do so. Annapolis seems to offer that chance. You relish the horror stories about doing push-ups until you collapse, running until you puke. You loved “A Sense of Honor.” You love being told that admission to Annapolis certifies your membership in the club of “the best and the brightest.” All you have to do is succeed, and you’re pretty confident you will, since you’ve always done so before.
The more convinced you are when you come that this place is the pinnacle of your dreams, a modern-day Camelot, the place where golden boys and girls come to push themselves from success to success, the more you’re going to be knocked for a loop by its myriad of imperfections. Some of these are the result of the fact that our hype about uniformly high midshipman quality is only hype; some are the result of our current policies; some are the result of the fact that NOTHING ON EARTH is as perfect as an idealistic 18-year-old can imagine it to be. In my view, we should be clear with students about what they’re getting into so they don’t have to deal with the intense, for some life-changing let-down that follows. Me, I believe we can be truthful about what Annapolis offers and still get people to come. And they’d spend a lot less time dealing with the realization that we’re not what they expected.
Your first disappointment will be looking around and wondering, where are the jacked geniuses I expected to be swimming in? We let in people for many reasons, only some of which have to do with being jacked geniuses. This means that if you are one of the super-motivated hyper-achiever good student, good athlete, good leader, coming direct from high school, who expected to be surrounded by people you could look up to and who would push you, you are in for a surprise.
Our geniuses tend not to be jacked, and our jacked guys tend not to be geniuses.
And the women aren’t quite sure how to negotiate in a world where genius alone doesn’t cut it and jacked isn’t really an option for them. About 20% of you will be women. If you’re one of them and typical, you won’t be very different from the guys in terms of motivation and reasons
for coming. Studies have shown that women at Annapolis do best when they’re team members:
being athletic is prized at Annapolis, so that gives you status, and the support of the team seems huge. So a larger proportion of women than men are recruited athletes. Otherwise women aren’t let in by any different mechanism or track than men are.
The other half the class is going to be a bit different. It’s not let in by the same standards as the over-achievers; it’s let in to fulfill specific institutional and political goals. The top layer of the class is going to be just as bright as you thought everyone would be, and some are in fact going to be studs (defined as being jacked and able to do countless pull-ups and run forever with a weight on your back). But the fact is that we admit what for outsiders is an astonishing percentage of our class based on other criteria completely, and in most cases, those other criteria had nothing to do with being the high-caliber candidates that the hype machine tells the world is our norm.
Cowards about race