Let Me Be a Plebe, Sir

By a Silent Sister
With Introduction by Kate McCreery Glynn ’98

Naval Academy plebes are taught that only five responses exist to a question from an upperclassman: Yes Sir. No Sir. Aye aye Sir. I’ll found out Sir. No excuse Sir.   But what is the appropriate response when a question posed falls outside the limits of military decorum, leadership, or decency?  In this era of #metoo, stories abound of women cornered, literally and figuratively, by a boss, a superior, a man with power over her career, or life, or dignity.  The military, with defined hierarchies, is unsettlingly fertile ground for this particular form of toxicity.   

 An anonymous Sister submitted this recollection, pointing out rightly that the Brigade is literally on lock down due to COVID, and boredom plus hormones plus one quarter of your population conditioned to obey-orders-and-not-rock-the-boat-lest-plebe-year-become-truly-unbearable, is a recipe for potential abuse.   Her recommendation for a sixth Annapolis-approved plebe response, ready to deploy when an upperclassman’s attention is on more than your gig-line.  

We cannot emphasize enough how hard it is to stand up for yourself in a situation like this, your brain plebe-year addled and sleep deprived, your lesser status emphasized daily.  Which proves the point:  a readymade response like “I just want to be a plebe, Sir!” might be the very thing needed to give plebes, less self-assured that the author, a way to set boundaries.

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“Let me be a plebe, sir.”

I went to a USNA Foundation military college for a year prior to matriculating at USNA.  My battalion commander dated my company commander.  That same battalion commander was in my history class: I tried to deal with his inappropriate comments one at a time but ended up embroiled in a much bigger situation.  I tried to take those lessons with me to USNA. 

Plebe year first semester, an average of 2.5 youngsters outside the company asked if I had a boyfriend or what my room number was, ever month.   I don’t think it was because I was irresistible; I think I presented as easy to intimidate:  a lamb, low hanging fruit.

One particular JerkFace who wouldn’t give it a rest lived on first deck next to the ice  machine I would frequent during study hour (I like ice!).   He must have heard me greeting people and squaring off in front of the machine: his head would pop out from the room (suspiciously lacking nameplates as I recall—why the need for anonymity Sir?) right next to the icemaker and ask me in to listen to music. 

“I worked hard to get here, sir.  Let me be a plebe, sir.”   The first time, this was enough to dissuade him.

But not every time. 

The next time he demanded that I recite the noon menu for the next day at the top of my lungs.  No surprise, another upperclassman popped out of his room, shushed me, and corrected my tormentor for asking rates during study hour.   He denied it, so of course the next question was to me.  What the heck was I up to? 

“Sir, he asked me to come to his room and listen to music.  He doesn’t have a name plate on his room.  I worked hard to get here.  Let me be a plebe, sir.” 

That worked once.  But not every time.  When the exact same scenario played out a few days later, and JerkFace denied ordering me to recite the menu again, my response was more pointed:

“Sir, I just want ice.  I just want to be a plebe.  If this midshipman can’t leave me alone I have only so many options:  I can tell my squad leader, I can get my classmates and come down and rumble him OR my favorite, I come down here alone and you send him home in a body bag to his mommy with a note that says – You failed.  He was not a good person.”  


To his credit, the upperclassman led JerkFace away down the hall, and I was left to get my ice.

Then a few days later JerkFace actually chastised me for getting him in trouble.  I just shook my head:  Your mistakes; your consequences.  Then, on yet another study-hour ice-run JerkFace told me I was banned from his deck (the ice machine was a few floors down from my room).  I responded that he had no authority to do that.  His response was to start whisper-yelling at me, presumably so he wouldn’t get in trouble for harassing me during study hour.  I was deliberately loud when I responded: “Sir, I just want ice.  I don’t want any trouble.”  Sure enough, another door popped open, and when an uperclassman’s head emerged, added loudly that I live on the fourth deck.  To his credit, the upperclassman charged us and lit up JerkFace asking a plebe where she lived. 

I offer my personal experience with this particularly loathsome JerkFace to exemplify the need for change. The five basic response (Yes sir; No Sir; Aye, Aye sir; No excuse sir; I’ll find out sir) are appropriate in almost every professional situation a plebe might find herself in.  But a need exists for a sixth response, one engrained like the original five, and ready to deploy when someone uses their authority to create an inappropriate dynamic and a boundary must be reestablished.  “I just want to be a plebe, Sir!”  

Owning Your Struggle

By Lauren Narducci Symmes ‘00

Dear Sisters,

My “pivotal moment” centers around my daughter’s battle with an Eating Disorder (E.D.) Understanding that this is a very sensitive topic, and that most of us witnessed or experienced the pain and trauma of an E.D. while at USNA,  I promise to write about our experiences with the utmost sensitivity.  This is a story about acceptance, perseverance, and love, and I thank you for taking the time to read it.

            Our oldest daughter’s struggle with food and body image started in 7th Grade.  Over a period of two years, she regressed from disordered eating and a distorted body image to full blown Anorexia and Body Dysmorphia.  A quarter of the way through 9th Grade, we made the difficult decision to admit her to an Eating Disorder Clinic where she was an inpatient for seven weeks and an outpatient for five. She is now 18 months into recovery and, through her own hard work and force of will, is thriving.

            Sending L away for treatment was THE HARDEST thing that we have ever done. She asked us to keep her absence, and the reason behind it, private. L’s teachers, counselor, and principal knew about her absence, as did her local doctor, nutritionist, and therapist.  Other than these individuals, only about 10 family members and close friends knew where she was and why.  The people we saw and talked to had no idea that we had a child with an eating disorder, let alone a child that was in the hospital receiving treatment for one! 

            We worked hard to maintain a pretense of normalcy, both to preserve L’s privacy, but also to create a sense of stability for our two other children.  This was mentally and emotionally exhausting!  I sat through class lectures and chatted with my classmates between classes like everything was okay, when in actuality I was constantly monitoring my phone for calls from the hospital.  I attended PTA and HOA meetings as if all three of my kids were at home with my husband, when in reality the younger two were home with a babysitter while my husband visited our oldest at the hospital.  I felt like I was playing the role of dutiful mom, attentive student, and dedicated volunteer all day long, and it wasn’t until the kids were in bed at night that I could step out of character and be the worried, exhausted parent that I truly was. 

            Despite how difficult it was to maintain that façade; it still wasn’t the hardest part.  The hardest part was not knowing if everything was going to be okay.  When you take your child to a typical hospital, there is a feeling of optimism and reassurance.  You hear accounts of success stories and see pictures of thriving children, there are proven treatment plans with measurable results, and a doctor’s bedside manner isn’t critical as long he/she gives his/her patients the proper treatment.   Those feelings of optimism and reassurance don’t really exist in an Eating Disorder Unit at a Mental Health Facility.  You see mostly sick and distressed kids with their exhausted and anxious parents, there are many different types of treatment with unquantifiable degrees of success , and if your child doesn’t connect with their treatment team, it might very well lead to setbacks in their recovery.  Though deep down in my heart I had hope and faith that things would be okay, there weren’t any external signs to reassure me, and that was suffocating.

            About a month into L’s hospitalization, our little circle of friends and family “in-the-know” started to widen.  It was completely inadvertent and usually involved people recognizing and expressing their concern that something was wrong. The first such instance occurred when a friend invited me over for coffee.  She was worried that I was stressed and overcommitted, and I gracelessly dumped our situation into her lap.  She listened to me, cried with me, and then told me about her struggle with Bulimia as a teen.  Her revelation didn’t change our circumstances, but it let in a little bit of light.  Then came a Girl Scout outing with my youngest where a good friend (and my assistant field hockey coach) pulled me aside and said, “I don’t want to pry, but I can tell that something is wrong.  L didn’t look well the last time that I saw her, is something going on?”  The floodgates were released, but during our teary conversation, I came to find out that her niece had been hospitalized the previous year for an E.D. but had since made a strong recovery.  Again, it didn’t change the fact that my child still couldn’t complete a meal, but it gave me a glimmer of hope.  A week or two later, I was having lunch with a friend who is a dietician with E.D. treatment experience.  She asked what was wrong and yet again, I couldn’t hold back the tears.  As I was preparing to leave, a young woman came from the adjacent table came over and said, “I’m sorry to intrude, but I couldn’t help but listen to your conversation when I heard the words Sheppard Pratt.  I was a patient there when I was a teenager and I just want you to know that you are doing the right thing and that everything is going to be okay.”  We had a brief conversation about her career as an RN and about her baby girl, and then I went to my car and sobbed.  Her presence that day was a gift from above.

            That evening our daughter told us that she was going to start completing her meals, and a week and a half later she came home for the first time.  Though she was far from better and was still in a partial hospitalization program for 12 hours each day, we were starting to feel a bit more hopeful. 

            A big change in our approach to her disorder came during a family therapy session just prior to her discharge. Our therapist asked L how she was going to respond to her peers when they asked about her absence.  L replied that she was going to own her disorder, embrace her recovery, and tell people where she was and why.  I joked that she should just hand them a business card with all of the pertinent information on it and then walk away.  She loved the idea, and that night I went home and created this:

Before she returned to school, we shared this card with the treatment center staff, her local treatment team, and her teachers and counselors at school.  Everyone that received one said that there was power in this card, and they were right, there is power in owning your struggle!

            The day that L returned to school and distributed this card, she had three people reach out and ask her about how to get help for themselves or someone that they cared about.  The day that she allowed me to post this card along with our story on Facebook, I got texts and phone calls ALL day from friends and family expressing their support, and in many cases, sharing their stories of recovery from eating disorders.  By owning our struggle, we were finally getting the support that we had so desperately needed while also hopefully helping to destigmatize mental health issues. 

            Recovery is long, messy, and painful, but in the 18 months since her discharge from the hospital, L continues to make amazing progress.  She is committed to shedding light on mental health issues and lives by the adage: “Tell the story of the mountain you climbed.  Your words could become a page in someone else’s survival guide.”  She has a very real (and sometimes raw) recovery account on Instagram where she has connected with young women from around the world, she has shared her story in several publications, and she recently published a book. 

            I, on the other hand, share our ups and downs to let people know that that there is no such thing as a “Pinterest Perfect” Family, and I talk about therapy to encourage others to seek help for mental health issues with the same urgency that they would for physical ones.  Mostly, I just try to be candid about our family’s experience.  I want others to know that they are not alone, that I am here to listen, and that I can say, with certainty, that things will be okay.

A note from Lauren: I am Class of ’00 married to a member of the Class of ’98. We have been married for 20 years and have three children: 15, 13, and 10.  I was a stay-at-home mom for 10 years, and am now a part time work-from-home mom and college student.  I am a recovering compulsive volunteer, and when I can find some time for myself, I love to read and be outside in nature.  We love to travel and have been very fortunate enough to go on some amazing adventures as a family!

Diversifying Women’s SIG Leadership

The USNA Women’s SIG was established in 2017 to provide a network for alumnae throughout the alumni association to perpetuate the history, traditions, memories, and growth of the Naval Academy and bind alumnae together in support of the highest ideals of command, citizenship and government. A Charter was drafted, reviewed and approved by the Alumni Association Board of Trustees. At its inception, the SIG leadership team was formed from a call for volunteers via the usna-women email group. Voting for the SIG Officers was open to all alumnae. Officers were elected for a two year term.
In late 2018, a call was made via the usna-women email group and via the USNA Women’s SIG Facebook page for volunteers to fill the leadership positions. Everyone who volunteered was offered a position on the leadership team. Voting for the SIG Officers was open to all alumnae. Officers were elected for a two year term.
As we approach the expiration of the second two year period, it is time for the Women’s SIG to review and revise the Charter to ensure a more diverse and inclusive leadership team. Our Charter is posted on the Women’s SIG Facebook page.
The SIG leadership team is establishing two committees to help improve the selection of the next leadership team.
1) Charter / Bylaws Review Committee – a committee of no more than 10 members to propose a new Charter and/or bylaws. The committee should be a diverse cross section of SIG members headed by a current SIG board member. The current leadership team will ultimately approve a revised Charter and Bylaws and will submit the Bylaws to the Alumni Association Board of Trustees.
1) Nominating Committee – a committee of no more than 10 members to propose / vet candidates for elected positions as described by the new Charter/Bylaws. The committee should be a diverse cross section of SIG members headed by a current SIG board member. The current leadership team will ultimately approve the slate for elections.
Additionally, the SIG leadership team has approved establishing a committee to propose and vet highly qualified candidates for the Distinguished Graduate Award program and draft nomination packages for submission via Alumni Association procedures. The committee should have no more than 10 members and should be a diverse cross section of SIG members headed by a current SIG board member.
You must be a member of the Women’s SIG to be selected for one of the committees or serve on the leadership team. See the information below to become a member.
To allow for maximum participation, committee members will be assigned to serve on one committee. Committee members will be selected in such a way as to distribute volunteers to form diverse and inclusive groups representing the diversity of alumna. No selection process will ever meet the expectations of every single member, but the SIG leadership team will strive to be as fair, open, and transparent as possible.
If you are interested in participating in any of the three committees, please use the following link to submit your information to via Google Forms. Input must be received by July 19th to be considered.
Barbette Lowndes ‘80
President, USNA Women’s SIG
HOW TO BECOME A MEMBER
1) Simply go to our Facebook page and request to become a member. Our membership chair, Holly Johnson, will do a quick vetting to see if there is a logical connection to the Naval Academy Alumni Association and then add you to the member database.
USNA Women SIG https://www.facebook.com/ groups/1451325081552796/
2) If you are not a Facebook user, you can simply email Holly Johnson at
holly_johnson@juno.com and let her know you want to join.

Fireside Chat – USNA Women in STEM

Earlier this year we put out a “Save the Date” note for the Women’s SIG STEM 1-day conference “EXPONENTIAL CHANGE: WOMEN TRANSFORMING STEM CAREERS FROM THE MILITARY AND BEYOND” with CAPT Wendy Lawrence, USN (ret.) as the key note speaker.  Due to COVID-19, this conference has been postponed until 2021. In the mean time, we are moving forward this year with a series of fireside chats “USNA Women in STEM” in which we will weave the STEM topics into our continuing conversation regarding our path to end racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry.

Our first USNA Women in STEM guest will be CAPT Wendy Lawrence, USN (ret.) ’81,  a four time Shuttle astronaut and the first woman as well as the first openly LGBTQ alumna to be awarded the USNA Distinguished Graduate Award. CAPT Lawrence will be chatting with LCDR Erica Reid-Dixon ’08 with a few prepared questions followed by a discussion with the viewing audience.  

Registration for the Zoom session for our first Fireside Chat with CAPT Wendy Lawrence ’81 at 1700 PDT on Thursday, July 30, 2020: 

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You are invited to a Zoom meeting.
When: Thursday, Jul 30, 2020 1700 PM Pacific Time (US and Canada)

Register in advance for this meeting:
https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMlceyvrD8sHN2wpx5MtQ9avvgEnWF3igNg

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting and adding it to your calendar.


Schedule for the USNA Women in STEM series:

  • Thursday, July 30th, 2020 at 1700 PDT: CAPT Wendy Lawrence, USN (ret.) ’81 and LCDR Erica Reid-Dixon ’08 – WATCH VIDEO HERE, contact Linda Postenrieder: post82@whidbey.com 415-235-9413 for video access
  • Thursday, Sept 10th, 2020 at 1700 PDT: Junior Officer forum featuring women alumnae from the 21st century
  • Thursday, Nov 12th, 2020 at 1700 PST: Cyber Security

You MUST register in order to attend this event.

If you have ideas for future featured guests and panelists, please contact Linda Postenrieder: post82@whidbey.com 415-235-9413.

Linda “Postie” Postenrieder ’82
USNA Women’s SIG STEM Steering Committee

Look Ma! A BIG Racism”

by Jada Elata ‘03

Many a female midshipman walking through T-court at the Naval Academy has heard a childish voice loudly proclaiming “look, it’s a girl one!”. Upon swiveling towards the voice, one generally finds tiny fingers pointed in their direction and smiling parents with cameras . Small children recognize that “one of these things is not like the others”  and they loudly point out when they find the much smaller population of “girl” ones. It’s like “Where’s Waldo?” come to life.

I thought about this the other day when someone posted the story about the midshipman and his racist tweets into a FB group. The comments below the article condemned his actions and there was a lot of (justified) outrage and accompanying commentary,  but  the part that most intrigued me was that the anger never connected this individual issue to the systemic problems extant in the Academy and the Navy. Like pointing out the uniqueness of the girl ones and never linking that to a history of gender-based exclusion, we identify these acts as discrete, isolated examples of racism untethered from the roots of a larger system. Racism is thus a standalone, spectacular event, and, by its very nature, easy to spot, like the girl ones.  “Look, Ma, a BIG racism.”

With the country-wide awakening to and reckoning with ongoing racial injustice, we have daily examples of BIG racisms to gawk at and condemn. The Amy Coopers, the Tom Austins, the husband and wife duos, the never ending march of daily encounters where everyday white people enforce a system of violent racial domination. The video or photo is posted and we all gather together underneath to condemn the BIG racisms. And then we get up the next day to do it all over again.

BIG racisms serve as touchstones, like the KKK or burning crosses, or the “n word,” it signifies something we can all come together and say is definitely racist. We excoriate en masse the racism and it acts as a psychic release of sorts, a ritual cleansing. Some individual is being held accountable for racism and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Whew, thats enough racism for the day. BIG racisms become a barometer for determining what is and isn’t racism.  In fact, one could compare themselves to the actions captured on video and think “I would never behave like that; therefore I am not racist” and go on about their lives. And therein lies the problem with BIG racisms.

Focusing on BIG racisms keeps our gaze trained outward, trying to catch the spectacular, instead of linking these acts to the greater system already existing around us. Racism is a structural or systemic problem.  According to the Aspen Institute, It is a “system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time.” That means that the discrimination so evident in BIG racisms is here in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and in every aspect of our society. It is so much a part of our everyday lives, that many remain ignorant of it.   I suspect we focus so much on the spectacle of BIG racisms because it is far easier to condemn a problem external to ourselves — one that we can easily see in someone else, say a “Karen” or a “Becky”- and thus,  distance ourselves from the problem that entangles us all.

The truth is, we could gather up everyone committing BIG racisms, we could wait until the “old generation” or “old white men” or “the South”, or whatever group we’ve identified as the carriers of racism, dies out, and racism would still exist. Racism isn’t caused by a few people doing “abnormal” things; it *is* the norm. We must start with the understanding that racism is already present in whatever rooms we find ourselves and it is these, every day places (our kids’ schools, our wardrooms, our commands, etc) that require our attention and our action.  We must continually ask ourselves “what are the policies, practices, and cultural norms that make up the scaffolding of institutional racism in this place where I am standing?” and then we must take action to root it out and reimagine our institutions.

By all means continue to call out the BIG racisms, but, more importantly, do the uncomfortable and necessary work of turning both our gaze and concomitant action, inward.  None of this is easy. It will be a long, difficult process to undo 400 years worth of injustice and inequality. At some point you will be tempted to return to pointing out the daily spectacle of  BIG racisms in place of doing the hard work required for systemic change. To stay the course, perhaps we should place a banner over the entrance to our work places, or a sticky on our bathroom mirrors, or a yard sign between our tulips that says “Racism lives here,” an ever present exhortation to refocus our gaze and attention, and most importantly, our actions, to the system that surrounds us.

Jada Elata is a graduate of USNA ‘03. #BeatArmy but #BeatRacismFirst