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.
“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!”