We stood in grim silence, twenty naval officers in two ranks of ten. Plastic, yellow rain pants and tattered headbands were all we wore, except for marks of camouflage paint smeared over our cheeks. Warm wind teased our bare skin under the starry sky, and below us we could hear the gentle rush of the ocean breaking against the bow of our warship. From the shadows came a steady barrage of catcalls and insults, broken only by the occasional water balloon.
Our latitude was approximate zero degrees and ten minutes north, and the venerable maritime tradition of Crossing the Line – when Tadpoles become Shellbacks – was at hand. In a world of lawsuits, scandals and political correctness, the fact that the ceremony of crossing the equator was even permitted is startling. Even more startling might be that – as I stood half-naked, soaked and singled out with my nineteen companions – I was ecstatic to be there.
Let’s compare this scenario to what’s currently playing out in Edmonton, Alberta. In a certain school, apparently the principal has decreed a “no-zero” policy for marks, meaning that teachers can’t give zeros for any assignment, quiz or test, even the student submits nothing, skips the quiz, of hands in a blank test sheet. One of the teachers, Mr. Lyndon Dorval, has been suspended and is now at risk of being fired for breaking this policy and giving zeroes when deserved. The principal’s argument is that to receive a zero would hurt the dignity of the poor student, thus crushing their self-esteem and drawing them into a spiraling abyss of under-performance.
I respectfully disagree. In our new, sensitive culture, “challenge” has almost become a dirty word. An individual’s dignity is held as the most sacred of all qualities. Anything that might threaten it has been made evil, and our little dears today are forever being sheltered by an overprotective system: banished is the discomfort of facing a challenge.
But so is the joy of overcoming that challenge. Think of us as we stood on the foc’sle of our warship. Dressed in nothing but our stupid rain pants, we had been herded by abusive Shellbacks and then been surrounded by enforcers known as Bears who randomly sprayed us down with “super-soaker” water pistols. From the bridge top and bridge wings we were heckled and mocked. We were outnumbered, outgunned and had no idea what was coming. Dignity was nothing but a memory at this point.
And thus we were forced to be strong. When the hecklers hoped to break our spirits, we heckled back with savage wit. When the Bears sprayed us down we closed ranks like a Roman legion, then retaliated with water balloons of our own. And when they tried to intimidate us with the ominous wait, we took up the chant, “Borrring! Borrring!”
Eventually we formed up in our two ranks to await the inspection by Davy Jones, King Neptune’s traditional chief lieutenant. The Bears ordered us to kneel. We stood our ground in proud silence. They unleashed the fire hoses on us. We cheered and chanted, and did not kneel. Water bombs crashed down around us. We held the line. Throughout the onslaught the only movement we made was to “salute” the gathered Shellbacks with a three-part drill movement that drew attention to the extended middle fingers on our right hands.
And you want to talk to me about feeling bad for getting a zero on a quiz?
The ceremony continued predictably. Davy Jones arrived with great fanfare. He inspected us and had the Bears paint us with a foul, food-based concoction that had been brewing in the engine room for several days. I can still feel the weight of the sickly-brown sludge being poured onto my head, where it sat with alarming warmth before slowly dripping down my face in great, oozing chunks.
And then, soon enough, the ceremony was over, and we all marched down to the showers to make ourselves human again. But far from the grumbling or outrage one might expect from people so publicly humiliated, laughter and excited chatter rang through the halls. Not a single complaint about being mistreated. Not one angry word about the brutish Bears and the anonymous, cowardly hecklers. It was a challenge we had tackled head-on and overcome, and we felt great for having done it.
Unfortunately, in our modern culture of over-protectiveness, there is such concern with protecting dignity that we have sacrificed that wonderful, elusive strength known as “character.”
The phrase “it builds character” has become synonymous with the performance of any unpleasant duty, and saying it is the surest way to incite groans and protests from those who must perform. But it is often the very unpleasantness of the duty that is beneficial to the performer, forcing him or her to reach deep down into the soul to find the strength to carry on.
Strength of character is a quality still very much admired in our society, but we’re making it more and more difficult for people to develop this strength. We’re teaching ourselves that standing up for our dignity is what makes character. What we fail to realize is that it’s the ability to carry on without the shield of dignity that makes us strong. And it’s this strength of character that provides depth to the very dignity that we thought was so threatened. Crossing the Line was an experience I never want to endure again, but I’m very glad that I went through it. Like every other trial in life it has strengthened my character and made me a little more confident in myself.
And now I hear that a teacher in Alberta is going to get fired because he gave out zeros to students when they didn’t even bother to submit assignments. Is the prospect of getting a zero mark for zero effort truly so terrible that a young person’s dignity will be destroyed? Or perhaps, is the lesson instead being taught that there are no consequences for laziness? Heaven forbid we upset the little dears in the classroom: apparently strength of character and taking responsibility for one’s actions are lessons not worth teaching…
As for me, I can now look back with pride at the adversity I faced with my nineteen fellow officers when we crossed the line, and regale – with dignity – the tale of our initiation. Rather than destroying a person’s dignity, trials like that build character. And from character, ultimately, comes the dignity which we so prize. So give zeros when they’re deserved, and support this Alberta teacher, Mr. Lyndon Dorval, who has the strength of character to stand up for what’s right. I hope he survives this trial.
Photo of Lyndon Dorval – Courtesy of Rick MacWilliam, edmontonjournal.com
Navy Photo Of Author – © Bennett R. Coles – All Rights Reserved