Crossing The Line

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.


Read The Story In The Calgary Herald

Photo Credits

Photo of Lyndon Dorval – Courtesy of Rick MacWilliam,

Navy Photo Of Author – © Bennett R. Coles – All Rights Reserved



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  1. avatarRoss Lonergan says

    Dear Bennett:

    Thank you for a fascinating and thought-provoking article.

    I do agree with you that students who, without legitimate reason, exert no effort to complete an assignment or pass an examination should be given a grade of zero. Otherwise, we are teaching our children that it is okay to abdicate responsibility for their actions and to expect that the consequences of their actions (or lack of action, as the case may be) will be ameliorated by someone in authority. I think that there is too little acceptance of responsibility in our society and that many current problems – health, economic, social, environmental – have arisen as a direct result of our refusal to acknowledge that we are very often the cause of our own crises.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood your intention in relating the story of the ritual of Crossing the Line in this context, but as you describe it I find it to be a rather extreme alternative to what we might consider as mollycoddling by school officials and parents. The experience may have made you and your mates in the navy ecstatic, but I don’t think it is a practice that could be recommended for the whole family, so to speak. The exercise, carried out under strict rules of safety, is perhaps effective as a form of specific training, the nature of which is clear to all those who choose to go through it, but in an uncontrolled environment could easily descend into bullying.

    I would love to hear your take on this.

    • avatar says

      Dear Ross,

      Thanks for your comment. Your observation is well-taken – I agree it’s a bit of a leap from sheltering students to shellacking sailors. When I heard about the events taking place in Edmonton I felt I had to speak out, but I didn’t want to just preach a sermon on the woes of the system today. I thought back to an experience in my life that was both colourful and, I think, demonstrative of the potential harm threatening these Edmonton students.

      My Crossing the Line happened thirteen years ago, but it still stands out as a pivotal moment for me. It was during that trial (while we were being hosed down by the Bears and still cheering our defiance, precisely) that I realized the true value of doing things that were a challenge, that took me out of my comfort zone, that showed me how I can do things I never thought possible. I was so proud of not just enduring my Crossing the Line, but owning it. I crossed that line with panache, and I felt fantastic afterward.

      I agree that organized hazing isn’t the answer to inspiring to the youth of today. The sort of activity I experienced for Crossing the Line must be voluntary, controlled for safety, and above all designed to create cohesion. But the principle behind it is universal: only by pushing ourselves can we discover what we’re really made of. If Edmonton students don’t even have to try, let alone excel, they’re being robbed of the joy and self-esteem that comes from achieving something that they really had to work for.

      If I can quote JFK: “We should go to the moon and the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

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