All Hands On Deck

Every fall  an email is sent out to all faculty inviting them to ride a U. S. Navy ship for a few days under the Guest of the Navy Program. Since so many of our students are Navy people, this gives the faculty an opportunity to see what our students do when they are not in our classrooms. This is how I found myself standing on the gun deck of the USS Ponce watching the anchor detail of the deck department go about their business so the ship could get underway. To be honest, I signed on out of sheer curiosity about the job experiences my active duty husband has been talking about for the last 24 years. What I came back with was a renewed commitment to my own job.

I was only at sea for three days, but a lot of this time was spent observing the deck department, which along with the rest of the crew, was undergoing training. I had often heard the word “training” at home, when I asked my husband what he had done at work that day. I never understood exactly what training was until I saw it in action. Training has much in common with teaching. The deck department, whose average age could not be a day over 21, moved quickly from one training drill to the next, supervised by several Petty Officers, and all overseen by a Chief Warrant Officer. And I had the privilege to watch this master teacher at work. The Chief Warrant Officer was tough as nails. Nothing got by him. He expected nothing but the best from his people. And from as far as I my untrained eye could see, he got it.

The first activity was a small boat drill. Anchored off Fort Story, part of the deck department was to lower a large utility boat over the side of the ship using a crane and an endless array of lines, winches, and cleats. There were three groups of young Sailors controlling the lines, which at the command of their Petty Officers, worked together to guide this boat carefully down and onto the water without hitting the side of the rolling ship. Nothing could go wrong here, for six of their shipmates were manning that same boat. The Chief Warrant Officer was clearly in charge of all of them, bellowing orders which were instantly followed to the letter. His eyes never stopped scanning the whole scene, stopping to point and order, scan, stop, point and order.

With the boat in the water, the Sailors on board managed to unhook the crane’s wire and started the engine. With a thumbs up signal, they freed the boat of the lines holding her to the ship and went for what looked like a carefree ride around the ship. As I watched these kids – really they are kids – circling their ship, I could not help but remember another phrase I had often heard about our house, which is that old navy saying “If you’re not having any fun, you’re doing it the wrong way .”

Then they faced the task of getting the boat back on the ship. As one of the deck department told me later on, he was placed on the bow of the utility boat, and his job was to secure the bow line. The sea was rough, and they had a difficult time getting alongside, for the waves kept threatening to smash them into the side of the ship. But he had to get that line. His buddy braced him, and as the bow lifted on the crest of a wave, he succeeded in securing the line.

The level of concentration and focus on the part of everyone involved was remarkable. That it went well and no one was hurt is a tribute to the Petty Officers and the Chief Warrant Officer. I saw the deck department go through other training, such as a man overboard drill, and other duties such as anchoring. Each was a repetition of the effort I have tried to describe in the small boat drill. And each time the Chief Warrant Officer prevailed, expecting nothing but the best and getting it. The first time I laid eyes on him in the wardroom, I didn’t even know who he was – but I found him to have an intimidating presence. I sure did not want to get in his way. After watching him work with his people, I came to admire him. By the end of my second day on board, I began to wonder if I could ever cut the mustard for someone like that. I’d like to try, but I don’t think the Navy would take on a sixty year old female with a bad back.

But if my employer is willing, so I am going to try and bring some of that exemplary leadership and detailed guidance into my classroom. I am going to try to give my students the same sense of accomplishment that I detected on the faces of those young Sailors. I admit over the last Couple of years of teaching I had reached a point that I was too comfortable with: I would work as hard as my students are willing to work. Over the years, it had surfaced as a reasonable approach. But after watching not only the deck department, but all the men and women of the USS Ponce, I can see how wrong that attitude is. So much more is possible.

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