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ANNAPOLIS, Md.—Annapolis in the summertime means one thing: humidity.
That’s why I go running in the mornings, around 6 a.m., before the temperature reaches Inferno conditions.
Hair tugged into a messy ponytail, I tread down the steps of my Annapolis townhouse and jog towards Main Street. Downtown Annapolis is a lot like Cambridge-—brick sidewalks, bad traffic and old-fashioned charm. I jog towards the sailboat-dotted harbor.
Every morning I run through the United States Naval Academy (USNA). Now, post-Sept. 11, this requires a stop at the guard to show valid ID. Driver’s license stuck back into my sports bra, I take off along the water’s edge.
Beginning in late June of each year, the fields of USNA are as frantic as downtown Annapolis is calm. I’m not alone as I jog along the seawall with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in the distance—there are more than a thousand men and women far sweatier than I. These are the plebes: newly-minted high school graduates going into their first-year as midshipmen in the Naval Academy brigade. While their high school classmates spend the summer tanning, they head off to Annapolis for Plebe Summer. “Start your days at dawn and end them long after sunset, wondering how you will make it through the next day,” advertises the USNA website. “Forget television, leisure time, or movies. You will have barely enough hours to in the day to finish your assigned plebe tasks.” Enticing.
It’s not just the lack of sleep or intense physicality. It’s being screamed at for failing to crease your pants properly. Hours spent memorizing the Academy’s countless codes. Not being able to contact your friends or family.
Calves aching, I trot past the plebes moving in unison. They look like a massive human cloning project. Sweat is trickling down my back and my throat is parched. I could use some water. By the look of it, the plebes could use some too.
As the Fourth of July weekend approaches, I remember Independence Day last summer. My friends and I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to watch the morning plebe formation and look for our new plebe friends.
It’s not surprising that three of the 80 kids in my high school graduating class attended the Naval Academy; it was once the Academy prep school and has produced more admirals and generals than any other secondary school in the nation. Every year someone heads to USNA. Adam, Brad and Ryan left for the Academy right after graduation. I was psyched to see them that morning of July 4, 2002. My friends and I flashed our driver’s licenses for the guard at the USNA gate, following my usual running route to the waterside field where the plebes hold morning formation.
It’s quite a sight, hundreds of people standing the same way with the same vacant expression, and it takes quite a game of Where’s Waldo to try and find three of your friends among the multitude of carbon copies.
Plebes are not allowed to show that they recognize people they know. The boys would get in trouble if we waved or—God forbid—shouted their names, so we wandered past cautiously. Uniforms and shaved heads make the midshipmen a homogenous mass, but there was no mistaking Adam’s swagger or Brad’s jaw line. I felt a little swell of pride at my friends in their crisp white uniforms.
That evening, everybody went to see the Annapolis fireworks from the Academy’s seawall. The fireworks are the only fun event of Plebe Summer, so we knew Adam, Brad and Ryan would be there too.
While couples cuddled up along the seawall for a romantic firework show, the plebes were lined up in dozens of columns along the roped-off field. They sat Indian-style, hands on knees, and stared straight ahead in “military gaze”—a blank stare reminiscent of a lobotomy patient.
Adam was three plebes back from the edge of the field where we were sitting. Like that morning, we couldn’t wave, but we sent glances his way to say hi. He didn’t blink. It was a little creepy. I turned back to the red and gold bursts in the sky.
A little boy scampered past me—Adam’s eight-year-old brother Andrew.
“Mom! Mom! I see Adam! Hi, Adam!” Andrew waved his hands frantically, leaning over the rope into the field. “Adam! Adam! Do you see me?”
My heart broke for Andrew, so confused and hurt at his big brother’s glazed expression.
I asked Adam later why he hadn’t winked or somehow subtly let Andrew knew he saw him.
“Jobson,” Adam told me. “If anyone had seen me drop military gaze, I would have been in a world of pain for weeks.”
I don’t doubt it.
I wonder how many of the plebes I run past go to bed thinking about their little brothers. Most likely they go to bed too tired to think at all.
It may seem unnecessary to be so stringent with a group of 18-year-olds. But Plebe Summer is the indoctrination to four years at the Academy and years of service afterwards. The Academy stresses development “morally, mentally and physically.” Plebes learn to let go of emotion, to respect their superiors and each other, to think quickly under stress and be in top physical condition to do so.
“The components of Naval Academy life serve to build the whole person,” says the USNA website. As I jog away and head home to shower, I know the plebes sweating in the field behind me are on their way to greatness.
On this Independence Day, as America wrestles with decisions about its next move, watching the plebes struggle through their summer makes me sprint a little faster. If they can take seven weeks of hell and come out better people, I can finish my morning run and my country can get through anything.
Kristi L. Jobson ’06, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. She will have a little extra spring in her step during her morning run on this Fourth of July.
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