With the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden, we’ve heard incredible stories about the U.S. Navy Seals’ training, talents, and execution—they truly are the elite. It’s fascinating stuff, and I’ve always admired them. Of course, many talk shows have had former Seals on for interviews. Last Friday I heard one on the radio. Along with being a Seal, he had attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis and had three professional football try-outs.
The entire interview intrigued me. In particular, two sections struck me as holding important lessons regarding education and the development of healthy, mature young people.
First, Seals obviously have physical gifts that evoke superhero status. The long swims in frigid water, marathon runs with gear, surviving sleep and food depravation—it’s kind of freakish what they can endure. This guy described how the Seals learn to be drownproof. With hands and feet bound, the Seal is thrown into a 10-foot-deep pool to “figure it out.” (I’ll let you think about how you might survive that; you wouldn’t have long.) But what really struck me was that the interviewee said this about his fellow Seals: “These guys are the toughest, hairiest athletes I’ve ever seen. Physically they can do anything. But what really stands out about every one of them is what great, creative thinkers they are. They have to size things up immediately and innovate on the spot.”
I’ve written many times about how we have to help kids become creative, supple thinkers. Here’s the interesting personal connection for me as an educator. I taught a young man long ago who became a Navy Seal. I mentioned to my family the other day that none of his teachers would have expected it, given what we had seen from him. School was a constant struggle; while he was a wonderful person, some questioned if he belonged in the school because of his academic shortcomings. Compare that to the interviewee’s comment, and you can see the moral of the story.
Second, he made two powerful points about the grueling training. We assume a Seal survives the program because they can endure anything. In fact, he stressed, “The point is not to see if you can survive everything. The training will destroy you. It’s how you respond to it; that’s what they want to see. It’s if you’re resilient.” A moment later he added, “Life is going to throw bad things at you. You can’t control that. You can control how you choose to respond to them.” You’ve all heard about the concept of helicopter parents. They are always hovering, ready to swoop in to rescue a child in mild distress. Recently I heard a new twist on this idea: the snowplow parent. This is the parent who keeps clearing any obstacle out of a child’s way. These types of parents end up with what Wendy Mogel has termed “teacup children”—beautifully crafted but incredibly fragile. Tiny bits of stress—let alone life’s bigger challenges—can cause them to crumble. Over the past decade college health staffs have reported higher rates of anxiety and depression, and studies reveal more students with a “foggy sense of self.” If someone has never had to deal with failure or even struggle, how will he or she respond when life throws them in the pool?
This summer I’m going to be in Coronado, CA, where the Seals do much of their training. I’m in even a bit more awe of them and what we can learn from them, and I suspect I’ll buy a couple of new t-shirts.