Introverts abandon ship Plebes: As 87 midshipmen drop out this summer, the Naval Academy is considering ways to help the introverts.

August 16, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Far from his South Carolina home, Gary Moody sat glassy-eyed and tremble-lipped amid the din of the Naval Academy dining hall as upperclassmen pummeled him for answers eluding him: You got a 1500 on your SAT but can't remember our names or what's for dinner?

"It's all about how hard you try, and I don't think you're giving it your all right now. Do you have a little bit more left in there?" asked Kerry George, a senior-ranking upperclassman.

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," Moody said, making it sound more like a question. He left a half-eaten sandwich on his plate, knocked a fork to the floor and walked off, forgetting his towel.

"I thought he was going to cry," George said. "It amazes me how many guys will cry here."

It's not easy being a plebe. And that, sir or ma'am, is the whole point.

The first step in molding officers is weeding out the weaklings. But that is a delicate and imperfect process, and academy officials are increasingly concerned that their traditional initial testing of midshipmen's physical and emotional limits, plebe summer, may be burning off the most-promising freshmen.

Officials are considering using personality tests to identify potential dropouts they want to keep and then offering them some relief from the stressful regimentation of life in the academy and military.

When Moody and 1,250 classmates signed on as the Class of 2002, people spoke to them of honor, courage and commitment. Nobody mentioned such plebe summer realities as "plebe hack" and the ominous "Tango company." When those realities hit, 87 of them walked out the door.

Moody was among them. He and his near-perfect SAT score are back in South Carolina.

Academy officials worry that they might have scared off a future admiral. Again.

Personality plays role

Whether you weep or thrive at the academy depends largely on how you handle the stress of abusive upperclassmen, who returned to Annapolis last week, and the pressures of a heavy academic load, which begins next week. But academy officials are finding that personality type also plays a role. Extroverts, for example, thrive, they have found. Introverts, such as Moody, walk away.

Most Naval Academy students are extroverts, people who follow orders and need to be part of a group. But the Navy also needs independent introverts, people who can weather a month in a submarine on the ocean floor. Yet, most dropouts are these independents, people not weak but disgusted with the military lifestyle.

Since 1986, incoming freshmen have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, which measures how they interact with others and make decisions. In recent months, the academy has been exploring why certain types -- sensitive, introverted thinkers -- are three times more likely to drop out.

"Their personality tells them, 'I don't like being told when to get up in the morning, I don't like being told what to wear and where to stand,' " said Glenn Gottschalk, the academy's institutional research guru, who studies the students' test results.

The academy is considering what some alumni might consider sacrilege: attempting to reduce the dropout rate by accommodating the introverts.

"Extroverts are recharged and have their stress relieved by group activities, which we have a lot of here. The introvert has his stress relieved by reading a book, listening to music or taking a long run by themselves, which there's no time for," Gottschalk said.

For plebes of all personality types, surviving the first months of academy life is an intense exercise in managing stress, which comes in many forms.

There's "plebe hack," the chronic cough plebes sustain because of exhausted immune systems. There's "plebe funk," the result of too much sweat and too little shower time. And there are the injuries, mostly shin splints, that result from the rigorous exercise.

The pressure and temptation to leave are constant.

Heard at a 6 a.m. exercise session: "Come on, Smith! Don't wuss out. There's a girl over here kicking your butt and you're on your knees. There isn't room here for a weakling like you."

Heard at a training session on the academy's strict honor code: "If you don't want to buy into that [honor] and pay attention to these lectures, please do us all a favor and get out."

Heard from a plebe during an interpersonal relationship training class: "When are they going to stop breaking us down and start building us up?"

Another plebe: "He drove his shoulder into my back and it hurt. It's guys like that who make me say, 'Do I really want to be part of this institution?' "

As a result, the word "Tango" rings in plebes' ears during summer.

Tango company is a remote section of the academy's dormitory, Bancroft Hall, that is used to "process out" the dropouts. Plebes can't just walk out the door. It takes a week or two to complete paperwork and interviews, to turn in their uniforms and to tell a dozen academy officials why they're leaving.

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