I spent this past year as a chaplain resident at the Atlanta VA Medical Center in their clinical pastoral education (CPE) program. CPE is training for chaplaincy or pastoral care. The program is tough by design. You are forced to look at your own issues so you can fully be present for others in their time of stress.
This past week was Challenge Week at The Citadel. The first year cadets, or knobs as they are referred to went through an intense period of training. The upperclass cadets charged with their training are called cadre. For the past week the cadre have taught them about the military system. The knobs are marched to and from a series of meetings. It is a tough week. Last night the knobs were given their phones back. From what I am hearing from their parents, they have had a mixed bag of experiences.
The conversations with the parents of knobs this morning made me remember my first time preaching at the Sunday nondenominational chapel service at the VA. The text for that Sunday included Psalm 13, “How Long, O LORD.”
As I field questions and comments from the parents of the knobs I found myself visiting the text of Psalm 13 and reflecting on how appropriate it is for knob year. (If you are interested you can listen to my sermon from last year here.)
Each of us has our own story of feeling isolated and alone. The feeling that everyone, even God has abandoned us. Some days it feels like everything is against us and everyone else is enjoying success. The key is in verse 2, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” In just about every situation our thoughts are what we wrestle with, more than the actual situation. This is especially the case with knobs. They may internalize what their cadre is saying.
The beginning of my residency I had so many doubts about my abilities that I was my own worse enemy. It was only after I realized that fact that my entire experience changed to a positive one. I had been so caught up with what other people said or thought, I forgot to own my strengths. I’ve learned knobs go through a similar experience, each on their own time frame.
From what I’ve seen at The Citadel the knobs that come in with their eyes wide open to the process, the ones who attended the pre-knob overnight visit and attended CSI, have a realistic view of the process. The ones who enter knowing it is a game and do not internalize what is being yelled at them seem to adjust the best. It is a thinking game. The knobs who maintain their sense of humor and do not internalize negative comments fair the best. For some it takes a while to adjust.
The ones with a sense of humor and a good outlook will hear the yelling but not take it to heart. One cadet friend said he used to stare at a spot on the wall and when the cadre yelled he’d pretend he was in a Peanuts comic and hear, “Wah Wah Wah Wah Wah “Shine your shoes” Wah Wah Wah Wah Wah.” I am told there is usually a nugget of information the knob needs to listen for like, shine your shoes, polish your brass, etc.
The parents of the knobs need to remember that for their son or daughter Challenge Week is the toughest experience most of them have ever been through. When the knob calls home they need someone to vent their emotions to, someone who won’t yell at them. Listen and encourage this first year. If you are ever concerned about your cadet you can contact the staff people listed on this page.
Knob year, and the following three years, are a rollercoaster for the cadets. As I wrote earlier, parents should not get on that rollercoaster with their cadet. Yes, it is hard to hear your child struggle, but if it was their decision to go to The Citadel you need to remind them that they knew what they were signing up for. Remind them of the inner strength they have to get through this experience. Help them draw on their faith system, whatever that may be to get through the tough times.
The whole year isn’t like the first week. Once classes start and the extra activities they will have opportunities to socialize and have fun. There are faith groups on campus, club sports, and special interest groups. They will each eventually find their niche.
Parents need to keep the larger picture in view for them. Help them break it down to small goals. Get to Friday, enjoy the weekend, get to the next Friday, etc. Hold on until Parents Weekend. After that, Thanksgiving is around the corner. Winter furlough comes quickly after Thanksgiving.
It won’t be long until they will be preparing for their sophomore year and telling stories about their knob year experiences.
In the Company of Men a book by Nancy Mace
Sword Drill by David Epps