What kind of lessons can a simple small marble teach Academy recruits and their instructor?
Photo credit: Photo by Val Van Brocklin
Previously on officer.com.
Last month in What the Heck Now, Recruit? I mentioned the movie Awakenings in which Robert DeNiro’s character is awakened from a long catatonic state by a miracle drug and must deal with a new life in a new world. Tragically, the effects of the drug don’t last and he slips back into a comatose existence.
We’ve all had days like that at the Academy, as an FTO, or supervisor. A recruit or officer seems catatonic in response to a new scenario or call. Then you guide them to an awakening, only to be left wondering if their enlightened state will last.
I’d like to share another Academy awakening from my experience as an adjunct instructor at the Alaska DPS Academy.
The challenge of the marble.
As a former state and federal prosecutor, I instruct twice during each 14-week Academy on various legal subjects cops need to know. The first morning of my first trip I ask the recruits to introduce themselves and -- in one word -- describe the most important quality for being a great peace officer.
The words have remained similar for nearly 25 years and they have nothing to do with academic test scores, PT test results, range scores or any of the other myriad measures of the recruits’ achievements. They’re words like:
I have a recruit write the words on the board and I tell the class to never forget the standards they’ve set for themselves on the special path they’ve chosen.
Then I invite the recruits to accept the challenge of the marble. Unlike the mandatory demands of the Academy, the challenge of the marble is voluntary. They can opt out right then. But, if they accept, they must stay the challenge to the end.
I have never had a single recruit opt out. This September, ALET (Alaska Law Enforcement Training) Class 11-02 was no exception.
I presented a marble to each recruit and described the challenge. At all times that I was on the island, 24/7, they were to have the marble on their person subject to unannounced inspection by myself or any of the Academy staff.
I answered the inevitable questions – yes, even in the shower; yes, even when sleeping. I further advised that the consequences of getting caught without their marble would make inchworms across the Academy tarmac feel like a stroll in the park.
Lastly, I informed them that, IF, at the end of my final visit I deemed them worthy, I would then tell them the significance of the marble and it would be the most important thing I hoped to impart.
The lesson of the marble.
What’s the point of this, you may ask? The recruits initially wonder the same thing.
“Attention to detail” is one of the lessons. Many of the Academy’s routine rigors are devoted to this. Recruits live at the Alaska DPS Academy, which is on an island accessible only by water or air. They must keep their dorm rooms and the entire building inspection ready at all times. This includes exact spacing of uniforms in lockers, beds made with hospital corners, keyboards and mice in the computer room perfectly aligned when not in use. Their uniforms must be maintained and worn according to strict specification.
Keeping track of their marble is one more detail. But that’s not the main lesson I intend.
After I give each recruit a marble, I tell them my story of The Wall. The Wall is 8 feet high. I explain I use to get up at o’ dark thirty and do morning PT with the recruits before instructing them all day. That was back when I had something to prove. Part of the PT sometimes included going over the wall.
I confess that I never made it over the wall without the help of the recruits. I tell them I’m going to help them over the walls of the topics I will be instructing and they will be tested on, but I expect them to help each other. If one of them is struggling academically, the rest should be helping that recruit. If one of them is falling behind on a run, the rest should be doubling back and helping.
I don’t tell them then, but the marble is meant to ingrain that lesson. It’s about them looking out for each other and making sure they each have their marble.
Awakening to the lesson of the marble.
Just as I’ve never had a recruit decline to accept the challenge of the marble, I’ve never had an entire class make it through even my first visit without a single recruit being caught without their marble. ALET 11-02 was no exception.
Corporal Spitzer, himself a past recruit of mine, caught the first recruit without his marble and gleefully informed me. I asked him to send the recruit to see me. Moments later, there was a knock on the VIP quarters door.
“Recruit De La Fuente, Ma’am. Permission to enter.”
The recruit entered, stood at attention, and looked straight ahead, not making eye contact.
“Recruit De La Fuente, how is it that Corporal Spitzer caught you without your marble.”
“Well, ma’am, I was changing and …”
I held up a hand, silencing him. “Not the right answer, Recruit.”
He paused and I saw an awakening flicker in his eyes. “Ma’am, this recruit has no excuse, ma’am.”
“That’s the right answer. Here’s the consequence -- in addition to being responsible for your own marble, I expect you to ensure that no other recruit is caught without his marble. Also, if you’re asked about the consequence by any other recruits, you are to tell them that you can’t discuss it. Understood?”
The next morning I addressed the class. “ALET 11-02, yesterday Corporal Spitzer caught Recruit De La Fuente without his marble. Would someone please tell me how that happened?”
As murmured excuses began, I again held up my hand and split the silence with, “Not the right answer.”
Into the stillness, a voice replied, “We let Recruit De La Fuente down, ma’am.”
I locked on their eyes, “That’s the right answer,” and felt a hum of awakening.
That evening I encountered some recruits in the break room and perfunctorily asked them to present their marbles. As two of the recruits started to dig theirs out, Recruit Harrell busied himself with the contents of a cupboard. I figured he was teasing me.
“C’mon, Recruit Harrell, quit kidding, show me your marble.”
“I don’t have it, ma’am.”
“No really. Show me.”
“I really don’t have it, ma’am.”
My jaw dropped. I closed it and began grinding my teeth. I glowered. Harrell’s face reddened. He didn’t appear to be breathing. I turned my gaze to Recruit Etheridge. He held up his marble and blurted, “This recruit has his marble, ma’am.”
I snarled, “Not the right answer, Recruit Etheridge.”
He slowly lowered his marble. I stepped closer until we were nearly touching.
“Telling me you’ve got your marble is CYA, Etheridge. CYA is not the right answer. Now, you give me the right answer.”
He thought. “Ma’am, this recruit let Recruit Harrell down.”
I replied, “Now, you give me the perfect answer.”
Etheridge’s face scrunched in concentration. Then his countenance awakened. “Recruit Harrell can have my marble, Ma’am,” and he held it out.
I grinned. Etheridge grinned. Harrell smiled hopefully. I whispered, “You had the perfect answer inside you, Etheridge. If I’d yelled at you and told you the answer was to give your marble to Harrell, you would’ve never discovered that you had the perfect answer inside you all along.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Etheridge, still grinning.
“I want the other recruits to discover they have the perfect answer in them. So, don’t tell them what happened here other than to say I caught Harrell without his marble.”
Both recruits nodded, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Recruit Harrell, there still has to be a consequence. Frankly, you’ve caught me unprepared. I was certain after this morning’s discussion and the consequence I visited on Recruit De La Fuente we wouldn’t have another occurrence like this. Clearly, you’ve been sent to me as a challenge. I’m going to have to sleep on it.”
The next morning as the recruits stood at attention when I entered the classroom, I turned and demanded, “ALET 11-02, how was it I caught Recruit Harrell without his marble last evening?”
Multiple voices rang out, “We let him down, ma’am.”
“That’s the right answer. Now, gather round me. Closer. Closer.” I drew the class into a tight semi-circle around me, their shoulders touching. I gestured them to lean in.
“Now, I want you to give me the perfect answer.” Instantly, De La Fuente held his marble out to Harrell. Without a word, the other recruits offered their marbles. A shimmering awakening shone upon us and we basked in it.
“Recruit De La Fuente, you give me hope for ALET 11-02. Take your seats.”
It felt like we’d all soared over the wall together.
The lesson for this instructor.
When they were seated, I said, “But there must be consequences. Clearly, by last evening, you still hadn’t learned the lesson of the marble. I leave pushups and inchworms on the tarmac to the Corporals for making things memorable. I’m going to try a different tack. ALET 11-02 must deliver to me by week’s end …” I let the blade hang in the air, “… a poem to the marble.”
Friday morning, ALET 11-02 delivered. Did they ever. They gathered in formation with Harrell leading and delivered a cadence that left this instructor with tears in her eyes and sparkles in her nose. They sounded off the lesson of the marble – caring for each other. They sounded off to Honor – Courage - Commitment. They were beautiful.
And they taught me something. I, my family, my community, my country – are in good hands with the next generation of peace officers. I’ve got my work cut out for me to be worthy of them.
Shh… don’t tell them the final lesson.
I will be returning to Sitka next month to finish my training of ALET 11-02. When I say goodbye to them, I’ll order them to present their marbles for one last inspection.
When they take them out I’ll tell them:
“ALET 11-02, I now induct each of you into the brotherhood of the marble. But it’s not just a marble, it’s a crystal ball. If you look into it, you will see a reflection of your selves. Therein you will find honor, courage, commitment and all the other qualities you set out for being great peace officers.
I know this – because I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century with you and you’ve taught me more about the meaning of those words than any other experience it’s been my honor to have.”
About The Author:
Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of enter-train-ment," Val Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with over 10 years experience as a prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC's Primetime Live, the Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. In addition to her personal appearances, she appears on television, radio, and webcasts, in newspapers, journal articles and books. Visit her website: www.valvanbrocklin.com