On the Wednesday of her spring break, Branford high school counselor Marian Montano found herself hanging upside down from the top of a 47-foot rappel tower wearing a harness she’d made for herself out of rope and a snap hook. Three rugged Marines stared up at her. Two shouted at her from above.
And she’d signed a liability waiver.
Montano was taking part in an intense four-day workshop with a group of 76 educators hand-selected from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island to witness and experience what it takes to become a Marine — on Parris Island, no less, the notorious swampy South Carolina training ground for Marine Corps recruits.
“The purpose of the workshop is to give educators a deeper insight into the benefits of a career in the Marines and also to give them the opportunity not just to see how we make Marines but also to experience a taste of the transformation,” said Sgt. Connor Hancock, marketing and public affairs, RS Springfield, Mass.
Of course, neither Montano, nor East Haven Superintendent of Schools Erica Forti, who also attended, endured the Crucible, the grueling 54-hour test that subjects recruits to food and sleep deprivation — and over 45 miles of marching — to make the ultimate transition to United States Marine.
Still, from 0 500 hours, “every minute of every day of those four days was controlled and structured,” Montano said. “Drill instructors were screaming at us rapid-fire.” If their arms-length formation wasn’t close enough, if anyone missed a number during count-offs, “our entire platoon of 38 educators had to scramble to the sand pit for push ups and sit ups and high knees.”
Then there was the obstacle course, where they sprinted and clambered over a 6-foot wall, and maneuvered themselves up and across a set of monkey bars. There was the gas chamber, where they experienced the pain and burn of tear gas. There was the timed challenge on the Crucible course that summoned every shred of their problem-solving and team-building skills.
There were sand fleas and dust and the glaring South Carolina sun and more running, and push ups and sit ups in the sand pit, and still they were being yelled at and told to hurry up. And it was only 11:30 a.m.
“It was nothing like what recruits experience,” Forti said, “but you still had to overcome fear and exhaustion, you still had to dig deep to get through each challenge. It was a real test, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It was awesome.”
Montano had a similar take. “The Marines told us they break you down to build you back up,” she said. “That’s only part of it. By pushing you past what you think you can do, they help you find your inner strength.”
That wasn’t the only takeaway. If Forti hobbled into school last Monday with a swollen ankle and Montano came back with some calluses on her hands, the two also returned with a newfound respect for service in the Marine Corps, as well as a veritable rucksack of tools and information to share with their students.
From a female recruit she met in the mess hall, Montano learned how little can prepare you for the rigors of training or the 5-second showers, but that the payoff is the gradual transformation from “I” to “we.”
“It becomes about something larger than yourself,” she said.
They learned about educational benefits and scholarship opportunities, and about the wide array of career options for recruits, from musician in the Marine jazz orchestra to graphic designer to photographer.
“They introduced us to a panel of young men and women in their early 20s,” Montano said. “These kids were working on multi-million dollar F-18 planes, organizing the logistics of deployments, and providing intelligence and organizing artillery.”
More impressive than the high-level nature of their jobs and the maturity they displayed, she said, was that “many of them said they didn’t really have direction in high school. One of them said he was the class clown, another said he knew he was bright. He just wasn’t motivated. It took the trial of those 13 weeks on Parris Island for them to realize themselves.”
That said, the purpose of the workshop “wasn’t to turn us into recruiters, but to come away better equipped to do our jobs, which is to let our kids know all the pathways out there and to connect them with the right people to give them the information they need,” said Forti, who’s already shared her experience with the guidance department.
On that spring-break Wednesday on the tower, of course, Montano’s path was clear. But that didn’t mean it was easy.
“Every step up to the top I was shaking. I was petrified. Then I looked around at the other educators and a lot of them were just as terrified, but they kept going up,” she said. “If they were willing to do it, I could too.”
There was yet another lesson. “The Marines were shouting at me, but they were shouting at me that I could do it,” she said. “Sometimes that’s all you need to hear.”