MOWEAQUA -- The few. The proud. The teachers?
The Marine Corps, always out front in the battle to win hearts and minds, has come up with a kind of "Semper Fi High" program to educate educators about the process of turning kids into Marines.
And two of its latest recruits are Mike Conlin, the athletic director and careers teacher at Central A&M High School in Moweaqua, and his wife, Shawn Conlin, who teaches eighth grade at Meridian Middle School in Blue Mound. They will fly out April 22 for an intense five-day program based at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
The idea is not to craft warrior pedagogues armed with really aggressive algebra tests who can be parachuted behind the lines to demoralize the enemy, but to have the teachers go back to their classrooms with a clear understanding of just what the Marines are about and how they achieve it.
Then, when students considering a military career raise their hands in class to ask a question, their mentors can come up with something more than an educated guess about what their young charges can expect.
The Conlins will be shown where newly inducted Marines live, eat and train, and they will also experience a healthy slice of basic training. For those among us who base their knowledge of the Marine manufacturing process on watching reruns of the movie "Full Metal Jacket," cozying up civilian educators with gung-ho Marine drill instructors might seem a bridge too far in terms of shock treatment.
"I am Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be "Sir." Do you maggots understand that?" barked actor (and real life drill instructor) R. Lee Ermey when first greeting recruits in "Full Metal Jacket."
Staff Sgt. Alvaro Aro, who handled arrangements for the Conlins' visit to what is officially called the U.S. Marine Corps Educators Workshop, says it won't be like that. At least, not much. But the Central Illinois teachers can get their hands dirty with some pretty intense training, such as a team exercise of carrying a 180-pound manikin simulating an injured Marine who must be maneuvered through a tough obstacle course; previous exercises will have already left the teachers exhausted and mentally fragile by the time they face the wounded manikin.
"You're tired and sleepy, and you just don't want to deal with anybody," said Aro, who is based in St. Louis and handles marketing and public affairs for the Marines. "That can be pretty stressful."
He said only by sampling, if just for a brief immersion, what raw recruits experience will the teachers understand what Marine training does and what it achieves. He makes no bones about the Marines being the 911 system for the nation when it's got a problem and its back is to the wall. The Marines have a whole range of training and job opportunities tied to getting their mission done, however, and there is more to today's high-tech Marine Corps then meets the eye. But the pride in the men and women who prove themselves worthy of wearing the uniform extends across all ranks and roles and spans a history dating back to 1775.
"We take the teachers to talk to Marines who have just graduated, and we try to find kids they may have actually taught," said Aro, 35. "When teachers meet them again, they are like, `Oh my God, I can't believe that guy is the same guy.' Seeing what Marine training and the type of values we enforce in these kids has done, that has a big impact."
So, having reconnoitered the territory of this story by saying all that, just how are the Conlins doing as they ready for their trip?
Mike Conlin, 52, has got an artificial left hip, and his 52-year-old wife has got an artificial left knee, so they don't have visions of swarming up ropes with knives clenched in their teeth while under fire. "We've obviously both got age and physical limitations," said Shawn Conlin. "But we're willing to go in and try."
Her husband explains that he found out about the Marines' workshop after one of his students told him about it, and he thought, "Well, what the heck?" He's done plenty of job shadowing in other fields and saw this as a similar exercise. He applied and, when he found out there was more than one program vacancy available, recruited his wife to sign up, too.
The athletic director is going in with the mission parameters of keeping an open mind and sees his objective as fair, unbiased career reconnaissance for his students. "I'm not going to come back and tell everyone what they want to hear," he explains. "I'm going to come back and tell them what I saw."
His wife has similar ambitions and is looking forward to gaining some valuable insights she can use to help guide students just starting to wonder about a uniformed future. She also can't help but look forward to the prospect of seeing her husband, used to barking commands in his role as athletic director, maybe having to deal with someone yelling at him. In the meantime, her eighth-grade students are rallying 'round her own Marine adventure and cheerfully wondering how long it will be before the rigors of jarhead life reduce her to tears.
"I don't know if they are actually going to start a pool to see who can guess when I'll cry first," she adds with a smile. "But that's eighth-graders for you."