DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dr. Celestine LaVan compares the foreign submarines she used to track for the U.S. Navy as they prowled the Atlantic to “sharks in the water.”
Today, LaVan said she sees a key part of her role as an educator as protecting the children she serves from a different kind of “sharks in the water.”
LaVan is the new director of elementary education for the Darlington County School District. She started her job in July.
She said she became interested in a career in education through coaching her daughter’s cheerleading team and working with other people’s children. She started substitute teaching and then decided to pursue a master’s degree.
She came to Darlington County from the Beaufort County School District, where she had served as principal of Joseph Shanklin Elementary School since 2013.
LaVan said she sees education as a vital service to the nation and local communities.
"Our students are at stake,” she said. “I feel like we’re saving the lives of children. I feel like this is just as important as military service.”
Before pursuing a career in education, LaVan served eight years in the Navy, four years on active duty and four years as a reservist. Her service spanned from 1993 to 2001.
A native of Sharon, Pennsylvania, LaVan moved to Beaufort when her husband, who was in the U.S. Marines, was transferred there. They have two grown children.
LaVan, who held the rank of chief petty officer third class at the time of her discharge, served as an ocean systems technician analyst for the Navy.
“Through sonar, I tracked foreign submarines,” she said.
“We learned to track subs by some mechanical issues on each sub. Each one gives off some idiosyncratic mechanical sounds. I learned to identify a sub by one tic that gave it away. Each boat had its little idiosyncrasy or mechanical giveaway, and I learned to identify them through that.”
LaVan never served on a submarine.
“I toured subs, but I never served on a sub,” she said.
Back then, the Navy did not allow women to serve aboard submarines, she said.
Instead, the sonar devices she used to track submarines were deployed at sea, and she monitored them from her station in Norfolk, Virginia.
LaVan completed her basic training in Orlando, Florida.
She was selected for training as an ocean systems technician analyst because she scored high in that area on an aptitude test.
LaVan said she welcomed the challenge and took to the training because it was a new opportunity.
“I was excited,” she said. “There were not a lot of females doing that and not a lot of minorities.”
LaVan said she spent a year in college before joining the Navy. She said she enlisted because she had no real career plans or goals.
“I just didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I basically wasted my parents’ tuition money.”
The Navy, she said, gave her the direction she needed and wanted.
“I loved the discipline, the opportunity," she said. "I like structure in my life.”
LaVan said the Navy helped her develop her leadership skills.
“I was supervising people twice my age,” she said. “Here I was, at 19, 20 years old, giving briefings to the commanding officer. You grow up quickly. You develop professionalism, integrity. You learn to get things done. There are no excuses.”
She wasn’t crazy about the uniforms back then, however. There were the blue dungarees and denim shirts and the “Popeye” hats, she said.
“They didn’t really appeal to my fashion sense,” LaVan said.
Uniforms notwithstanding, LaVan said she recommends the military to young people, especially if they are not sure of what they want to do with their lives.
“Absolutely,” she said.
She said young people should take advantage of the opportunities afforded them while they are young.
“It’s not for everybody,” she said of the military. “But it’s an excellent opportunity, particularly if you don’t know what you want to do. You really find out who you are by the end of basic. If you like structure, if you like service, the military can be a good place to find direction for your life.”
Military service is a part of her family, LaVan said.
“It’s in our blood,” she said.
Her father retired from the U.S. Army, her brother served in the Marines and an uncle served in the Air Force. Her husband is a retired Marine who serves as a law enforcement officer in Beaufort.
Americans, LaVan said, need to remember their veterans and those who still serve.
“When you sleep at night,” she said, “when you lay your head down to sleep at night, you need to remember there are people out there serving, watching, keeping you safe, keeping our country safe.”
Veterans Day, she said, holds a special place.
“It actually means a lot to me,” LaVan said.
“One thing we as a nation don’t do too well is tend to our veterans,” she said. “There shouldn’t be homeless veterans in this country. We can’t repay them for what they’ve done. If we can buy someone a meal, give them a discount, setting aside a day to honor them, that’s the least the country can do with all the resources we have.”