The Common Good
September-October 1997

High Stakes in School

by Joe Nangle | September-October 1997

School in all of its dimensions inevitably marks our later
efforts at community living.

School in all of its dimensions inevitably marks our later efforts at community living. So, as another school year begins, it seems worthwhile to revisit this foundational experience in everyone’s life. The lessons we did or did not learn there can shed light on how we deal with present and future community realities.

There is in each of us a basic reaction to our time in school, which in a most obvious way colors all future engagement in community. Either we liked school or not. The years we spent in and around classrooms affirmed us or caused us pain. If it was the latter, then my guess is that all subsequent tries at community living have proven an enormous challenge for us, if indeed we had the courage to attempt them.

All of us can remember the classmate who, for whatever reason, went through school pretty much as an outsider. In my own experience, it was one loner who balked at some fairly mild freshman hazing in college, thereby attracting more of the same from insensitive upperclassmen. In the end the poor fellow suffered a breakdown and left school.

Much more positive is the memory of a well-adjusted kid who delighted in school, despite mediocre academic work. He loved the daily give and take with the rest of us, both inside and outside the classroom, and of course got voted "most popular" at graduation.

One needs no graduate degree in educational psychology to surmise which of these students may later have thrived in a community setting. However, between such extremes stand the rest of us for whom school, and its effect on our lives, have proven much more nuanced.

Were you, for example, a high achiever in terms of grades? And how much effort did that take? How high were the stakes for us when it came to receiving good marks? One classmate of mine took top honors all four years at a pretty demanding high school. On one occasion he received a spontaneous round of applause from us when the physics teacher announced this boy’s amazing perfect score for an entire semester—no mistakes in the weekly quizzes, nor in the semester exam. Yet the fellow dropped out of college before the end of his first year, finding that he simply could not maintain his self-imposed expectations at that higher level.

Someone should have told him—and us—that grades do not guarantee future successes or failures, especially in the classroom of life and community. (Kids today may have learned this lesson, judging from their wonderful neologism that describes precisely what my unfortunate classmate really was—a "nerd.")

Another dimension of the school experience came back to me in a recent conversation with a nephew whose athletic cousin plans to attend the same college as he this fall. When I suggested that he be on the lookout for the newcomer, my nephew dismissed that idea with: "The jocks hang together." A flood of memories centering on the in-crowd and "the others" returned with those words. For those fortunate enough to have formed part of a school group, future ventures in community do not seem at all out of reach. But for the perennial outsider....

WITH SO MUCH AT stake in the school experience, it’s no wonder that educators take great pains these days to affirm each student. This is all to the good. However, much rightful criticism gets leveled at the attempts some schools make to ensure that every young person consider him/herself outstanding, better than others, "number one." Such a false "you’re the best" philosophy cannot contribute much to a society like ours so desperately in need of cooperators, co-workers, community members.

In the end the best preparation for the school experience, and the best sustaining force throughout it, comes down to the student’s sense of being loveable and loved. Early in her or his life the young person taking a seat in the classroom ought to know that he or she has a value beyond academic and extracurricular achievements or the lack thereof. And that can only be provided by someone—a parent preferably, or relative, neighbor, friend—who believes it and shows it to the student.

For this ultimately is what we bring to community—our own wonderful and flawed selves. We shall find success as community members, and contribute to the ongoing common enterprise, if we have become convinced of our worth and foibles as human beings. The pity is that too often success or failure in school have given many a false impression of their value, exaggerated in some cases, underrated in too many.

Perhaps as we begin another school year, parents, teachers, students, and all of us who interact with them will reflect again on the crucial experience of school in young people’s lives. May it be a first and very positive engagement in community living.

JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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