Recently, I went to a local funeral home for a viewing. The deceased was a former student. He was driving while intoxicated, and the resulting high-speed collision was horrible. His passenger died as well. I will refer to the young man as John, even though that is not his real name. John was in his mid-twenties.
It is always sad anytime a young person dies. It is a waste of so much potential. On the other hand, he took stupid risks and died because of it.
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John had not been a great (or even a good) student. On the other hand, he had an engaging personality, and I liked him. His infractions against classroom order were frequent, but their magnitude was on the low end of the scale. When I was in high school – the early seventies – they would have been punished, but the standard of conduct has deteriorated to the point that they weren’t taken seriously by the office. He exasperated me – and yet I liked him.
I always thought that John could have become successful if he could just grow up.
For a while, it looked like I had been right. I hadn’t seen John since his senior year in high school, but I had heard “through the grapevine” that he was doing reasonably well. He had a steady job that fit his interests and abilities. He had purchased a home. He had fathered a child out of wedlock – which is unfortunately common in his community and generation. On the other hand, he was raising and supporting the child – which is not as common.
An Outdoor Funeral
Amid the coronavirus, the viewing was a complicated process. John’s mother greeted me at the edge of the parking lot, effusively grateful that I had come. She told me that John had liked me, and wanted in some ways to be like me. Only ten people were allowed into the building at a time. Several former students were in the line outside the door waiting to enter, and we exchanged pleasantries. I caught up on how some of them were doing. I know a lot of the other young people who were milling about in knots. Many were smoking. Several pickup trucks had coolers in the back.
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When my turn to go in came, hundreds of photos festooned the room. Several screens showed other pictures in rotation. There were the typical little boy photos – bikes, parks, family trips, Christmas, and so on. His childhood looked a lot like my childhood, even though I am forty years older. Other photos showed the young man I had known in high school. There were pictures of him and his son. John’s smiling face was a prominent part of all of them. The only sign of religion was a Bible on a stand next to the casket open to the Book of Proverbs. One of the verses was highlighted.
As I stood next to the casket, the first thought was, “Well, John, we certainly had our moments, didn’t we?” His clothes were informal – about the same way that his friends in the parking lot dressed. I stood uncomfortably while I searched for a more appropriate thought. When I didn’t find any, I said a short prayer for the repose of his soul, crossed myself and left.
As afternoon became evening, a former colleague informed me, the gathering grew louder and more inebriated. There were a lot of revving engines and screeching tires in the parking lot. The supply of beer was plentiful. Voices got louder. If John had been one of the gathered, instead of the corpse, he probably would have enjoyed himself.
There, but for the Grace of God, Go I
Now I find myself thinking, “What was the point of John’s life?” In tandem, another, more troubling, question occurs to me. “Why didn’t I end up like John?”
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The most significant part of the answer was God’s grace. I had been open to the action of God’s grace as it appeared in my life. Thus, I took a different path. God also gave me parents who would not tolerate the sort of behavior that would get me into trouble.
I never knew much about John’s home life. His obituary mentioned no church. It did list four parents, so presumably, he came from a broken home. If the office informed any of his parents about his many classroom disruptions, its corrections – if any – had little effect.
My life followed a different course than John’s. For the group at the funeral home, I was a well-liked and somewhat respected former teacher. My reception at the funeral proved that my thirty-four years in the classroom had not gone to waste.
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Or did it? Perhaps the means of Johns’ death was a sign that I, and the system under which I labored, had failed. Did that failure contribute to the gathering in that funeral home parking lot?
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No, I could not have saved John from his untimely end. He made his decisions, and this was an all-too-foreseeable consequence. The school did not serve John that last drink, nor did it hand him the car keys.
In comparison with the influence of family, our role as teachers is lesser. At the same time, we – as a system – owed John more than we gave him. It was not academic attainment. John did not want that. Learning requires, at the very least, that the student wants to learn.
We should have offered John something else – a sense of responsibility. We were wrong to overlook his shortcomings. In our misplaced charity, we gave him low, but passing, scores instead of the failing grades that he earned. We wanted to look past his lack of malice, instead of punishing his classroom disruptions.
The educrats prefer “creative thinking” to teaching responsibility. It is not “engaging.” It does not require a massive outlay of taxpayer money.
The only thing that teachers and administrators need to teach responsibility is the will to do so. That will cannot be weak. Teaching responsibility is difficult. Students will resist the initial efforts. Parents will be unhappy with failing grades. Divorced parents, battling for the child’s affection and loyalty, often bend over backward to defend unacceptable behavior. The leftists will scream about discrimination by race, ethnic group, sex, or anything else in its bag of often-used tools.
I did not see any of my former colleagues at the funeral home. Perhaps some came after I left. However, every one of us should have been there. The superintendent of schools, the director of the state school system, and the U.S. Secretary of Education should have, too. All of them should have taken a long look at John’s body in his casket. We – every last well-educated one of us – should reflect on the cost of not having taught John to be a responsible adult. We should account for the price of our sins of omission.
Then, we should go back to school and teach our students two things. One is that they are responsible for their actions. The other is that childhood must end well before one’s eighteenth birthday.
It is unlikely that the “educrats” will accept this challenge. Schools reflect the culture from which they spring. A society that celebrates celebrity misbehavior will not create well-regulated schools. Intellectuals who reject morality and objective truth cannot teach either.
By adopting this program, we will have at least done our part to try to change young lives. However, the only way to turn back this chain of rebellion is to return to God and right religion. Only a moral solution can address this failure and open young minds to the beauty of the Truth for which we were created.