Last Saturday my eighth-grade son took the Catholic high school entrance exam as part of the process of applying to the three local Catholic high schools that he is interested in attending next year. He took five pencils with him, though they suggested he bring two. His best friend brought a Power Bar to eat at the break; but, worried that this might get him into trouble, he kept it in his pocket. As they goofed around, waiting for the doors to open, the kids looked gawky and nervous, the boys half-heartedly shoving each other, the girls rearranging their hair. Why do we put them, and us, through this? sighed a long-suffering parent standing next to me. Why indeed?
As fellow parents, we’ve discussed the various merits and disadvantages of these three prep schools since our kids entered kindergarten, and now we don’t know what to believe, or how to decide among them. Of course, that will ultimately be decided by the schools themselves, as they select their incoming students. Did our kid play enough sports, get good enough grades, participate enough in the religious life of the school and parish, score well on the entrance exam? With only a one-in-four chance of being accepted, it feels like a lottery when all is said and done, with some kids winning and some losing.
The three schools in our area are all run by different religious orders. It takes some skillful discernment to read between the lines of their similar mission statements. The emphasis on community service, a standard of excellence in teaching and learning, and a focus on a life of faith permeate the open house presentations, the multiple brochures, the Web sites. Sometimes it feels like the choice comes down to which school will have the shortest commute.
When I examine the prevailing assumption that Catholic parents must send their children to Catholic high schools, I realize that we as a family have learned some important spiritual lessons about what we consider valuable in Christian education. Many of these lessons are applicable to the world that (believe it or not) exists outside the exclusive circle of Catholic education, kindergarten through college. While social justice and spiritual concerns are acknowledged to varying degrees in the mission statements of all Catholic schools, there is also a subtext about the Catholic educational experience, perhaps the more powerful for being unstated.
As we toured each of the high schools during their open-house days, we were impressed by the up-to-date computer equipment, the sports facilities and the comprehensive science labs. Each school had some special feature: an enormous auditorium for the theater department, an elegant and spacious library, a brand new track and football field. Our local public high school has graffiti on the walls and broken lockers, and the swimming pool smells of mildew. The contrast was stark. Until he saw these things, I don’t think our son had fully understood the disparity in educational opportunity in this country.
Christ asks us to consider the poor among usharder to do when we are far removed from their environment. Yet we want what is best for our children, which means sending them to an expensive school that others can not afford, so we try to counteract the isolation of privilege by teaching them that privilege has its responsibilities.
The high schools want to know how well each student has achieved success in certain areas, beyond the basic assumption of high academic achievement. Yet what are they really asking? Many kids are cynical about the true worth of their success. Did they achieve the right kind of popularity, which earned them a seat on the student council? Did they achieve recognition for their coordination andlet’s face itsheer body size, on sports teams? As our son and his friends filled out the applications, they were faced with acknowledging their achievements or lack thereof, according to certain standards. As parents, we wondered if the schools were interested in whether they achieved recognition by their peers for being funny, generous or kind.
Do these kids understand, as they list their achievements, that their parents love them no matter how well they did in basketball, or whether or not they had a starring role in the school play? We just want you to do your best; that’s all we ask, we tell our kids. We hope, in the privacy of our hearts, that their best gets them into the Catholic high school of their choice. If being their best, true self doesn’t fit the mold, then we love them anyway, just as Christ taught us that God loves us for who we are, not what we achieve.
Why do Catholic schools foster so much competition? Creative essays, spelling, running laps, science projects, running for school office, fundraiserseverything lends itself to the race to see who is best. How do we reconcile this with Christ’s teachings on equality? I don’t remember Christ asking his disciples to compete for a place at the table.
My assumption is that the educators who design the curriculum and set the tone in each school community believe that competition brings out the best in each of us. Yet this kind of thinking implies there is not enough to go around; that you have to compete for recognition, and must suffer the consequences of both winning and losing. There must be a way to encourage children to strive to do their very best without setting them against one another.
Our daughter is naturally good at spelling. She can spell words correctly that she has never heard or read. She always wins the school spelling bee in her grade. Her friends react with envy, and she has begun to dread the yearly contest. She is learning that competition can set you apart. Now the eighth graders are competing for coveted places in high school. Some will win, and some will lose. We need to teach our children that the external validation that comes from winning does not reflect who they are as children of God.
As parents, we have discussed each high school’s merits, with special emphasis on how well the school promotes a sense of community. The admissions presenters who visited one school last autumn also focused on the real sense of community that each student would find at this particular high school. The high school students who are in the confirmation class I teach, when asked why they want to be members of the Catholic Church, listed to be part of a community as their most important reason. We all have memories of high school as being a time of shaky self-esteem, agonizing over how well we are liked, whether or not we will be accepted into the peer group we so long to be a part of. Yet the high school that most impressed us made a real connection between the community of high school peers, the Catholic community, and the community beyond the walls of high schoolin other words, the larger human community.
Students in the Catholic educational system are blessed with a shared community based on a set of spiritual values that at its best nurtures, challenges and prepares them for a role as Catholics in the larger community of humankind. Ultimately, the message we have tried to give our children about why we have chosen a Catholic education is this: beyond the privilege of expensive equipment and well-paid and well-trained teachers; beyond the opportunities for high achievement that will eventually assure them success in the larger world; beyond the ready-made community they will find as Catholic students, we want them to learn how to put into practice Christ’s teachings.