When De La Salle High School football coach Bob Ladouceur commented on his team's advantages over public school rival James Logan, he explained, “We are allowed to be spiritual, ethical, and develop more into the total human.”
Before I became a public school teacher, I would have blithely nodded my assent. After all, I had attended a Catholic grade school, high school, and college. Afterwards, I taught at various parochial schools for five years. And all the while I heard--and even repeated myself--the prevalent stereotypes:
Public schools were godless wastelands of bureaucracy where apathetic teachers merely punched their time-cards while shuffling students listlessly along, amid wanton violence and rampant drug-abuse, until finally a few kids defied the odds and graduated, unable to read their own diplomas.
Unlike parochial schools, of course, where teachers really cared about their students, standards and values endured, and a warm community of love thrived.
I no longer believe all that drivel. In fact, I left parochial schools because I came to believe that public schools may best exemplify Christian values.
I hearkened to Jesus' parable describing whom he called into God's kingdom: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” (Lk. 14: 21) Jesus invited everyone, even--perhaps especially--society's outcasts.
That's what public schools do: accept all the poor, disadvantaged, emotionally/intellectually handicapped, and underachieving students parochial schools won't. And such kids often create a diverse, open community that is itself a powerful lesson in values and ethics.
That was one lesson few learned in the Catholic high school I abandoned. Despite the fact that over 40% of its students weren't Catholic, any idea or cultural expression which didn't toe the dogmatic line was simply unwelcome. Was that teaching spirituality?
In his own quiet way, though, I think my public school colleague Jeff Weinmann is very spiritual. A professional musician and album producer, he left it all to teach choir at my school. On his way to conduct the Fall concert last Wednesday evening, another car plowed into his. When he arrived at the theater, he discovered that the risers were missing. The microphones were too. He was having a bad day.
Nonetheless, Weinmann found his smile and joyfully led his choir--composed primarily of kids who could never set foot in a school like De La Salle--through moving renditions of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “Lean on Me,” and “We Can Make A Difference.”
Weinmann bursts the public school stereotype and powerfully rebuts Ladouceur's remarks.
And yet, to every stereotype there is at least a grain of truth. Because of their usually smaller size, their more homogeneous students, and their relative freedom from state bureaucracy and partisan politics, I know parochial schools can more easily set high standards and speak more openly about spirituality.
Similarly, many public schools take cultural/religious pluralism to a ludicrous extreme. In local Castro Valley High School, for instance, student leaders want to make their annual December assembly as “unoffensive” as possible, and will remove any vestige of religion. I wonder, what will be left for them to celebrate?
Even so, in comparing public and private schools neither can claim the moral high ground; nor will either always live up (or down) to its stereotype.