Saturday, August 4, 2012
A LESSON FROM THE FRESHMEN
Here at St. Benedict’s Prep we start our first term of the new school year at the end of July. All of the freshmen reported last Sunday night carrying a sleeping bag for sleeping in the gym and enough clothes to last them until Friday afternoon, including a shirt and tie which they would wear to class.
Their week consists of regular classes along with sessions for learning the history of the school, its songs and traditions, as well as the names of their 144 classmates. Each student belongs to a group of about eight or so other freshmen whose fates are linked in various ways, so that the kids become aware that they need to help one another and can learn to ask for help when needed.
The program is run by older students in a clear structure of authority, so that a freshman almost never hears an order from an adult. Throughout the year the everyday running of the school is in the hands of the older students, so the new guys may as well see that system in action right from the start.
One of the important lessons they need to learn is a sense of belonging to a community; our motto is “Whatever hurts my brother hurts me.” They sometimes shout that motto until they’re hoarse. It’s not about “me,” but about “us.”
Well, on Thursday evening I watched the freshmen engage in an extraordinary learning experience that touched me and made me think. Seventy of them, half the class, were outdoors on one of our fields in their gym clothes. The usual mix of black, white and Latino, tall and short, lean and lumpy, they were lined up along one end of the field in a single line facing across the artificial turf. It’s about 40 yards to the other end. They were told that on the whistle they were to run to the other end.
The whistle blew and the results were predictable: the athletic kids sprinted to the other end followed soon by the average kids and finally by the ones who were for whatever reason slower. Having been the fattest boy in my eighth grade class, I identified with the kids toward the rear. The group repeated the process. Each time they arrived back at the end where I was standing (as an observer) they were asked to shout the answers to certain questions:
“Who are we?”
“What class are we?”
“What’s the motto?”
"WHATEVER HURTS MY BROTHER HURTS ME?”
After another wind sprint in the same vein, with the athletes showing their stuff and the slow kids getting more and more embarrassed, one of the twelve Annapolis midshipmen who are here for a few weeks teaching our student leaders how to be more effective, told the freshmen that their class is like a chain – it is only as strong as its weakest link. He repeated the lesson in a couple of ways.
Suddenly it seemed that one of the freshmen “got it.” As they prepared to do yet another sprint, he put an arm across the shoulder of the classmate on either side of him. These two in turn did the same until quickly all seventy kids were standing with their arms over the shoulders of their neighbors in a single straight line, facing down the field . It was a delightful thing to see. But that was nothing compared to what happened next.
THE SOUND OF “GETTING IT RIGHT”
The whistle blew and they all started off toward the other end of the field, only this time, because they were linked together, they could only run as fast as the slowest kid in the class. The row stayed almost perfectly straight across as they trotted as quickly as they could toward their goal. The entire group of seventy all arrived at the other end at the same time, still linked together. The roar that went up from those kids was something to hear. It reverberated off the courthouse across Springfield Avenue, and off the phone company building down the hill. The monks in their rooms heard it, and so, I’m sure, did pedestrians down on Market Street.
What was the shout all about? It seems to me that it was a mixture of joy at having just figured out a deep truth about themselves, exultation at the feeling of belonging to a single group united by a growing bond, and a natural teenage ebullience in response to physical exertion.
In any case it was incredibly wonderful to listen to.
Then they did an about-face and ran back toward my end in the same fashion, with all of their student counselors and leaders and all the midshipmen urging them on. They struggled to keep the line even until once again they got to their goal as one man. This time the roar was even louder.
Now they seemed to be saying “Yes! We’ve get it now! This is the way it’s supposed to be! Not about me but about us!”
I had to choke back tears. I was so proud of them for having figured it out, and hopeful that they would remember this lesson for the rest of their lives, whether on a sports field or at their work place or in their marriage.
DO I GET IT?
As I walked away from the field I couldn’t help thinking about how well I do that exercise in my own life with my monastic community and with my students in the classroom. I’m afraid that sometimes I let it be more about "me" than about "us." This striking image of forty kids all linked together running toward a goal should be a helpful reminder for me, at least for some time to come.