Of Helicopters and Skeletons: Life in Ignatian Education

Photo by Matt Emerson.

The below reflection was published originally at my old site (the precursor site for this blog) on February 16, 2013. It was one of my first posts for "The Ignatian Educator" and was originally titled, "The Ignatian City." I decided to republish it here for my new America readers. Its themes are very much relevant and worth revisiting as the second semester gets underway.  

It was the day of the Open House — the day we showcase our clubs, sports, activities, and departments, the day we provide faculty panels, student panels, and alumni panels, the day our friends and neighbors and future graduates marvel at the winding double helix of the Xavier Prep DNA. I was darting in and out of rooms ensuring the carpets were cleaned and the windows polished. As I opened one door, I collided. I ran into a fake skeleton hanging from a metal noose. It was stewarded by my awesome bearded colleague who has a PhD in Biology, but who may know even more about the Civil War. It, the skeleton, was wheeling toward the gym to serve as a spokesman for Xavier’s Science Department.


A few minutes later, I hopped upstairs and greeted one of our art teachers, her arms overflowing with sculptures and canvasses, evidence of Xavier’s budding Van Goghs and Monets and Michelangelos. She was taking them the way of the skeleton: to the gym.

That morning I watched other colleagues set up their tables. World Languages, English, basketball, mock trial, theology . . . and in the middle, robotics. How snazzy is robotics? One team member had built a remote control helicopter that could skim the rafters. It would hover about twenty feet in the air, a tiny and harmless drone that somehow belonged in the same room as the water polo schedule.

That day it hit me: High school is the place where a plastic skeleton, a mini-helicopter, a French textbook, a gavel, a basketball, college pennants and a miscellany of other fascinations somehow coexist. Is there anything like it? It is a kind of carnival, a place that tries to provide something for everyone. And in Jesuit (and many other Catholic) schools, there is another element: each of those things somehow connects with the tears at a prayer service, the insights on retreat, and the silence of Examen: moments that cannot be placed on wheels or taped on cardboard.

Of course, Jesuit schools have sought out this responsibility, even codified it in the statement of principles known as the “Graduate at Graduation.” Jesuit high schools hope their graduates will be (1) open to growth; (2) intellectually competent; (3) religious; (4) loving; and (5) committed to doing justice. From the beginning, Jesuit education — reflecting Ignatius’s own personality — has had grand plans. Academic excellence alone is not enough. Athletic achievement alone is not enough. That refusal to specialize is, for me, part of the thrill. Jesuit education, and the goals of the Grad at Grad, respond to a point made by the Second Vatican Council: “It is the human person, therefore, which is the key to this discussion, each individual human person in her or his totality, body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will” (Gaudium et spes, #3).

In Jesuit high schools, there is a lot going on, and correspondingly a lot expected from students and faculty. As I walk the halls hearing a piano in one room and seeing microscopes in another, I don’t feel like I’m in a school. I feel like I’m in a city. The parallels are striking. A school has to educate; it also has to provide counseling; it has to provide recreation and opportunities for athletic achievement; it has to provide food and drink; it has to provide some kind of system of justice when students violate the rules; and it must provide for the common defense. The campus must be safe and clean, favorable for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Questions arise: is this sustainable, the school as city, particularly a city responsible for the interior life, the spiritual state, of its residents? Some find it daunting. Teachers who struggle in Jesuit high schools tend to do so not because they are bad teachers, but because they have never been so comprehensively responsible for those in their care. The notion of “teacher” expands on a Jesuit campus. An Ignatian educator is responsible not only for what students know, but for who they will become. He or she isn’t someone who imparts knowledge. An Ignatian educator is a “companion in learning.” What kind of possibilities are opened up by that association, the teacher as companion?

The question, though, still stands: is all this sustainable? Yes; and I could write a book on why. One thought here…

It is sustainable so long as the faculty and administration continue to show what unites the variety — how robotics connects with The Great Gatsby, how pre-calculus relates to the Old Testament, how counseling ties into admissions. In my worst moments as a teacher, I isolate one class or one mock trial competition and bestow it with importance it does not have: it becomes all about that class or competition, and I judge myself and my students based on a narrow and cramping criteria. I forget about the skeleton and the helicopter and the common goal to form men and women who seek God in all things, who see their game-winning goals or five-paragraph essays as expressions of gratitude for the chance to breathe.

Put another way, all the books and projects and posters at our Open House have to be seen as parts of a mosaic. Distinctions point to oneness; in plurality, there is unity. Ignatian education, our Ignatian cities, are therefore trinitarian. All is relational. The part nourishes the whole and the whole nourishes the part. Even the helicopter. Even the skeleton.



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