January and February are rough times in schools. Days are dark and long and the hard work is upon us. It can be tough to remember why we do what we do and even tougher to feel that we’re doing it at all well.
Earlier this year, was asked to preach about Episcopal schools at Trinity Episcopal Church in Southport, Connecticut. I thought I’d share some of those remarks here:
“My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on his way.
Developing “eyes to see” is a recurring gospel theme, presented here, literally, in the story of the beggar Bartimaeus. It echoes in our secular lives as well. We talk about the “vision” of an organization or its leader. And, of course, we use the phrase “Oh, I see!” by which we mean “I now understand as I did not before.”
When I first became a teacher and taught high school history, ideas were all that really mattered. But the more I worked with young people, the more I discovered—well, I came to see—that in fact the mind was not all that mattered. I was taken aback when great intellect did not come with a warm heart or a clear moral compass. I saw other students crippled or encumbered or even paralyzed by sadness in their lives, or worry, or anxiety or anger that made learning a shadowy and illusory process. Slowly, I came to see not merely their minds but the totality of who they were…and who they were becoming.
And the longer I taught, the more it seemed to me that we need to begin at the beginning. Because by the time they were eighteen or sixteen or thirteen many young people were in some ways already “going blind”— blind in their ability to see where they fit in the world, to know their true heart, to view their neighbor as themselves, to catch a glimpse of still, small voice within. To know their soul.
Like Bartimaeus on the side of the road, deeply caring adults can also become blind to what children need. There is a contemporary illness born of anxiety, fear, and the need for control that views children increasingly as some sort of product, perfectly perfect if we could just get them to do everything and like everything and everyone and be good at everything and we hold tight and never let them from our grasp—even if, in so doing, we risk that they never find themselves, or know strength after sorrow, or redemption, or their own reasons for being.
“My teacher, let me see again.”
Over and over Jesus tries to teach us that there is more than our human eyes can see or our minds alone can comprehend. The educational vision of an Episcopal school is one informed by grace and faith as well as by math and English. Drawing upon the great Quaker educator Parker Palmer, Lucy Nazro, a legendary Episcopal school head of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, put it this way:
With the mind’s eye we see a world of fact and reason. It is a cold and mechanical place, but we have built our lives there because it seemed predictable and safe …. (But) we open the eye of the heart and we see another sight: a world warmed and transformed by the power of love, a vision of community beyond the mind’s capacity to see. We cannot forsake our hearts, and yet we cannot abandon our minds. How shall we use both eyes not to create a blurry double image, but one world, in all its dimensions, healed and made whole?
Episcopal schools are places that teach students to use both eyes: the mind’s eye and the eye of the heart: a wholeness of spirit, a connection to others, a life graced by joy and purpose. In Episcopal schools, ideas matter and spirit matters. We strive for equity and justice not because it’s trendy but because it is our gospel call. Students give service not to build a resume but because it’s the right thing to do. This is what led me to and holds me fast to Episcopal schools.
It is a vision that challenges the most common stereotypes of private and Episcopal schools: rich, spoiled, exclusive, sheltered, and self-indulgent. The truth is that great Episcopal schools transform all: the poor, the middle class, and the rich. Bound together, we are changed together. Episcopal schools alums will speak over and over again about how well they were prepared academically but even more about how they were shaped in fundamental ways.
But it’s a secular world out there, I hear you say. Who wants this kind of education?
It is true that more Americans are increasingly secular. According to the Pew Forum on Religion in American Life, one-fifth of the U.S. public and a third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. This large and growing group of Americans is less religious on many conventional measures, including how frequently they attend religious services.
However, a new Pew survey also finds that many of these 46 million unaffiliated adults remain religious or spiritual in some way. They persist in their belief in God, they seek a spiritual life, and they believe that religion can be a positive force for good in society.
Will they come to church? Maybe. Maybe not. Will they choose a school for their children that is both educationally excellent and speaks to spiritual longing, a belief in the common good, and a belief that religion—and churches—are forces of good in the world? Experience tells me: yes.