The Value of School, In Session and Out!

Approaching Good Friday, I could not help but remember the response that Bishop John T. Walker, onetime Bishop of Washington, gave to students and parents at the Cathedral schools when they expressed their concern to him about those schools being in session—as they frequently were—on Good Friday. When asked, “How in the world can a church school be open on Good Friday?” his response was, “If school is open on Good Friday, more students will be in church on that most sacred of days than if they were at home with their families.”

It is hard to argue with that wise observation from that wonderful man of God and lover of Episcopal schools. Of course, a good case can be made for the symbolic value of a school taking off a day of utmost importance to a religious tradition. Suspending our deep commitment to teaching and learning in honor of that tradition is a powerful statement, a recognition that business as usual must, at times, give way to more important things. It is also a way of accentuating our support for the important days when families should be together. However, it is equally hard to deny that there are times when being in school provides an opportunity, a point of common interest and commitment, that few other places can match in this day and age. I continue to regret the fact that on that pivotal day for my own generation—November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated—I was home sick, just as I felt I missed something while I was on sabbatical when the planes hit the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, rather than being with the students and colleagues I knew and loved at St. Albans. There is support, inspiration and a singular opportunity to gather on important days—both festive and tragic—that only a place like school can provide.

My point is not to raise the issue of whether or not our schools should be in session on important religious holidays like Good Friday. Rather, the conversation that was frequently held between those students and Bishop Walker points to the ongoing consideration every good school must give to two questions: first, what are the things that we can uniquely do as a school community for our families that almost no other institution can? Secondly, what are the things that schools need to continue to be handing over to the home, recognizing that there are times when we need to be supporting and encouraging the building up of home life and the responsibility it entails?

Recently I gave a talk to a parent group on my new book. It was part of a series that this particular school was offering to parents on how best to raise their children (I was in pretty fast and far more capable company, from what I knew of the other speakers!). I came away with a powerful sense of how no other venue than school could have brought this group of people together to reflect on their most cherished possessions in life. Our schools occupy a most unique and powerful position in this regard, and there are times when we should be taking advantage of that reality in our contemporary world. We simply owe it to our families to make use of that privileged position.

At the same time, a good school should be reluctant to take it all on, and should be committed to the maintenance of times and the ceding of certain key issues to the home. With so many of our families connected only to one stable institution in their lives dedicated to bringing them beyond their selves—school—the demand is indeed intense for those institutions to take over much of what may have been, in previous generations, the territory of home or church. Indeed, part of the fatigue we can feel this time of year is the result of school being the “catch all” for so many issues in the lives of our students and families. Our busy lives may be increasingly individualistic, our hearts more and more suspicious of institutions in general, but the human need for a place of gathering and collective voice is still there. Schools fill that need like no other institutional magnet today, but that does not mean we surrender all of our boundaries. We still need to be thinking about those times when, as issues pop up, we must hand those very issues back to families and support them as they take them back home, where they belong.

How easy it is to blur the boundaries these days between home and school. We can run ourselves ragged in schools doing the work of home—teaching manners, giving advice to parents, taking on an increasing volume of individual needs brought to our doorsteps—and lull ourselves into thinking we should and could do it all for our families. In turn, many families are only too willing to cede over responsibilities to the school (for example, how many times have we heard in Episcopal schools that the school chapel is viewed by some parents as the primary vehicle for their children’s religious and spiritual formation?).

There are some things that only the school can do; there are some things we need to leave to the domain of home; the lines between the two can be very porous at times. The consideration of “what belongs where” is not something we can take for granted.

Accordingly, my question to all of you is this: what are some of the things that we need, in particular, to be carefully but responsibly handing back to the home?