January 24, 2019
I must confess to a selfish first thought when the news of the standoff last Friday between students from Covington Catholic High School and a Native American elder blew up on social media, the internet, and TV. My thinking went something like, "This hurts all of us in Catholic schools."
Next, my administrator mind kicked in: Where were the chaperones? On a trip where the students were representing their school, should the chaperones have allowed them to wear the politically-charged MAGA hats? What happened in the lead up to the confrontation? I am sure my peers in Kentucky are near exhaustion in answering these and many more tough questions. Processing Friday's confrontation will require the very best from students, teachers, parents, and administrators. It will take a long time. It will not be easy. And the critics will be watching.
Every school administrator understands not to be eager to jump to conclusions. Presidents, Principals, Deans ... in these roles, we learn early that we need to hear more than one point of view. Since this story hit, there has been no shortage of points of view. We have seen a deluge of news and commentary. Opinions have been offered from across the political spectrum. It's hard to keep up and, six days out, interest in the confrontation has yet to fade from the news cycle. Perhaps the story has staying power because it encapsulates so many of the points of division in our deeply polarized culture.
As the leader of a Catholic school, I feel for Covington Catholic. They came to DC to participate in the mission-affirming March for Life Day. Our students attend the same event every year. I have been made to wonder: How effectively does our Good Counsel education prepare our students for a dealing with a similar confrontation?
We make efforts on several fronts to equip students with the spiritual, intellectual, social, and emotional skills to navigate the world. For decades, a hallmark of a Good Counsel education has been engagement in service to the poor and marginalized. Our insistence on direct service and "being with" rather than simply "giving to" or "doing for" translates, we believe, to greater empathy and respect. Our Junior Retreat ranks among the most powerful GC experiences, opening eyes to the challenges faced by classmates and the reality of love and support to be found in being a member of our community. More recently, we have instituted an advisory program. Still in its infancy, we see the small adult-to-student ratio and long-term connection as powerful ways to strengthen a sense of belonging and, as the name implies, provide sound advice. Lastly, driven by the Board's 2015 Strategic Plan, we have focused on diversity, inclusion, equity and justice. Our students are encouraged to understand and appreciate the uniqueness and inherent dignity of every human person.
None of these aspects of a Good Counsel education grants students immunity from poor decision making in the heat of the moment. For young people lacking in experience, it's easy to be confused, self-conscious, and tone deaf to how "the other" feels.
Commentators have expounded on many aspects of the face-off between Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann and Native American elder Nathan Philipps. My hope is that our students, placed in a similar circumstance, would handle themselves well. We live in times where understanding and sensitivity towards Native American concerns does not get a lot of play. For example, locally, raising the question of the appropriateness of the name of the Washington football team usually results in shrugged shoulders and "What's the big deal?" On Sunday night, millions of viewers watched the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs vigorously beating an enormous drum. The name "Pocahontas" has gained currency as a label to belittle a political rival. Clearly, we have a way to go in respect for Native American culture. Back in the fall, one of our board members shared insights about his life among the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the poorest place in America. The presentation helped me, and many of our students fortunate enough to attend, take some steps on the journey towards greater understanding of people whose reality is far from ours in Montgomery County.
Last Friday's incident tells me, loudly, that we equip students for dealing with the storm and stress of our polarized times when what we teach them every day has our mission in mind: We inspire our students to excel, serve, and love. To deliver on mission we must expose students to the unfamiliar, encourage inquiry, and support opportunities for growth. In our divided times, the call seems urgent.
All the publicity surrounding the Covington Catholic incident has a positive side. There is an implicit call for every Catholic school to self-examination and renewal. At Good Counsel, in line with our core Xaverian values, let's make a special effort to inspire excellencethat comes without entitlement or condescension. Let's inspire servicein ways that awaken humility and compassion. And let's inspire lovethat appreciates the uniqueness and inherent dignity of every human person.
Our Lady of Good Counsel, pray for us.