Commencement Lessons, Both Soaring and Sobering

These are the days of graduations. Like you parents and grandparents, I go to a lot of them. So far this year, I’ve been to commencement ceremonies for a Catholic college, high school, and a combined event for all of our eighth-graders in lower Westchester. I enjoy them.

I especially look forward to the student addresses, and am rarely disappointed. After years of this “graduation circuit,” I can report to you, the folks that make our Catholic schools hum, that you would be proud, too, as you listened to the valedictorians representing their classmates. With different flourishes and style, these student speakers at graduation, usually end up with the same themes.

One, they all refer to God. They realize that they could not have achieved the goal of graduation without God’s grace and mercy, and that their Catholic education is indeed a gift from the Lord and His Church. These orators will refer to the Bible, to Jesus, to prayer, to the sacraments. In a word, they are humbly grateful to God, and not afraid to state that publicly.

Two, their thanks spills over to others, as they acknowledge their parents and families, who sacrificed to get them a Catholic schooling, and to the faculty and administration of their school. It’s clear these class speakers have detected that their parents love them and have given up a lot for them, and that the faculty looks at their duties not as a job but as a vocation. They see in their teachers a model of service, professionalism, and talent they wish now to emulate.

Three, our graduation speakers talk about virtue, character, and morality. While listening to them, it’s evident that they have picked up that Catholic education is holistic, forming mind, body, heart, and soul. They’re looking forward not only to what they can do in life, but who they will be: upright, virtuous people of faith and morals.

Finally, they all mention service. They realize the truth that what we get is a gift not to keep but to give away in love to others, especially those in need. Somewhere in their talk I know they’ll mention some project of service, some initiative of helping others, which has characterized their years of schooling. These are not “spoiled brats” with a sense of entitlement, but young people eager to give back.

I look at these commencement talks as report cards for our schools, and am delighted to conclude they get an “A”!

What will it take for all of us to sober up and acknowledge the treasure we have in our Catholic schools? To graduate students who believe in those four points above costs tons of money. Everybody praises our schools, but—with some brilliant exceptions, thank God—few are willing to support them (beyond tuition, which fewer and fewer are willing or able to pay, and which only covers a fraction of the cost). All mourn when one has to close, but most of them cannot be found on the donors’ list.

D.C. and Albany compliment us, but continue, for the most part, to ignore us. Even the “no-brainer” Education Tax Credit bill, hailed by majorities in both parties, and by the governor, is in jeopardy, as it was scorned by the Public Schools Teachers’ Unions (even though it would have helped our teachers there as well).

A new bestseller, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community, ” by Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Steele Garnett, out of the University of Chicago, validates it again: Catholic schools are the best thing going, with success rates through the stars. These scholars, too, warn that, without creative means of new support, and some share in the tax dollars paid for education by sacrificing middle-class and poor parents, they will keep closing.

And we’ll have fewer and fewer graduates speaking of God, gratitude, virtue, and service.