Air travel. Those two words often conjure visceral sentiments - fear, excitement, anticipation, dread, impatience, anger, adventure. Whatever your feelings are toward air travel, one thing seems fairly certain; we used to do it better. Within the last few weeks alone, there have been news stories of an international flight returning to its port of origin because of an unruly first-class passenger, a second flight was diverted to an alternate airport due to threats made toward crew members, and most recently a third flight was diverted and a passenger subdued when he attempted to storm the cockpit and open the door of the plane while in flight.
In many ways, air travel is a mini-drama running parallel to the larger saga unfolding in our daily lives. It forces us to encounter others in a fairly intimate way for extended periods of time, sitting inches away from perfect strangers while negotiating for elbow room and luggage space. People used to use air travel as an opportunity to practice their skills of diplomacy, compromise, civility, and politeness. Much of that is gone. Somehow, we’ve forgotten how to behave. We’re out of practice.
A similar thing appears to be happening in schools. My colleague Gabrielle Martin and I recently posted some concerning findings regarding the engagement of early high school students enrolled in our AVLI courses. Since that posting, we’ve been able to further unpack this with our member schools, discussing common concerns and sharing strategies. What struck me most was the degree to which schools expressed concern about behavioral issues among their students, particularly those in the lower high school grades. It’s not that our schools are filled with “bad apples” or even that they are witnessing good kids making poor choices. Instead, it’s more like some of these youngsters don’t know how to act. Whether it be in classrooms or hallways, during free periods, extracurricular activities, dances, or sports practices, a good number of students appear to be struggling with socialization. While learning loss is a major issue, the hit to social skill development among young people may be the greater casualty of COVID.
We all recognize that COVID has led to greater isolation. Collectively, we aren’t as practiced at socialization simply because we’ve lacked the opportunity. For us adults, that means we’re rusty. For kids, though, it’s completely different. Like the old analogy of riding a bike, adults can get on and quickly get back up to speed. Some kids, however, have never been on the “socialization bike”, while most others are still using training wheels. Thus, without the practice of these past two years, they lack the fundamental capacity to thrive in what would once be considered fairly routine social circumstances.
Not knowing how to behave tends to make people feel adrift, like they’re lost and don’t belong. Being that place and providing that space for students to be found is what makes Catholic high schools so special. It’s at the heart of our collective mission. No matter the circumstances, Catholic schools continue to call out, waiting for the moment when a student says, “Here I am.”
So it didn’t go unnoticed to me that one of the common frustrations expressed in our recent conversations with our schools was the number of students who didn’t seem to “buy in”. Hearing this lament from numerous people was particularly disheartening knowing how hard school leaders and teachers have worked to maintain the character and ethos of their respective schools, and to ensure that each student was supported to the greatest extent possible throughout these imperfect times.
It was at this point that one of the people involved in our conversations proposed a correlation between students’ tenuous buy in and the necessary suspension of her school’s traditional retreats and service programs. For me, this seems to be a compelling piece to a largely incomplete puzzle. The past few years, schools did yeoman's work to reinforce mission and identity, and to welcome students in. What was lacking was the capacity to provide the meaningful, life-altering experiences that have long animated Catholic schools’ mission. Thus, early on students likely felt the care and concern of their new Catholic high school and were fully prepared to buy in. But without the opportunity to actively engage, students’ “here I am” was never followed by the more important words, “Send me.” Without a way to extend the care and concern outward, they became the object of that care but never the subject. Ambivalence is an understandable outcome.
Lacking socialization skills, and student ambivalence. If this were baseball, we’d be down in the count 0-2, and things would be looking pretty bleak. But the “at bat” isn’t over yet. Both of these issues have a common origin, a reflexive focus on self. This doesn’t mean these youngsters are selfish. Rather, life’s circumstances have consistently tilted their gaze inward while limiting their exposure to those beyond an established sphere of family and friends.
The good news is that with COVID diminishing, the inertia of these issues is bumping up against the very core of our Catholic schools whose other-centered mission is to form young women and men of competence, conscience, and compassion. Students are benefiting from a balance of new and renewed programs and opportunities the purpose of which are to help students find their place in the world. And slowly, these experiences will begin influencing students’ inward movements.
This is the gift of Catholic schools and why I believe they are among the best positioned to help young people thrive. You can count on Catholic schools to stay the course. Students, parents, and benefactors, I encourage you to do the same. You won’t regret it.
A quick plug: I don't do this often, but with Lent around the corner, I'd like to mention my friend Kent Hickey's book 40 Days with God: Time Out to Journey Through the Bible. (Also available on Audible.) Kent is the former President of Seattle Prep and all proceeds go to the school's learning resource center.
CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President
vol 4 issue 7