Tonight, the men’s basketball team of my alma mater–Loyola University Maryland–played in the conference championship for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, or MAAC. Ironically, though, while I sit here and type this wearing a Loyola College sweatshirt (I graduated before it became a university), I haven’t always had the best view of my college. Since I graduated in 1999 it’s been I guess what you could call a love-hate relationship. Loyola is not a huge school on the level of my wife’s alma mater–The University of Virginia–and aside from its success over the years in men’s and women’s lacrosse, it has never been much of a national competitor for just about anything. I like to joke that it’s an “… and where is that?” school (“Where did you go?” “Loyola.” ” … and where is that?”), even though we have a couple of famous alumni (Tom Clancy and Jim McKay are the most notable), and I know that my friends and I trade occasional gibes about how worthless our degrees are. My donations to the alumni fund are pretty paltry–$25 here, $50 there (granted, I’m a teacher so you can’t expect me to be “platinum level” with the donations)–and I’ve also never attended a single alumni event, including two college reunions.
But when talking to seniors about what possibly awaits them in college, I find myself telling them more about the positive than the negative and waxing nostalgic about everything from my favorite classes to bad dining hall food. I can even flip through three photo albums’ worth of pictures from those four years and think about what I loved about being on that particular college campus in Baltimore, even if I endured my fair share of crap; similarly, I can flip through my high school yearbooks and think the same.
That’s probably at least one of the reasons why I wound up being a high school yearbook adviser (my friend Melissa, who was our high school’s yearbook editor-in-chief, subscribes more to the belief that this is karmic retribution for my being an obnoxious jackass to her in high school), because while I love the writing/photography/editing/layout that goes along with yearbook production, I realize that part of my job is contributing to my school’s “spirit need.” We’re not propaganda or a boosters association by any means, because we’re also a “record of history” for the school, but there is a certain amount of publicity and image-making that goes into a high school yearbook. People reading it want to be able to show it off to their friends, and since they shelled out the $65 we charge for it want to feel that they can be proud of where they came from. So, even though there is certainly a fair amount of bullshit to be found in the yearbook, I think we do our best to both show that “slice of life” and put our best foot forward.
Now, I’ve read enough and heard enough about teaching and the public education system lately, you’d believe that I’m: a) a naive sucker, or b) a major part of the problem. Public schools, after all, are failing. They steal dreams. They hurt our children. Furthermore, a college education is completely unnecessary these days and will do more to bankrupt you than educate you (after all, Steve Jobs never went to college).
But walk the hallway near my classroom these days–the senior hallway–and you’ll see students proudly displaying swag from their future alma maters, or wearing a variation on the same Virginia sweatshirt they’ve been wearing since mom and dad buckled them into the booster seat in their navy blue minivan with a Cavaliers rear window decal. They take pride in being a Wahoo or a Tarheel or one of the Fighting Irish, and may come to consider their fellow alums “family” in a manner of speaking. In fact, you could say that where you go to school becomes as much part of your identity as, say, where your hometown is or who your parents are.
There are obviously times when the idea of “school spirit” runs amok and it seems that the Friday night football game or a high school state basketball championship are more important than academics, but for every moment where your school seems like Riverdale, there are moments where teachers and students show that it truly is a place for enrichment and learning. During my time as an English teacher and publications adviser at two schools, I have had the opportunity to host a poetry competition, have seen earth science students give some great demonstrations to elementary schoolers, sat on a stage with students as they read their own poems, seen physics classes drop protected eggs from great heights, eaten food produced by kids in culinary arts, and probably a ton more things that I can’t think of right now. In fact, the student of mine who won that poetry competition is in the Poetry Out Loud state finals next Thursday, which I think is definitely someone to be proud of because not only is she one of my sophomores, but this is the fourth consecutive year we have sent someone to that level.
I’m sure that a proper response to what I just wrote about students’ academic achievement or an individual’s success would be that they would have gotten without or in spite of their teachers and they are anomalies in a system that continually victimizes the majority of those within. And I’m not going to deny that my building, my district, and the public school system itself are flawed. My colleagues and I strive to create a positive learning environment, but should we be so dismayed when it falls a little short? And aren’t there are times when you are allowed to have pride in where you are and what you do? And why put a damper on that pride when it can actually be encouraging?
Hating something or being mean or dismissive are about as easy as being a Pollyanna. Just find a target, direct, and spew. What is hard is having a healthy relationship to where you are and what you do because there is so much disappointment that goes along with achievement, pride, and happiness that you often walk away more frustrated than anything. But when you evaluate both the strengths and weaknesses of that school, that district, or that system, you do eventually remember why it’s still worth holding on to.
For the record, Loyola won 48-41 and will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994. GO HOUNDS!