Angels in Education

A Homily Preached for the Opening of Catholic Schools Week

Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, Allentown, Pennsylvania

25 January 2015

Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God…

–Jonah 3:4-5–

As many of you know, I attended kindergarten, first grade, and second grade right next door some fifty years ago when what is now Saint John Vianney Regional School was the Cathedral School of St. Catharine of Siena.  Ever since I arrived here at the Cathedral in June of 2013, it has been a surprising walk down memory lane for me.  I find myself recalling scenes and incidents from my childhood that I had not thought about for decades.

One of the memories I have been pondering has to do with the set of angel stamps Sister James Therese and Sister Theresa Gertrude would use in grading our schoolwork.  It was a set of rubber stamps, each stamp depicting an angel in an attitude of approval or disapproval along with a teacher comment.  The staff and faculty next door remembered nothing of these stamps.  I tried to find the stamps on eBay and on—with no success.  Several months ago, however, I mentioned the angel stamps to one of my former students who went on to enter the convent.  A few weeks later, she actually (and quite miraculously) procured a set of angel stamps from a retired teaching sister in her order.  Voila, mes amis, here they are!

There are six in all, and the remarks and angel pictures on them range from ultimate approval to downright rejection.  One stamp bears the image of a smiling angel with the inscription, “EXCELLENT!  Keep up the good work.”  From there we go to “VERY GOOD.  Keep trying.”  Next, “YOU CAN DO BETTER.  I know you can.”  Then, “TRY HARDER.  You can do it!”  Stamp number five portrays an angel with an obvious grimace, along with the words, “CARELESS!  Try again.”  The last stamp is the pièce de résistance and my all-time favorite.  It portrays an angel covering her eyes, and the accompanying comment is, “NOT GOOD!  I can’t even look!”  Oh, ladies and gentlemen, if I had had this stamp during my twenty-four-year stint teaching sophomores at Bethlehem Catholic High School, I would have worn it out!

We may have a tendency to laugh at these stamps and the “anachronistic” philosophy behind them, but I wonder:  Does it help students to be told that they are doing magnificent work, even when they are not?  Much of our educational system today is predicated on building self-esteem.  Yet I believe that real self-esteem comes from the certain knowledge of a job well done.  I have three personal vignettes to illustrate my point.

 Vignette #1:  When I was in elementary school, my classmates and I took a standardized test, which I thoroughly bombed.  Our well-meaning teacher, who was normally very good at dishing out approval and disapproval, made all her students who passed the test stand on one side of the classroom, and all the students who failed stand on the other.  I knew full well I had failed the test, but my well-intentioned teacher made me stand with the pupils who passed it.  What do you think was the result?  From then on, I was never sure whether the grades I received from teachers were honest assessments of my work or mendacious sops meant to appease a poor, legally blind boy!  Yes, I did eventually enroll in Harvard Divinity School, but to this day I have a nagging doubt:  Did I really deserve to get into Harvard, or was I helping the University fill its handicapped quota?  Even now I am plagued with uncertainty.

Here’s Thesis #1 to go along with Vignette #1:  Dishonest grading engenders doubt, not confidence, in the hearts of students.

Vignette #2: While attending Moravian College, I took a course in Greek literature taught by Dr. Dennis Glew.  I wrote a paper for him.  When I got it back, there at the top was a big, fat, red C-.  What did I do?  Did I whine and beg Professor Glew to change the grade?  Not at all!  On the contrary (and even somewhat to my surprise), I said to myself: Here, at last, is a man I can trust to give me the grade I truly deserve!  Here is a man who has given me the ability to please him by my performance.  I will therefore work my tail off until I get an A.  And I did precisely that.  To this day, Dr. Dennis Glew, now retired and a member of St. Anne’s parish in Bethlehem, remains one of my most beloved professors.  I am eternally grateful to him.

Thesis #2: Poor grades can be an invitation and challenge to a student to work harder.

Vignette #3: I once had the privilege of taking a course in the Hebrew Prophets at Moravian Theological Seminary.  The instructor was Professor Howard Cox.  I wrote a paper for him on the prophet Ezekiel.  I was meticulous in citing all my sources.  The paper boasted no less than forty-two footnotes.   Imagine my dismay when I discovered that Dr. Cox had given my opus an F and accused me of plagiarism!  Alas!  In citing my sources, I failed to use quotation marks to indicate words that were not my own.  To be sure, I did alter the various authors’ wording, but only slightly and not enough to justify the omission of quotation marks.   If I wanted to omit the quotation marks, I should have been more thorough in transforming the sources’ thoughts into my own wording.  When I wrote the paper, I did not think I was doing anything wrong.  Professor Cox disagreed.  Thank God he did!  Had he not, I would have gone on to do the same thing later.  Better to be caught plagiarizing at Moravian Theological Seminary than at Harvard Divinity School!

Thesis #3: When faced with failure, it is best to learn from it so you don’t do something worse later on.

I recently finished the wonderful book How Children Succeed by journalist Paul Tough.  Drawing on some fascinating psychological research and the real-life experiences of some remarkable individuals, the author argues that the number one predictor of success is not intelligence, but character—optimism, grit, perseverance, and the determination to learn from mistakes.  What a tremendous observation!  Show me a great historical figure, and I’ll point to a failure over which he or she triumphed.

As a teacher, I am familiar with the case of parents who, when their sixth grade son was caught deliberately plagiarizing, defended him tooth and nail, even when the evidence of his dishonesty was staring them right in the face.  With parents like that, who needs enemies?

In our first reading from the book of Jonah, God sends the prophet to the sinful people of Nineveh.  Jonah’s message was not some platitude designed to build self-esteem.  No!  He gave the Ninevites an honest assessment: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.”  The result was that the people of Nineveh took Jonah’s message to heart.  They learned their lesson, and they became better.

Ladies and gentlemen, children need honest appraisals of their behavior and work.  They don’t need teachers who will give them empty praise and inflated grades.  They don’t need helicopter parents who will bail them out of trouble and shield them from consequences so that they never learn from their mistakes.  Remember what psychologist Ray Guarendi says:  If you don’t discipline your kids, someone else will do it for you—the police or even a judge!

I am not saying that we should not make allowances for real disabilities.  I am the first to admit how much I myself have benefited from special education.  Nor am I saying that there is ever a reason for parents or teachers to be cruel.  But let’s not lie to our kids.

Remember:  Dishonest grading engenders doubt, not confidence, in the hearts of students.  Poor grades can be an invitation and challenge to students to do better.  When faced with failure, it is best to learn from it so you don’t do something worse later on.

By the way, upon my request, Office Depot was able to custom make two brand new sets of angel stamps.  What do you think I did with them?  I donated them to St. John Vianney Regional School.  What goes around comes around.

Happy Catholic Schools Week, everybody!  God bless you!