When I was a young headmaster, I read Louis Auchincloss’s novel about an old headmaster, Frank Prescott. Having spent his life building a well-respected New England boarding school, The Rector of Justin catches up with Prescott in his declining years. In one passage, he posits a summary of what he has learned about parents and students and schools throughout his long career:
Most fathers would rather see their sons dead than either cultivated or devout. They commend our efforts, but even more our failures. Yes, the greatness of the private school… is not that it produces geniuses—they grow anyway, and can’t be made—but that it can sometimes turn a third-rate student into a second-rate one. We can’t boast publicly of such triumphs, but they are still our glory.
Despite Prescott’s gloomy impression of parental intentions (in subsequent paragraphs he bemoans the fact that, despite having received a classical Christian education, most of his alumni become “stockbrokers”), the paragraph ends on a profoundly positive note. A school’s “glory” is that a “third-rate student” can be improved: students can exceed their supposed potential through well-designed instruction.
I have seven children, and a couple of them would probably fall into Prescott’s “third-rate” category. They are plenty bright (though one is alarmingly ADHD), but their natural proclivities are not toward, say, the life of the mind. They like to shoot stuff. They like to beat on things with hammers. They like to jump off of promontories into less than reliably deep waters. Just this summer, one of my third-raters convinced his sister to snorkel with him through high waves and around big rocks so they could see some sea turtles up close. They had fun. I chewed my cuticles.
In Mrs. Sevener’s first grade class last week, I got to see how typical children, the not-genius-kids, become fine students. First of all, remember that they are six, maybe seven. I walked in, and Mrs. Sevener had four students gathered in front of her for a guided reading lesson. That left twelve or so students without her undivided attention. Three of the twelve were sitting together at a table, so I sat down and asked them what they were doing. “We’re writing a book,” said one. “How do you spell ‘them’?” asked another. I looked around the room, noticing everyone was busy. And happy.
You know that phrase we throw around so often: “love of learning.” How can a child whose natural tendencies are not toward serious study become a well-formed, self-motivated student? The only way is to teach them to revel in achievement, to let them be proud of what they have learned, and to give them personally meaningful reasons to pursue more knowledge and greater understanding.
At CCA, as in any school, we have a few geniuses. Always have. Always will. But most of our kids, if we’re honest, are Frank Prescott’s second and third-rate students. Bright, but they need help to be and to stay motivated. Many of them, especially once they hit adolescence, will need to be retaught to love learning in different ways than when they were in Mrs. Sevener’s class. But the job is the same, as is the reward. And that is our glory.
Click here to read about how preschoolers who play learn to approach learning with joy.