If Geese Flock, How Will Your Child React?

Being a kid today is not easy. But then again, it never was, which is why Catholic schools such as Fenwick teach both ‘résumé virtues’ and ‘eulogy virtues.’

By John Paulett

Mr. Paulett is a Golden Apple-winning Moral Theology Teacher at Fenwick.

One of our graduates, currently a student at a university in Indiana, sent me a copy of an article she wrote for the college publication. Her essay told about a college student being transported to the hospital for excessive consumption of alcohol.

“’Four guys carried this kid downstairs limb by limb and they sat him down, and he could barely sit in the chair, and we tried to wake him up, but he was unconscious,’ (a witness) said.”

The article, written on October 10th, stated that, “21 students were hospitalized for alcohol consumption in the fall semester of last year, 20 students have already been hospitalized in the first half of the fall semester this year.”

I am a parent as well as a teacher, and I know these are frightening stories to read. They remind us that young people often face situations that are new and uncertain. Young people can make bad decisions, sometimes because pressures take the place of good judgment.

When I think about young people confronted by difficult choices, it brings to mind a dramatic incident from 2009. On January 15th of that year, minutes after takeoff, US Airways flight 1549 struck a flock of geese. The collision happened at 3:27:11. The plane’s pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully, they called him,) radioed a Mayday call at 3:27:33. At 3:31 p.m., less than five minutes later, the pilot landed the plane in the Hudson River. His recognition of the problem, creation of a plan, and execution of the action happened in minutes. Like most people, I found the Captain’s ability to solve the problem and land the plane in such a short time almost unbelievable. (Actor Tom Hanks portrays him in the 2016 motion picture, “Sully.”)

Captain Chesley Sullenberger

I read an interview with Sullenberger in which he was questioned about his ability to act so well so fast. He said, “I had to very quickly come up with a paradigm of how to solve even this problem.”

His response reminds me of what happens in Catholic education.

Responding to Unexpected Challenges

Young people face unexpected challenges with alcohol, drugs, sex, honesty. They might start an evening feeling that everything is routine, much like Sullenberger thought the take off of 1549 was just another flight out of New York City. And then they are faced with serious problem. Other students are drinking shots. A young man has become sexually aggressive. Someone has taken out a camera to video a girl who is incapacitated. The young man or woman has just been struck by the equivalent of a flock of geese.

If we follow the suggestion of Captain Sullenberger, we need, in these moments to “come up with a paradigm,” that is to say, a model, a pattern, a way to think about the crisis.

This is what moral education at Fenwick is about. In the setting of the Catholic school, we learn models and patterns for virtuous action, a fancy way of saying that we practice the habits we need for those urgent and dangerous moments. The Dominican tradition, based in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, understands the moral life as a life of virtue. Aquinas (following Augustine) sees morality as consisting of “good [qualities] of mind whereby we live righteously.”

Sullenberger explained that “had he been a lot less experienced, had he not had the 20,000 hours of flying time,’” he would not have had time to decide what to do. In classes such as moral theology, students learn models of virtue, “the good qualities of mind,” that they can have on hand, ready for the times when they are tested. Through discussion, reading, writing and reflection, Fenwick students go through training, much as an airline pilot does, trying to develop and internalize the paradigms they will need when their planes strike geese.

Education has come to be seen, in many quarters, as simply preparation for a career, or just readiness for a college that will prepare us for a career. New York Times columnist David Brooks says that this view has caused young people to focus more and more on their resumes. He writes, “there (are) two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

Captain Sullenberger had resume skills, but it was his ability to pull on the virtues of calmness, clear thinking, focus, “the good qualities of the mind” that saved 155 people. Those are the “eulogy virtues” that will be talked about at his funeral. Those are the virtues that students learn at Fenwick.

The academic accomplishments of Fenwick students demonstrate that the school is excellent at resume skills. But Fenwick values, just as highly as resume virtues, the virtues that give us the ability to “come up with a paradigm” at a time of moral crisis. The distinctive Dominican character of our moral formation is the development of virtue, the habits that lead us to a happy and fulfilling life.

Mr. Paulett teaches Expressive Arts and Moral Theology at Fenwick; he also is the school’s Photography Club moderator. A native of Ohio, John attended St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, then earned a B.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University. He also holds an M.A. degree in Theology from Felician College, an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Antioch University, and is currently pursuing post-graduate work in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. In 2013, Mr. Paulett was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Education. He has also been recognized as “Heart of the School” by the Archdiocese of Chicago. John “moonlights” as an Adjunct Professor, National Louis University in Chicago. Outside the classroom, the versatile Mr. Paulett has published histories of Chicago, a book on prayer and spirituality, and several plays (“Lost Chicago,” “Forgotten Chicago,” “Printers Row,” “Pentecost,” and “Peanuts, Popcorn and Prayer”). He also is an actor, appearing on stage and in film, including the award-winning short film “The European Kid.”

2 Replies to “If Geese Flock, How Will Your Child React?”

  1. I agree the two dangerous situations can happen even during a routine that it is the person’s experience that depends on the outcome of the situation.

  2. I loved the metaphor, I think you captured life as a fenwick student perfectly. It is clear, concise, and well written!

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