“Each of us is born an original, but we are ever so in danger of dying as mere photocopies,” Carlo Acutis.
At some point over the last century or so, school became about, as Alberto M. Piedras says, “not the communication of knowledge but the sharing of social experience.”
True education presents nobility of character and self-sacrifice. Not a shared experience but an uncommon, often difficult one, one that challenges students to go against the flow instead of with it.
Not to show students nobility risks depriving them of a life of meaning and purpose and offers the feeble substitute of self-indulgence.
Consider this allegorical example.
Once upon our current times, there’s a community school that issues supplies to its students. Young scholars receive uniforms allowing them all to look the same, and multiple, clear plastic backpacks. The backpacks are tinted red, blue, yellow, or green, so students can choose one each day to let their peers know how they’re feeling: red for angry, yellow for triggered, blue for sad, and green for happy.
No one carries the green one.
The backpacks are not called bookbags, for they carry no books.
On their school-issued devices, students read stories about children much like themselves: kids who want to hurt others, those who want to hurt themselves, and those who just want to pull a pillow and stuffed puppy out of their bags and sit in the quiet rooms reserved for students with yellow backpacks.
In defense of the stories, no one ever gets hurt. All ends well when every character gets a new stuffed puppy at the end.
At this school, everything is equal and fair. Everyone gets the same amount at lunch–macaroni and cheese or pizza on alternating days. But students can pick a cookie or an apple for dessert.
There are always lots of leftover apples.
At the end of every day, each student gets a gold star sticker to take home. And the greeters at the door say, “Please think about bringing your green backpack tomorrow. It’s good to be happy.”
Even so, no one carries a green one.
Until the day someone does.
Joe is a new kid. He doesn’t carry a pillow or a stuffed puppy in his backpack. He carries an old-fashioned book, The Horse and His Boy. He doesn’t stomp or shuffle his feet. He smiles.
He’s very weird.
Upon his arrival, more students than usual visit the quiet rooms with their pillows and stuffed puppies.
Day after day, Joe eats his lunch alone as do most of the others. He picks an empty table away from the red backpack kids, near the blue ones who spread out and don’t take much notice that he is there.
One day, he recognizes Ann, a girl who rides on the same school bus he does. She has dark hair, wears glasses with turquoise frames, and carries a blue backpack. Joe senses all eyes on him as he walks to her table and offers her his cookie.
She pauses before replying, pondering his breach of the unspoken rule that students in different emotional states don’t intermix. “Th-thank you.” She glances up at him as she accepts the cookie. Then looks away as she nibbles at its edges.
He gives her his cookie every day for a week and receives the same response in return. On Friday, he lingers.
He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “Want to read my book?”
She nods but whispers, “Not now. On the bus.”
On the ride home, she deftly stuffs the book behind her pillow so no one can see it.
Another week passes. Every day, he gives her his cookie, and she thanks him. But on Friday, she doesn’t eat it. She puts it in her pocket.
When she leaves the cafeteria, Joe sees Ann give the cookie to another student, a younger boy carrying a blue backpack.
A red-backpack boy also notices the exchange. He maneuvers himself in front of them and shoves her and the younger boy onto the floor before moving past them and down the hallway. Before Joe can get there, she helps the fallen boy up, pulls another cookie, her own, out of her pocket, and offers it to him.
The next day, she carries her green backpack to school, sits with Joe at lunch, and thanks him for all the cookies.
“Oh, I hope you don’t mind that I gave your book to my little brother, David. He’s reading it now too.”
“I don’t mind. Would you like to read another one?”
They look up wondering whether their whispered conversation has quieted the cafeteria. They see the smaller boy Ann gave her cookies to and helped before walking to the red backpack side of the room. Seeing the look on Ann’s face, Joe realizes that the boy is Ann’s brother, David.
David approaches the boy who pushed him the week before. The boy stands and looks down at David. All is still as the room waits to see what will happen next.
David looks up and extends his hand offering a cookie. “Would you like my cookie?”
“No,” barks the bully shoving David to the floor again. That side of the room explodes in laughter. The blue-backpack kids look away. Three yellow-backpack students scurry out of the cafeteria to find quiet rooms.
David, wearing more bruises each day, repeats his question at lunchtime every day for the rest of the week and receives the same response.
Except on Friday, the red-backpack boy looks down on David once more but stops short of pushing him.
The room is pin-drop silent in anticipation.
“Sure.” The boy smiles, drops his red backpack, and crosses over to the other side of the cafeteria with David.
And so change slowly comes to the community school with the use of a great many cookies.
And books passed from hand to hand.