Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #053. First published in the St. Cloud Times Dec. 27, 2011

Woody Allen is on track to rival Mark Twain and Yogi Berra for most attributed quotations—both things they said and things they didn’t. I had decided to write this month about volunteering, and figured the “well-known” remark about “showing up” would serve for a beginning.

“Eighty percent of success is showing up” or “Ninety percent of life is just showing up”? Allen gets credited with both, and online you can find myriads of riffs, such as “Life is really only forty percent showing up,” or “twenty percent.” The percentage doesn’t really matter, and no one would hold Woody Allen to a standard of pinpoint mathematical accuracy, but “showing up” is good shorthand for something we as a society need lots more of.

A Times news story on Dec. 15, headlined “Learning by serving,” was especially resonant with the spirit of showing up and giving associated with the holiday season.  Sub-headed “North Junior High students help out by joining local projects,” the article detailed a logistical miracle—organizing 700 students (sixth, seventh, and eight graders; you’ve heard of herding cats) for an entire day to engage in many forms of public service, some of which could be done in the school building, others that required transportation to the St. Cloud Hospital, Place of Hope, the St. Cloud Library, and Whitney Senior Center. Funds for transportation and other expenses were provided by outsiders, including the Local Education & Activities Foundation (LEAF).

Social studies teacher Mike Gritman and students in a social justice club had the idea, and with support from administration and faculty, they made it happen—“the first time the entire school took part in a service day.”

John Gerads, a science teacher, said, “I think the biggest thing is the fact that we want the kids to understand if they want to help the community they don’t have to do anything earth-shattering.” The key word here is “understand.” It means that during that day, those students experienced learning in a profound way—and so did their teachers.

I talked to one teacher, who said that when her class went to another school to read to a class of younger ones, one of her students gravitated toward a disabled student and was helpful and attentive, “and I’d never have predicted it.” I was reminded of a line in the song “Getting to Know You,” sung in “The King and I” by Anna Leonowens: “It’s a very ancient saying but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher by your pupils you’ll be taught.”

“I’m just learning how to help,” said sixth-grader Javaun Ashfeld, who was at the hospital cutting fabric for neonatal intensive care unit blankets. I suspect the remark was off-hand, but there is something deep in “learning how,” which is at least as important as “learning what.” And there’s wisdom in the observation of eighth-grader Grant Delaney, who was packing boxes to be sent to soldiers: “We get the feeling of being able to help.” It’s not just learning, but getting the feeling of being able.

It seems to me that it’s precisely the feeling of being able that is so drastically missing in our common life these days. Polls show that people are helpless, hopeless, hapless. If public policy takes one step forward, we expect it will soon take two steps back.

Volunteering is not an easy solution to what ails us; it is a mistake—both inaccurate and dismissive—to tell people that a particular effort won’t require much of them. What we need to hear is that we have all been blessed immeasurably by what the community provides for us, and by giving back we not only repay a debt but also help ourselves. Ben Boucher, an eighth-grader, summed it up: “It makes me feel like I am giving back to the community.”

There will be lots of talk in 2012 about volunteering, partnering. The kids of North, a hundred percent of whom showed up, can instruct us. As Mike Gritman said, “We are geared so that kids don’t forget we are all in this together.”

Parting note: Please remember the “10 Objects” project proposed in my column last month. Check out the box on this page for details—and please enter!