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 #047. First published in the St. Cloud Times June 28, 2011


Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who will read his poetry Oct. 2 at St. John’s University, has a knack for hearing voices long dead that speak directly to current news.

A front-page report in the June 6 Times, “Student success drives district effort,” put me in mind of Heaney’s 1991 version of a play by ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles, in which the chorus refers to moments when “hope and history rhyme.”

It may seem a stretch to put the St. Cloud school district’s effort to engage more of the community in helping all children achieve success on a par with the connection Heaney had in mind — the longed-for reconciliation, after decades of bloodshed, of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But history happens on smaller scales, too, and were we to meet — really meet — the challenge being presented to us by the Student Success Campaign, the relation of hope and history in our part of the world would change. The rhyming is up to you and me.

A brief ‘history’

The “history” is in one sense brief. The report recounts activities of the Linkages Committee of the St. Cloud school board the past year, including forums I discussed in my April 2010 column, “Students refuse to be victims.” But the history with which hope is beginning to rhyme goes back much further, to when there was little concern about kids who didn’t succeed in school, partly because there were still good jobs available requiring few skills, partly because some kids were considered expendable, and were in effect invisible.

The fundamental issue the Student Success Task Force (disclosure: my wife is its co-chair) poses to the entire community is this: “What part of all don’t you understand?”

Hope and history don’t have a chance of rhyming in any dimension of society until this question is asked and faced.

The Times report got it right, up to a point. Yes, the task force was initiated by the school district. But the key word is “linkages.” The goal is to change the way people in the St. Cloud area think about the stake we all have in the development of all our children.

Top of mind

A few decades ago, the majority of households had kids in school; today, only about a quarter do. It’s easy to say kids are someone else’s concern. A communitywide “top of mind” campaign for student success is much bigger than a district effort.

The project doesn’t start from scratch. The Student Success Campaign draws on many thriving programs, such as Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota. It also already has buy-in from representatives of institutions such as St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud Technical & Community College, and CentraCare Health System, who recognize the benefits of all students being successful. One goal is to increase access by coordinating services the groups provide for young people.

But there are so many more assets to draw on. Too often we compartmentalize our thinking — “that’s for nonprofits to do,” or “public entities,” or “only the private sector”; “that’s for civic leaders,” or “parents,” or “retired people.” Mainly, though, “It’s not for me or my organization.”

It is for you. And you have much to offer.

For starters, you can move student success to the top of your mind as good for this entire community. Then you can start believing — really believing — that kids want to succeed (as I noted a year ago, victimhood is neither their identity nor their desire), and that you can play a role in the development of a child’s self-motivation, self-determination, persistence in education, academic performance, and goals for the future. If this extends to your volunteering to tutor or mentor, all the better.

But don’t underestimate the significance of your attitude. When everyone in the community takes ownership and acknowledges a stake in the development and achievement of all our children, the St. Cloud area will be transformed, deserving even more its “most livable” designation.

Pessimism and gloom are in plentiful supply; rhyming history and despair is easy. But if you ask, “What creates success for kids?” and answer, “We can do that!” hope and history rhyme.