This Thursday brings to Saint Ignatius the bi-annual event of Parent-Teacher Conferences. I remember as a student the sense of dread that I felt as my parents left the house, knowing that my future plans – most specifically my plans for the upcoming weekend – were totally dependent upon what came out of the mouths of people like my physics teacher Fr. Kirby, my English teacher Fr. McHugh, or my analysis teacher Fr. Kleinhenz. I always try to remember that feeling as I sit across the table from parents who might be prone to go home and rearrange their son’s social calendar.
Whenever a student isn’t living up to various parental expectations I have always tried to point out his unique gifts, those good qualities that make him redeemable in the eyes of parents who spend a large amount of their hard earned in order to send him to Saint Ignatius. Some of our young men, I will invariably state, need their time here to “grow into themselves” and to learn the lessons that they will take with them into collegiate and adult life. Conversations along those lines tend to save the less-than-stellar Wildcat from the sort of fate that I always dreaded.
My instincts always told me that this approach is what fit in best with the view that each of us is an unrepeatable expression of the image and likeness of God, and that one student should never be compared with another. This is a bit more difficult when parents have had older children climb effortlessly to the top of the Saint Ignatius ladder while the youngest seems content to sit on the bottom rung and play Call of Duty.
Several weeks ago I attended the Excellence in Teaching Conference at Notre Dame and had the good fortune to hear Prof. Sean Smith from the Department of Education at the University of Kansas speak about such matters. In his role as an expert in Special Education and as the father of a son with special needs Dr. Smith was eminently qualified to speak about the unique nature of each of our students.
Dr. Smith opened his presentation with a story about the design of Air Force fighter jets and how a terrible assumption changed the way that the military thought about the “average” pilot. It seems that when designing the cockpits of military planes the logic of averages was used to determine the dimensions of things like seats, levers, instrument panels and the rest. The problem is that, like the average American family and their 2.5 children, the average pilot does not exist. Sure a given pilot might be the average height, but that does not mean that she or he has an average arm length to reach the necessary switches or an average leg length to reach important pedals.
For those of us who need to adjust the seat and steering wheel when entering a car we have the Air Force to thank. Those innovations that make driving a car more comfortable and safer are an outgrowth of what was done to make those Air Force jets flyable by people other than the one in a million who fit all of the “averages.”
In his talk Dr. Smith used that story, taken from The End of Average by Todd Rose, to make the point that there is no such thing as average. As the Amazon blurb on The End of Average states, “This isn’t hollow sloganeering—it’s a mathematical fact with enormous practical consequences.”
In a highly competitive academic environment it is easy to be concerned when your child is “below average” – future college choices and career plans seem to be hanging in the balance. Overly concerned parents can all too easily buy into the belief that if their son isn’t where others are at this point in time – or beyond where others are – then future success and happiness will elude their child and all of the opportunities afforded by a Saint Ignatius education will be lost.
Dr. Rose can sympathize because his parents were in a situation much worse than most Ignatius parents could ever imagine. Their son was suspended from school for throwing six stink bombs at the board in art class in the seventh grade, and that was just the prelude to his becoming a high school drop-out at seventeen, married with a child on the way, and making $4.25 an hour stocking shelves in a department store. If Ignatius parents ever have nightmares about the future, this one would definitely produce heart palpitations and a cold sweat.
Well, now that that stock boy has a doctorate from Harvard and is the head of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education it is probable that his parents sleep quite well at night. There is nothing “average” about Dr. Todd Rose, just as there is nothing average about any of the students whose parents will come to see me on Thursday evening.