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Tales from the Crypt of Catholic Education

I was out the other night and saw little ones dressed as witches and monsters, which put me in mind of a television show from years ago called Tales from the Crypt, a spin-off of a comic book series I had seen years before. Not being a fan of the “horror” genre, I didn’t watch the show much. But whenever I did, it usually involved a grisly story of some poor unfortunate, unsuspectingly getting caught up in some macabre affair. A couple adopts a boy, plotting something horrible, but the boy turns out to be something even more horrible. The blood or gore did not make the show terrifying; it was the macabre and the unexpected.

I had that same “What-macabre-alternate-dimension-am-I-in?” reaction of many of the show’s characters when I heard a story from my friend about his son and his troubles at a diocesan Catholic high school. The young man graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from college, spent over a year teaching junior high kids in Iraq and English to Iraqi Christian women, and then distinguished himself as a top student at Oxford where he co-authored several publications with an Oxford professor.

As his stint teaching Catholics in Iraq suggests, this is a young man dedicated to his faith, to learning, and to service in the Church. So when he finally got back home to the States, he naturally (and oh-so-naively) decided he wanted to dedicate himself to teaching at a diocesan Catholic high school.

And so, off he goes to interview at a diocesan Catholic high school in his town, which just happened to have several openings. Four people interview him; they all love him; this looks like a no-brainer. But just as in Tales from the Crypt, where seemingly joyous moments were always followed by a macabre “twist” (revealing an underlying malevolence), so too with our poor, unsuspecting young Oxford scholar.

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The topic suddenly turned to whether he has a teaching certificate. (Don’t these people read resumes?) “Oh, so sorry. That might be a problem.” The interviewers exchange meaningful glances. They clear their throats. They mumble something about having to ask the diocesan education office for a waiver to hire him. And the interview is at an end.

The next day, the geniuses devoted to Catholic educational excellence at the diocesan bureaucracy nix the hire. Why hire a guy who risked his life to teach Catholic women in Iraq, has high honors and a degree from Oxford when you get someone with a bachelor’s degree in education from Southwestern Community College, Springfield Village Mall Branch, who has – praise be to God! – a teaching certificate.

I mean, sure the Oxford kid may be smart, but how do you know he can teach unless he has a teaching certificate? It would be like thinking someone could be a great artist or a great poet without having one of those Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees. Joseph Ratzinger: brilliant guy, sure, but would you put him in front of a classroom full of diocesan high school students? Do you have any idea how much reading that guy assigns?

The Sower by Vincent van Gogh, 1888 [Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands]

The Oxford kid who was undeterred by Al-Qaeda in Iraq couldn’t quite make it past the Catholic diocesan educational bureaucracy in his own hometown. Institutions so devoted to shooting themselves in the foot in order to please the town bully should not be puzzled why they have so much trouble walking – and why running is a mere memory from the distant past.

As I said, I never really liked Tales from the Crypt. I prefer happy endings. So perhaps I should mention that, two days later, another Catholic school in the area, one not micro-managed by the diocese, got the young man’s resume, called him instantly, and hired him after a fifteen-minute phone interview.

Horror stories leave you wondering whether there is a monster hiding in your closet, waiting until no one is looking to jump out at you. Certainly, this particular horror story is unique, not a monster stalking your children. How I wish it were not so.

One more tale: A gifted young woman I know was consistently being undermined by the administration at the local Catholic high school where she taught theology. “The main task of the theology teacher is to attend the student’s football games and activities, to show them that the Church is there for them.” “With all this reading, you are destroying our child’s faith.” She left that school and now teaches at one of the finest Catholic classical schools in the country, one much less expensive than the mediocre diocesan high school where she taught before.

The teachers at her current school are told to make students responsible for their own work. They expect excellence, and they get it. And when she asks for help, she gets it. Last year, an older, award-winning teacher had taken her under her wing and they were having frequent conversations about teaching. The principal put a stop to that, announcing: “She has to sink or swim on her own.”

Interesting thought; but as long as he was on the subject of “sinking,” this gentleman might want to remember Christ’s warning about “anyone who causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

I call these “Tales from the Crypt” because it suggests a dead, moribund institution. The good news is that these “crypt keepers” are part of a larger entity that specializes in resurrection from the dead. Signs of new life and growth are springing up all over; usually not on the stone-hard crypt, but around them, in the fertile, loamy soil where the seed of the sower can take root, grow, and flourish.

Please look for these signs of life and support them – generously.

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.