The Significance of a Song

Let me tell you a little story that captures a large truth about education. It recounts a brief experience that happened to me, the headmaster of a boys’ boarding school. Like most things that happen to me at school, this happened in my office—or at least, I heard it in my office—and it was one of those moments of sudden clarity that make the often-exhausting work of education, especially on an administrative level, a renewed joy.

As you may imagine, the headmaster’s office at a boys’ school is not a place that typically rings with levity. The four walls of my office groan under the atmosphere of budgets and bills. I often muse to myself that had I received a degree in business, I might have been able to teach the Liberal Arts. But even so, a Liberal Arts school has a business side to it and, somehow, I have fallen on that side. And so it is. My old desk, scarred with the labors of previous headmasters, often feels like a battlefield. The stolid chairs standing before it have upheld students, parents, and teachers through the rigors of policy and performance. But every so often, something different, something lighter, obtrudes into this den of customary heaviness and solemnity that makes it all very much worth it.

It was early in the morning, and I was in my office. Around the corner from the open door, a long hall runs, where I overheard two boys busy with brooms upon their morning chores. But they were not just sweeping. They were also singing. Singing together. Without shame or self-consciousness in that echoing hall. Singing as most boys struggling in a cynical culture would never do. While I hear boys singing quite regularly, since learning folk music is a part of the curriculum, this was a little different.

While one of the boys was holding the tune very well, being a strong singer, the other kept falling off key. The off-key lad was not aware of his tone-deaf yet hearty contribution, but it was clear that the other boy was. I heard that he kept pausing and re-adjusting his tone to match his partner’s in a subtle effort to regain concordance—which worked quite well, until the other fell flat again. And so they merrily went. As they swept and sang together, the one boy cheerily helped the song and his fellow singer along, giving brotherly support in a remarkable and beautiful manner, unaware how much encouragement they provided to me, an invisible listener down the hall.

The song these students shared is significant—it is a sign of happiness and helpfulness, and the sound of a spirit that is fast losing place in a world of constant noise. It is a sign and the sound of true education, where the soul finds its place in the work of the world. What these boys were doing so naturally and unassumingly was a result of something they had really and perhaps unknowingly learned in classroom, dormitory, and chapel: a boyish form of St. Benedict’s ora et labora, a little living-out of St. Thérèse’s little way, a happy participation in something good, true, and beautiful. So much can be said for a song in the context of authentic living and authentic learning. It gives voice to what is too often a hidden reality and realization.

The music and the charity I overheard that morning must find their way beyond the walls of Catholic schools that foster them and into the world that has forgotten them. Those singing, sweeping boys of my story are freshmen in high school. It is wonderful to imagine how much they will learn and grow over the years. How encouraging it is to think, to hope, that they will bring the song of their education along for the work of their lives. Teachers, give your students, in whatever way you can, the gift of cheerful song and sacrifice, so that it can serve as a bright expression of the education in the Faith you provide—and also that it might provide for you all within your school those small moments of encouragement which are of great significance.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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