Last week I gave a brief report on the incident in Erath, Louisiana, over the fact that teachers of Catholic catechism had been teaching white and Negro children in the same classes. More nearly complete information on the matter is now available. Erath is a small town of 2,500, some 125 miles west of New Orleans. One morning one of the teachers started to the church and when she got there she found a group waiting. Three women began striking at her with their fists and shoe heels. The teacher filed assault-and-battery charges against the attackers. Even the priest, Father Labbe, found that he was being followed, and he asked a friend to accompany him as a bodyguard.
Shortly thereafter, Bishop Jules Jeannard returned from a church meeting in Washington and took prompt action. He issued a letter of excommunication to be read at all Sunday Masses at the church in question. He named no names, but referred to the culprits as those who had caused a “scandal to the church and to the community.” He denied to them the sacraments, participation in prayers of the church, and Christian burial, until they repented. His action brought results rapidly. Soon it was announced that those guilty had made reparation. Classes were resumed but the priest has disclaimed any plans for integrating the races beyond the classroom, and has not expressed any assurance over a hope for the future, saying somewhat philosophically, “We shall have to wait and see what the future brings.” At any rate, it would appear that race will not be a dividing factor among the students as they seek to learn church catechism, and it is difficult to see why it should.
For several days, some 1,800 delegates from all the states and territories conferred in Washington at the White House Conference on Education, trying to determine what should be done to meet the crisis in education that is daily growing worse. So far, nothing concrete and specific has been released to the public as to what the conference consensus will be. From what has been printed, it is pretty obvious that the conferees have ranged pretty much all over the educational spectrum in their deliberations. In a way, however, this conference seems to be pretty much an ex-post-facto affair. School people already knew that the nation needs some 200,000 classrooms now and will need almost that many more in another five years. Two-hundred-thousand teachers are needed to staff those classrooms. Fewer and fewer college students are taking teacher-training courses and fewer still are going into teaching.
Money may not be the most important element in the problem, but it is an indispensable one. Many states and local divisions have pretty well taken themselves up to the legal or economic limit for school purposes. The president warns that “Responsibility for educating our young is primarily local.” But simply saying that a school district is responsible does not bring about better schools if that district is unable adequately to discharge its responsibility.
And in the matter of teachers, it is difficult to see how the shortage is to be met until or unless teaching is made as attractive as other types of work requiring comparable training and skill. Young college people of today look rather realistically at the job world, and since most of them will have to work for a living, they evaluate objectively, not cynically, the comparative opportunities from a financial point of view of the possible career areas. While recognizing the opportunity for giving service in teaching, they recognize as fully that unless rewards for that service are commensurate with what they can command in other fields, they cannot afford to teach.
Several things are necessary to attract capable young people. First, working conditions should be greatly improved. Teachers quite naturally dislike being looked upon as a public servant on call any time of the day or night for the performance of any chore needing done in the community. They resent also intrusion into their private and personal affairs, while at the same time recognizing their special obligation to the community because of their position in it.
Second, teacher salaries must be made commensurate with salaries in other fields. Community gratitude, if any, is very satisfying to the teacher, but it is not something that he can spend in the stores for life necessities.
Third, once equipped by training, and having demonstrated his fitness for teaching, teachers want and have a right to demand security in their position. The teacher who is continually forced to wonder how long his position will continue is not going to be free to concentrate his time and thoughts on his work as he should, and he is not going to be able to plan his future with any degree of certainty. And this is an age and a social order that make the teacher, like all other workers, conscious of the imperative nature of job security.
Other conditions could be enumerated, but certainly the above are fundamental ones. The White House conference can debate, argue, and extemporize, but for the welfare of the millions of young children in this country needing an education, shibboleths and slogans about local responsibility, about educational philosophy, about political philosophy, will not build the needed schoolhouses nor will it attract capable teachers to fill them. An opportunity for an education is a birthright of every boy and girl in this country, and that opportunity should be approximately the same whether he lives in Maine or California, Tennessee or Idaho. This nation is able to provide such opportunity, and if the White House conference fails to meet the challenge, it will be failing to discharge its responsibility to the nation’s children. No amount of debate over federal, state, or local respective responsibility can change that fact.
The last item is largely personal, but it is embedded in a fundamental and provocative question by Alan Beck entitled “What is a Boy?” and his answer to that question for the sake of time I shall have to abbreviate it. He says,
“Boys come in assorted sizes, weights and colors. They are found everywhere – on top of, underneath, inside of, climbing on, swinging around or jumping to…. A boy is a truth with dirt on his face, wisdom with bubble gum in his hair, and the hope of the future with a frog in his pocket.
A boy has the appetite of a horse, the digestion of a sword-swallower, the energy of a pocket-size atomic bomb, the curiosity of a cat, the lungs of a dictator, the imagination of Paul Bunyan, the shyness of a violet, the audacity of a steel trap, the enthusiasm of a firecracker, and when he makes something he has five thumbs on each hand.
He likes ice cream, knives, saws, Christmas, comic books, the boy across the street, woods, water (in its natural habitat), large animals, Dad, trains, Saturday mornings, and fire engines. He is not much for company, Sunday School, books without pictures, music lessons, neckties, barbers, girls, overcoats, adults, or bedtime.
Nobody else is so early to rise or so late to supper. Nobody else can cram into one pocket a rusty knife, a half-eaten apple, three feet of string, two gumdrops, 6 cents, a slingshot, a chunk of unknown substance, and a genuine supersonic code ring with a secret compartment.
A boy is a magical creature – you can lock him out of your workshop, but you can’t lock him out of your heart. You can get him out of your study, but you can’t get him out of your mind. Might as well give up – he is your captor, your jailer, your boss and master – a freckle-faced, pint-sized bundle of noise. But when you come home at night with only the shattered pieces of your hopes and dreams, he can mend them with two magic words, ‘Hi Dad!”
Well, those lines were written about boys in general, and during periods of the average boy’s life he probably engages in and is all of these things. Some of them apply aptly to the boy I have in mind, some do not. But for that particular boy, who is today celebrating his 13th birthday, I want to wish for him, with all my heart, that every birthday he has will be better than the previous one. So “Happy Birthday, Thomas. You’re a swell guy.”