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  • Bradley James Davies

J is for Jerks

To educate a <person> in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.

–Theodore Roosevelt

Said slightly differently than Teddy, while pointing to the same fundamental truth, the bare-minimum educational goal across all continents, cultures, and creeds should be:

Fewer jerks.

Take a quick look at history and whenever and wherever injustice is found, you will find a jerk at center stage, a little kid in a grown-up costume still learning to love and be loved. A hurting human who is hurting others as a result.

Putin qualifies, clearly.

The O’Doyle family from the movie Billy Madison comes to mind.

And, if we’re honest, you and I have our jerk moments too.

Early on in my school leadership journey, I came across a big jerk: Billy’s dad.

The three of us were meeting to discuss Billy’s PSAT scores. As we were wrapping up, I inquired about Billy’s basketball game scheduled for later that same night.

“Billy, what time is your game at?,” I asked.

Billy’s father leaned toward me and said, “Excuse me?”

I offered again, “I’d love to watch Billy compete tonight, so I’m curious…what time is his game is at?”

With a dollop of disgust in his tone, Billy’s dad looked directly into my eyes and repeated his question, “Excuse me?”

At this point, Billy, only a high-school sophomore, interjected with what seemed to be some contrite embarrassment:

“Mr. Davies, my dad hates it when people end a sentence with a preposition.”

As a young twenty-something, newly minted school administrator, I was rattled by Billy’s dad. I was embarrassed by my grammar gaffe and felt unsettled for being chastised in front of one of my students. When I explained to a mentor what had happened, he had the perfect story to cheer me up.

It was the story of the Alabama farmer who visited Harvard.

An Alabama farmer traveled to Boston and, while there, decided to tour Harvard’s campus. He was amazed by the diversity of people and all of the beautiful buildings. As he walked Harvard Yard, the Alabama farmer stopped a student strolling by and asked in a strong Southern accent:

“Excuse me, where’s the library at?”

The Harvard undergrad responded in his own heavy accent, one with an elitist flair found nowhere on planet Earth other than perhaps the Ivy League and Grey Poupon commercials:

“I’m sorry sir, but at Harrrrrrvard, we don’t end our sentences with a preposition.”

The Alabama farmer scratched his head, paused for a moment to consider his response, and then made the same inquiry, but this time with an important addition:

“Oh, I’m sorry. Where’s the library at, assssssshole?”

Not unlike the Harvard kid, Billy’s dad was a jerk. And, he was a wealthy jerk. After all, what’s worse than a jerk? Yep, a rich one.

But we shouldn’t be angry at Billy’s dad. Instead, we should feel sorry for him and commit our cause to ensure fewer like him are unleashed on the world.

But why pity Billy’s father? Why offer him our compassion? In East of Eden, Steinbeck gets to the heart of the matter:

And in our time, when a man dies—if he has had wealth and influence and power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man’s property and his eminence and works and monuments—the question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil?...Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: “Was he loved or was he hated? Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come of it?”

So the number-one priority of education should be to reduce the number of jerks in our midst, not just for the world’s sake but for the jerks’ benefit, too.

Yep, for the jerks too.

As we teach jerks to walk the path of peace and positive relationships, we will change both their lives and the world. Talk about a win-win.

And there’s no time like the present. After all, helping jerks become good people is a lot less difficult at the age of four, or even 14, than it is at 40! So let’s double down on social-emotional learning, seek to fully staff our counseling teams, train our teachers on redemptive discipline practices, and crank away on cultivating school cultures characterized by compassion and kindness.

The time is now and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

And, yes; definitely let’s also try to be less jerky ourselves! After all, the kids are soaking up the example we set. I know I would certainly qualify for a jerks-like-us support group or two. If you're human, I have a hunch you might as well.

Hangry Anonymous, anyone?

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