The Clayton school community is consumed largely by its focus on college preparation. And few would protest the importance and necessity of college preparation and, more generally, the process of preparing students for the challenges of their prospective career paths, sometimes referenced as “the real world.”
The phrase “the real world” should be considered within the inherent skepticism of quotation marks because in claiming to prepare students for “the real world,” the message that can easily be received, intentional or not, is that Clayton students reside within some sheltered utopia in isolation from society’s most pressing problems.
A keen, attentive eye would observe the exact opposite.
In just the past few months, Clayton has been given some of its most important tests. The tests did not survey proficiency in mathematics or the sciences, but instead, all addressed one central question: As a school community, how do you respond to and learn from difficult situations and adversity?
In many ways, the Clayton school community failed the test.
One major test to our ability to handle and learn from the problems it faces occurred when a student brought a loaded gun to school.
For an event so large in its implications for the entire Clayton community, the District’s response was rather inconsequential. Our failure was not in the way it handled the discipline of the individual student, but rather in its unwillingness to capitalize on the opportunity the situation presented to both catalyze further discussion and to disprove the popular notion that Clayton is somehow immune to deep-rooted societal issues like gun violence.
Instead, over the school intercom system, our principal reasserted his trust of the community and placated any potential concerns the student body might have.
Except for an email from which students were excluded, this two-minute dialogue would mark the entirety of the school’s response.
Intended or not, the underlying message sent by the District’s response was that this major incident was an isolated one resulting entirely from a single student’s miss think and irrationality.
Clayton is in a unique situation to forge social progress; so while this may be the first time a student has brought a loaded gun into the halls of Clayton High School, it’s certainly not the first time a St. Louis community has been confronted by the reality of gun violence in America. Situations like these are ones that illuminate the potential downside of Clayton’s academic fervor and numerical obsessions.
To so rapidly dismiss a situation the magnitude of this one is to submit to the status quo of adversity, to neglect the position our school community is in to make a change and to understand the deeply embedded roots of the problems that we face as a nation.
Our infatuation with test booklets and red scantron sheets may certainly result in the academic preparedness students and parents come to expect from a Clayton education, but, at the same time, it threatens our very willingness to utilize our community for the greater good that extends far beyond the numbers we strive for.
Another test administered to the Clayton school community emerged from a situation on social media, in which students used the platform of Instagram to popularize anti-semitic and racist comments toward some of their peers.
Again, in his handling of the event, Dr. Gutchewsky resorted to the platform of technology, this time appearing on the SmartBoard screens in each classroom and putting words to his visible frustration with the situation and again the disciplinary efforts the school would make to resolve it.
While most would deem disciplinary action necessary as part of each of the solutions to the aforementioned situations, the test is failed when it becomes the entire solution, when we, as a school community, fail to be introspective, to see the incident as not just an isolated misstep but perhaps instead a result of some systematic flaw.
In fact, in bold on Clayton’s mission statement is the value of accountability, which reads “We model and promote aligning our actions and resources with our stated objectives and taking responsibility for the outcomes.” Had the District kept this statement in mind, one would have expected a more self-examining, contemplative response in which the administration would truly have “taken responsibility” for the actions of a few of its students, which would presumably include some form of self-reflection to supplement disciplinary actions.
In other words, staying true to this purported mission statement would entail analyzing the WHY, to grapple with the underlying causes, from a macro, system-wide level, that culminated in an incident in which the weight of racism and anti-Semitism was unrecognized or misunderstood.
Clayton’s demographics alone make it a place ripe with opportunities to generate valuable dialogue and promote inclusiveness; but first we must do away with the frequent notion that we are a community built on some form of utopianism, and instead embrace the exact opposite – that we are a place infested with opportunities to learn from the imperfections of the world we belong to.
That is not to say that we must do away with the things that make us who we are – the intellectual curiosity, the drive, the far-reaching passion.
At a certain point, though, we must ask the hard questions: Are we structured in such a way that reinforces more than just academic achievement – is it possible to dedicate time – structured or spontaneous – toward some form of school-wide discussion, especially after the occurrence of situations like the ones previously mentioned? Do we utilize our rich demographics for not just our advertising brochures, but for fostering true cultural awareness and discussion? Do our academic curricula consider our unique position geographically nestled in the metropolitan area of one of the most divided and racially segregated cities in the country? These are just a few of the questions provoked in part by the school’s recent handling of a few major events; that said, one common theme laced throughout is that we have work to do.
And no one doubts Clayton’s capacity to do the work nor its genuine interest, as a school community, in being part of the solution to the numerous problems our community faces. Because, after all, the truth is that there has never been a more important time to invest that same intellectual curiosity and energy seemingly innate to Clayton students into solving the problems facing our messy and complicated world.