By Erik Zygmont
When Cristo Rey Jesuit High School seniors presented their action plans to solve Baltimore’s water issues May 25, I was privileged to serve as one of the judges.
The event capped the soon-to-graduate students’ Senior Capstone Projects, in which 12 teams of four to five investigated both the ancillary issues and the main thrust of a driving question:
How can we as a school community create an action plan to ensure that water is valued as a human right in Baltimore?
After weeks of working individually and in groups, in Christine Gallagher’s theology class and Travis Henschen’s history class, the students were ready to present their findings to their peers, guests and “a panel of educators and experts” at an evening assembly at the Fells Point school.
I’m not an educator, and, as the students tossed out facts and figures about the problems with Baltimore’s drinking water and Inner Harbor water, I realized that I am not an expert either.
The two other judges, Jesuit Father Thomas Roach and Amelia Buttress, easily met the criteria of one or the other or both, Father Roach being associate chaplain of Loyola University Maryland and Buttress assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The students’ presentations were not always perfect. Some forgot lines; others botched their slides. As a 37-year-old in the communications business who doesn’t actually know how to make slides, I couldn’t quibble with that.
Some were quite good – students attended community meetings and visited affected residents to gain a better understanding of the city’s erratic water billing. They, of course, related the water situation to Catholic social teaching, particularly Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.
Two things stood out that evening. One, all the students were engaged in the project and had put substantial work into it. The phrase “A for effort” is exhausted, but the importance of effort cannot be overstated.
By conducting research, aggregating information and formulating arguments, the students engaged in an experience that they will duplicate, in some form, many times over as they progress through college and become professionals.
They will very quickly reach the point where the project they completed during their last days of high school – contending with “senior-itis” and a general relaxation of discipline – will be something they can do in their sleep.
And the process will continue – their challenging and all-consuming projects at that point in their professional lives will become less challenging and less consuming as their skills increase, making room for new problems to tackle. The cycle won’t end even after they become assistant scientists like Buttress or shepherds of academia like Father Roach.
The second thing that stood out was the students’ desire to win. The group with the best presentation, as decided by the judges as well as Henschen and Gallagher, earned $500 scholarships for each of its members.
Was the money the motivation? Very possibly, though when I was that age, a sum with the word “scholarship” attached evoked something a bit less exciting than glittering possibility.
Whatever the reason, the winning team was absolutely tickled, offering huge grins and handshakes with the judges as they posed for photographs.
As they move forward in their education and in their lives, their attitudes will well serve them. It is clear that they are graduating with not only an ability to think – the ostensible goal of an education – but also with the ability to work.
Erik Zygmont is a staff writer for the Catholic Review. Read more commentary here.