My family experienced public school for the first time this past semester, and it was … well … memorable, up to and including last weekend’s graduation ceremonies.
After 20 years of private Catholic schooling from K through college for our first three children, our youngest daughter, Gracie, ventured across the cultural aisle to finish her junior year at a public high school (name withheld to protect the innocent) after our family’s move to New England at the end of last year. Gracie has always been our adventurous one—spirited, fearless, and sometimes, due to her shielded upbringing, naïve. She is no longer naïve.
The night before her first day, I played Lorne Michael’s Mean Girls for her after years of gentle redirection. The iconic 2004 teen comedy tells the story of a charming and innocent homeschooled girl (Lindsay Lohan) who enrolls in a public high school and is astounded at what she sees. “There’s no way it can be like this, Dad!” Gracie said, as we died laughing at the characters and scenes in the film.
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By the end of her first week, she stated emphatically: “The reality is way worse than the movie.”
Real life in America’s public high schools is anything but funny. The students are unmotivated and generally unhappy, and the performance data is sobering. While educational policies in recent decades have produced a shocking conformity of opinion on social issues, they have failed to raise test scores. In fact, our math and science results slipped to 38th and 24th place in the world, respectively, despite the government spending more per student than nearly every other country in the world. Today’s high school graduates are not nearly as well educated as employers need them to be, and the students know it. This means the prevailing attitude is dark, defeatist, and defensive.
Out of the 3,643,000 high school students who graduated this year, less than 10 percent came from private schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Further cementing her “minority” status was Gracie’s history at schools established and run by mission Catholic homeschooling parents. She and her siblings grew up with the children from the families that ran Catholic Answers, Catholic Exchange, Priests for Life, John Paul the Great Catholic University, Thomas More Law Center, the Ruth Institute, Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, and St. Paul Street Evangelization, among others. Therefore, this new environment, for her, was like stepping through the looking glass. To her new classmates, she was Alice, and before she knew it, a rising sea of tears was sweeping her away.
At first she was received like royalty. Everyone wanted to drive her to and from school, sit with her at lunch, invite her into their group chats, and hang out with her in study halls. Attractive, fun, and popping with California style, she was an instant sensation. “If you were from Kentucky? Or someplace like that?” one girl without filters said to her, “No one would be paying any attention to you. But since you’re from California? People are mad keen.”
Alas, the positive attention would be short-lived, as Gracie’s viewpoints flowed out through personal encounters, AP class discussions, and group chats. No matter how much I encouraged stealth and strategy, the fact is that Gracie’s love for Jesus Christ, and President Trump, could not be contained. At this New England high school, the former is not known and the latter is despised.
In a class discussion about whether there is such a thing as “truth,” Gracie cut through the relativist twaddle by pointing out that her chair was in fact a chair, not something else, and that furthermore Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life!” The desire for and recognition of truth is a desire for reality, she explained, and for God. From that point forward she was seen as a sort of consecrated Alice, whose viewpoints on most subjects could be dismissed as just more “Jesus stuff.”
Unless, of course, the subject was politics—the go-to topic for teachers looking to keep their students awake and engaged. One day, her AP Lang teacher showed footage of the inaugural addresses of Presidents Obama and Trump for purposes of analysis and discussion. The Obama address was met with shouts of affirmation and near unanimous praise while the Trump address produced a surge of hostility and scorn. When Gracie dared defend a few of the numerous salient points made by Trump, the class ridiculed her without mercy. The mimicry and mockery that ensued was like something out of Lord of the Flies, according to Gracie, to the point where the teacher needed to intervene and restore order.
She texted me at the office: “Dad, defending Trump went really badly. I need a pep talk. They attacked me and I feel like crying.”
I quickly replied, “Listen, you’re a hero. You stood up. They’re going to be embarrassed one day and realize that they behaved like little Maoists. Hang in!”
She informed me later that both her AP teachers (the APUSH teacher heard about the incident) had approached her during study hall to commiserate, with the AP Lang teacher promising to initiate a class discussion the next day on civil discourse and freedom of expression, and inviting Gracie to speak “without being judged” if she wanted to.
“Even the nice lib students came up to me and said they were sorry about how I was treated,” Gracie texted. “Mrs. Smith (name changed to protect the innocent) gave me a pep talk, so I feel good about standing up for my beliefs. And by the way, Trump’s inaugural speech is the Best. Speech. Ever. Thanks, Dad. Love!”
The area in which we live now is very Catholic, and while most of Gracie’s classmates identify with a particular parish, few attend Mass regularly, and most are poorly formed. Some classmates marveled about how “Catholic” she is, how comfortable in expressing her faith, and how they’d never met anyone like her before. Between this and her refusal to date, drink, or do drugs, she represented the antithesis of everything they expected from this magnetic girl from California who had crashed their scene a few months earlier.
Even before the presidential speech incident, back when she was merely getting the cold shoulder treatment, Gracie had begun plotting her Escape from New England. She began meeting with her guidance counselor to expand her coursework online and rush an application out to the University of Dallas. She was determined to graduate a year early and get on with her life.
Well, she did it, and last weekend, on a rainy afternoon in an indoor sports arena filled with 2,000 spectators, the graduating class of 2019 filed in to the gentle strains of Pomp and Circumstance like so many before them. There was Gracie, in cap and gown, a huge smile on her face, and all that work behind her. But the cultural shock and awe wasn’t over quite yet.
The valedictory and salutatorian speeches were standard fare, but the crowd was treated to two more, one from a student of African descent who spoke of racism in America—not the kind that affected him personally since he was adopted and raised by loving white parents and surrounded by loving white friends and siblings who cheered his every sentence, but rather the general racism supposedly infecting America that is endlessly discussed in the fashionable press. This charming young man was brought to America, embraced by her sons and daughters, voted into class leadership, and will enter the ranks of the Ivy League with every advantage ahead of him.
The next and final speech, by a young man headed to a different Ivy League school, was the pièce de résistance, the stem-winder, the principal dish of the meal. Everything about Gracie’s experience at this school pointed to and culminated in this speech. The scripting and stage work were pure Tinseltown, as was this dashing lead performer with a secret to share. He opened with all the usual platitudes but pivoted suddenly to “an announcement” that he felt compelled to make. “It’s a bit uncomfortable for me to say this,” he hedged, as I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “But I wanted to say that I’m attracted to guys. I guess that makes me—I’ve never been comfortable with this word, but here goes—gay!”
I groaned at the banal gay moment that I’d seen play out in various forms in practically every movie I’ve watched over the past 20 years. The ripple effect was predictable but still astonishing. A section of graduates immediately leaped up and started cheering. Others followed. The faculty on the stage took to their feet and applauded with heartfelt sincerity. An animating spirit that was almost visible then swept into the arena prompting more and more people to stand and cheer for all they were worth. The graduates—guys included—were pumping their fists, eyes wide, blood vessels carving crooked lines on their temples and necks. It seemed that this was the greatest news they had ever heard. Only a few graduates and perhaps a third of the parents and families in the horseshoe-shaped arena remained seated; everyone else was behaving as if the Beatles were back or the Boston Bruins had just won Lord Stanley’s Cup.
In the height of the tumult, the man next to me proclaimed in a thick Algerian accent, “They have ruined this country! I came here 25 years ago and it is practically gone. I love this country, but it is done.” We leaned into each other and shared our stories with intensity as the cheering continued. His name was Jamal, and he is a righteous Muslim. He told my wife and children—who thought at first that we were arguing—that he believed God Almighty had placed me next to him so that he would not lose all hope. He said that it had become impossible for him to protect his seventh-grader son, seated in front of him, from the pervasive propaganda that had turned all these students into left-wing crusaders.
The class president finished his speech with one more reveal that was telling and that gained my sympathy: he did not have a father. My heart hurt for him, for he has heard only one side of the story. I looked for him after the ceremony to encourage him not to define himself entirely by the sexual feelings he is having at 18, because life and who he is as a person are so much more than that. But the driving rain scattered the crowds quickly, and the Class of 2019 fanned out into the world without looking back.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, there is a tremendous battle raging in Lincoln Park and Laguna Niguel, Salem Heights and Ottumwa, and Alderwood Manor and Brownsville. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us a protracted period of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer simply: revival and restoration, awakening and victory; victory at all costs; victory in spite of all fear; victory, however long and hard the road may be. For without victory, there is no survival for the country and all that it has stood for.
Revival, restoration, and victory—the victory of Christ. This must be our aim. My friend Steve Auth, author of the thoroughly engrossing book The Missionary of Wall Street, has it right. More prayer, more sacraments, and a revival of the kind of direct evangelization that Gracie undertook all alone at the high school she would attend for one semester only, filled with Catholics who knew not their faith or tradition. Let us start there, with the baptized Catholics, and go forward together, united in strength, asking the Holy Spirit to sweep through America enlightening eyes and enflaming hearts so that the Truth will again be known and shouted from the rooftops with the same fist-pumping passion that gushes forth now for all the wrong reasons.