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A school's duty: Teaching how to sacrifice for the benefit of others

Back when I was in "superintendent school," a professor by the name of Dr. Ray Pugh had a talent for asking the assembled educator/students (a chimera which you would think would be made for harmony but isn't) particularly challenging questions.

And not just challenging ... ambushing. He'd ask a question and you'd offer a response that seemed completely coherent and sensible only to find that you were quickly in the tall grass with no weed whacker at hand.

One day he asked us what should have been a question with a very obvious answer: "What is the purpose of your school?" Those who had somehow not yet managed to figure out that what seemed like an easy question might very well not be offered such notions as: the three Rs, cultural literacy, lighting a fire not filling a pail, preparing students for college or the workforce, and even unearthing the treasure trove that is western civilization.

At which Dr. Pugh snorted derisively. "That's what you think your school is for? Pff. I'll tell you what other people think your school is for. Your school is an employment agency. Its job is to hire as many people as possible and pay them as much as possible. Your school is an economic generator. Its job is to keep kids out of the labor force but give them somewhere to go and stay out of trouble while their parents work. Its job is to train the next generation of workers so our economy can keep puffing away and stay ahead of the rest of the world. Your school is an entertainment agency. Its job is to put on plays and basketball games and, yes, football games so the older folks have something to do on Friday nights in the fall. You can believe all you want about your school being for school but an awful lot of people see it differently and you're going to have to deal with all those people and their demands if you're going to make it as a successful administrator."

Dr. Pugh was one of the most positive, optimistic people I ever met. But he was also a realist. Sometimes schools fulfill manifest roles — those they are clearly designed to do — and sometimes they fulfill latent ones, other functions that are necessary in order to accomplish the manifest ones, or are necessary ones that automatically follow from them, or in some cases aren't necessary at all.

While educations, while schools, sometimes stray so far from their mission that they are essentially squandering time and effort and money, at other times they are very much fulfilling their mission, as long as that mission is properly understood. Thus, schools shouldn't just teach the three Rs, though they should certainly teach those and teach them well. Schools should also teach how to live well, how to contribute to the public good, how to do one's duty, how to sacrifice for the benefit of others. One way to teach these more difficult but certainly equally important traits is through example.

At the end of next school year, the Mitchell School District will turn 140 years old. That means she has 140 years of graduates, beginning with the Class of 1880, to turn to, to select from, to elevate, particularly those members who have achieved something great. It is not always easy to teach someone how to be a really fine human being. One promising way to do that, though, is to give them examples of people who once walked in their shoes who went on to accomplish that very thing.

That is what we plan to do this Sunday, Nov. 11, when we unveil the newly restored World War I alumni plaque before all those assembled at 2 p.m. that day at the Performing Arts Center. To drive the point home about the service and the sacrifice, for some even the ultimate sacrifice, of these former Mitchell students, our local South Dakota National Guardsmen will present the colors, our MHS band will play the anthem as well as a medley of songs from the Great War, our assistant principal will lead us in the Pledge, a local pastor — successor to a Mitchell military chaplain who died in combat — will offer the invocation and benediction, MHS senior choir members will sing Over There (the iconic song from the era which helped inspire the local boys), a former MHS faculty member will emcee, brass from the National Guard will give the dedication address, MHS forensic students will read the names of those who served from our school, before, finally, the Guardsmen will retire the colors.

All 233 of those found on our plaque are now deceased, of course. But we will recognize them, even so, for their service. As we do so, they will provide at least one more service for us and for those who join them in this long line of Mitchell students. They will teach us the service and sacrifice required to be a truly fine human being.