In Today’s Schools, ‘Living Well’ May Mean Simply Surviving

What’s In a Motto?

by Terry Baraldi

“To Teach the Art of Living Well”

That quote, from the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, was the motto inscribed over the doors of Lansdowne-Aldan High School when I graduated back in ’65. Funny, but I don’t remember any classroom discussions about what it meant to “live well”. We just assumed that we did, and would continue to do so. The people and means needed to get there were unquestioningly provided.

Today the name of the school may have changed to Penn Wood but the engraving remains. Possibly here in 2018 it should be updated to read: To Teach the Art of Survival.

Because that’s the deal for most of our WPSD kids and the faculty and staff today…They have been handed the dirty end of the yardstick, and left to figure out for themselves how to fight their way out of the plain brown paper bag that serves as their prep school, while their peers in districts to the north and west of them get the Gucci and Coach leather…and who, BTW, besides owning a rampant drug problem, also have sex, and even babies, but with a few more hard resources to offset the messy inconveniences.

I have had the opportunity to meet some of the kids who, under their own steam, have used any free time they can spare to get themselves to DCCC or to Villanova, to access the books and equipment necessary to bring their grades up to college admission standards. I have heard them speak eloquently about the lives they come from and the lives they seek. And I’ve even gotten to meet some who come back as degreed grads from places like Wellesley and Penn to talk to, tutor and encourage the ones below them on the ladder.

“Sad how time has changed it; all the things we remember are gone; you wouldn’t recognize the place; they have an on-site daycare center now for the teenaged mothers…Sad.”

– overheard grumble from a mid-century, gray-haired graduate of Lansdowne-Aldan High School

They’ve learned that the Art of Living Well is not about the bag you were given; it’s about what you put into and took out of it. It’s remembering and reaching behind you to help the next person up. Because if you don’t, who will?

So. Yeah, I grumble too, but not at the kids, or at a school and district that some ancient alumni can no longer recognize; but one that has been written off as not worth doing anything about. I’m mad as hell at a Pennsylvania legislature that has figured out how to have its fiscal cake and eat it too.

The truth is that the grads of the 50s and 60s were at the polar ends of the middle class dream. Peace and prosperity thanks to the struggles and grit of earlier eras, and coming of age before the walls started to show serious signs of buckling. Smug, safe suburbia. Moms at home, single income families, parental safety nets, and sex still (mostly) hidden away behind the drugstore counter. Do I miss that? Sure. But I can see now that it was a bubble, not a promise.

UPDATE, in case you’re wondering: The on-site daycare, has been discontinued. Which means, unfortunately, so has the hands-on opportunity it provided for teaching child care and other basic life skills to teen parents. So now they have to fight their way out of yet another bag…paper or plastic?