The Hermon One Act Drama Club recently won a regional competition against nine other schools — but then it didn’t.
Instead, the students won a lesson in integrity.
The club staged Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope,” a story about astronauts in the distant future whose ship is destroyed by a meteor. They are left floating in space, wondering about the significance of their lives as gravity gradually pulls them to their ends as shooting stars. The staging is dramatic, with floating black-lighted astronauts drifting across the stage. It was quite a production, and the students were rightfully proud of their achievement.
However, the day after the competition, Hermon coach Kathy Toole carefully examined the judges’ scoring. She wasn’t required to do this; she alone had the figures for her group. For her, they were feedback, a learning opportunity.
But the figures didn’t add up.
She talked with her principal, they called the judges and scores were recalculated. It turned out Hermon had not won after all. It came in second. The kids were disappointed, but the next day, as they talked with Ms. Toole, they realized their success would be shallow unless won fair and square.
Ms. Toole did not need to report the judge’s error. No one would have been any the wiser had she not done so. But, as she told me, “it was the only thing to do.” For her, there was no other option.
And so the drama students at Hermon had an unexpected lesson in integrity. They found it in the quiet personal terrain, where values find sustenance, away from fanfare and the spotlight. It came from a space where fairness often is in conflict with the desire to win. It was not draped in high-sounding words or abstract concepts but was concrete and immediate. No one was looking. It was not part of a lesson plan. There was no expectation of recognition.
I’m ambivalent about drawing attention to Ms. Toole’s action. She wasn’t out to court approval, and her decision was not intended for public consumption. It also seems strange to single her out when I am sure most teachers and many others in Maine would have done the same thing. For all of them, the silent satisfaction of having done the right thing is its own reward.
Nonetheless, our public arena is so filled with people acting contrary to Ms. Toole’s spirit that it is important to celebrate and recognize those who are quietly guided by total honesty. They make our world a fairer, more livable and better place.
There is a great deal of talk in Maine’s educational circles about academics and achievement, the alphabet soup of Learning Results, proficiency-based diplomas, core curriculum and other abstract administrative concepts. They continually are being revised to reassure us as citizens and taxpayers that our money is being well-spent and that our graduates are well-equipped to enter the workforce and be productive citizens.
But our educational guidelines do not pay significant attention to the moral underpinnings of character, to the quiet internal deliberations between right and wrong. Integrity cannot be measured and cannot easily be taught. It needs recognition, it needs practice and it needs real-world examples. Its cultivation is one of the unstated but ultimate goals of all teachers.
We recently spent a great deal of time in the Legislature debating how much money the state should give to local school districts. We discussed facilities, classroom numbers, pensions and abstractions but spent little time thinking about how to best support teachers such as Ms. Toole. By example, she has taught her students about integrity, the bedrock foundation of our civil society. Her worth and that of other teachers like her is immeasurable.
The teaching profession in our state is facing a demographic crisis that will see roughly one-third of its numbers retire within seven years. There are not enough new teachers in the pipeline to replace them. There is a bill before the Legislature sponsored by my colleague, Sen. Rebecca Millett, which will invest in the next generation of teachers by focusing on their recruitment, early-career support and increased starting salaries. It will nurture those who by their example are nurturing our kids. We all must do our part for teachers in Maine.
Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, is a retired rheumatologist. He represents Bangor and Hermon in the Maine Senate.