Charity endures

Charity doesn’t amount to much, right? It’s something small, and sometimes it’s nice, but it can accomplish so little in a world with such big problems. To deal with the big problems, to attack their root causes, you need experts and science and big philanthropic institutions, perhaps even the federal government – or so we’re told.

Yet I just stumbled on a story that makes nonsense of this claim, a story that begins with one troubled boy, whose life was changed by a single, not-large charitable institution that you’ve never heard of. By the time the story ends, thousands of children have had their lives improved.

The story starts with Jared at age five, when a certain doctor first met him. Jared was “bright, outgoing, and friendly,” the doctor reports. He did well in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. But in third grade, at age eight, Jared began to have problems. He rejected school: “It’s stupid.” His teachers said he wasn’t paying attention. Jared “had tested in the gifted range, especially in creative writing and art, but the problems actually seemed to have started after he was put into these gifted and talented classes.”

His mother, after thorough scientific research, came to the doctor and insisted Jared had ADHD, “predominantly inattentive type,” which she believed was the root cause of his problems. The doctor agreed to give Jared medication.

After three weeks and no improvement, the mother returned, asking for a higher dose. The doctor demurred and arranged for Jared to meet a famous expert on ADHD who consulted for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The expert agreed Jared needed stronger doses of meds.

But again the medication failed to help. So the NIH expert switched Jared from Ritalin to Adderall. Jared “became even more moody and withdrawn,” and the expert diagnosed “a comorbid condition – depression – and added Prozac. When Jared began having angry outbursts at school, the doctor added clonidine.”

Poor Jared was now just nine years old, hated school, and had his mind and body receiving three different meds. “At that point,” the doctor continues, “the family switched health insurance to a plan we didn’t accept, and I lost touch with them.”

Four years passed – and recall that those four years from ages nine to 13 are usually not a time when any boy, much less one whose troubles resist three psychotropic drugs, finds his moods and behavior improving.

Then one day the doctor saw Jared’s name on his patient schedule for a routine physical. He quickly checked his nurse’s notes to see what meds Jared now took: “none.” When the doctor entered the exam room,

I barely recognized Jared. He was a totally different kid: not merely older, but transformed. He was now muscular and tan.  But the biggest difference was that he was smiling – a big smile like I hadn’t seen on his face since he was in kindergarten. 

The puzzled doctor asked his usual break-the-ice question for early teens: “What’s your favorite thing to do in your spare time?” Jared thought the question over. “Well, right now, I think my favorite thing to do is to read about ancient Minoa.”

“How’s that?” the baffled doctor asked.

“Well maybe ancient Crete. Or Mycenae.” He launched into a fascinating lecture about the ancient island of Thera, in the Aegean Sea. This island was destroyed by a massive volcanic explosion around 1500 BC, he explained. “But the people living there must have known the volcano was about to erupt,” he told me, “because when you excavate the remnants of the island – which is now called Santorini, but it’s really just the caldera of the volcano that used to be Thera – when you excavate the caldera, you find sheep bones and cattle bones but no human bones.”

After Jared finished his lecture, explaining how the cataclysm may have been the source of the myth of Atlantis, which Plato recorded a millennium later, and suggesting a book for further reading to the fascinated doctor, the man rushed out to speak with his mother. “What a tremendous change! Tell me what happened,” he implored. But before she could answer, the doctor blurted out his expert speculation: they had stopped the medications.

Jared’s mother shook her head. They tried that, she said, “but he got worse.” So bad, in fact, that the NIH expert “worried Jared might be suicidal and talked about hospitalizing him.” So they put Jared back on the medications, even though they did little good.

“So what’s the secret?” I asked. “What turned everything around?”

     Deborah said, “We transferred him from Byron to the Heights.”

     Now it was my turn to shake my head. “But Byron is an outstanding school,” I said. “And so is the Heights. They’re both excellent schools. How could transferring Jared from one excellent school to another excellent school make such a huge difference?”

The answer, Jared’s mother replied, is that the Heights is an all-boys school. Once again the doctor rejected her answer. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful,” he said, “but we’re in the twenty-first century now”; single-sex education is just “an antiquated relic of the Victorian era.”

But Jared’s mother told him he should visit the Heights, saying,

The people at Byron had determined, quite correctly, that Jared is gifted in art and in creative writing. So they put him in special advanced classes in art and creative writing – where he was the only boy, or sometimes just one of two boys…. So the other boys teased him. “You like art, you must be a fag,” they said. Jared asked to drop out of the art class. He came to feel that school was a waste of time. His talents just led to him being made fun of. But he couldn’t pretend to like the things that the other boys like, that boys are “supposed” to like at a coed school. So he was just miserable. At the Heights, he’s just blossomed. Obviously all the kids in the art class at the Heights are boys. Same with the creative writing class. And it’s just amazing how rapidly his interests have expanded and matured in the years he’s been at the Heights. Not just academically. His favorite teacher, the history teacher, is also the lacrosse coach. So Jared decided to try lacrosse, and you know what? He’s pretty good!”

Although the doctor initially rejected what Jared’s mother told him, he was so shocked by Jared’s transformation that it brought him “an epiphany of sorts,” because he realized that “the school provided Jared’s salvation.” That is to say, a seriously troubled boy, who easily could have gone down many dark roads, was not saved by NIH expertise, by psychopharmacological technology, or even by his “dedicated and concerned parents” who “all along” had done everything they could for him. No, the school, a small religious charity, “made all the difference.”

The school’s personnel, of course, had simply accepted Jared because they have a mission to serve boys, and they hoped they could help Jared. The staff members couldn’t be certain they could help Jared, but helping boys one at a time is why they show up in the morning.

And, I’m sure, none of those staff members ever dreamt that by helping one young boy they would completely change the life of his doctor, Leonard Sax. But they did that, too, and much more.

Dr. Sax has gone on to write three books on the differences between boys and girls and how educators should take those differences into account (details in the footnote below). He's also founded the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), because he doesn’t think single-sex schooling should be available only to parents who can spend thousands a year on private schools like the Heights.

This weekend, NASSPE held its Eighth International Conference in Houston, with speakers from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Iceland, and 16 of the United States. Its website has received 1.9 million visitors from all over the world during its decade of existence. It offers free assistance to any public educator who wants to know how to navigate the legal regulations that govern single-sex public schooling. (For more information, go here.)

When Dr. Sax gave birth to NASSPE, only about a dozen U.S. public schools had single-sex classrooms. Today, in the 2011-12 school year, NASSPE counts at least 506 public schools that offer single-sex educational opportunities. About 390 of those schools are co-ed schools that offer single-sex classrooms but retain at least some co-ed activities. NASSPE doesn’t estimate the total number of students affected, but it’s obviously thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, which NASSPE and Dr. Sax can claim credit for helping. No one will ever know how many Jareds are among them.

Dr. Sax, I hasten to add, doesn't think every boy and girl will do best in single-sex schools, but he has seen such schools help many boys leave meds behind and flourish, and also help many girls likewise discover new potentials and accomplish things they had never imagined.

I stumbled on this story after my recent blog post attacking the ACLU’s cruel campaign to squash single-sex schools. Dr. Sax, with whom I’d never had contact, kindly sent me his books, and the first chapter I read told the story of Jared and – to my surprise – the Heights School, where my oldest boy attends.

The Heights has the charitable mission of helping boys grow into good men. Its charity toward Jared changed his life dramatically. Then that change planted a seed in Dr. Sax and changed his life. The doctor’s changed life in turn led him to help others change thousands more lives – unless the heartless ACLU lawyers succeed in killing those new seeds.

This demonstration of the power of charity brings to mind an essay by the Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor which some Heights boys have likely read. In “An Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann,” O'Connor tells a similar story of how one small charitable act by the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne – which his daughter Rose later learned of – led Rose to found an order of religious sisters who serve thousands of “charity” cancer patients.

In the essay, O'Connnor declares that through such small acts, “charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead.”

“Charity,” she concludes, “is hard.” But it “endures.”

FOOTNOTE:  The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, founded in 1900, continue their works of charity at three Homes across the United States and one new mission in Kisumu, Kenya: “All of our Homes are supported by unsolicited donations from the public. We take no Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance or private funds from the patients or their families.” For more on Dr. Sax’s books, visit LeonardSax.com (Jared’s story is in Boys Adrift)For an excellent discussion of charity vs. philanthropy, see George Weigel’s “The Blessings of Charity” in Philanthropy magazine. For criticisms of “root causes” philanthropy, see William Schambra’s essay here. Flannery O’Connor’s “Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann” appears in her essay collection Mystery and Manners and in her Collected Works. Hawthorne fictionalized his charitable act in the short story “Outside Glimpses of English Poverty,” found in his collection Our Old Home (online here); he privately recorded the actual incident in his English Notebooks on February 28, 1856 (online here).

3 Responses to “Charity endures”

  1. Amy Kass says:

    An excellent article. I appreciate the importance of recognizing that coeducation is not for every. As much, I appreciate timely and enduring point at the end. Yes, small acts of kindness always matter more than one might think.

  2. […] Daily contributor Scott Walter tells the story of Jared, a young man gifted in art and creative writing who didn’t begin to thrive until his […]

  3. Linda says:

    One odd comment in the article: “he realized that “the school provided Jared’s salvation.” Really, school was the source of his initial troubles. Moving him to a different school where staff members focused on his individual gifts/talents provided that needed turnaround. In the end, it was the individuals involved(child, parents, and school staff members) that were the reason this boy was ‘saved’, not school itself.

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