Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Man From Plains Comes To Panorama City

It is not often that you see teenagers stay at school late into the evening to hear a guest speaker discuss character, values, and history.

But the students at Saint Genevieve High School are not your average teenagers.

It is not often that you see an 86 year old former president take time out from his busy book tour to meet with 600 students and more than 400 invited guests in a high school gymnasium.

But then former President Jimmy Carter is not your average man.

How did Carter, president more than thirty years ago, develop such a close relationship with a small Catholic high school in the San Fernando Valley?

The answer to that question involves some history and a remarkable story. St. Gen’s principal, Dan Horn, struck up a friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Carter in 1986 when he was a public school teacher in Virginia. They have kept in touch all these years, and when Horn took over St. Gen’s a decade ago, he renewed his contacts in Georgia and made several trips with students to Carter’s hometown of Plains to hear him speak and to perform for the former president’s birthday.

Dan Horn is an interesting character in his own right. St. Genevieve’s was on the brink of oblivion when he took over. Under his leadership, the school made a remarkable comeback, becoming a National School of Character in 2003, as designated by the Character Education Partnership in Washington D.C. Horn instilled in his young charges the four pillars of character education: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. These hallmarks were displayed during the president’s visit, both in the students’ behavior, and hanging from large banners along one wall of the school gymnasium. This award has been the foundation of a remarkable educational experience for students in this community. Even more noteworthy, this is the second school Horn has brought back from the brink of closure, having spent the 1990s at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles and reinvigorating that community. For his efforts and those of his faculty, that school was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
This event Monday evening came about when Carter scheduled a book signing in Los Angeles to promote his latest tome, White House Diary. He was on his way to Border’s Books in Westwood after his stopover at the high school.

A packed gymnasium buzzed with anticipation when word came that Carter was on his way. Horn and a student contingent greeted the former president in the school parking lot. A remarkably spry Carter leapt out of his California Highway Patrol-escorted Lincoln Town car and shook hands all around. He quickly donned his silver and blue St. Genevieve’s baseball cap and entered the gym to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. The band launched into “Hail To The Chief,” followed by a school favorite, “Everlasting Love.” Carter made his way around the packed hall to pose for pictures with students. Then he took the podium.

He greeted the crowd as “his favorite high school in America,” before recalling what one of his teachers once told him. “We need to accommodate changing times,” he said, “but cling to our unchanging principles.”

After brief remarks, the former head-of-state who has faced the world’s top journalists took questions from students. The kids more than measured up.

About the current controversial immigration policy in Arizona, Carter called it “a terrible situation that violates the principles that made our country great.”

When asked for an example of one of his policies in which he takes pride, Carter responded that he established America as the number one champion of human rights in the world. “We never dropped a bomb, never shot a bullet, never lost a missile,” he told the crowd, who gave him a vigorous round of applause. He said that too many presidents in history have been in love with war. The former president spoke passionately about war and peace. “We should never go to war again unless our security is directly threatened,” he said. This was not the case in Iraq or Vietnam, he insisted. Carter is not free from controversy, even today. He has strong views about peace in the Middle East and America’s role in bringing about a resolution to the Israeli conflict with Arabs and Palestinians in the region. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his efforts to build a peaceful world, both as president and a private citizen.

His one regret about his own place in history involved the failed rescue of the Americans held hostage in Iran. “If I had sent one more helicopter,” he said, “the hostages would have come home sooner...and I would have been re-elected.” The crowd again broke into thunderous applause. Of course, when the hostages did come home, Americans attributed Iran’s actions to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, but it was actually the Carter administration who secured their release on that January day in 1981.

The students did not shy away from questioning the president about controversial issues, asking Carter for his opinion on gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. He responded that he was against gay marriage in the church, but that civil marriages were appropriate and necessary because gay couples should have the same rights as everyone else. As for marijuana, the former president has always insisted that nobody should be punished for possession of small amounts of the drug, but he was opposed to full legalization.

Then the St. Genevieve student choir and the entire Valiant community took over the assembly, singing a prayer long associated with peace, “The Prayer of Saint Francis,” in a stunningly beautiful arrangement. Carter left the podium to stand in front of the singers, visibly moved by their performance. Then the entire congregation, a thousand strong, surrounded Carter and anointed him with a blessing.

A beautifully crisp fall evening had settled in upon the school, as Carter made his way around the crowded gym floor one last time while the choir burst into a rousing rendition of “Midnight Train To Georgia.” He left the campus for his book signing, but the students continued their celebration, singing the school alma mater and fight song. Horn dismissed the students and thanked the parents for coming out to welcome the former president.

I stayed behind until the gym emptied out into the night, reflecting on what I had witnessed. The students were most impressive. They offered their rapt attention throughout the lengthy assembly, even when waiting for the president to arrive. They sang, they clapped, they cheered, and proudly represented their school in their dark coats and ties. I have rarely in my twenty-four years as a teacher, seen such a well-behaved and mature group. For kids born as much as sixteen years after former President Carter left office, they treated him with the respect often shown to current world leaders, and offered the love and appreciation reserved for a grandfather or treasured family member.

As the equipment and lights came down, and the gymnasium became quiet, I packed up my camera and walked out into the night. With all the bad news and dire predictions about education these days, my witness of the evangelical fervor of the St. Genevieve Valiants as they greeted former President Jimmy Carter tells me that the story of how we teach our children will not end in failure. There is hope. There is the promise of a moral character. On Monday night, a simple man from Plains, Georgia reached out across the years to anoint a group of middle class, largely immigrant Catholic school students to seize the mantle of leadership and forge a new world of peace. The students listened, they cheered, they sang beautiful songs. This is only the beginning. I am sure one day those kids will make a brave new world of their own, and Jimmy Carter, wherever he is, will be smiling.

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