The Power of Forced Unity

I have taught for most of my 36 years of public school teaching in an inner-city school named James Whitcomb Riley High School in the northern industrial city of South Bend, Indiana. The school is in a rough neighborhood and has virtually every problem known to American education--drugs, violence, gangs, alcohol, prostitution, etc. The school has a reputation for many things in the community, but one of the main reputations is the fact that, among the main part of the faculty, there is a strong feeling of unity. Most of us have been teaching together for over 20 years, and it is almost unheard of for someone to request a transfer to another school.

If you were to visit Riley, you might not catch that spirit of unity. A group of us eating together could almost always predict a rip-snorting argument would break out when two teachers (one a secular humanist and the other a religious fundamentalist) got anywhere near each other. For many years, we had a Jewish counselor who regularly clashed with a pro-Arab teacher. There was the math teacher who had some heavy racial prejudice and who was always at odds with a disciple of the black extremist movement. For most of my 36 years of teaching, I have had to contend with a counselor who did not think girls should take physics; and there have been endless discussions in my science department about whether my ultra hands-on concept of teaching science is the best way to teach or whether lecture/book methods work better. The staff is made up of every religious viewpoint, every race, enormous differences in wealth and education, feminists and male chauvinists, conservatives and liberals, democrats and republicans, and every conceivable viewpoint on the moral and educational issues of the day.

After reading this, you may wonder how I could possibly talk about the school having a reputation for the unity of the staff as was mentioned in the first paragraph. My first lesson in this topic happened my very first day of teaching. We were nearing the end of the first homeroom session to register the students, and there was a huge commotion in the hall. Not wanting to leave my class, I simply looked out the door. A student and the teacher across the hall had gotten into a shouting-and-shoving match, and it was quickly escalating as the student drew back his hand to strike the teacher. Before I could react, there were five other teachers moving toward the student, who quickly was subdued. During the passing period, I apologized to the assaulted teacher for not responding quickly to his situation, and he responded by saying something to the effect that it was O.K. because he knew I was a first-year teacher and I would have to learn that the only power we had to survive was to be totally unified in our approach to the "problem kids" in the school.

Since that first day at Riley High School in 1959, there have been countless incidents. We have had to unite against a principal who would not enforce rules, but simply locked himself inside his office. We have had to march on the buildings and grounds crew when they would not finish a construction project that threatened our safety and ability to do our job. There have been times when one of us was gravely ill and some of us had to donate sick days to keep his income coming in. My own traumatic experience happened when I came to school one morning and looked up and saw flames and smoke rolling out of the window of my classroom as an arsonist-set fire destroyed 25 years worth of teaching tools and materials and forced me out of my room for the rest of the year. The entire faculty came to my aid with materials and help, sympathy, and encouragement; and I will never forget the help and support I was given.

The unity that we have at Riley High School is a forced unity. We disagree on a lot of things, and we have a lot of things that we do not do the same way. We get frustrated with teachers who do not do things the way we do, but these differences are secondary to our most fundamental purpose. Our good situation is rooted in a common goal--the education and well being of the kids and our own survival--physically, emotionally, and mentally. All of the other differences we have pale when we focus on that one goal. We still disagree when we are in private or when no stress is on us. There are a lot of things my fellow-teachers do that I take exception to, and I know that the reverse is true. We get our job done, we survive, and we have pride because we are unified in our most basic purpose.

There are some lessons here for the Church. We look at the first Century Church, and we see almost the same situation I described about Riley High School. Imagine the political, social, economic, and educational differences that must have been present between Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector, between Paul the PhD and Peter the fisherman, between Luke the physician and Andrew. Some of these folks were on opposite ends of every issue of their day. Yet, they fulfilled the Lord's prayer and plea for unity. It was the common goal and purpose that made this possible. They disagreed, but they never lost sight of what their fundamental purpose was. Methods varied, missions were different, issues required thought and study; but reaching out to the lost who needed salvation overshadowed everything to such an extent that division never took place in the early Church. Today we have taken our eyes off of our purpose and looked to peripheral issues. Our time and energy is spent opposing each other on things that involve methodologies, not the teaching of the Gospel to others. The result is that we are not only failing to accomplish our mission, but we are denying the one thing Jesus commanded and prayed for:

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another (John 13:34).

That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me (John 17:21).

                            --John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, Nov/Dec97.