Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Life’s Little Lessons Are Best Learned Outside the Classroom

As far as I can tell, there are several different kinds of country songs. There are the ones designed to make you feel good about being an American, so good that you want to bomb people who aren’t. Don’t like those much. There are those that suggest all the reasons why you’re perfectly right to get cat-kicking drunk on a lonely Tuesday night. Not wild about those either. Then there are the ones that cleverly seduce you into pondering something significant about life. I love those.

One such song, “Is There Life Out There” by Reba McEntire, was made into a music video a few years back. It is, I admit, a treacly bit of Americana that my 12-year-old niece would describe as “cheese-o-rama.” Still, if you can wade through the glucose (and even learn to luxuriate in it), you won’t go away unrewarded. You can download the video from iTunes for a buck forty nine. I did.

In the video, we meet Maggie O’Connor, the plucky mother of two who married Andy, a stand-up, flannel-wearing guy, at 20. Now she works as a waitress at Eddy’s Diner. With her kids well past toddlerhood, she’s decided to go back to school and finish her degree. She squeezes her studies into the few free hours she has: “The Great Gatsby” as a break from doing dishes, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” as a bedtime story.

One day, her children are bickering in the kitchen, and one of them accidentally knocks over a cup of coffee. It drenches Maggie’s recently completed but not-yet-turned-in homework. This sends the overwrought mom/student into what I believe country lyricists call a tizzy. This is followed by a few moments of cringe-inducing familial confrontation which is mercifully ended when Andy intervenes. He then carefully dabs the coffee off the homework paper as best he can with a tea towel and tenderly dries it with a hairdryer while Maggie reads her daughter to sleep.

Cheese-o-rama, I know. But you were warned. There’s more.

aggie turns the assignment in, and on the day when the basset-eyed professor hands the papers back, she happens to be the last student in the classroom. He summons her to his desk. “You have a remarkable grasp of the subject: A. But next time, try to avoid the stains.” She smiles knowingly, takes a deep breath and responds patiently to the old coot, “I learned more from the stains than I did the paper.”

I’ll spare you the rest since it’s really only icing on the, well, on the icing. Besides, if you’ve stuck with the video this far, you see where this is going (if you don’t, kindly refrain from picking up your diploma).

You are Maggie.

For the past four years, you have worked on all sorts of assignments. You are smart, and if you have worked hard you have things to show for it, ways to prove it. This weekend, we will praise you in public for the academic distinction you have earned. We will call your name and invite you to walk across our stage to receive our recognition. It will be a big deal. And this is as it should be. This is a university after all.

But if our appreciation and celebration of what you have accomplished at Georgetown ends there, then we have no right to claim the Catholic and Jesuit heritage as our own. If the point and substance of our celebration this weekend is solely academic, then we have “had the experience but missed the meaning,” as T.S. Eliot once wrote. Now that would be a tragedy worthy of a country ballad.

You’re Maggie because you’ve had the opportunity to learn at least as much from what went wrong as from what went right these past four years. In fact, odds are that if you were paying attention (and even if you only start paying attention now, before it’s too late), you will have learned much more from the stains than from the papers.

Think of all the opportunities for difficult, ungraded learning you may have had at Georgetown: roommate squabbles and boyfriend brawls, teams that couldn’t win, relationships that didn’t work out, illness and even death, girlfriends who didn’t understand you, employers who didn’t appreciate you, coaches who wouldn’t play you, cops who wouldn’t listen to you, Honor Councils that nailed you, deans who suspended you, and on and on.

You might not think we’d ask you to acknowledge those sorts of things this weekend, but you’d be wrong. We ask you to acknowledge them because of what they make possible. We look to them as important parts of your Georgetown experience because our tradition tells us that one of the things that makes God God is His desire and ability to bring new and fuller life from the most unlikely places and events.

What seems to the clinically academic eye to be occasions of defeat and humiliation are, when viewed through the lens of our Catholic and Jesuit tradition, invitations to growth and to freedom and to the proper end of all learning – wisdom.

Our tradition assures us that Grace brings new life from seeming defeat, frustration and failure, if we let it. Not just in the abstract or distant future, but here and now, here and over these past four years. So this weekend, look back with us on your Georgetown experience, all of it. And celebrate.

Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is an assistant dean for Georgetown College. He can be reached at This is a special installment of AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT ., with Fr. Maher and Fr. James Schall, S.J., alternating as writers.

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