Dedication, hard work, integrity: a student learns all these traits in school, in addition to the traditional “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic”. For a full two semesters, he must dedicate himself to learning all he can about a given, unfamiliar subject. He must learn to work hard, for even with vocabularly lists that would put Shakespeare’s mastery to question, you must perservere and seek to learn, to know, to understand. One also learns integrity: more than once I have been told I am taking two tests, and if I must fail one, don’t let it be the one of honor. And these are all important, vital lessons to learn, but there is another lesson that is often missed in the classroom: compassion. It is rather ironic that the lesson so many teachers live- a lesson of selfless giving, a lesson of staying after or coming early to help a struggling student, a lesson of taking time to make education personal for a student- is one that can pass by without being properly absorbed. And such a crucial lesson it is: from the Judea-Christian tradition to Hinduism to even the more secular philosophies of the Greeks and modern thinkers, it is recognized that compassion is a fundamental measurement of a man.

But unfortunately, today’s society doesn’t foster this quality: getting ahead means getting ahead of someone else, and often pushing the competitor aside. A society’s education system only reflects that society: scholastic competition divides a class into a group of individuals, not a group that is interdependent. In this environment, student-level compassion is not rewarded, and is often detrimental to one’s own standing. There can only be one valedictorian, only one editor-in-chief, one Student Council President. This is not to say that compassion does not exist: the sight of a student helping another with a difficult math problem during their lunch break or a basketball starter spending his Saturdays training another to perfect his free throw is not uncommon. But the school environment doesn’t foster these “random acts of kindness”. This compassion comes from another source, outside of school.

My source of compassion has a name: Mrs. Nancy McHugh. She actually was a teacher, though not at my school. She worked with at-risk children: her district was lower income, her pupils classified as “at risk”, their futures dim and uncertain. Yet what she gave to those kids extended so far beyond the three R’s mentioned earlier: she gave of herself. Her husband was succesful, they lived in an affluent neihborhood, they had bright, popular children. But instead of contenting herself with raising a family and being active in bake sales and can drives, she had to make a more direct difference: she decided to keep her job despite pay decreases, and she only grew more active in her students’ lives. She stayed late every weekday working with or counseling a student. They, in turn, quickly found someone they could turn to for help: on the weekends she visited and checked up on her students and invited them over for dinner. She became involved in their lives, and occassionally what she discovered about these lives was shocking: malnourishment was the norm rather than the exception, child abuse cases became tragically regular occurances, and children came to her as the first adult they could trust. Mrs. McHugh took action on behalf of the children, who were only in gradeschool: she battled abusive parents and legislative red tape with equal ardor. How many lives she rescued from daily torment will never be known.

I met Mrs. McHugh through my church: as if she wasn’t active enough in her educational endeavors, she also took on the junior high religious education. And the energy she put into this program was just as amazing as the energy which she invested in her work, indeed, the energy she invested in everything: she transformed a stuffy, sermonizing regime into a program that involved us in everything from serving soup to the homeless to painting an elderly gentleman’s home and doing his yardwork. What could have been rote memorization of prayers instead lead us into a deeper understanding of Christ’s message: compassion. The point of service wasn’t to make us look or feel good, but to elevate our fellow man. We learned not only compassion through service, but also watching her as she listened to us: while before adults had either ignored or overruled us offhandedly (how many time have we all heard, “Because I’m the parent”?), she listened to us, treated us with respect, and then worked with us to reach a common goal. It would have been much easier to just do things her way (it was, after all, a monumental task simply running the program), but her listening, her compassion for us, made the experience so much deeper and lasting. Yet still Mrs. McHugh’s heart swelled, as if the more she gave the more she loved. And her compassion was infectious: when she began a day camp for local refugee children, I quickly signed on as a counseler.

As with everything she touched, “Camp Friendship” was a success, and a model of compassion. It is easy to turn our backs on immigrants: marking them off as “foreigners”, attributing to them social problems such as rising crime, and accusing them of taking “our” jobs. But by learning their story one truly learns compassion: their homes burned, their lives threatened, their property stolen. To become involved in these lives was to learn this lesson more poignantly than words can describe. And Mrs. McHugh continued to care, to work selflessly, to love.

In addition to raising her biological children, she adopted three more: troubled kids she had met through her teaching. They were argumentive, violent, and desperately alone, yet she opened wide her doors and heart. A more loving family could not be found: everywhere they were together, smiling, joking. The room brightened as they entered. Yet one of her adopted sons was still troubled by his past: he couldn’t get over what had happened when he was younger, and he remained violent and unruly. Finally, when he was nineteen, he was banished from the household. Mrs. McHugh was visably shaken: the smile was still there, but all the years of giving and loving had taken their toll. Her son returned to visit one day when she was alone at the house. She warmly invited him in and later took him shopping, already forgiving him and accepting him as family again. That same day, he murdered her and fled the body.

Mrs. McHugh made the ultimate sacrifice for her belief in compassion, and hers is a legacy that can’t be taught in school. Yet it is a belief in compassion that- as poets, prophets, and philosophers agree- elevates mankind to a greater state of being. At the end of her life, I believe the greatest teacher I ever knew had no regrets, nor should she have. Many virtues are taught in school- persistence, honesty, hard work- and these are important. However, they are all personal virtues, and without compassion they are hollow ideals. Compassion is love, and with this love all other aspects of our lives are deeply enriched.

 I am merely a representative of the thousand of others of students who have struggled with me for academic excellence. Yet I have found that without compassion, without love and selfless giving of ones’ self, all our efforts are vanity and are sure to pass away as dust in the wind. But with compassion, the legacy of learning stands firmly as a beacon for those who come after us to follow.

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