St. Paul's School sets good example as a moral leader

April 11, 2001|By Tim Baker

IN ADMIRATION and gratitude, I applaud the tough, courageous stand that St. Paul's School for Boys has taken in the sex video matter.

In an age of MTV culture and Clintonian morals, the school's decisive disciplinary actions proclaim a clear and unequivocal message -- there are standards and principles of decent human behavior which students must not only comply with, but should also honor and esteem.

If you've missed what happened, a 16-year-old sophomore on St. Paul's junior varsity lacrosse team videotaped himself having sex with a 15-year-old girl without her knowledge. He then showed the video to eight of his teammates, and a few nights later another boy showed it to two dozen varsity players, as well.

The school has expelled the 16-year-old miscreant. All students who viewed the video have been thrown off the lacrosse teams and suspended from school. Finally, most valiantly, St. Paul's has canceled the rest of its varsity lacrosse season -- an emphatic statement of purpose and principle from a school with both a team ranked No. 1 in the country and a storied tradition in the game.

We read the newspaper stories with horror. How could any boy have done such a despicable thing? What will happen to the poor girl?

But I've also found myself asking another, deeply troubling personal question: When I was a teen-aged boy, would I have watched that video, too?

I hope not, with all my heart, because watching was an egregious violation of our common humanity. But the truth is, I don't know what I would have done.

When I was growing up, back in the 1950s, I played high school lacrosse at Gilman in Baltimore. I played against some of St. Paul's greatest teams. When the seasons ended, we'd spend the summers hanging around together. We drank a lot of beer and did some wild and irresponsible things.

Would we have ever done this?

Certainly no boy I knew would have ever done anything as depraved as what that boy did to this girl. But what if one night some guy had started bragging about how he'd scored? Suppose we'd had videos back then. Would I have watched? Would I have left? Would I have stood up and objected?

I was a freshman when I first played varsity lacrosse. I looked up to the juniors and seniors as if they were Olympian gods, imitating their talk, their dress and the way they casually lit their Marlboros. So would I have objected if they had watched and laughed? I doubt it.

But what would I have done when I became a senior? I was co-captain that year -- the one who was supposed to take the lead and set the example. Some boys might have.

But me? You?

I've spoken about this with guys I grew up with. The same question gnaws at us all. None of us can be sure what we would have done. We came from good families, attended church and went to schools which tried to instill honor and values. Yet we were all so unformed, so unsure, so desperate for group acceptance and recognition.

What would it have taken to inspire me back then to have conducted myself honorably and decently?

When the video began to play, I hope I would have acted, but I might have needed a model to remind me of the kind of human being I wanted to become -- someone whom I could have looked up to for qualities beyond his skills on the lacrosse field.

I don't believe we're born with character. Instead we build it as we go along. It's hard work. The task is never completed. Ultimately, we have to do it ourselves. But some of us may need help to summon what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

We need moral leadership from both national figures and high school co-captains. Not platitudes, but examples. We need to see hard, painful, admirable moral choices made at personal cost under pressure.

That's the example which St. Paul's leadership has now given to our whole community. We have seen an institution's headmaster, faculty and board take a brave stand -- one that our own boys and girls can remember, respect and emulate as they strive to grow into decent and principled men and women.

From these events we can draw inspiration ourselves. For while they may prompt us to look back in dismay, St. Paul's response can inspire us to look forward with hope.

Tim Baker is a writer who lives in Columbia.

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