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Caught Being Good

Our parish grammar school had a long-time first grade teacher who developed a method of classroom management that bordered on genius. Ms. Kasel “caught students being good.” She became so associated with this phrase that when she retired, a sign was hung over her classroom door that still reads “Caught Being Good.”

I saw first-hand the magic in this method when I was chaplain to the first grade. Each year when she introduced me for the first time, she told the class that I too could catch people being good. I soon learned that when the room got a little restless, if I caught someone being good, the whole class would come to attention – each student hoping that they too might get caught.

When a child was caught being good, she or he earned points toward a future activity or small toy, but what struck me as far more significant, was a secondary outcome. The positivity and praise that came with being caught proved to be a great equalizer. To paraphrase Matthew 5:45, positivity and praise rained down on everyone…the attentive student, the class clown, the shy child, and the hyper-active child, all experienced moments of positive reinforcement. The system proved to be a way of recognizing the common good in all the children. If only it were that easy in the grown-up world.

In theological terms, “the common good” is defined in St. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress) as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”

Sometimes the common good is presented as sacrificing for the good of the whole. While the good may require sacrifice, as any athlete could tell you, the common good is not exalting the team at the expense of the individual. Rather it is the realization that both the individual and the team’s success depend on one another. For the common good to be achieved, no one on the team may be sacrificed or disregarded.

We live in a highly polarized world and church. A certain degree of healthy polarization exists within every community. But the bitterness and lack of respect that characterizes much of our political, ecclesial, and moral discourse today is not normal and is far from healthy. And we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that it is. Worse yet, we often rationalize our lack of respect for those who think differently than we do as justified in the name of truth, or justice, or God. None of us are holy warriors. Far too many of us are just angry people with a highly selective sense of compassion.

Perhaps we need to revisit what we knew in first grade and start catching “the other” being good. We can begin by acknowledging a moment of goodness in a problematic family member, or an irritating work colleague, or in the homeless encampment down the road, or the vaccinated/unvaccinated, or a bill that Congress passes. Then we can learn to express that goodness without any qualifications. If we start small, perhaps the idea of the common good will sprout in us.

In his book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum writes that he didn’t find wisdom at the top of the graduate school mountain, but in the sandpile at Sunday School. Here are other basic life lessons Fulghum lists that can also help us live for the common good:

Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

Most everything we need to know is in there somewhere.

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