Most of the time most of our students are called upon to serve themselves, and this is because those careers which put others first generally receive such paltry financial remuneration. As such, students may festoon their college applications with the requisite community service projects in order to demonstrate their humanity or social aptitude, but a career in genuine service to others, while perhaps noble, is too often depicted as an unsuccessful bid for a college degree. In this respect, the career of a first responder shares some similarities with that of a teacher. Both are considered necessary for the continuation of civil and political society, and both are appreciated by those who would prefer their children grow up to choose other occupations.
Jacques Barzun famously described the reputation of the teacher in America as that of a “pitiable drudge,” and more recently we have seen law enforcement broadly disparaged by media and political elites. This dearth of public respect has put our first responders in even greater danger than they might have otherwise been. Indeed, so far this year 99 law enforcement officers have lost their lives in the line of duty as well as 68 firefighters. So it is that our students choose careers that promise to afford them as much security and as much social esteem as possible. To this end, they are relentlessly encouraged to say the right things in class, play the right the sports, the right instruments, take the right tests, write the right essays; to pander, contort, and distinguish themselves as anything but themselves until it becomes who they are – on paper at least, and in the end, perhaps in reality too. Insofar as they do these things, they do them for themselves. All of this has been uncompromisingly detailed by William Deresiewicz in his book Excellent Sheep, and to expound on what he describes therein, it would be safe to say our system of schooling and social anxiety as parents is more adept at producing either sheep or wolves than sheepdogs.
Those with little experience of careers that put others first aspire to positions, whether in law, politics, or public policy in which they will invariably oversee the lives of others, first responders included. It therefore behooves us as a school that claims an allegiance to truth and virtue to do something early on in our students’ lives to give them some greater appreciation for those who choose careers that require that they deal with things as they are rather than as they would like for them to be. If this begins with a helicopter landing in the parking lot, so be it. Hopefully, it grows beyond a fascination with things that fly, water hoses, and weapons, to an understanding of the first responders themselves and why they have chosen to do what they do given all the sacrifices such careers doubtlessly entail. The more we can move our students from private contemplation to the activity of doing something to carry their ideals beyond themselves, the more deserving we will be of the public’s trust and the public’s funds. We cannot suppose that the safety of our society rests secure abstracted from real people, and this is ultimately what First Responders’ Day is about: meeting and coming into conversation with people who have chosen lives of quiet dedication to public service despite the sacrifices, the waning public appreciation, or the social currency of such a decision. We thank each of them for the time that they have given not only to Ridgeview on October 5th, but for the time each of them has generously given to our community.