Headmaster's Study

Headmaster’s Study

A Spade Is a Spade

Dear Friends,

For weeks the phrase “A spade is a spade” has been echoing through my mind. Recently, a psychiatrist spoke to me about a man who had visited both of us. Said the psychiatrist, “He is selfish and he is a coward. He does what he does because he wants to.” I was surprised not only by the doctor’s comment but also by the force with which he (a quiet, self-restrained doctor) expressed it. The statement was accurate, however, and I understood his exasperation. As a matter of fact, it was so good to hear a spade called a spade that the statement has been intruding itself into my mind ever since.

Most of us habitually use circumlocutions to say things politely and to avoid giving offense. At a baseball game the official announces over the public address system: “Anyone reaching onto the playing area or moving onto it to get a baseball will be escorted from the park.” The official means: “The person will be thrown out.” A master writes in a report: “He is a nice boy with many gifts, but he has not yet learned to use his full potential.” The teacher means: “The boy is able, but he is failing because he is lazy. He needs to learn self-discipline or he will continue to fail.”

By their very nature euphemisms are seldom clear; likewise, they are neither forceful, direct, nor completely honest. Worse, they tend to breed thinking habits that evade truth and place responsibility not where it should be placed, but elsewhere. Isn’t it far better to call a spade a spade?

I am well aware that one needs to speak and write in a pleasing manner to win people rather than cause them to be resentful or to close their minds. I also know how desperately we all need compassion, understanding, and love. But I know, too, that one must be honest, definite, and responsible. Much harm can be done in the name of love by a kind of softness so fearful of hurting that it evades speaking the truth. By being less than honest, by sugar-coating our statements, we are not only being unkind to persons we want to reach and to help, but we are also avoiding responsibility.

A recent report on juvenile delinquency contained the following observations about taking vs. evading personal responsibility. The writer observed that juveniles in England, when asked about the reasons for their troubles, gave answers like: “Aw, I bashed him on the head, “ “I swiped some money,” or “I had a little joyride in a car and smashed it up.” Some of the questions asked of young people in juvenile courts in our own country brought answers like: “They never gave me a chance,” “My friend squealed on me,” “My social worker fouled me up,” or ‘They gave me a punk for a lawyer.” The English group recognized personal responsibility; the American group shifted responsibility. Significantly, the writer reported that when responsibility is placed squarely upon the individual, social workers appear to have more success in dealing with the juveniles involved.

Among ourselves at School I sometimes see this tendency to “pass the buck.” A master says of a boy: “He will not work” or “He shows no interest.” Why will he not work? Why is he not interested? We seek reasons in ourselves, in the home situation, in his adolescent adjustment. Sometimes we find reasons; sometimes we do not. Often, in our earnest desire to uncover a reason, we fail to recognize an obvious fact—the boy himself has failed to accept his responsibilities.

As I write this letter, I am reminded of the persistent effort the faculty made to understand a boy. We had long talks with him, with his friends. Finally we arrived at a composite picture of a shy boy, overawed by the successes of those around him—a boy given to escape into the security of what he can do easily. With this understanding, we went to work. Nothing happened. Then out of the blue came an experience that jolted him into new life. A teacher wiser than the rest of us said with iron authority, “You must,” and the boy did. Our concern and sympathy were beneficial, even necessary, but we did not find a solution. The methods that ultimately worked in this case were the master’s direct approach and the boy’s acceptance of his responsibility.

Occasionally we hear such excuses as “Mom can’t spell either, and I guess that’s why I can’t,” or “Dad flunked freshman math so I guess it runs in the family.” Such statements may contain a measure of truth; more likely, they are rationalizations that afford an easy avenue of escape from personal responsibility, permitting a boy to accept a situation that need not be accepted. Hard work and a refusal to accept defeat will usually enable a boy—or any of us, for that matter—not only to do the possible, but often to achieve the impossible.

All of this makes me somewhat uncomfortable. By nature, I am one who seeks constantly to understand, to sympathize with, and to avoid saying or doing what may hurt. I am too much given to euphemisms and circumlocutions. Yet I know that unless controlled and wisely directed, the efforts involved in avoiding hurt may defeat their own purposes. The spirit of our times to “pass the buck” from ourselves to others or to society—to any cause beyond our control—resists calling a spade a spade, resists straightforward acceptance of our responsibilities.

The parable of The Prodigal Son speaks about such honesty.

I will arise and will go unto my father and say unto him, father, I have sinned against Heaven and in thy sight and am no more worthy to be called thy son....  It was meet that we should make merry and be glad; for this thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found.

Beautiful as is the language, infinitely more important is what the Gospel says. At the heart of the world is goodness—the goodness of forgiving and sustaining love. As soon as we can recognize that we have been less than our best, that we have not taken personal responsibility—as soon as we can call a spade a spade—we will receive the grace to discover a new life. We who were dead can be reborn.

Faithfully yours,
Charles Martin

Letter dated: November 8, 1962

This letter was printed in Letters from a Headmaster's Study by Charles Martin.

St. Albans School, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC 20016, 202-537-6435