March 6, 2012 Section: OPINION
It's about more than basketball, but this week friends of Mount St. Joseph
Academy will have their eyes on the basketball court nevertheless. That's because
the Mounties' boys' basketball team will be playing in the semifinals of the state
championship tournament in Barre with a good chance of moving on to the finals.
MSJ basketball has drawn more than the usual interest this year because five of
the 10 making up the varsity team are African-American boys up from the Bronx,
N.Y., who came to Rutland to attend MSJ. Grumbling among a few local residents
about out-of-town kids taking up playing time on the court led to an article in
The New York Times about the presence of the Bronx kids in the mostly white
Vermont working class town.
In fact, MSJ has used the presence of the boys from the Bronx as a valuable
learning experience for the entire community. The school recognized it was time to
set aside stereotypes and to welcome the newcomers with open arms.
For at least 20 years, MSJ has been searching for ways to attract students from
away to offset the decline in enrollment that has become a problem for Catholic
schools throughout the state. In the '90s the school launched an effort to attract
foreign students who may have seen MSJ as a place where they could study in the
United States and learn English.
So two years ago when MSJ received a call from a coach in New York saying he
had a group of kids he was trying to place at a school outside of the city, MSJ was
ready to listen. They came to Rutland in the fall of 2010, and they transformed the
school's basketball program.
But they did more than that. The Bronx five are universally praised as good
students and good citizens, all of whom have seized this opportunity to further
their education and prepare for college. They are doing what hard-working
students of any race do when given the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations.
That's why the presence of the New York students, like the presence of MSJ's
students from abroad, is about much more than basketball. As MSJ principal Paolo
Zancanaro told The New York Times, "The last line in our mission statement is to
create a just world." Providing opportunity for kids in tough circumstances is one
way to fulfill that mission. And circumstances in the Bronx project where the five
MSJ students lives were tough.
Zancanaro has said that MSJ's embrace of diversity and its welcoming attitude
toward the Bronx kids has made MSJ alumni from all across the country proud,
not because of the team's success on the court, but because of the school's success
in opening itself up.
Vermonters who frequently wrestle with issues of diversity point out that before
too long white people will not be the majority in the United States. To become
accustomed to a world of racial and ethnic diversity is a lesson that students
throughout Vermont benefit from learning. Amy Mellencamp, principal of
Burlington High School, is the leader of the most diverse school in Vermont with
students from all over the world. She acknowledges that it is a "mixed up" world,
and part of her job is to help her students appreciate the rich diversity of the human
It so happens that the Bronx five play basketball. They are quick to credit their
teammates with the teamwork and support necessary for the team to win, and
observers of the team say the team's success has involved all the players. Now
MSJ is on the verge of making it to the state championship.
Basketball in the winter in Vermont generates more than a little craziness, and
any school reaching a basketball championship is likely to grow delirious with
excitement. It is a tribute to MSJ that everyone recognizes and takes pride in the
fact that MSJ's team is an MSJ team - and that's because all the players have been
accepted and allowed to excel.
It is a message to America of the success that is possible when everyone is allowed