This is not a feel-good story.
Of course, it’s easy to see why it has been positioned as one. Certainly, it contains all the elements: vulnerable people, heart-rending need, someone going above and beyond.
But this is not a feel-good story.
Not to mock or cast aspersions on the noble thing that has brought Henry Darby to national attention in the last few days. For those who missed it, he is the principal of North Charleston High School in North Charleston, South Carolina, where the median household income is $45,000 against a national average of $68,000, and it is said that 90% of the student body lives below the poverty line.
As might be expected from those numbers, life is a struggle for many of Darby’s students. “I get a little emotional,” he told NBC’s “Today” show, “because when you’ve got children you’ve heard sleep under a bridge or a former student and her child that’s sleeping in a car or you go to a parent’s house because there’s problems, and you knock on the door, there are no curtains and you see a mattress on the floor … And these people need, and I wasn’t going to say no.”
Darby was flagged to NBC’s attention by Walmart. It seems the principal took a job at the local store, stocking shelves on the overnight shift — 10 to 7 — three nights a week, in order to make money to help his students and their families. All this, in addition to serving on the county council. The story has since been picked up by CNN, People and various newspapers and TV news outlets. A GoFundMe page set up on his behalf stands at $158,000 at this writing.
It’s a story that made CNN’s Anderson Cooper say, “Wow.” Which was surely apropos. NBC’s Craig Melvin called it “remarkable.” And that, too, is fitting. Indeed, if your heartstrings aren’t tugged hard by this, you might want to see a cardiologist. Darby offers a stirring example of selflessness in action. He embodies the Greco-Christian ideal of agape love.
But no, this is not a feel-good story.
Because, what does it say about us as a country that he must go to such extraordinary lengths? What does it say about the priorities of the world’s richest nation that its teachers must routinely dip into their own purses and pockets to provide classroom necessities? What does it tell you about the importance we place on our children when government can always find money to give another tax cut to rich people and corporations, yet working-class people must march and protest to secure a living wage?
Before Ronald Reagan passed legislation that pushed mentally ill people into the streets and slashed federal affordable-housing subsidies, homelessness was a subject relegated to history-book chapters on the Great Depression. Now, a high school principal finds that some of his students live under bridges and in cars while we celebrate his selflessness. Is anyone surprised or even much appalled at those conditions? No. Because that’s normal now.
What does that say about us?
It says that this is not a feel-good story. It’s a moral-failures story. It’s a wrong-national-priorities story. It’s an income-inequality-rich-getting-richer story. And it’s a what-in-the-world-is-wrong-with-us story, too.
Henry Darby should be spending his nights sleeping. Yet he feels compelled to spend them instead stocking Walmart shelves so that his students have food to eat and roofs over their heads. This story should make us feel many things.
“Good” is not one of them.