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We’re finishing another back-to-school month, as good a time as any to ask why so many Canadians are underwhelmed at how our education system is preparing their children for the 21st century.

It seems “Would you like fries with that?” is the clearest call for a growing number of students, particularly in Ontario, where increasing numbers aren’t finishing a revamped high-school curriculum.

Almost 40 per cent of students didn’t graduate on time last year. About half of those quit school altogether. International reports show, even before that, Canada’s drop-out rate was significantly higher than the average of industrialized nations.

So why do some youth flower in the harshest of places, while others wither in the best? Take Grace, a young Ugandan woman I’ve met.

She first went to hell, then college.

Akallao (Grace) Grall was born in a simple village hut. As a young girl she feared that, like most Ugandan women, she’d be destined to work the fields. So she was ecstatic when her father, who had left her family, sent her to a convent high school, St. Mary’s.

But on Uganda’s Independence Day in 1996, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Uganda’s cult-like rebels, kidnapped 30 girls from St. Mary’s, including 15-year-old Grace, as their “angels.” Girls from St. Mary’s were known to be bright. And the LRA, which has forced some 14,000 children into warfare since 1984, wanted clever offspring for future soldiers.

Among Grace’s first experiences was watching a girl being beaten to death with a piece of wood. Grace was then taken to nearby Sudan to fight.

Food came from raiding villages. Or from rats, or tree roots. A walking skeleton, Grace became so malnourished, she was left for dead, buried alive in a shallow grave. She escaped.

Six months later, Uganda’s army crossed into Sudan. Hundreds of young LRA recruits were cut down. Somehow, Grace escaped again — for good. Leading eight other girls, she rode through various hostile turns, eventually on a tanker truck, back home to Uganda.

“I’ve seen heads smashed. I’ve seen people beaten until their sockets swallow their eyes. I’ve survived hunger. I’ve survived burial alive and assaults,” Grace said.

But seven months to the day after her abduction, she arrived in safety. It was Good Friday.

Since then, Grace has continued to pursue all she ever wanted, an education. She recently shared that in schools across the United States, at the annual meeting of Amnesty International in New York City, and on Oprah.

Amazingly, Grace hasn’t blamed her poverty, though she’s poorer than most. She hasn’t blamed her ethnicity, gender or social background, but they’ve all worked against her. She hasn’t blamed her parents, who haven’t always helped.

She hasn’t blamed her abusers, but she’s been violated in ways we can’t imagine. She hasn’t blamed her government, but its politics nearly killed her. Grace hasn’t blamed any schools or teachers or high tuition costs. She’s simply moved on.

Now, she wants to help her people by telling their stories. It was at Uganda Christian University, near Kampala, where I met her. She recently graduated in communications, working toward a career in journalism.

How could all this be? Despite her hard times, or maybe because of them, this young woman somehow learned that decent schooling has as much to do with discovering one’s calling — a purpose larger than one’s self — as much as anything. As Kierkergard said, “And now, with God’s help, I will become myself.”

Do our schools really nurture much of this? If so, why is it that most people live somewhere between a grudging acceptance and active dislike of their jobs?

It’s not that our youth have it too easy. Or too hard. Many are simply too distracted to hear much of anything. Some might even get all A’s in class and still flunk life, becoming typical modern people who live with too much, but for too little.

If we want to give them a shot at a real future, then, for starters, why not encourage students to discover, like Grace, that there may be such a thing as a Caller?

Otherwise, there are no callings. Only work. And in all honesty, that’s not a great reason for anyone to leave bed in the mornings, is it?