Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Good Friday

My first assignment as a Catholic high school teacher,  fresh out of graduate school from Notre Dame, was to teach Scripture to juniors. During Holy Week, I prepared a series of presentations on the Passion, helping them understand the distinctions between the four gospels, showing where Jesus fulfilled the scriptures, comparing Jesus’ last words on the cross, and emphasizing the Christology of each gospel account.  I spent Holy Thursday talking about the actual crucifixion, emphasizing the horror and the physical pain of it, hoping to shock students into a sense of gratitude for his suffering.  

Instead, a sharp young man named John raised his hand and asked me: “Mr. Weber, isn’t this focus on death a little over the top, a little macabre? If Jesus died today, would Christians being wearing little electric chairs around their neck two thousand years from now? Isn’t that a little sick? 

I confess his question stopped me in my tracks. “Yes,” I stammered. “We might be wearing electric chairs.” “But we’re not focusing on the crucifixion because of our morbid fascination with death,” I stumbled on. “It’s because of “vicarious atonement.” 

“Vicarious atonement,” I repeated. The class looked at me blankly, quickly growing disinterested. “You know,” I said, “the idea that Jesus takes our place—that “through his stripes we were healed.”  I looked up from my explanation only to catch half the class yawning. 

That was an important moment for me as a young teacher. I had worried in graduate school that high school would not challenge me intellectually, but here I was, in front of 16 and 17 year olds, and knew the “right answer,” but I was unable to articulate it in a way that it mattered to them. My words were mere platitudes.  THIS, I realized, was the essence of the intellectual challenge of high school teaching—to take ideas and make them real! I had failed in my first real challenge to that end. 

A few years later, I was asked a similar question (but with less flair). This time, I was able to tell them a story I had read: 

There was an Indian tribe, led by a wise and just chief, which found itself in the midst of a long drought. The drought dried up the crops,  and soon a famine plagued the land. Food within the tribe became so  scarce that some of the Indians began to steal food from each other.  

The chief, realizing that stealing bred a mistrust that was far more dangerous to the health of his tribe than hunger, called his people together and swore an oath,  saying that “Anyone caught stealing would be beaten in the center of camp for all to see, nearly to the point of death.”

Two days later, the chief’s advisors came to him, worried: “We’ve caught the thief in the act.” “Good,” the chief said, “call our people, and chain the thief to the post in the middle of camp. Justice will be done,  as I swore.”  

“But chief,” they said, “It's your mother.” 

The chief was filled with great remorse,  for he loved his mother greatly. But he had sworn an oath, and he knew what justice required.  “Bring  her to the post.” “But she will surely die! ” they protested. “She is too old to survive it.” The chief looked at them, and said sadly, “Do as I say.” 

The tribe gathered. They tied the old squaw  to the post, hands over her head. She was thin, bony from hunger, fragile looking. All eyes turned to the chief, waiting for his signal.  To the astonishment of all, the chief walked to the post, covered his mother with his body, and tied his hands above his head to hers. “Let the debt be paid, “ he said, “Begin.” And the chief took on all of the blows, writhing in pain, bleeding. 

My students were silent. I let it sink in for a few moments. 

"Couldn't the chief have just waived off the debt, sparing his mom?" I asked them. "Yes," a student said, but that would have made him unjust, someone who plays favorites."  "He would have lost a lot of respect," said another." "All true," I said, "but was there an even deeper reason?" They thought for a moment. "They wouldn’t have cared as much about his requirement not to steal  had there been no punishment," a girl said,  "They had to see and feel the punishment for the oath to matter" said another.  "And when the chief substituted himself, it mattered even more," someone else added.

"So it wasn't so much for the chief's sake that the debt had to be paid," I asked "but for his people's sake?" They nodded in agreement. 

"Go to Church on Good Friday, " I said, "to thank Jesus for what he's done for us. "

Monday, December 28, 2020

"Mr. McLaren"


I learned that Mike McLaren died in a motorcycle accident over the Christmas holidays. 

The first time I met Mike was in the spring of 2008, when I was being vetted to become the second headmaster of Pope John Paul II High School. The Board asked me to meet each of the existing leaders of the school. Knowing he was the Dean of Students, I asked him: “In a Catholic school, should the punishment ‘fit the crime’ or fit the person?” Without hesitating, Mike said “the person.” “Why’s that?” I asked. “Because the job of a Catholic school is not to mete out justice,” he said. “It’s to do whatever it takes to help the student grow.” “Won’t that cause some people to regard you as ‘unfair,’ since that inevitably means you'll treat students differently for similar transgressions?” I countered. Mike shrugged his shoulders: “So be it” was all he said.

Three things impressed me about his answer. First, I believe he’s exactly right—that’s precisely our calling, even if from time to time people grumble about inconsistency. Second, I was astonished about how quickly he answered—it was clear he had thought deeply about this issue previously. Third, it was his confidence, especially in that he didn't know my views. 
“Here’s a guy,” I thought to myself, "if I get the job, I can really trust.” 

And during my seven years as headmaster of JPII, I really did trust him—about everything. I learned he would always tell me the truth as he saw it, even if he was quite sure I would disagree with him. We once got into an argument about how to handle a student about a serious disciplinary matter. I won’t give the details, but we resolved to think about it further that night and revisit the matter the next day. The next morning, I told him “We’re going to do it your way,” so we did. It struck me a few days later, and I told him: “You’re the only educator I’ve ever worked with whose judgment I trust more than my own when it comes to a kid's welfare.” And full disclosure: his judgment turned out to be the correct one.  

Mike often spoke with great hyperbole, especially regarding education. Student apathy was never a “big” issue, but a “massive” one. Mediocre teaching was not merely “bad,” but “horrific.” Get Mike started about teachers who used “worksheets” in their lessons, and you were likely to get a ten minute diatribe about the supremacy of Socratic dialogue and the critical importance of the student-teacher relationship. 

I initially dismissed his tendency to exaggerate as a quirk of his personality. But as I got to know him, I came to understand it was an indication of his passion and idealism. Mike was first and foremost a teacher, and he thought about his profession in bold colors, with sweeping brushstrokes. To create a mediocre lesson was to waste something precious--to abdicate the opportunity to connect ideas and help students think for themselves. What got Mike really excited was precisely this: to help a student develop a point of view, for that student to defend it boldly, maybe even to get into a good argument with a classmate about it. If that happened in his classroom—and it often did—he’d walk out almost beaming.  “Good class today?” I’d ask, if I saw him shortly after. “Yes,” he’d say happily, and then tell me all about it.

I don’t think Mike would like this characterization, but for me, Mike was “holy.” I don’t mean that in terms of a religious piety, or in a “holy card-ish” sort of way. Rather, I mean it in the best sense of holy: as a person who consistently put other people first in his life, and tried to serve them in the best way he could. Whether that was his wife Jody, whom he dearly loved, or a parent who called him for advice, or a colleague who was going through a personal crisis, Mike was there for them.

But mostly, he was there for the kids. One of my favorite anecdotes about Mike was he once counseled a senior girl to get into trouble with him in her senior year. He explained to me that this girl was a perfectionist, and he thought it important to her psychic health to release herself of that burden and give herself some room to fail. The girl looked at him horrified, so Mike didn't push it hard. But a few months later, he pulled her out of the hallway, and told her, “I haven’t seen you yet.” “You mean you’re really serious?” the girl asked. “Yes,” Mike told her. Three weeks later this young lady came breezing into his office, excited. “Mr. McLaren! Mr. McLaren! I’ve been sent to see you!” “What did you do wrong?' he asked, faux-sternly. She proudly showed him her shirt tail, which was untucked on one side of her skirt. “ I’ll see you for 30 minutes after school tomorrow for being out of uniform.” She served her time the next day, smiling the entire time.

Shortly into my first year as headmaster of JPII, I told the Board that I had looked “under the hood” of the school that I had inherited from Hans Broekman, our school’s first headmaster. I likened it to a “Ferrari” among Catholic schools nationally.

Indeed, JPII is a special place. But it isn’t special because of its innovative programs or A.P. success, or unique schedule or test results. Rather, it’s special because of people like Mike McLaren, whose leadership, kindness and distinctive flair have indelibly marked the D.N.A of the school since the beginning. 

Good bye, good friend. May your soul, and all the souls of the faithfully departed, rest in peace. Amen.