Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Why?


I was recently in a store, and the employees wore “Ask Me Why?” as part of their name tags. So I asked a cashier, and received a beautiful, well-rehearsed response. It’s a simple but provocative question, and worth thinking about from time to time—why do we do what we do? 

Why St. Michael?’

There is tremendous pessimism and cynicism about teenagers today. They are “rude”. They are  “self-centered.” They are incapable of living a moral life, so we must teach them “safe-sex.” “Enjoy this time with your toddlers”, young parents are told in dark and foreboding tones, “Because one day they will become teenagers.”

At St. Michael, we do not share this cynicism. In fact, we flatly reject it. We enjoy working with teenagers and believe they’re capable of doing great things with their lives.  I believe there is a profound optimism in our students at St. Michael. We believe if they are immersed in a culture of high expectations, if they are supported by adults who model right behavior and pick them up when they stumble, if they belong to a team, activity or club that they are passionate about with others who share that passion, and if they are invited to grow in their faith through many opportunities for worship and serving others, they can do amazing things.  Teenagers flourish here,  and they are happy. 

By “happy,” of course, we don’t mean they smile all the way through high school!  There will be days of disappointment, when they’re frustrated by their performance on a test, or stressed by their workload, or upset by something their parents or their teachers have said to them. Let’s make a pact now as parents and teachers in anticipation of those days when they’re mad at us or mad at you: We agree we will only believe half of what they say about you is true if you agree to believe only half of what they say about us! 

We share, after all, the same goal for our kids: We want them to grow into healthy adults, and that means they must leave behind the pleasant irresponsibility of childhood, and that can be painful at times. 

But it is also a time for great joy. God’s dream for our children, God’s dream for our students, far exceeds our own. We see limits, whereas God sees infinite horizons.  When we take teenagers and immerse them in a culture of optimism, expectation, faith and support, they are elevated to look above the walls of their own limitations and to see beyond—beyond what they once believed about themselves, beyond the cynicism of what society believes about them, even beyond what we who love them may see and hope for them. 

The joy for us adults is to witness this transformation, this liberation, as kids grow in confidence in themselves borne out of achievement, as they are exposed to new possibilities, and as they begin to think in new ways. 

Onward and upward! 

Friday, September 10, 2021

An Extraordinary Life



Dr. Thomas Doyle, or “Doc” as he was affectionately known by his students, passed away last night, several days after a serious fall in his home. He was 81. 

I wept when I heard the news. I suspect many others are reacting likewise.  For all of us, they are tears of sorrow, yes, but perhaps even more so, tears of gratitude—such was his impact on us over his 50+ years as a Catholic educator.

He began his career as a Physics teacher at McGill Institute in the 1960’s, fresh out of Spring Hill College.  In those days, McGill was an all boys' school, and offered Physics at 6 different academic levels. Young Tom Doyle taught all six levels, from the very top to the very bottom. His students at the lowest level neither understood nor believed what he was teaching, and began to tease him that he was just making stuff up.  Jesting back, Tom started to introduce each Physics lesson with "Once upon a time..." When the year ended, the boys gave him a shovel on which they all signed their names, since he'd been "shoveling it” to them all year. It was one of the most prized possessions of his career. 

After five years at McGill,  he left to earn a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Notre Dame, which he completed in 1973.  Immediately thereafter,  he was recruited to return to the (then) diocese of Mobile to become principal of Catholic High in Montgomery, which at the time was flagging in  discipline, reputation and enrollment. Through exceptional creativity, a rejuvenated and reconstructed faculty and—if you worked for him, you’d agree--his sheer force of will, he turned things around, so much so that the school quickly became an academic powerhouse. 

He served as principal at Catholic High for 16 years and president for 12, and during all of those years, incredibly, he taught Physics and Calculus, and every now and then, a third class in Theology, Math or Psychology. Simultaneously, he served as Vicar of Catholic Education for 20+ years for the Archdiocese, in charge of the Office of Catholic Education, Youth Ministry, Adult Education and Religious Education. On Sundays, he led the music at St. Bede Church. Some how, in the middle of all that, he would travel around the country, giving Board workshops to dioceses and Catholic schools.  Oh, and he directed a few community plays along the way.  I’m not making this up! 

In the late 1990’s, he started teaching during the summer at the University of Notre Dame in its Alliance for Catholic Eduction program, and he was such a powerful presence there that they eventually asked him to become their Academic Director.  He moved to Notre Dame in 2001, and led that program until he retired to Daphne, AL in 2015.  But even in his state of “retirement,” then in his late 70’s,  he taught Math part time at St. Michael Catholic High School. 

So, over the course of his professional career he held many titles: Principal, President, Vicar of Catholic Education, Academic Director. But the one that mattered most to him was simply “Teacher.” 

He was electric in the classroom. “What’s your evidence?” “That’s not what your classmate over there just said.”  “Defend yourself.”  “Who’s right? Why?”  He would cajole, prod and push. He challenged the “whiz-bangs” (as Mrs. Ortega, a revered English teacher at Catholic would call them), many for the first time in their lives, even while he provided generous help for those needing more support. His students gloried in his teasing and attention. 

We lived in the same neighborhood for many years, so I would often drove by his home.  If it were a school night, I knew there would be 6-10 cars parked in his driveway or on the street—students getting extra tutoring, and quite frankly, enjoying his company and their fellowship with each other.  Alumni would frequently drop by, ostensibly to get help in their college classes, but more often than not, to seek his advice and encouragement.  Occasionally,  random kids would knock on the door, introducing themselves by saying “We heard you could help us in math.” Didn’t matter. He always welcomed them, smiling. 

We first met in 1985, when I interviewed for an opening in English and Theology at the high school.  I had just finished Notre Dame with an undergraduate and graduate degree, and it was my intent to take a hiatus from  graduate school for one year, then pursue the “more important” path of getting a Ph.D. and becoming a college professor. I thought high school would make for an easy “rest stop” before continuing forward. 

I remember the interview still today, nearly 37 years ago. We only spent 5 or 10 minutes talking about the teaching position. The rest of it —over two hours—was about theology, science, books and ideas. I remember I was fascinated; whatever prejudice I carried from "the academy" into high school dissolved rather quickly. Dr. Doyle is the reason I came to Catholic High then, the reason I became its principal in 1989 under his mentorship as president,  and the reason I’ve been working in Catholic high schools ever since.  

He remains the most dynamic, creative educational leader I’ve ever known. Consider just a few of the following innovations he introduced at Catholic High: 

—A “Legislative Convention” every two years to begin the school year. Parents and faculty were the “Senate” and students were the “House of Representatives.” Any "senator" or "representative" could introduce a bill about how the school should operate—and if it received the approval of both chambers, it would then be sent to the “Executive” branch, which was our school board.  If passed, it would become school policy, instantly, that year. “We can propose ANYTHING?” new students often asked,  incredulously. “Yes,” he’d say to them, smiling, “but you must get both the House and the Senate to sign off on it to become law.” Students learned that passing bills, just like in the federal government, wasn't easy. 

—“J-Term,” when students would take only one class in January for 3.5 hours—either morning or afternoon—but during which kids traveled, did long experiments, conducted debates, and did things that were simply impossible in a 50 minute class. The dreaded and dreary “Alabama History” course, for example, required at the time by the Legislature, became an exciting part of the freshman year, under  Glynn Lassiter, as she used January to travel with students and visit important sites around the state. Her course ended with the “Alabama Hall of Fame” banquet, in which students role-played famous Alabamians, giving acceptance speeches in costume and character. The kids and parents loved it.

—The sometimes reviled, but deeply effective “A, B, and C-level” testing system, with each level matched to a different level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. To get an A in a class, students really had to do higher level thinking. It stretched kids and teachers alike.

—The “Trimester” schedule, where students took just five classes each trimester, reducing their daily load and giving them the opportunity to do remedial work in the middle trimester if they did poorly in classes like Freshman English. 

—The “Four Days a Week” year—One year, the school decided to go 10 hours/day for four days a week, creating a three day weekend. They scrapped it after one year, but they tried it! 

—“Performance Assessments”—As a portion of the final exam grade, teachers created tests where students had to show they had achieved the outcomes of the class by doing something.. Chemistry students had to assemble chemicals in correct proportion to create "airbags," World History students assumed the persona of a historical figure and discussed issues of philosophy and politics in an end-of-year "colloquium," theology students had to debate which presidential candidate held views more closely aligned with Catholic social teaching, and the like.  

And these were only the “school-wide” initiatives. Ask teachers who worked under him, and they’ll tell you about the myriad conversations he had about their classes,  where he helped them with ideas and tweaks to their courses to make them better teachers. He was so widely read that he could enter into substantive discussions about any topic with teachers in their subject area, prompting them to bone up, dig deeper, and consider new possibilities. The
 “ten paragraph” freshman writing course was a collaboration between him and Mrs. Ortega (who taught the course brilliantly.)  Math, Science, English, Theology, History, the Arts--it didn't matter--he could engage and challenge. He was truly a "Renaissance Man" in this regard. 

He had a sharp temper, and it got the best of him every now and then. His criticisms could bite. I was the recipient at times, but he’d let me know after, in his own way, that he was sorry to make it personal.  He was passionate! I understood that, and there was usually truth to his sharper remarks. All in all he was extraordinarily self disciplined, setting such a high standard for himself that sometimes people would judge him more harshly than they would others, expecting him to be perfect. I probably did that too, given my admiration for him. 

I never asked him why a person with so much talent gave his life so completely to Catholic education and to his students. He lived simply, never married, and never sought the fame or creature comforts that some one with his gifts could have enjoyed. 
But I didn’t need to ask him why—I knew the answer.  It would have been the same answer that Thomas More gave to his daughter Margaret in Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons,  explaining to her why he would not consent to the divorce of King Henry, even though he'd been imprisoned and faced the prospect of certain death: 

“Haven’t you done as much as God could reasonably want?” Margaret pleads, trying to save her father. More replies, haltingly, “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason, finally, it’s a matter of love. “ 

Good-bye, good friend and mentor. On behalf of myself, your colleagues, and generations of students and families, thank you.