Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Looking Out for Each Other

This was an address to JPII students on October 27, 2008.

Our friends often see things more clearly about us than we can see for ourselves. We all know situations where a girl dates a guy who is "no good for her”, but she cannot see this herself, because she's too blinded in her affection for him. I once knew a fella who drank too much, and his friends knew it, but he was too proud to admit it and claimed he could stop whenever he felt like it—but he didn't feel like it. Or maybe we have a friend who is in an abusive relationship and we see quite clearly that it’s abusive, but he or she cannot see it, because he or she is too wrapped up in it.

We see these things and we care about our friends, but we often don’t know what to do about it. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to interfere, that wants to respect the privacy of others, that recognizes at some level that we have to live our own lives, and that if our friends make mistakes, they will eventually have to pay for these mistakes on their own.

But too often, this line of thinking is a cop-out, a rationalization to avoid doing what is hard. We don’t want to tell our friends. We know that they’ll get defensive with us, maybe even angry, perhaps tell us to mind our own business. We worry that if we tell our friends the truth, it will hurt our friendship, maybe even end it, and we don’t want that.

Two quick stories:

A former colleague of mine was the best friend to a woman who was engaged to the man of her dreams: He was witty, successful, very polished and handsome. What she did not know was that he was unfaithful to her, even during the engagement. My colleague knew this, but couldn’t bring herself to tell her friend the truth, because she knew it would devastate her. So she kept what she knew to herself. What eventually happened was entirely predictable, though tragic: they got married, had a daughter, he committed adultery many times, they got divorced, he remarried, he cut off ties with his child, the wife was hurt very badly, and her child grew up a psychological mess, having felt abandoned by her father. My colleague tells me it was one of the biggest mistakes of her life not to tell her friend what she knew well before the marriage—she saved her from hurt during the engagement and instead guaranteed her far worse hurt for many years, not to mention the scars the daughter now carries.

The second story: Two girls I know grew up together as best friends, from kindergarten on up. They spent the night together often, went on family vacations together, and had pictures of each other all over their bed rooms. Since they were both smart, they took many of the same classes together, and helped each other excel in school. They were very close. However, in their junior year, one of them began to smoke marijuana. At first, it was just every now and then. But as she became a more regular user, her friendships began to change, and she began to change too, caring less about school. Though she had been a very moral person, when she was high, she was promiscuous, and had been in several compromising situations with guys, which made her feel terrible about herself the next day.

Her friend didn’t know what to do. She talked to her, and was instantly rebuffed. She wrote a letter, telling her that she loved her and was worried about her, that she would go with her to tell her parents and to get her help, but was told to back off and quit acting so “high and mighty”. Her friend’s life unraveled further. She began to use other drugs. Grades were awful-attitude was worse. As a last resort, not knowing what else to do, the friend met with the girls’ parents privately. She told them that their daughter was her best friend, but that she was destroying her life and she needed help. She told them everything she knew. Her parents suspected as much and had been reluctant to admit it , but could not avoid doing so once told by their daughter's best friend. They family did an intervention. The girl went into treatment.

Of course, the girl who used drugs was very resentful toward her friend for what she had done. For a year, she cut off contact entirely. But as she became well again, she slowly became her old self and started doing better in school. She graduated on time with her classmates. Eventually, slowly, the two friends reconciled. “I hated you for over a year”, she told her friend. “But it wasn’t really you. I knew you were right all along. I hated myself. Thank you for doing what you did. You loved me even more than you loved our friendship. Please forgive me.“

Let’s look out for each other. It’s easy to be a friend when it’s all good times and laughter. The real measure of our friendships is how courageous we are to tell each other the truth, even when the truth is hard. Let’s not wait for things to escalate or to get out of hand. We often know things about our friends long before people in authority do, and when it finally reaches that level, it’s often too far down the road to resolve well.

May you be blessed to have these kinds of friends. May you have the courage to be these kind of friends to each other.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dedication of Statue of Pope John Paul II

These are Mr. Weber's welcoming remarks regarding the dedication of the statue of Pope John Paul II on October 22, 2008

Good afternoon.

On behalf of our students and teachers, I'd like to welcome all of you to Pope John Paul II High School.

Where words fail, art often speaks, lifting our spirits and encouraging us to see beyond the limitations of our present lives. We hope that this sculpture of Pope John Paul II in his later years, kneeling in prayer, will remind our students, our families, our staff and all our visitors of our dependence on God and the need for his guidance in our lives.

As we dedicate this statue today, we thought it an appropriate time to step back and reflect for a moment on our founding. In 2002, as the result of extensive planning, fund-raising and just plain hard work, the diocese opened Pope John Paul II High School with 240 students. We have grown in meteoric fashion these last 7 years; we are now a school of 630 and are regarded as one of the finest schools in the Nashville area, proven by AP test results, ACT scores, college placements and the number of scholarships received. Last year’s graduating class received 12.6 million dollars in scholarship offers, an average of over 77,000 per graduate of the school.

We dedicate this statue today "In gratitude for all those who made this school possible.” As the new headmaster, I want to thank many people for our success:

First, thank you to our bishop and superintendent, Bishop Choby and Dr. Williams, for having the vision, energy and courage to build this school,

To our Board, past and present, who have established wise policies within which the school has thrived;

To our faculty, past and present, including my predecessor, Hans Broekmann, whose dedication and professionalism have given this school such a sterling reputation in such a short period of time.

To our many donors, without whose generosity this school would never have gone beyond a dream and whose continued support make this dream available for families with lesser means;

And to our students and young alumni, for whom this school was built. Through your efforts and example, you have embraced the vision of our founders. May you continue to earn their sacrifices by working to become the people God has destined you to be-- people of “fides et sapientia” , the words engraved into the pillars of this school, people of "faith and wisdom".

In my first address to students this year, I shared with them the words of the man whose sculpture we dedicate today. At World Youth Day, Pope John Paul urged the hundreds of thousands of youth in attendance:

"Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch."

I can think of no words that better express our aspirations for our students. Be it the rigor of the classroom, the careful attentiveness required by the arts, or the challenge of athletic competition, we want our students to strive to be excellent in all their endeavors, so that with the confidence that comes through achievement, they may indeed be willing to risk lives of great depth and commitment of service to their Church and community.

As we dedicate this statue today, may it be an occasion of joy and pride for all that we have become. May it also be an occasion to challenge ourselves to be faithful to our original mission: to be an extraordinary school doing an extraordinary thing: preparing students to be "strong in mind, body, character and spirit for lives of learning and service to the gospel”.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Homecoming, Specks and Planks

This is Mr. Weber's address to the students of JPII on Monday, October 13, 2008

Welcome to home coming week!

As you know, homecoming is a time for us to celebrate as a school and invite our alumni to “come back home” to their “alma mater” (in Latin, “nourishing mother”). We hope to see a lot of those alums for our game on Friday night, especially.

As we think aboout homecoming this week, we are reminded of the most famous story of homecoming in Scripture, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. You remember the story: a father has two sons, one of whom is responsible and hard working, the younger son who lives frivolously. This second son asks the father for his share of the inheritance, moves away, becomes a player, and wastes all his money on women and wine, until he is penniless and hungry—so hungry, in fact, that he even desires to eat the garbage that pigs eat. Coming to his senses, he decides to go back to his home and live as a servant to his family, realizing his family’s servants live better than he. But the father sees him coming down the road, runs out to meet his ne’er do well son, hugs and kisses him and tells his servants to kill their best calf—there is going to be a huge party. Jesus tells us through this parable about God’s great mercy and love for us, and that he’ll forgive us for whatever we do wrong if have the courage to return to him.

But there's more to the story, and I will translate the rest of the parable loosely. The older brother is having none of it. I think most of us can relate to this brother. While his lazy little brother is out there drinking and carousing, he’s back at the farm, milking the cows, acting responsibly. And now his brother, having blown half of the family’s money, has the audacity to re-appear, hat in hand. But even worse, his soft-hearted father, instead of being rightfully indignant and angry, welcomes him back to the family unconditionally, and even throws him a party. Outrageous! Unfair!

“Son, the father asks, “What’s the matter?” “I can’t believe you’re just taking him back, like nothing’s happened”, the son says. “I’ve been working hard all this time and you don’t even give me a scrawny goat to share with my friends, but you’ve killed our best cow and are throwing a huge party for that loser brother of mine.” “Son”, the father says, “you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. But it is fitting to celebrate. Your brother was dead, and now he’s alive. He was lost, but is found”.

The parable ends there. We never find out what the older brother decided to do, but if I were guessing, he didn’t come around too quickly. I can’t imagine he went to that party. You see, one of the great lessons of this parable is that God is much more forgiving and merciful with us than we are to each other. We LIKE it when someone gets what’s coming to him.

A few years back, my friend was driving down the interstate and a car passed him like he was standing still—it must have been going 120 miles/hour. At first he was shaken, but then he got angry and pulled out his cell phone, dialed 911, and reported this lunatic to the police, travelling south on I-65 at such and such mile-marker. The dispatch operator said she’d report it to the troopers up the road. He hung up the phone, smiling, looking forward to seeing this idiot pulled over ahead. Sure enough, about 20 miles further on down, my friend saw the blue lights flashing ahead and thought triumphantly—yes, jerk, you’ve been nailed—until he got up to the site and found out there had been a terrible wreck, which didn’t make him feel quite as good. But, he rationalized, maybe that will scare him to death, hope he’s OK, and he forgot about it. The next day, the wreck was in the newspaper. Turns out the driver was a 22 year old and his wife was pregnant, and her water had broken, and in panic, he was driving her to the hospital. He was killed in the wreck, she was badly banged up, but they did an emergency C-section and saved the baby.

My friend felt like a heel. He was so quick to judge, so quick to want justice, like all of us. Fortunately, God judges us more kindly that we do each other. Let us, this week, as we celebrate homecoming together, try to act a little more like God and a little less like ourselves. Maybe it will help keep us from seeing that speck in our classmates’ eye and recognize the plank that is too often in our own.

Enjoy homecoming this week. Seniors, this will be the one of the firsts in a series of lasts for you…your last high school homecoming. Even as we have fun together and dress in all these funny outfits, let’s not forget that we’re in school, and we still have work to do.

Go Knights!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Choosing High Schools: An Insider Perspective

This article was written for publication in the Register, the official newspaper for the diocese of Nashville.

The Tennessean recently ran a story chronicling a kind of "arms race" between 3 private schools in Nashville to out-spend each other building extraordinary high school athletic facilities. Not coincidentally, they each have excellent football teams.

Though having a winning team is fun, in our more sober moments, we know that it pales in importance to teaching, learning and passing on the faith to our children. Yet because so many schools hire professional advertising firms to select just the right images and statistics to sell the school, it’s often easier to pick out a good team than a good school—we need only read the sports pages!

How do we sift our way through the slick ads and the hype to pick the right academic program for our children? Having spent the last 20 years as a high school "head", I'd like to offer a series of "insider" questions that may help.

High schools brag about their "Merit" or "Commended" scholars as a way of conveying an "elite" academic program. We all do it, because we're regarded with suspicion if we don't, but it doesn't tell you much. Merit scholars are chosen by performance on the PSAT test, which measures reading comprehension and math reasoning abilities based on simple algebra and geometry. It's an "ability" test--how well a student uses basic knowledge to solve unique problems--rather than one that measures "achievement"--how well a student has met the goals of an advanced curriculum. A much better measure of a school's top program are A.P. test results, which track how well students do in advanced subject areas like Physics and Calculus and thus reflect the quality of teaching and learning. Even merit finalists can't get 4's and 5's on A.P. Calculus exams unless Calculus is well taught! If you're a parent of a gifted student, you'll want to ask: How many A.P. classes are offered? How many A.P. classes do the best students take over their career? Which classes score the highest? The lowest? How many students were honored as "AP Scholars", "AP Scholars with Honors", "AP Scholars with Distinction" and "National AP Scholars" by the College Board last year? Since some schools urge only their best A.P. students to actually take the tests, thus inflating their "passing" percentages (3+), ask instead 'What percent of students enrolled in A.P. courses, pass the exam'?

Ask, too, about ACT results. ACT scores are more telling than SAT scores because in the south, only the top students typically take the SAT tests, inflating school averages, whereas almost everybody takes the ACT. But ACT data can also be misused. Because some high schools educate students with varying abilities, comparing their average ACT score with a school that excludes weaker students is invalid. Instead, ask ‘What is the average ACT score for the top quartile and top decile of students?’ as a way of comparing apples to apples. And if I am a parent of a child who struggles, I'd like to know the average ACT scores of the bottom two quartiles. Would my child be able to attend a state university with those scores?

Core requirements (4 years of English, Science, etc.) will be roughly similar, but ask about the number of foreign language and fine arts requirements (more is better). Also, into how many “ability tracks" does a school tier its student body? Though some educators will disagree with me, less is better--ideally, an honors track and a general track for all but those with severe learning disabilities. More tiers mean that schools place their weaker students in remedial classes which often become dreary, self-fulfilling prophecies, asking too little. Let them reach! If their grades suffer a bit, that's OK, because colleges value ACT results more so than grades--grades have become too inflated and vary too much between schools to compare students reliably. It's better for our children to stretch with lesser grades and higher ACT's than to cruise without challenge! The key is: Does the school provide the extra aid necessary to help a weaker student stretch? Are teachers available before or after school to tutor students? Often the difference between students isn't what they can learn, but how quickly they can learn it. Giving less able students a legitimate French II course, if learned at a slower pace, with extra help, is much better than never requiring them to take French II.

If I were meeting with the administration, I'd ask them about innovative programs and new initiatives as a quick window into their creativity and energy. Ask them what their weakest curricular areas are, how these are diagnosed and what they're doing to address the them. All schools have weaknesses if they're honest; what you want to know is how pro-active a school is about diagnosing and remedying. Ask principals about their long term goals for the school. Be wary of the language of powerlessness too common in education today, such as "We'd do more if we had more money", or "our hands are tied by..." etc. I'd ask if I could observe hallways at the end of a school day to gauge how well students and teachers interact with each other and to get a feel for the milieu of the school (often disguised in school brochures). While there, ask a few random students what they like and dislike about the school. They don’t read the school brochures, and you're likely to get some unfiltered, honest answers!

National research has shown that children who attend Catholic high schools for 3+ years are half as likely to convert to another faith as adults, almost half as likely to drop all religious affiliation, are likelier to have a prayer life as adults, are likelier to identify themselves as "highly committed Catholics" and are likelier to regard their faith as "among the most important parts of their lives" (Gautier, 2005). Those statistics ought to matter to us as Catholic parents! However, what is true nationally may not be borne out by any particular Catholic school. How often does it celebrate Mass together? How pervasive is prayer? What are the credentials of the religion teachers? How seriously does the school treat religion as an academic subject? What are the school's service requirements, if any? How prominent are religious symbols and Scripture in the school? These are the things that make a long term difference.

I hope I've been helpful.