Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Love Thee Notre Dame



Aaron, my third child, received word today he has been accepted to the University of Notre Dame for the Fall of 2010. He follows his older brother (class of 2009), his sister (class of 2011) and his father (B.A. 1984, M.A. 1985). Notre Dame, for all of its flaws, is still a magnificent Catholic university and a major force for good in this world. I am grateful for the role it has played in my family's life and thrilled for Aaron. My thanks to the teachers of JPII, Montgomery Catholic Preparatory and St. Bede School who have given him this opportunity.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Making the Crooked Straight!


“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.

A voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his path! Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads will be made straight and the rough places plain, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Isaiah 40:1-3)


This is the text from the prophet Isaiah, proclaimed by John the Baptist from our readings in Church this Sunday. Preparing for the Lord is the very heart of what we’re called to do during advent. The word “advent” originates from the Latin word “adventus”, which means “coming” and is a translation of the Greek word, “parousia” commonly used in reference to the second coming of Christ. So the season of advent for us is both a reminder of the original waiting of the Hebrews for their Messiah as well as the waiting by all of us for the second coming of Christ.

To fully appreciate the power of Isaiah’s words, we need to remember the situation the Hebrew people were in at the time Isaiah’s proclamation. The date was roughly 550 years before Jesus’ birth. Israel was now an occupied territory. All that was sacred and important to the Hebrews—their country Israel, their holy city Jerusalem (Zion), their temple, the ark of the covenant—all signs of God’s presence among them, all reminders of their historical liberation from the Egyptians by Moses some 700 years earlier—the Babylonians had destroyed. In an attempt to annihilate them as a race, Babylon took the Hebrew families and split them apart, exiling (or sending away) mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to different countries, most of whom never saw each other again. The once proud nation led by King David and Solomon some 400 years earlier, the one whom Yahweh had covenanted his love and protection, was no more.

One can forgive the Hebrew people, under these circumstances, for losing faith in God. For years, prophets had warned them that if they did not turn back to him, the worst could happen—and now it appeared that it had. God seemed to have abandoned them, given up on them and walked away.

At this time of deep despair, at their lowest low, God sent the prophet Isaiah to them with words of hope:

Take comfort! Your warfare is over, your suffering done, your sins have been paid for, there is one coming who will make things right. Prepare the way for this person. This world you know, filled with so much suffering and sorrow, will be turned upside down: Every valley will be exalted and every mountain made low. For you shall soon see, because of this person, the salvation of God.

It’s hard for words alone to capture the power of Isaiah’s message and the excitement of how it would have been received from a people in despair. We need music for that.

George Frederic Handel, A German-English composer in the 18th century, wrote the famous Messiah oratorio in 1741—most of you know its most famous part—the Hallelujah Chorus. The Messiah is perhaps one of the best known and most often performed choral pieces in the word. In the part I am about to show you, the singer quotes from Isaiah the exact passages from Isaiah I’ve read to you—but as you listen to it, I want you to imagine what it was like for the Hebrews to be told their suffering was finally over.

Before I play this piece, two notes:

First, Mrs. Eberhar would likely scold me if I didn’t point out that this piece is one of the best examples of word painting, sometimes called text painting, in classical music. Word painting is when the music reflects the literal meaning of the words being sung. So, for example, ascending scales would accompany lyrics about going up. Notice the how the tenor sings "exalted". See how many other examples of word painting you notice.

Second, I am aware this isn’t the type of music you’re likely to load up on your i-pods and play in your cars. But the sign of an educated person is to be open to new ideas and new things, whereas the ignorant person closes himself down to anything new. I have confidence in this student body that you fall in the former and not the latter category.

Listen to this three minute clip:



That’s a very famous rendition from the London Philharmonic.

As we prepare for Christ’s coming, both in remembrance of his birth in Bethlehem over 2010 years ago and in anticipation of his coming again, may we take comfort in his assurance that we shall one day see the salvation of God.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Word Power!



The English language is always evolving. Each year, the Oxford Dictionary publishers pick a “word of the year”--a new word they believe reflects a thematic idea for the year. This year’s choice, recently announced, is the clunky, “unfriend”. Facebook users know exactly what this means: to remove someone as a friend on a social networking site. What is interesting about that word is the prefix “un” is usually used with adjectives (unacceptable, unappealing) and although there are certainly some “un” verbs (unpack, unburden), the word “friend” is not used as a verb, so to use “unfriend” as a verb is highly unusual, and likely what intrigued Oxford dictionary folks enough to pick it.

Narrowly missing out on the 2009 word of the year were a variety of other new words or phrases, among them:

• “Intexticated” (distracted because one is texting on a cell phone while driving a car—as in “Friends don’t let friend drive intexticated!”)

• “funemployed” (taking advantage of being laid off from work by having fun)

• “zombie bank” ( a bank which is virtually bankrupt but kept afloat through government bailouts)

• “tramp stamp” (a tattoo on the lower back)

Merriam-Webster also publishes a word of the year. If one goes back over the last 5 or so years, one can track major themes for those years. For example, in 2005 the word of the year was “integrity”, chosen that year because it was the most looked up word in Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary. Ironic, isn’t it, that as steroids rocked baseball, as ethical scandals in Congress and in the corporate world were rampant, that people had to look up the “integrity” to see what it meant!

Similarly, in 2006, the word of the year was “Truthiness”, which means believing what you want to believe in your gut, rather than what is known to be true. Again, I find it telling we’ve created a word that really means “my opinion”, and cloaked opinion with the authority derived from the base word “Truth”. Truth, at its deepest level, means “that which is” rather than “that which I perceive” but it should be no surprise we confuse the two given the influence of relativism.

In 2007, Merriam’s word of the year was “wOOt”, expressing joy, whereas in 2008 the word was, not surprisingly, “bailout”, reflecting the efforts of government to rescue many companies from financial distress.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Words are alive; cut them and they bleed”. Using exactly the right word for a paper, invoking a clever turn of phrase in conversation or using a choice sarcastic word to cut someone down to size is immensely satisfying. Words are living things which have the power to create and inspire and the power to destroy. In a culture that watches too much TV, which Alec Baldwin in the Hulu commercial reminds us turns our brains into a cottage cheese-like gelatinous mush, let us re-dedicate ourselves to reading and writing so that we may be able to create and appreciate excellent prose.

Let me leave you with a brief example of spectacular writing from one of the all time great essayists, John Henry Newman. Newman is arguing against the enlightenment assumption that being well educated makes one morally virtuous. Rather than simply saying “No, because the temptation to sin is part of the human condition, regardless of how well educated one is” he writes:

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with silken thread; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man. (John Henry Newman, “The Idea of a University”).

Now that is writing! May we all aspire to use words as well as Newman did. Work hard in your English classes!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Much expected



To whom much is given, much is expected” (Luke 12:48)

Jesus said that, but when I was in high school, my father repeated this phrase to me often. He was fond of reminding me of this phrase whenever I was a little too proud of something—maybe a good test score, a good report card, or playing a good basketball game. I can almost hear him say, as he did many times, “Consider your talents a gift from God, but be sure to use those talents for the sake of others.”

I was watching the Titans play Buffalo yesterday. Buffalo recently signed Terrell Owens as a free agent receiver. “T.O” is regarded as one of the most talented receivers in the game, a physical freak of nature at 6’ 3’’, 225 pounds who can run a 4.35 forty. But he also has a reputation of being a prima donna, concerned more about himself than the welfare of the team. Sure enough, yesterday, when things began to unravel and the Titans began to take control of the game, T.O. began yelling at his teammates and coaches on the sideline. No one questions his prodigious talent. But there are few NFL teams that want Owens on their roster, because he tears down team morale and draws unnecessary attention to himself. In other words, Owens has been given much, but he’s using his gift selfishly.

You, too, have been given much. Most of you come from solid families and they sacrifice to send you here. The education you receive here will catapult you forward in your life. Most of your peers growing up in Nashville don’t have the opportunities you have today, nor will have these opportunities in the future, whether that’s to attend a prestigious college or land a lucrative job one day. Compared to others you live a privileged life.

How will you return this gift to the Lord? Will you use the advantages you’ve been given only for yourself, or will you parlay them into a life makes a positive difference in this world for others?

And in the here and now, in your life around this school, this building, the hallways, our cafeteria, will you be grateful for what you’ve received? Gratitude can be shown in small, practical ways, like an out of the way kind comment to a teacher or classmate, like keeping our hallways and cafeteria clean from trash, like taking an unpopular position with your peers because it’s the right one to take, by simply being a good listener to someone who needs to talk.

God wants us to be happy. The best way to be happy is to use the natural talents God has given us to the best of our ability. But that alone isn’t enough. We must use those talents to serve others, not ourselves.

Students at JPII, you have been given much. Rejoice and be grateful for your talents. Return those talents back to him in service to others and you will indeed live happy and fulfilling lives.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Men, Women and Etiquette


I grew up in Mobile, Al on the Gulf Coast. Being a southerner, I was taught by my parents that gentleman are expected to treat women a certain way. For example, you always opened doors for women. But that was down south. The first time I opened a door for a woman when I was a freshman at Notre Dame in northern Indiana, the woman glared at me and said in a very irritated voice, “I can open the door for myself” and slammed the door behind her as I stood there, confused.

These are confusing times for men. For this reason, I was happy to recently come upon an article by Amy Bickers in Southern Living magazine, called “15 Ways to Charm Her” (July, 2009) —a guide as to what southern women expect of men. Fellas, I read this article for your benefit. Women, see if you agree.

Here’s what Ms. Bickers says:

Want to impress a Southern girl? Just think "What would my grandfather have done?"

Number one: We still expect you to give up your seat for a lady. On a bus, at a bar, on a train. . . we don't care where you are. Unless you are at a restaurant and the only lady in sight is the one taking your order, stand up. Now.

On a recent Friday night at a bustling restaurant bar, two friends and I waited for our table to be called. The bar stools were occupied so we stood patiently, sipping wine and chatting about the workweek. When a couple nearby stood up, another woman - who had been there less time than we had - swooped in, reaching across us to put her purse on the stool. This isn't the worst part. It's what happened next: Her male companion then slid onto the other bar stool.

Hang on while I do a geography check. Are we not in the South? If ladies are waiting for a seat and you have a Y chromosome, do you sit down? No, sir. No, you do not.

We know modern life is confusing. The roles of men and women have evolved over the years.

But come on, let's keep some things old-school. My late grandfather- he of the East Texas upbringing, U.S. Navy captain status, and Cary Grant good looks - would never have allowed a woman to stand while he sat. And if you want a Southern woman to love you, neither will you. So, men, here's a short list of things Southern girls still expect from you.

We still expect you to...

[2] STAND UP FOR A LADY.

[3] Know that the sec has the best football TEAMS IN THE NATION. Big 12 fan? Hmm, perhaps you should keep walking.

[4] KILL BUGS. Enough said.

[5] Hold doors open.

[6] FIX THINGS OR BUILD STUFF. I once watched in awe as my stepfather built a front porch on the house he shares with my mother. He knew just what to do, cutting every notch, hammering every nail. The project was complete by sunset.

[7] WEAR BOOTS OCCASIONALLY. Not the fancy, l-paid-$l,000-for-these kind. We're talking about slightly mud-crusted, I-could-have-just-come-in-from-the-field boots.

[8] Take off your hat inside.

[9] Grill stuff.

[10:] CALL US. If you want to ask us out, don't text and don't e-mail. Pick up the phone and use your voice.

[11] Stand when we come back to the dinner TABLE. "Just a little half-stand is enough to make me melt," my friend Stephanie says.

[12] PULL OUT OUR CHAIRS. Wait, that's not all. Scoot them back in before we hit the floor.

[13] Pay the tab on the first few DATES. "If you ask me out, you pay," Stephanie says. "If I ask you out, you should still pay." Listen, guys, it's just simpler this way.

[14] NEVER GET IN BAR FIGHTS. Patrick Swayze might look cool in Road House, but in reality, bar fights are stupid and embarrassing. You don't look tough. You look like an idiot.

[15] Don't show up in a wrinkled, un-tucked SHIRT. Care about your appearance but not too much. Don't smell better than we do. Don't use mousse or gel. You shouldn't look like you spend more time in front of the mirror than we do.


So says Ms. Bickers from Southern Living.

Gentlemen, all joking aside, the truth is if you treat women with respect, if you listen to them and not talk incessantly about yourself, if you avoid playing the game we men often play with each other (which is to top someone else’s story with a story of your own that is even better), if you give them your genuine attention, you will be well on your way to a good relationship. My wife would add one more bit of advice: if you’re watching TV together, put DOWN the remote control. Men may like watching 2-3 shows at once. Women do not.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

My grandmother


This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to JPII students on November 2, 2009.

Today is All Souls Day in the Catholic Church, a day to remember and honor our deceased love ones. We pray for them today, but we also give them honor by remembering the values that they stood for and trying to make them our own.

Who in your life—a grandparent or great-grandparent, perhaps, an uncle or aunt—has died but left a mark on you in some sort of important way? I’d like you to think of that person this morning.

For me, it was my grandmother. She died 20 years ago, but we were very close. She was a little woman, only 4’ 11’’ but she was strong in stature and personality. Her mother died when she was only 3, and since her father was an astronomer (known for having their minds in other galaxies) and she was the oldest girl in the family, she had a lot of responsibility to raise her younger siblings.

They were poor, so she went to work when she was 14 to help out, keeping the books for a local grocer after school. Her younger brother was apparently brilliant but had a gambling problem, so when he went to Washington D.C. in the 1920’s for law school, her father asked her to go with him so she could keep him out of trouble. She did as her father asked, but when she got there, she decided to enroll in the law school herself---something very unusual for a woman to do—and received a law degree 3 years later. No one would hire a female lawyer in the 1920’s except for the federal government, so she ended up working for the Department of Immigration for 15 or so years. During that time she also received a private pilot’s license, something else that was unheard of for a woman, but apparently she was dating a man at the time who was taking pilot lessons, and as she had done for law school, she decided to earn a license for herself. She never married that man, however, because when she went to visit his family in Georgia, she found out that they were virulently anti-Catholic and that was the end of that.

In fact, it wasn’t until she was 38 that she met my grandfather and married—18 years later than the typical woman of her day. He was a naval officer, a graduate of Annapolis, who had been married before and had 3 teenage children, but his wife had died of an illness 2 years earlier My grandmother became pregnant for the first time at age 39 with my mother just as World War II was breaking out, so less than 6 months after her marriage, my grandfather was called to war, leaving her all alone, pregnant, with 3 teenage step children. The WWII years were tough years for her. They moved constantly to where-ever my grandfather was stationed—San Francisco, Hawaii, back to the east coast—but they saw very little of each other during that time. He was at sea when my mother was born, at sea when she took her first steps, at sea when she first went to kindergarten. But my grandmother was faithful and strong and survived. She had one other child when she was 45, my aunt, who now lives in Huntsville.

Fast forward to when I remember her. She settled in Auburn, AL, about 5 hours away from Mobile, AL, where I grew up. My grandfather died in 1968 when I was only 6, so I don’t have much memory of him, but she would visit us often, and we loved it. She’d come down for our birthdays and other special events. She’d usually take us out to eat, something we didn’t do very often and she often gave us presents for no other reason than she wanted to. I remember she drove a big Cadillac, and since she was so short, all you could see over the dashboard was her head, and that, I think, partly explained the fact she was a terrible driver. She often bragged she had never been in a wreck, which only proved to me as a kid how skilled a driver every one else on the road must have been! She never stayed with us for more than 2-3 days before she whisked back off to Auburn, and even as young child I had this sense she was a very independent, self-reliant woman. She was always interested in us. She wrote letters to us and often included checks as gifts, which made her a pretty cool grandmother when I was a teenager.

Her generosity extended beyond our family. She cared for people in nursing homes, even eventually for those who were younger than she. She gave to charitable causes, a fact apparently well known to charitable causes, because she received literally 20-30 mail solicitations per day. She was a pillar in her church at St. Michael’s in Auburn.

She wasn’t perfect. She was an impatient woman. I remember when we were leaving for Auburn with her and got no further than downtown Mobile. There was an accident inside the Bankhead tunnel, and we got into a huge traffic jam, with miles of cars before us and behind us. After going no-where for 30 minutes, she snapped and just started honking the horn over and over for 20 minutes. When we finally crept forward close enough to be within earshot of the policeman directing traffic, she rolled down her window and let him know how incompetent he was in no uncertain terms. Meanwhile, my sisters and I, mortified, hid under the seat in the back.

God was merciful to her in the last years of her life. Given her fierce independence and fiery nature, she would have not tolerated a long sickness. She was in her 80’s, but she woke up that morning at 6 a.m. as she always did, went swimming for exercise in the Auburn city pool at 7 a.m., then delivered a cake to the nursing home she had made the night before. She wasn’t feeling well—she was having trouble breathing—so she decided to go to the doctor later that morning, who told her she must immediately check into the hospital. It turns out she had cancer. She checked in on Thursday afternoon, the same day she had been swimming at 7 a.m. and died that Monday, just long enough for all of the family to come and see her for the last time.

As you think of that person in your life you admired but who is now deceased, ask yourself, what was their best trait? Their best virtue? We can best honor our deceased love ones on this, All Souls Day, by taking this virtue and working hard to make it our own.

I admire my grandmother for her generosity to others, her fierce, fiery independent spirit and her strong work ethic. I hope that I can be a person worthy of being called her grandson by being just as generous and working just as hard.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Personally Opposed, but..."


I was a student at Notre Dame in 1984 when then governor of New York Mario Cuomo came to campus and gave a much heralded/much reviled speech that attempted to reconcile his pro-abortion policies with his Catholicism. His "personally opposed but cannot impose my beliefs on others" argument has since become the mantra for over a generation of pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Recently in my junior morality class, we had occasion to re-visit his speech. Here's my brief response to Cuomo's argument, some 25 years later:

Cuomo treats a civil right, the right to live, as if it were a matter of personal taste. All laws, especially those which protect the most vulnerable of parties, are founded not on preference or private sentiment, but upon a fundamental belief about the natural rights of man, rights that precede civil society and those which governments must protect to remain legitimate.

The Catholic Church does not believe abortion is wrong because it says so. Nor is the argument against abortion one from Scripture. The Church opposes abortion because it destroys our most basic right – the right to life –the foundation for all other rights. The Church does not “create” right and wrong; rather, it derives right and wrong from the natural order of things. Cuomo’s argument that “because I am Catholic, I am opposed to abortion, but as governor I cannot impose my religious views on my constituents” assumes the Church is making a sectarian religious argument that only applies to Catholics (a belief about the Eucharist or Mary, for example). But a natural rights argument is not a sectarian one. The same sentiment that inspires us to protect the rights of the criminally accused, that cares for the poor or that protects ethnic minorities--constituencies but for our nobler instincts could easily be taken advantage of – animates our laws. Those instincts are not “Catholic” ones, but human.

The flaw in Cuomo’s logic can be most easily shown by substituting other crimes into the formula: “I am personally opposed to rape, but I cannot impose my views on my constituents.” “I am personally opposed to murder, to slavery, to robbery... but I can't impose my views.” Because these crimes trample upon the civil liberties of others, their prohibition is rightly enshrined in law and punishable by imprisonment.

Governments exist to protect and extend what our founders called “certain unalienable rights” and that “among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Indeed, the very justification of our Declaration of Independence from England was that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter (or to abolish) it.”

The right to life is the most basic of all civil liberties. Our leaders have a duty to alter laws that don’t protect it adequately, independent of their religious convictions, pro or con.

Abortion is not a “religious” issue.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Matters Most about Athletics



This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to JPII students on October 26, 2009.

First, I want to thank the JPII Chamber Choir and Mrs. Elbehar for singing at Mass at Our Lady of the Lake on Sunday. I was delighted to be there--first, because you greatly enhanced the liturgy, and second, because I am proud to be the headmaster of a school with such an excellent choral program and am happy when others hear you. Good work.

I was also able to see my two favorite football teams play this weekend, in person. The first was our game against BGA Friday night down in Franklin. It was a competitive, well played game, but we lost 23-20 when they hit a FG late in the game to break the tie. On Saturday, I was invited to fly up to Notre Dame to watch the Irish play Boston College and happy to say that the good Catholics won, 20-16, due largely because of the stellar play of JPII’s Golden Tate, who had 11 catches for 128 yard yards and two TD’s. He’s so good that the same thing that happened at JPII is now occurring at Notre Dame stadium: whenever he gets the ball in open space, everyone instinctively stands up, anticipating something special is going to happen. I had fun.

I also understand our girls soccer team won their first play-off game on Saturday—a hard fought game against BGA in which they won 2-1, so they're now proceeding to a second round play-off game. Congratulations to our girls' cross country team that finished first in the mid-state regional tournament. They and the boys will run in the state finals on November 7. Our girls volleyball team finished around .500, a big step forward from last year. Good job, girls. And last week, our hockey team beat Hendersonville 3-1. Congratulations to all of you.

Athletics play a huge role in our society today and it’s an important part of our high school life here. As we wrap up the fall season and begin making the turn to our winter sports—in fact, I understand the basketball program has its first official practices today—I think it’s important to remember what’s truly important about high school athletic programs. As much as we all want to win, and as much as winning is more fun than losing, five or ten years from now, unless your team went undefeated and won a state championship, you won’t remember your won-loss record. You will, however, remember the good time you had with your teammates, the laughter in the locker-room, the bond of brotherhood or sisterhood you felt with them as you together experienced the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. You will remember the relationship you had with your coaches, who went through those times with you, whom sometimes you hated because they challenged you to perfection, whom most of the time you respected precisely because they expected and demanded so much from you.

If you’re an athlete who has finished your season or if your season is nearing completion, I suggest you ought to measure success by two simple questions: Did you have fun? Did you become a better person?

As much playing a sport can be time-consuming, difficult, sometimes monotonous, filled with disappointment if you’ve lost a close game or if you’ve been blown out, the bottom line is did you enjoy it? We forget too quickly that when it’s all said and done, we should be having fun. I coached my son’s football team when he was 11 years old, and we ended up having a good season and made it to the championship game. However, the day of the championship it was very cold, and rained harder than any day I remember, an utter deluge. It was miserable--the field was nothing but a mud pit. We lost the game 7-6. On the way home, I looked over at my son, who was both shivering cold and covered head to foot in mud. I asked him “So you glad the season is over”? He turned his eyes to me—the only thing not covered with mud—and said “No, Dad. I wish I could play football the whole year.” Well, he was only 11 and didn’t have a lot of other things pressing him for his attention like you do. I understand that at the high school level, even if you love what you’re playing, there’s a certain amount of relief when the season ends so you can spend a little more time with friends, or sleep on Saturday mornings, or catch up in your studies. But if you love the game, after some time off, you begin looking forward to the first practice of next season. So I ask you, those of you just finishing up your season: Did you enjoy it?

The second question is: Did you become a better person? Too often today we focus on about self-fulfillment, “getting mine”, stat lines, getting our names in the paper. But athletics teaches us to put the team before self. It teaches us to become more disciplined, to become tougher, to work harder. Sports challenges us to seek perfection, to “do my job” even if others are failing theirs, to work for long term ends—a game in October, when I am running sprints in July. These are values that make us stronger, better people. It’s an important question: You’ve just invested an enormous amount of your time and energy into your sport this season. Are you a better person for it?

If you can say you had fun and are a better person for it, you’ve had a great season. My congratulations and thanks to all of you who represent your school so well. We are proud of you; I enjoy watching you play.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Living in Daylight


This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to students on October 19, 2009.

About 10 years ago, I got to know 4 boys in my school very well. From their first day as freshmen, they began getting in trouble—mostly for being unruly in the classroom—and they were always sent to see me since I didn’t have someone like Mr. McLaren. We did numerous work details together, scraping gum from underneath dining room tables, picking up paper around the campus and surrounding neighborhood, waxing the school bus on a Saturday morning and anything else I could dream up—just to keep these fellas in line. And as some of you who are frequent visitors to Mr. McLaren’s office might understand, as they became juniors and seniors, despite the fact we were frequently aggravated at each other, we developed a kind of love-hate respect and affection for one another.

One day in their senior year, I was looking for our football coach down at the locker-room after practice. I walked in just as the biggest and heaviest of these four fellas—think Chris Farley from Saturday Night Live—was just getting out of the shower, his backside to me. I pretended to become blind, my eyes seared by the horrible image I had been forced to see. We had a good laugh. Fast forward to May on their last day of school: the four brought me a present and told me not to open it until I was alone in my office. I guessed what it was and was right: The four fellas had taken a group picture together, bending over, mooning me, with the inscription: “Thanks for not giving up on us….” and they each signed their names.

We didn’t get a chance to talk again until after graduation, and they came up to me, a little nervous, and wanted to make sure I knew it was a joke. I said I took it that way, not to worry. “Good”, they said, “So you can throw it away now, but just know, Mr. Weber, we had the last laugh." “Throw it away? The last laugh?” I said. “You fellas are thinking short term. I’m saving that picture. When you come back for your 20th reunion with your wives and daughters, I intend to circulate copies to all your classmates, just for old times sake. You better be generous in the alumni appeals between now and then.”

I tell that humorous story to make a more serious point: We often think the consequences of our actions are short-term, rooted in the present. But increasingly, the mistakes we make in the present have longer-term consequences. Much of that has to do with technology. Back in Alabama, there were two girls in a private school who got drunk and posed nude for a cell phone picture. The boy who took the picture sent it to a friend, who sent it to someone else. When they realized the next day what had happened, it was too late. It had been widely circulated around the city and uploaded to porn sites around the world. When the school found out about it, the two girls were expelled, as was the person who took the picture and sent it to someone else. But that wasn’t the worst thing: These girls had to live with the uncertainty and embarrassment of not knowing who had seen that picture among their classmates and around the city.

Another example: one of my former students got drunk in college and did something stupid and was arrested. It was covered in the local newspaper. Even though he was not convicted and his arrest was legally expunged, today if you do a “google search” for this student, you can still find the account of his arrest. Employers are becoming savvy in using search engines for digging up information about their job applicants. A partner of an accounting firm I know purchases Facebook data about college grads applying for jobs in his firm—not just the Facebook pages that are showing their sites at graduation time, but pages that have been cached over the course of each applicants 4 years of schooling. Even before I was hired as JPII’s headmaster, the chair of the search committee here, Mr. Wood, did a thorough google search and read every article I’d ever published in a magazine, every article about me, every quote that had been attributed to me in the newspaper.

Jesus once said:

There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops (Luke 12:2-3)


The best way to prevent ourselves from being embarrassed or from letting something about our private lives come back and bite us publicly is to work very hard at making our lives exemplary in every way—to live as if all of our actions and words were “in the light” no matter how private they may seem. Part of that is avoiding situations where we’re not in control of what’s happening, like the two girls who got drunk and didn’t realize the implications of what they had done until it was too late. If we live moral lives, if we try to live “in the light” as God wants us to, then we don’t need to worry so much about what’s “out there” about us. We can simply be ourselves.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Enemy of the Great



As we begin the second quarter today, I’d like to talk a bit about greatness.

The gospel reading from this Sunday is interesting. A young man, perhaps not much older than you, comes to Jesus and says “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God. You know the commandments: Keep the Sabbath holy, Honor your parents, don’t lie, steal, murder.” “I’ve done these things since I was young” the young man tells Jesusproudly. Jesus, eying him, says, “There is one thing further you must do: sell all your possessions to the poor and come, follow me.” And the gospel says the young man walked away sad, for he was a wealthy young man.

My take on that story is the young man is a good guy. He’s following the commandments. But Jesus challenges him to be great. I think that may describe us all: on the whole, we’re pretty good people. We’re not killing people, most of the time we’re not stealing, we don’t often take God’s name in vain, we’re not sleeping around. But God calls us beyond even those things. He desires us to be great.

I read an interesting book over the break, by Jim Collins, called “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t”. He studied many companies in Wall Street, trying to figure out if there were common characteristics in companies that had out-performed the market by three times the general averages—the “great companies” vs. those who had only done well (“the good”). One of his findings is an interesting idea: “Good is the enemy of the great.” (repeat). What he means is that often the good companies were happy with their performance—“good” for them had become “good enough”, so they weren’t driven to seek more. Their vision in what they could be, what they could become, was limited, ordinary, pedestrian.

I think that can be true of all of us: you as students, we as your teachers or school leaders. We often measure ourselves against the masses and say to ourselves, “Well, maybe I’m not studying as much as I should, but I’m doing a heck of a lot more that my friend in another school.” “Maybe I could be a better teacher, but I’m sure better than _______”. “Maybe I’m not the best headmaster, but I know I’m better than most”. That kind of thinking will guarantee that we’ll be at most, “better than average” students, teachers or headmasters, but we’ll never be great. We’ll never be the true difference makers in this world if being “good enough” is all we aspire to be.

One of the things I am proudest about JPII is we have one, simple, ambitious goal for you: we want you to be great. We not only want you to be great, we think you can be great. It’s why our graduation requirements are higher than any school in the Nashville area. It’s why we don’t give D’s. It’s why we ask you to take 3 years of foreign language and 3 years of the Arts---both unusually high standards for even elite high schools. It’s why Mrs. Phillips and your teachers push you to take Honors and A.P. classes, even if you’re not sure you can do it. It’s why we play at the highest level of athletic competition in Tennessee, even if at times we struggle. It’s why we emphasize the importance of a life of faith, Mass each week, theology classes that require work just like the other classes, why we pray so frequently together. It’s why we have an Honor code, why we have a Veritas Council, why we emphasize discipline so strictly. It’s because from the first day this school opened, Pope John Paul II has expected greatness of itself and greatness of its students and its teachers.

As we begin the second quarter, don’t be like the young man who merely does what he is supposed to do. Challenge yourself to be more than that. God wants us to use all of our talents to the best of our abilities and he promises us that when we do so, we’ll thrive and be happy. Ask him to help you. He will.

I hope all of you have a great second quarter.

Monday, October 05, 2009

College Prep 101: A Guide for Middle School Parents


Recently the faculty of JPII sponsored a seminar designed to help parents get their middle school children ready for college. This article is a highly condensed summary of what was said; for a more complete presentation of the seminar, go here.

If I’m a parent of a middle school child, how do I best prepare my child for college? What matters most in the college admissions process for selective schools? Does my child’s EXPLORE score (a pre-ACT test in 7/8th grade) indicate my child in on the right path? What can I do to guide him or her through the early teen years successfully?

In a national survey, colleges claimed the five most important criteria for admissions were: Grades in college prep classes, strength of curriculum, ACT or SAT scores, grades in all courses and admissions essays. However, the evidence suggests the greatest discriminator between selective and less selective schools are the applicant's ACT/SAT scores. Vanderbilt and Notre Dame students, for example, have a median composite score of a 31-32 on the ACT (or 97th to 99th percentile). Rhodes and Belmont students average 26-28 (84th-91st percentile), whereas U. Tennessee and U. Alabama students average 24-25 (75th-80th).

The average grade point averages of entering frosh in all six of these schools only varies by .46, from a 3.86 average at ND to a 3.4 average at U. Alabama, supporting the proposition that test scores matter more than GPA’s. This makes sense: GPA’s vary wildly among high schools, making them an unreliable way to measure applicants, whereas standardized test scores compare “apples to apples”. Should tests matter this much? Probably not, but the reality is that selective colleges receive tens of thousands of applications and must find ways to sort through them quickly.

For similar reasons, we also believe that the difficulty of curriculum taken in high school is an increasingly important factor for college admissions. On the common application now used by hundreds of colleges, high school counselors are asked to rate the student’s curriculum as “most demanding”, “very demanding”, “demanding”, “average” or “below average” compared to their classmates. For students who are serious about getting accepted at top schools, anything less than “very demanding” undercuts their cause dramatically.

If, then, test scores and strength of curriculum matter so much, what does this mean for middle school and high school programs? We must look first at what the ACT test measures. (For purposes of this seminar, we’ll focus on the ACT since it is most common in the south. Many colleges are now accepting both the ACT and the SAT, which ever the applicant prefers.) Surprisingly, the ACT does not assume advanced course work. The Math test, or example, is comprised of predominantly Pre-Algebra, Algebra I/II, Geometry and a few Trigonometry questions. Most of the Science questions are Earth Science, Biology or basic Physical Science. The English test is predominantly reading and grammar, whereas the Reading test measures comprehension and ability to interpret tone and nuance.

It is likely then that by late junior year, when students should begin taking the ACT, they will have covered the necessary topics in high school. HOW they’ve covered these topics, however, is critical: The ACT Science test places a heavy emphasis on interpreting data from experiments, drawing conclusions from charts and graphs and analyzing research. Are students doing these things regularly in their 7-12th grade program? Are students solving a variety of word problems in their Math courses, using manipulatives, drawing sketches, being asked to communicate mathematical ideas to their classmates and teacher, or are they merely learning techniques to solve a battery of similar algorithms? Are students reading consistently, picking out main ideas, asked to discuss tone, working with original documents, reading novels, being stretched in their vocabulary? How strong is the foundation students receive in grammar? Do they know the rules of grammar or do they just pick what sounds right? Students in schools that do these things consistently will improve their ACT performance dramatically.

But how do I know if my child on the right path for a good ACT score? Many schools give the EXPLORE test, a pre-ACT test for 8th graders and the PLAN test, another pre-ACT test for 10th graders. Predicting ACT performance in junior or senior year based on scores earned in 8th grade is partly a guess—there are many variables (quality of school, effort, rest before the test, work ethic during high school) that skew such predictions. Nevertheless, the ACT folks publish estimated PLAN scores from the EXPLORE and also publish estimated ACT scores from the PLAN, so putting these together, we’ve been able link EXPLORE to ACT and make broad predictions, available here.

What, then, are some practical things I can do as a parent to put my child in the best possible position for college?

1) Emphasize foundations. Middle school parents may worry their child is falling behind if he or she is not taking advanced courses in middle school. Don't worry--a thorough understanding of Algebra I and Comp I is more important. Not only will a firm foundation make the curricular “house’ sturdier throughout high school, remember that the ACT does not measure proficiency in Calculus!

2) Once in high school, insist your child takes the most difficult curriculum he or she can handle. Honors and A.P. classes will not only help with the "strength of curriculum" admissions criteria, it will help your child improve ACT performance.

3) Grades, though important, matter less than we may think, so be forgiving on grades, but unforgiving on effort. If your child is truly taking demanding courses, he or she will stumble from time to time. That's OK. Focus on consistent effort and the grades will take care of themselves in the long run.

4) Help your child develop good homework habits. Though it varies based on the child and the curriculum, we believe 10 minutes per grade level is a good minimum, so that 8th graders should be doing a minimum of 80 minutes, even if “he doesn’t have any”. There’s always reading to do, notes to review, a test to prepare for.

5) Help your child say “no”. Students take on too many commitments, hoping that a long resume will impress colleges. Most colleges, however, value depth over breadth. It’s better to be a 4 year member of the Debate team and indicate greater achievement and leadership in the Debate club each year than to dabble with Debate one year and something else the next. Also, being part of an athletic team is terrific, but these days varsity athletes are expected to play their sports year-round with club play and off season requirements; be careful your son or daughter isn't playing too many sports to the exclusion of other good activities, the most important of which is serious study. Kids wear down!

6) Insist on a regular cycle for sleep. Teens don’t get enough of it. Furthermore, they disrupt their body clocks on weekends by staying up late and then sleeping late in the mornings which makes Mondays almost useless as their bodies re-adjust.

7) Help your child develop a love of reading. Read to your children when they’re young, visit the library often, subscribe to magazines of interest as they get older, read books on long car trips together instead of watching DVD’s, become a reader yourself to model its importance to your children, insist on definitive bedtimes but allow reading in bed, and read the books your children must read for school so you can discuss with them. Reading ability is the single best predictor of future academic success.

8) Limit screen time. The average teenager watches three hours of T.V. per day, not counting time on the Internet.

9) Ensure that missing class is a rarity. No matter how diligent your child in making up missed work, the discussions, questions, and back and forth between teacher and child is irreplaceable.

10) Encourage your child and pray for him or her. The teenage years are rife with uncertainty, awkwardness, worry and stress. Prayer will help us keep things in perspective and our teen will be comforted knowing we’re praying for him or her. We can take comfort in knowing our child's future is in God's hands.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Resume Building


This is Mr. Weber's assembly talk of September 28, 2009.

I’ve been speaking to faculty who’ve been here since the beginning of school and many agree that last week’s homecoming was the best ever. Congratulations to the football team for their 48-9 victory over East Hamilton on Friday night. Please join me in thanking Mrs. Pierpoli, who organized the Friday night homecoming festivities, and Mrs. Weaver, who organized the dance. I also want to thank the student body for joining into the festivities so completely; I thought your nerd day outfits were hilarious and if you haven’t been to the pictures link on our web site there are some really funny shots.

Now that we’re through with homecoming, I want to recommend to you that you begin to take your Christian Service commitment seriously if you haven’t started.

I know, on one level, CSI feels like a burden, another one of the long list of things you must check off to get to the next year. Let me suggest two alternative perspectives.

First, though this was not our motivation for establishing it, it turns out that having 160 hours of service work at a variety of charitable agencies over the course of your four years of high school makes your resume very attractive to colleges. Consider the perspective of the college admissions counselor:

Application #789: 3.8 GPA, 28 on ACT, played basketball and baseball, worked a part-time job. Sounds like a good, solid applicant—except that applicants #1-788 are mind-numbingly similar if you’re the counselor who must read 1,000 applications.

JPII applicant #790: 3.8 GPA, 28 on ACT, basketball and baseball, part time job. In freshman year, tutored under-privileged children after school in program called “Children are People”. In sophomore year, he visited with the elderly at Mary Queen of Angels Nursing home. As a junior, on Saturday mornings, he served food to the homeless in a program called “Loaves and Fishes”. In senior year, he volunteered at Vanderbilt Children’s hospital.

If you’re a college counselor deciding between applicant #789 and JPII applicant #790, applicants with very similar academic records, it’s not even close. Now clearly if we’re only doing Christian Service to pad resumes, we’re not doing it with the right spirit. But as often is the case, doing good thing for others ends up helping us, and it’s OK to acknowledge that.

Of course, the real reason we do Christian service is because Christ asks us to. He tells us “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do unto me.” Despite promises that our happiness is tied to having what we want or doing what we want, the truth is God has programmed us so that we’re really only truly happy when we’re serving others, and he tells us when we do so, we’re serving him.

Along the way, many of you may find yourselves in less than fantastic situations in your commitments to CSI. Perhaps you’re being asked to wash dishes, or sweep floors, or clean up after people. Rather than moan about it, consider it a blessing. Consider it an opportunity to pad the most important resume you’re working on: your application for eternal life.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Homecoming Week, 2009





On Friday I attended the exhibition hockey match vs. Fr. Ryan which we won 10-4 and then went straight to the football game against Brentwood HS which we lost. One of the really good things about both games, despite the fact they were a good drive from here, is that there were a lot of you at each venue, cheering on the Knights, supporting your classmates. The blue man group was there, though a bit smaller in number, and as I said hi to them on their way in, they all showed me their ticket stubs for the night with big smiles on their faces.

When I arrived at JPII last year and spoke to many of you about what’s right and wrong here, many of you said that school spirit was lacking. I don’t sense that now. What I’ve seen in the stands, at our opening football game, at Gallatin High School, what I’ve seen at pep rallies, what I saw from the teachers and the laughter at the assembly last week, what I saw again on Friday night tells me that school spirit is alive and well. And as much as we all want to win—and if you sit next to me at a sporting event you’ll quickly see and hear I am as competitive as you are—school spirit isn’t about attaching our loyalties and support to a team only if they’re competing for championships; rather, it's supporting our classmates, regardless of record, because they represent us, because we are proud of them and proud of our school.

This is homecoming week. In addition to the dance on Saturday and our homecoming game on Friday, we’ll be having a huge bonfire/pep rally on Thursday night. This is a new tradition at JPII and I hope to see all of you there. We also have volleyball games this week, freshman football games, girls’ soccer, a golf match, and a cross country competition. I hope you will use this week to celebrate our school spirit by attending many of these contests and cheering for your school and your classmates.

I am proud of this school. I am proud my two younger children attend here, proud that I am your headmaster, proud of you and all the amazing things you do, whether that’s as a student, as athlete,, as a musician, actor, artist or whatever your talent. Even while we work, even while we study, let’s have fun this week.

GO KNIGHTS!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Texting!

This is Mr. Weber's assembly address for September 1.

For a long time, we've heard the anti-alcohol slogan "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk." Texting while driving is the new drunk driving, and too many of us are doing it. Here's a video that helps put that risk in perspective.



Don't do it!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who's Noticing?


This is Mr. Weber's 4th assembly talk of the year.

The average American is bombarded with over 3000 advertising messages each day, counting commercials on TV, internet ads, road signs, radio, sponsorships, email, telephone and the like. Corporate America spends over 620 billion dollars a year in advertising, and they’re not doing it to be charitable. They are clamoring for your attention in what is a very noisy, very crowded playing field.

Because we’re under siege, we've developed a habit of not paying attention. Even when we're in the same room with each other, we are likely somewhere else, on cell phones or texting. When I visited downtown Chicago with a friend, he told me not to make eye contact with the homeless or else they’ll ask you for money. He said to keep looking forward and give the appearance you’re in a hurry. If you’ve ever watched people walk around in a big city, that’s exactly how most people operate, putting on deliberate blinders, trying hard not to make eye contact, being as careful as they can to avoid contact with others.

I had exactly the opposite experience at JPII on Thursday of last week. Some of you noticed I was pushing around a lady in a wheelchair, showing her our campus. That was my mother in law. A little over 2 years ago she was on her deathbed, but has recovered such that she was able to visit us for the first time since we moved to Hendersonville in June of 2008.

As I wheeled her around, you opened doors for her. You moved gym bags out of the way so that we could get by. You smiled at her. Teachers came up to her and introduced themselves and told her how wonderful it was that she was here. In short, all of you NOTICED her, and your hospitality said something very powerful, very counter-cultural, about the kind of place JPII is. Beaming after the experience, she told me, “Boy, you have a really nice people at your school.” I consider that a high compliment for all of us. So should you.

Hospitality is, after all, all about paying attention to people. Some people are easy to pay attention to—they’re personable, or funny, or good looking or smart. They have a natural charisma that demands attention. But the mark of a truly Christian community is how well it pays attention to the others: around JPII, our Cross-gate cleaning ladies, or our cafeteria staff, or perhaps the quiet student who doesn’t seem to have any friends.

Also visiting us last week was my wife’s uncle and aunt from central Ohio. After piddling around town for a few days, they said “It’s really amazing how friendly people in the south are.” As someone born and bred in the south, I consider THAT a high compliment too. May it always be said about us southerners, and may it always be said about this student body and Pope John Paul II High School.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sapientia



This is Mr. Weber's address to the students of JPII on August 17, 2009.

In the readings from this Sunday, there was a single line from Proverbs that caught my attention:

Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding (Proverbs 9:6).

To “forsake foolishness” isn’t just nice alliteration; it’s one of the two most important goals at JPII, goals which are so important they are engraved into our school building as you walk up from the parking lot. “Fides et Sapientia” those words say, or translated from the Latin, “Faith and Wisdom”. A wise person is the one who “forsakes foolishness”.

Being wise doesn’t mean having the most factual knowledge. There’s too much of it. In fact, St. Albert the Great, who died in the year 1280, is believed to be the last person to know all the knowledge there was to know of his day. The world’s knowledge base is growing so fast , it doubles every 2 years in some fields like nano-technology and every 20 in others. That means if you’re getting a four year degree in a nano-technological field, by the time you graduate, most of what you've learned is already outdated. If being wise means knowing most of what there is to know, I'm afraid we’re all just a bunch of idiots.

No, wisdom is more than knowing facts. It is recognizing what is significant among the facts. Here’s a brief story:

A giant ship engine failed. The ship's owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure how to fix the engine.

Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was young. He carried a large bag of tools with him when he arrived. He immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom.

Two of the ship's owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars. "What?!" the owners exclaimed. "He hardly did anything!" So they wrote the old man a note saying, "Please send us an itemized bill."

The man sent back a bill that read: Tapping with a hammer...$2.00, Knowing where to tap... $9,998.00


Knowing where to tap, knowing what’s significant, discerning truth from all the advertising, all the lies, all the opinions, all the arguments, is wisdom. In other words, wisdom really means being able to separate out what is true from what is noise. We live in a noisy world.

And here’s our problem. Because we're members of this noisy world, we are influenced by it and often not aware we are under its influence. It’s like we’re in a boat which is in the idle position, so it feels like we’re not moving, but in fact the boat is in a river with a strong current carrying us downstream. Our culture’s values, our culture’s way of thinking becomes our way of thinking. If you don’t believe that’s true, consider the fact it was once considered scandalously immodest for women to wear swim-suits in public that showed anything above their knees. Consider that in the 1980s, the sit-com “Cheers” was considered scandalous for its openly sexual jokes, but now appears on TV Land, regarded today as a children’s network. If Cheers was scandalous in the 1980’s, how far down that river have we drifted given the wild popularity of Springer,Family Guy, and South Park?

So because we’re conditioned, because we’re part of this noisy culture, it’s hard for us to even recognize what IS true. This is why, I believe, our faith is so important if we’re going to be truly wise. How do we know that we’re really moving downstream when we think we’re standing still? We look for reference points not on the river with us. We look at houses on the shore, or bridges above us. Because they remain fixed, we can detect our movement. In terms of our faith, we read the Scriptures and consider the teachings and traditions of our Churches to remind us what is right, noble and beautiful so that we can discern what is also wrong, crude and banal.

Let us then, as a community of JPII, pray this year that we forsake foolishness and grow to be people who live up to what we acclaim in our walls, people of faith and especially today, people of wisdom. Jesus makes clear the path:

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. “ (Matthew 7:24-25)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Big Laws or Small Laws?



This is Mr. Weber's 2nd assembly address to the students of JPII, on August 10,2009.

Listen carefully and hold your opinion until I finish.

The new discipline code is as follows. Disciplinary incidents will be classified as either Class A, Class B or Class C violations.

Class A violations include acts that interfere with educational processes or other areas of school jurisdiction. Examples of Class A violations include: distracting other students, littering, failure to follow directions, offensive touching (non-sexual), rude or discourteous behavior, cheating, failure to follow the dress code, missing homework, gum chewing or eating candy. Typically, Class A violations are handled within the discretion of the teacher.

Class B violations are those which seriously disrupt the educational process in the classroom or other areas.

Rule B08: Criminal Mischief/Pranks/Vandalism
Rule B09: Defiance, Disrespect, and Opposition to Authority or Rule B10: Willful, Persistent Disobedience
Rule B16(A): Possession of Cellular Telephone or Other Communications Devices
Rule B20: Harassment or
Rule B31: Threats/Intimidation
Rule B30(A): Inappropriate Display of Affection/Touching
Rule B30(B): Sexual Offense
Rule B32: Possession or
Rule B33: Sale or
Rule B34: Use of Tobacco Products, Matches, or Lighters
Rule B35: Trespassing
Rule B36: Truancy/Unauthorized Absence/Tardies
Rule B58: Other School Rules and/or Board of Education Policy

Consequences for violating Class B violations will include suspension not to exceed 3 days or, if repeated, a recommendation to the principal for expulsion.

Class C violations are considered illegal acts.

They include
Rule C01: Purchase, Possession, or
Rule C02: Sale, Delivery, Distribution or
Rule C03: Use of Alcoholic Beverages
Rule C04: Arson (Setting a fire on/in school property)
Rule C06: Bomb Threat
Rule C07: Burglary/Breaking & Entry or
Rule C24: Larceny/Theft/Possession Stolen Goods or
Rule C25: Unauthorized Use of Vehicle (Theft)
Rule C11: Disorderly Conduct/Disruption of School
Rule C12: Disruptive Demonstration involving five or more students or
Rule C22: Incite Others/Create a Disruption of School
Rule C13: Purchase, Possession or
Rule C14: Sale, Delivery, Distribution or
Rule C15: Use of, Marijuana, Narcotics, Stimulants, and Any Other Unauthorized or Illegal Substance or Drug Paraphernalia; Inappropriate Use of Medications, and/or Use of Intoxicants
Rule C17: Fighting Among Students
Rule C18: False Fire Alarm
Rule C29: Sexual Harassment
Rule C30: Possession of a Handgun or Realistic Replica of a Weapon

Violations of Class C offenses will result in a minimum of a 5 day out of school suspension up to expulsion and the filing of a police report for the student committing the illegal act.

More detail is available on line. For example, a weapon is defined as:

1. A firearm, including, but not limited to, any hand gun, shotgun, black powder firearm, flare gun, zip gun, or
any other device from which a projectile is discharged by explosive powder.
2. A realistic replica of any firearm, including, but not limited to, realistic replicas of a handgun, rifle, or shotgun, black powder firearm, flare gun, zip gun, air gun, blank gun (starter’s pistol), gas-operated gun or arrow gun.
3. Knife, irrespective of the blade length, including, but not limited to: Box cutter, Fixed-blade knife, Lock-blade knife Spring-loaded knife Swiss Army knife, Butterfly knife, Folding knife, Paint scraper, Stiletto knife, Utility knife , Carpet knife Key chain knife Palm knife Straight razor , Exacto knife, Linoleum knife , Razor blade Switch blade
4. Numchucks, throwing stars, fighting claws or other weapon utilized in martial arts.
5. Explosive device of any type including, but not limited to, fireworks.
6. Fingernail clippers or other items that contain a knife blade or metal fingernail file.
7. Bicycle chain or heavy duty chain, bike sprocket.
8. Other weapons including Baton, Cattle prod, Ice pick Mace/Pepper spray, Spear, Black jack, Club, Machete, Taser, Bull Whip, Bow and arrow, brass knuckles or hand axe, Bull whip, Hatchett, Loaded gloves, Sling shot , or any device capable of discharging a projectile or invented for or used for the purpose to inflict injury.

OK, I asked you to hold your opinion until the end. So what do you think? I don't like it either. I guess we won’t adopt the new Code of Discipline for Montgomery, AL Public Schools here at JPII.

I outlined this policy in some detail for a reason. G.K Chesterton, a famous Christian writer, once said:

When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.”

I think the policy I just outlined is a pretty good indication of what he means. If we can’t agree that we’re going to be a school where honesty, integrity and respect rules the day, then we’ll have to be a school ruled by laws that are increasingly detailed and specific, written by liability lawyers which must define what the word “knife” means.

I don’t want JPII to be place ruled by small laws—and neither do you. Rather, we want to stay committed to the big things—the ideals for which this institution stands.

What we stand for is contained in our Veritas pledge, which, for the sake of the 189 students who are new, we recite from time to time at our assemblies:

I promise before God and members of this community that I will be a person of integrity who will not lie, steal, cheat, plagiarize or break the bonds of trust that define this community. I will take responsibility for my decisions. I make this promise in order to build a community of trust and integrity with my brothers and sisters at JPII. (JPII’s Veritas Pledge)

May God give you the integrity to live by what you promise.

Friday, July 31, 2009

On Your Marks, Get Set...


This is Mr. Weber's opening day address to students at Pope John Paul II High School.

Welcome back and to our many new students—185 of you-welcome to your first day of school at JPII!

I have two simple questions for you as we begin the year: The first is: What kind of person you do you want to be?

There are many people in our world today who are cowards. A coward, in my mind, is a person who refuses to stand for something or become involved in things that matter. Metaphorically, they are people who refuse to get into the “game” and instead “sit in the bleachers”, ridiculing those courageous enough to play, cluck-clucking about how dumb someone else is, or how foolish or how na├»ve. Cowardice often takes the form of pseudo-intellectualism that mocks anyone who is passionate, or committed or excited about something. C.S. Lewis calls these people “Men without Chests” because they have no spirit, no passion, no strength of conviction, and says though they purport to be intellectuals, their heads are no bigger than anyone else’s, they just seem that way in proportion to their atrophying chests.

What kind of person do you want to be? Don’t be a coward! Join a club that sponsors a cause you believe in. Try out for a team, even if there’s a possibility of being cut. Throw yourself into your studies, even if at times you can’t make the grade you’d like. Become passionate about something. We have an amazing array of clubs, academic teams, athletic teams, and service organizations in this school. We'll be having an activities fair on Friday, during which all of these clubs will explain what they do, and seek new memberships. Join something. Don’t be one of those students who races out the door at 3:10, gets in the car and disappears until 7:50 the next day. Frankly, high school isn’t much fun that way. Stretch yourself, try new things, forgive someone you haven’t forgiven and forge new friendships.

The worst thing you can do? Settle. Settle for the status quo. Play it safe. Sit in the bleachers without ever entering the game. It doesn’t matter where you've been or what you did in the past. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been an 8 to 3’er each day in the past. There’s a new sunrise this year. New school years are a chance to stretch, to do something brand new, to grow and to reach. What kind of person do you want to be?

My second question is this: What kind of school do you want to be?

That may sound like an odd question. JPII has been a school longer than you’ve been a student here, and its reputation precedes you. But JPII's reputation as excellent isn't a coincidence. We are so regarded because previous student bodies insisted upon it. They took pride in JPII, and because of that, they made us special. How people will see us in the future now depends on you. Perhaps it’s one of our human failings, but people are very quick to judge groups on the basis of a single incident or the behavior of one person in that group. If a football player during a game takes a cheap shot, or if a fan says something inappropriate to the opposing fans, or if you’re in uniform after school and you behave poorly, people will conclude, however unfairly, that “JPII students are thugs”. It doesn’t matter how much advertising we do or money we spend –their entire opinion of us will be shaped by this brief incident. Each of you has tremendous power to shape others' opinion about JPII. I hope you will protect and defend JPII's reputation.

What kind of school do you want to be? Even more important than our public image is how you treat each other. Are you going to be a school that ridicules persons who look different or act differently, or are you going to insist on a culture where diversity and differences are welcome? Are you going to allow people to bully others, or are the upper-classmen in particular going to make it clear, we don’t do that here, because no matter how awkward someone else is, he or she is one of us? Are you going to be a school of slobs, or are you going to take pride in your school and protect our beautiful campus by cleaning up after yourself and insisting that your classmates do the same? Are you going to cheat or allow cheating, or are you going to insist with each other (long before a student is “caught” by a teacher or before a Veritas violation occurs) that this is a place of integrity? Will you treat teachers with respect, or will you tolerate disrespect? Are you going to be a place where reverence, integrity, faith and moral living is the norm, or are you going to allow JPII to become a Christian school in name only, no matter how hypocritical that makes us?

What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of school do you want to be? As we begin this new year, you’re going to have to answer those questions for yourself. But as you answer those questions for yourself, don’t forget to notice the needs of others and look to each other for support.

Let me end with a story.

While crossing the border on his bicycle, the 
man was stopped by a guard who pointed to two sacks the man had on his shoulders.

"What's in the bags?" the guard asked suspiciously.

"Sand to build a sandbox for my children," said the cyclist.

"Yeah right”, said the guard. Take them off - let's take a look," said the guard.

The cyclist did as he was told, emptied the bags, and 
 proving they contained nothing but sand, reloaded the 
bags, put them on his shoulders and continued across 
 the border.

Two weeks later, the same thing happened. Again the 
 guard demanded to see the two bags, which again contained 
 nothing but sand. This went on every week for six months, 
 until one day the cyclist with the sand bags failed to 
 appear.

Years later the two men happened to run into each other. "Say fella, you sure made us crazy", said the guard. "We 
 knew you were smuggling something across the border. I 
won't say a word - but what was it you were smuggling?"

The man smiled: "Bicycles!"


Sometimes, the most obvious things are the hardest for us to see. Let’s pay attention to each other. Together, may this be an amazing year for you and for JPII. God bless you.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New Teacher Orientation


Editor's note: This is Mr. Weber's address to new faculty at JPII for the 2009-2010 school year.

Welcome to JP II!

You'll be getting a lot of advice and information today and over the next month or so—frankly, we expect you will forget most of it initially! —but if you need to remember something like whether the bell that just rang is for your class' lunch period or someone else's—ask a colleague, not a student! Our students are wonderful, but they will also be happy to lead you down the proverbial primrose path if you're willing to follow.

As you begin with us, I'd like to talk about the school's mission statement. It's very simple, but there's some depth worth exploring:

Inspired by Faith, Pope John Paul II High School, prepares students to be strong in mind, body, character, and spirit for lives of learning and service, according to the Gospel.

I think there's four things to point out about our mission:

First, it says we care about what kind of people our students become. We may think that our “subject” is Math or Science or History, but the real subjects are the students themselves, and whether or not we help them become people who are strong of mind, body and spirit to serve others.

We're not just deliverers of content or grading machines. Rather, we care about how individual students in our classes are doing. Young drivers, shortly after they get their license, tend to fixate their gaze on a zone just 10-15 feet in front of their car. They don't see globally, they don't allow their peripheral vision to soak in the landscape in front and alongside them. New teachers often make the opposite mistake: they tend to look at their classrooms globally; they are so fixated on covering material or keeping classes in order they forget to measure the impact on the individuals in their classes. We don't measure our success by classroom averages or the rate through which we cover material, but by how Suzi in the third row is doing. If she's floundering, how can I get her help? What can I do for her? How do I make a connection to each of my students? Do I stand at the door and say hi as they enter? Do I have the ability, because I was there cheering, to tell Johnny “good catch last night?” Am I up on my grading enough to know that “Bill” is beginning to slip? Do I notice that Jennifer seems to need an encouraging word, or is that “seldom heard”? Do I express concern to kids personally about how they're doing?

We hear a lot these days about “individualizing instruction”. The most important thing is that we actually notice each kid. Educational psychologists say that if students receive just 20-30 seconds of truly individual attention from their teachers each day, it catapults them to success. I think it's our greatest challenge as teachers. It's also brings the most JOY into what we do.

The second aspect of the mission statement is we want our students to be strong in mind, body, character and spirit. I want to emphasize here the conjunction “and”. Not strong in mind, or body, or character or spirit, but all four things. There are many high schools that tell their kinds you can be a great athlete, but not a good student. You can be a good singer, but you can't play ball. It's very subtle: a counselor might say “Be careful not to load up too much on the A.P. classes given your commitment to sports”, or it may be whispered among the student body “Only geeks are in the band”. At JPII, we want our students to be renaissance people. We not only want our kids to take Fine Arts, we require it for 3 years. That means the most masculine, jock-ish boy in the school is going to be in chorus, visual art, theater or band for 3 years. Last year Wesley Tate, who signed a full football scholarship to Vanderbilt , was in the Advanced Men's Choir. We're going to require every frreshman this year to join something because we know that they become integrated into the life of the school when they are involved.

What I think what that means for us as teachers is that we support our kids in these dual roles. Support, first of all, by our interest in their other ventures, by attending games and concerts, by coming to appreciate their other talents. Support, secondly, in our willingness to coach teams and moderate clubs, modeling to students that we, too, value the “renaissance” emphasis. Our soccer coach, Al Mila, is also a math teacher and our Spanish teacher, Veronica Devalle, coaches cross country. Support, thirdly, in realizing from time to time there will be conflicts—all state choir, for example, will require students to miss class all day. Sometimes a spring sport will require an early check-out. It works in the opposite direction too: Sometimes a student in tutorials she will be late for practices. We have to be willing to bend a bit, be inconvenienced a bit, to help students achieve that balance our mission statement calls them to. I challenge you to see these many activities not as “EXTRA-curricular” but “CO-curricular”. We ran an advertising campaign last spring that a picture of a student, along with a brief synopsis of his or her many talents. Leah Loven, a rising junior, was featured as an honor student, all state soccer player, and a clarinet player in the band. Ladd Caballero, a rising sophomore, was featured as a basketball player, honor student and piano player. The tag line on both ads was simply “BE MORE”. That “BE MORE” campaign is at the heart of what we want our students to be.

The third aspect to the mission statement to emphasize is the phrase: “Strong in mind”. We make no apologies for setting the academic bar here very high. And when students get to the point they're jumping over it, we set it a little higher. If kids are struggling, we'll provide them additional resources, such as tutorials, but we won't lower the standard, or put them in some sort of below-par set of classes. There are really only 2 tracks at JPII, advanced and regular. We don't give D's. We make kids take 27 credits out of the 33 required for graduation, including 4 years of Math, Science, History and Theology and 3 years of Science, Foreign Language and the Arts. Students must pass every subject they take or go to summer school to restore their failing grades in order to be accepted back the following year. In the classroom, we want serious reading, discussion and thinking to be taking place.

Here's what we know: If we hold kids to high standards and then give them the means to achieve those standards, they become confident in their ability to conquer unforeseen problems that will await them later in life. Plus, they'll feel better about themselves. It's similar to what happens to us when we exercise: When we exercise routinely and push ourselves, we feel better. We may not want to exercise, we'd rather be a couch potato, but when we get off the couch and go outside and run, we seem, somehow, to bring an internal order to our lives. When kids stretch in the classroom, they feel better in the same way. Regrettably, our society tells teenagers they are not capable of stretching and incapable of heroism or virtue . Practice sex safely, because we know you can't live morally. Live, we tell them, “in the real world”, instead of the world where principles and character matter. I believe most kids truly want to be challenged—there is an idealism within them that wants to make a difference, wants to strive toward excellence, but they are not quite sure they're capable of it. They need to see in our eyes and in the quality of our teaching that excellence is not just possible, but expected of them. Our faith and optimism in them to achieve helps them do so.

The 4th insight from our mission statement: Everything we do is “inspired by faith”. We've been using an interesting phrase lately, that our “Faith is the lens through which all else is focused”. I really believe that's true. What connects all the dots at JPII is a our common commitment to building disciples. Its why we have Mass every week, it's why we take our theology classes so seriously, it's why we offer retreats, begin classes with prayer, pray before ball games. One of the great blessings of being in a Catholic school is that we end up doing all those things routinely—so routinely, it almost goes unnoticed, like breathing. But by becoming an ORDINARY part of our kids' lives, we help them forge a world view where faith is integral to their lives, where the insights of their faith matter.

If you're not hired as a religion teacher, we don't expect your classroom to become a place where you or others are testifying each day. You are teaching English or Math to our students, not theology. But there are occasions, most often in one to one settings, where telling them how your faith matters is appropriate and appreciated. Students will be watching you closely to see if you're at school functions, participating in the mass, and your attitude will affect theirs, for better or worse. If you're not Catholic, that's OK—your authentic witness to you faith and by the way you live—add to what makes us such a vibrant Christian community.
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Lately I've been thinking about legacies—from a personal viewpoint, the legacy I have inherited from my parents and grandparents—from a professional viewpoint, as headmaster of JPII, the legacy we have received both to the founders of this school, but also those who made Catholic schools around this country what they are—the nuns, who worked for so little—a feisty, uncompromising collection of women who insisted that even the poorest immigrants were capable of learning and worthy of their efforts to teach them.

As you begin your careers here—some of you, as first year teachers—others of you in the continuation of your careers—I challenge you to accept the torch that so many people are now passing on to you. I ask that you honor their work and the reputation they have built for this school by working hard, by seeking counsel from your colleagues, by respecting the authority and wisdom of your departmental chairs and the leadership of our academic dean, Karen, by preparing good lessons, by grading work carefully and getting it back on time, by communicating well with parents and students, by attending student extra-curricular events when possible, by getting to know your students, their strengths and weaknesses, their aspirations and their fears, by staying abreast of your field by reading diligently and seeking out professional development opportunities, by meeting school deadlines, by helping students in tutorials, through doing your weekly duties with a generous spirit, by a willingness to forgive both your students when they don't act as they should, by a willingness to forgive yourself when you screw up, through your support of the school's religious activities and through what we hope will be a place that your faith life is also strengthened—these are the traits that make for good teaching, these are the traits that carry the torch handed to you forward. These are the tools through which you will build your craft. Yes, it's challenging. But yes, it's also very rewarding.

You are fortunate to be teaching at what I regard as one of the finest Catholic high schools in the country. At the same time, we are fortunate to now have you on our faculty and are excited about what you will add to this wonderful place we call affectionately, “JPII”.

May God bless you this year.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Vision of JPII


I am fortunate to work for a school whose namesake, Pope John Paul II, is already being tagged “The Great” in many circles because of his prominent role in ridding Eastern Europe of communism and his pastoral leadership of the Church for 27 years, the second longest tenure of any pope. Perhaps his most enduring legacy, however, will be as a theologian. Recognized as a world class theologian even before being chosen to lead the Church, JPII was prolific in his writings as pope and widely acclaimed for his vision of the human person in what is often now referred to as his “theology of the body”.

We get a glimpse into this vision in his opening to a letter written to the bishops (Fides et Ratio, 1998) when he writes:

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

This vision animates what we're trying to do at Pope John Paul II High School. By coming to know truth, in all of its beauty and ramifications, it is our desire that students will come to know God, and in so doing, will be inspired to become “strong in mind, body, character, and spirit” to lead “lives of learning and service to the Gospel” (our mission statement).

To aim for such lofty goals, we set our sights high. All students are grounded in a rigorous liberal arts course of study, including four years of Math, Science, English, History and Theology and three years of a Foreign Language and Fine Arts. Tutorials are offered for students who need extra help, whereas those who demonstrate aptitude may take honors courses and choose from among 19 A.P. courses for college credit. Our fine arts program, considered one of the state's best, affords them choices in choral and instrumental music, as well as the dramatic and visual arts. Our athletes play at the highest level of competition in Tennessee, led by excellent coaches and supported by dedicated parents. Students are also encouraged to become members of a large variety of clubs and service organizations within the school.

The lens through which do these things is our faith. Through the study of Scripture and Doctrine, students discover the ancient and universal truths that bring synthesis and meaning to their lives. Through the Christian Service Internship, our students give 25,000 hours of service to 35 Nashville charities, and are thus inspired to love God through others. Through prayer, weekly liturgy and worship, students are invited into a deeper relationship with the Lord.

In a recent survey of our school, a parent used a phrase which I believe captures the spirit of this place. She said there is an “optimism for excellence” here. That optimism derives from a belief that when students strive to be their best, they reflect God's aspirations for them and in so doing, become people who are truly happy.

St. Irenaeus once wrote: “The glory of God is the human person, fully alive”.

That's it. Exactly.