Friday, February 27, 2009

The Three Legged Table

This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on March 23, 2009.

I hope all of you had a great Spring break.

We are at the mid-semester point, with 3rd quarter report cards now out. Traditionally in high schools across the nation, 3rd quarter grades are the worst of the 4 quarters. JPII is no exception. Perhaps it’s the distraction of the spring sports season starting up. It could be the familiarity you now have with your teachers, who seemed more interesting in the fall. Perhaps it’s simply fatigue.

One thing that hasn’t happened: You haven’t become dumber.

Let’s be direct: Because you have excellent teachers and students before you have excelled here, JPII has earned a reputation in central Tennessee as an excellent academic school. Your ACT and A.P. scores certainly bear this out. But when we get tired or lazy, it’s very easy to go from “JPII is demanding” to “JPII is too demanding”. That adjective “too” is a subtle way of absolving ourselves from the responsibility to work hard. To be demanding means we must work. To be too demanding, well, then what can we do?

I tell this story often because it’s revealing: Every year they host an international math test, pitting the top high school students in each country against each other in a series of math performances. Every year, Japan finishes in the top 3 among the developed nations, whereas the U.S. finishes in the lower teens. One year, they did an interview of all the participants, and they asked each one a simple question: “You have been chosen as one of the top math students to represent your country in international competition. “What makes you so good in math?” Almost every American kid said something to the effect of “good genes”, or “my mother and father are good in math”, or “I dunno, I just see the answer”. Almost every Japanese kid said “Hard work”, or “We start very young and then go to private tutors”, or “They push us pretty hard.”

See the difference? Americans are apt to say that it’s something that happens to them, whereas the Japanese kids see it as something they make happen. And it isn’t just them. How often do we find ourselves saying “I’m just not very good in Math”, as if to say it’s God’s fault that we can’t solve the problem quickly?

There’s no pixie dust, no magic, no short-cuts to being a successful student: It still takes hard work. For those of you struggling right now, I want to make a promise to you. That’s right, I am making a promise to every single student at JPII right now who isn’t doing well. Here it is:

• If you do 90 minutes of homework every night (legitimate work, without the TV on, the cell phone interrupting every 10 minutes, without music blaring, without taking nights off),
• If you both in class and attentive in class (minimum of absences, trying to take notes, etc.) and
• If you attend tutorials faithfully

Then I promise you will not fail. I’ve been a principal for 20 years and have made that promise to every single student I’ve known at the end of the 3rd quarter, and I’ve never had to eat my words.

There are 3 legs that make the academic table stand, and they are all 100% within your control, regardless what your test scores are, or how hard or easy school is for you: Do your homework, Work hard in class, and attend tutorials.

JPII is demanding, but it’s not too demanding. If you’ve had a poor quarter, don’t pout or whine or put your tail between your legs and cry out how accursed you are. Step up, stand tall and do what you need to do. Your teachers here will do back-flips to help those of you willing to take the first step to help yourself. I promise.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


This is Mr. Weber's address to the JPII students on Monday, February 23, 2009.

There was a girl at my old school who was an amazing softball player. From the age of 8, she was the star of her traveling team. She played pitcher most of the time (short-stop when she rotated out of pitcher), always batted 3rd or 4th in the line-up, was always the one expected to make the big hit or get the key strike out. From the age of 7-12 her traveling team won the World Series 4 of those 6 years, which meant she played softball from February through the end of August, not counting fall softball for a couple of months each year. When she joined our high school team in 7th grade, she instantly became our #2 pitcher, by 8th grade, she was undoubtedly the best girl on our high school team. Each year, she got better.

By her senior year, she had been playing softball almost continually for 11 years. Her production was fantastic: She batted .550 with a slugging percentage of .825—both phenomenal numbers for fast pitch softball—and had an ERA as pitcher of just under .5. D-I college softball programs from all over the country were recruiting her, including the school she most wanted to attend as a freshman. They were all offering her free rides.

Except… She didn’t want to play college softball. She had grown to hate it.

And who could really blame her? For almost 11 years she had dedicated her life to softball, only dabbling in other sports, despite the fact she was a phenomenal athlete. She hadn’t dated much—she was away most weekends in tournaments. She didn’t have the kind of close friends at her high school one might hope to develop over four years, since so much or her time was spent on traveling teams outside the school. In the end, she was burned out. She just wanted to go to college like everybody else.

I once heard a comedian who said his wife was in labor 30 hours straight before the birth of their first child. He said he “didn’t even want to do something that felt GOOD for 30 straight hours”.

There is some wisdom in that humor! Being a member of an athletic team is a wonderful thing, studying hard is an excellent thing, working hard for something you care about is a good thing. But don’t let it be the ONLY thing.

Diversify. I’m not talking about your stock portfolio. I mean diversify your commitments. Pour your passions into many things. Try some things you’re not inclined to do naturally. Taste, Experience, Join, Enjoy things that you haven’t tasted, experienced, joined or enjoyed before. You’ll be fresher, wiser and happier.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Lies, 'Danged' Lies and Abortion

This is Mr. Weber's address to the student body on Monday, February 9, 2009.

Mark Twain once said: “There are lies, danged lies and statistics” (or words to that effect). He means, of course, that statistics can be manipulated to say whatever we want them to say.

Nowhere is this truer in our public policy debates than over the question of abortion. It is widely assumed that the majority of Americans favor our existing laws regarding abortion, but that all depends on how the question is asked.

Here’s an example:

Lake Research Partners conducted a poll in July of 2006 of 1,000 registered voters nationally and concluded that: “77% of Americans agree that the government and politicians should stay out of a woman’s personal and private decision whether or not to have an abortion. “

So 77% of America is in favor of abortion? Any statistician worth a nickel will tell you the language of that question is so biased as to make the data meaningless—once you load up the question and use phrases like “personal and private decision” or “keeping government and politicians out” of a woman’s decision, you get predictable results.

In fact, that question is so poorly worded I wondered what self-respecting statistician would stand behind it, so I did some research and found out two things: First, that the poll was sponsored by NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League, a political lobbying agency representing abortion clinics and the abortion industry in this country. But even more revealing, if you read the actual study by Lake Research Partners, it wasn’t designed to be a neutral study to measure what America truly thought about abortion, but as a marketing survey designed to measure the most advantageous way to frame the debate on behalf of pro-abortion candidates. Framing the debate in terms of freedom, privacy, choice, government intrusion into the private lives of women provides, in the study’s words, “an opportunity for pro-choice candidates to capitalize on the public’s opposition to divisive attacks on a woman’s right to choose.” So this was never meant to be a neutral study on what Americans believe about abortion—but it was presented as such by NARAL, who knew better, but figured most of America would not.

There was a more scientific study conducted this fall by NBC News/Wall Street Journal, which asked this question:

"Which comes closest to your view on abortion: abortion should always be legal; should be legal most of the time; should be made illegal except in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother's life; or abortion should be made illegal without any exceptions?"

Here were the results:
• 25% said it should be “always legal”
• 24% believed it should be “legal most of the time”,
• 37% said it should be illegal except for cases of rape, incest or threats to mother’s life,
• 10% said it should be illegal without exception, and
• 4% were unsure. (September 6-8, 2008, with a margin of error of 3.3).

As balanced as that survey is, note how easy it would be to manipulate results for either side: the anti-abortion side could say that “75% of Americans are opposed to abortion on demand without restrictions”, whereas the pro-abortion side could say “90% of Americans are opposed to restricting all abortions”—two ways of twisting the data to make the results sound as if they conclude exactly opposite positions.

The most balanced, honest conclusion would be the following:

• 49% of Americans believe abortion should be always or mostly legal, whereas
• 47% of Americans believe abortion should be always or mostly illegal

Because the margin of error is 3.3 points, that means that Americans statistically DEAD even on the question about abortion in this country.

So what is our responsibility as members of a democracy that is so evenly divided on such an important social issue? I think we can do three things:

First, we need to be a people who honor and respect children so much that the idea of an abortion becomes nearly unthinkable. When I was younger, I lived next door to a municipal policeman and his wife, a nurse, with no children. He was a big burly guy—almost the stereotypical southern policeman—tough, not one to become emotional, someone that would evoke respect. By then, my wife and I had two children, ages 4 and 2. One afternoon, as we were both doing some yard work, he told me that he and his wife were having their first child. I stopped what I was doing, went over to shake his hand and congratulate him, and told him what a great thing it is to have kids. Much to my surprise, his eyes got a little watery and he said: “You know, I’ve been telling people all day and you’re the first one to congratulate me and tell me it’s a good thing. All I’ve been getting is ‘you thought MARRIAGE was the old ball and chain—well, now your life is over!’ Thank you”.

We joke like that about children, as if they’re a curse, but nothing is further from the truth. The best thing that will ever happen to most of you, after getting married, will be to have children. They’re work, but they’re a lot of fun, and they will make you a better person—not just because they will call you to responsibility—but because they will help you see the world again through their eyes, and thus re-create in you a sense of wonder. Let’s be a people who so love kids so much, who celebrate them so much, who esteem large families so much (and not snub mothers with many kids as if to say, “Geez, how ‘bout a little self control?” as some stranger once told a pregnant woman I knew with 8 kids), that abortion is unthinkable.

The second way we can help to limit abortions in this country is to support unwed women who are pregnant. It’s very difficult time for these women—they must endure the raised eyebrow, the whispers, the gossip. At a time of their greatest need, we need to be supportive of them, whether that’s through financial support as a Church, or simply the support of friendship. It’s seemingly so much easier to abort a child before the woman begins to “show”, and then nobody would know, but the strong woman, the woman of faith, honors the life within her. We need to honor these women and support them.

Finally, yes, within a democracy, we have a responsibility to lobby for laws that promote justice for all peoples, that defend the civil rights of our most vulnerable members, be they unborn children, the poor, the aging, or those with mental or physical disabilities. It’s not enough to say we’re “personally opposed” to abortion but “support a woman’s right to choose” any more than it’s OK to say we’re personally opposed to rape, or theft, or murder but support their sanction in law. We must protect the civil rights of others, and especially children. The function of a democracy, understood clearly by our founding fathers, is not to create license to do whatever we want, but to support a “common good” within which all members of the democracy flourish.

In the mean time, let us be as “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” –wise, in that we’re not misled by those who would misquote statistics to manipulate us, but gentle in the way we conduct ourselves in this important debate, mindful that the respect we give those who disagree with us usually has more power to persuade than our arguments.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

"...And They Will Keep You."

She was popular with the guys when she was 16--popular, because she was both pretty and “easy”, the subject of much gossip. Her social calendar was always full; she had no problems with getting dates, and her series of boyfriends during high school read like a “who’s who” list among the most popular boys. Life seemed fun.

The first time I saw her after graduation was 20 years later, on the occasion of her 20th high school reunion. She was only 37, but looked closer to 50; the shining face I remember from high school looked sad, even weary, a tell-tale sign of how hard life had been. I learned she was divorced from her second husband; she had a daughter with the first husband who was now a rebellious 16 year old, scarred, no doubt, by the instability of her parents’ lives. Life was very difficult.

In that same class was another young lady, beautiful, though less flamboyantly so, and certainly not as popular. She was active in the life of the school, a terrific varsity basketball player as I recall, involved in student government, and well respected by her peers. She took her faith seriously and though she wasn’t perfect, tried to live a virtuous life. At times during high school she was lonely—when so many of her friends were out drinking, she was at home, and I can only imagine there were many times during her high school days she regretted not being more a part of the “in” group, who seemed to be having more fun.

She, too, was at the 20th year reunion, but her life could not have been more different than her classmate. She was married at 22, just after graduation. She and her husband had been married for 17 years and had three children, the oldest of whom was now a 15 year old girl—who I learned from her friends was both a stellar athlete and student. Despite having three children, there was vibrancy to her face and cheerfulness to her disposition that made her look younger than her age. She seemed very happy and at ease with herself, and I observed she laughed a lot that weekend with her classmates.

I tell you about these two girls from my past because today many people believe that a moral life is a dull life, a lonely life, or a life without friends. It’s almost as if the Church tells us to live morally because it wants us to be unhappy. But the truth is, living morally is the path to greater happiness, even if sometimes that means we have to give some things up on the way.

Good athletes understand this, I think. I had the good fortune on Friday to attend both the girls’ bowling tournament in Smyrna and then the girls’ swimming championships in Centennial Park. On the way home I was thinking: How many hours of practice did it take Haley Pionk to become the best girls bowler in Tennessee? How many laps in the pool in the last month did it take Abby Wood to shave nearly 9 seconds off her personal best time in the 500 meter freestyle? Athletes understand there is no long term reward without short term sacrifice, no easy path to the successful life, no free ticket to happiness.

There’s an old Jewish saying: “Keep the commandments and they will keep you”.

God, the creator of this universe, has a unique design and destiny for each of you to become the “best version of yourself” possible, and in so doing, become truly happy. Though there are no shortcuts, he promises you if you remain faithful and if you seek his forgiveness when you fail to be faithful, he will give you a life full of joy and happiness. May you be courageous enough to live the right way and may you enjoy all the future happiness he promises you.