Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Be it resolved that


This is Mr. Weber's New Year's assembly address to the students of JPII.

I once had a professor who must have weighed 400 pounds. I'll never forget the first day of class. He walked in the door, introduced himself and said “I know what you're thinking, but I've actually lost 1,000 pounds.”

“1,000 pounds?” I thought to myself. "Good God, you must have been absolutely the fattest man alive.”

“I know what you're thinking again,” he said with a smile. “I didn't lose it all at once. I lost weight, gained it back. Lost more weight, gained it back. I am continually trying to diet, without much success, but I figure I've lost over 1,000 pounds during the course of my life.”

I was reminded of this professor recently as I thought of all the people trying to lose weight after the holidays. The average American gains somewhere between 4-6 pounds during the holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fitness clubs capitalize on the collective guilt we all feel by advertising yearly memberships in their fitness clubs. In fact, if you go to these fitness centers during the month of January, you're likely going to find it hard to get an open exercise machine because everyone has made a new year's resolution to lose weight, and for a month, anyway, everyone is committed to their promise. But if you're a frustrated member who can't find an open treadmill, be patient! Come February, there will be plenty of spots open. No matter how resolute people are coming off the holidays, by February, almost everyone has gone back to their same old habits.

There's a lesson in all this for us, I think. Bad habits are hard to break. That's because, first of all, we are creatures of habit, and if we allow ourselves to fall into a bad routine, it's hard to break out of that cycle. From a Christian perspective, we are sinful, and so it's much easier to eat too much than it is to exercise, and flabbiness is the result.

We're beginning a new semester today, which coincides with the new year, when people make new year's resolutions. Some of you, I suppose, weren't happy with your grades from the first semester. Now rested, you are resolved to do better this semester. Or maybe you've gained a few pounds and want to lose weight. Or maybe you believe you should be praying more. Or maybe you've been too shy, too withdrawn and you've resolved to put yourself out there more. Those are good goals--worthy areas to work on.

It is, after all, our self-awareness and our ability to step outside of ourselves and be self-critical that makes humanity different from all other animals. Apes can't say to themselves "I believe the quality of my relationships with other apes within the clan has deteriorated, so I am going to try to be more altruistic over the next several months. Dogs cannot say "Though my master has been feeding me generously, I'm going to have to leave some food in the bowl for the next several weeks to lose some of this extra weight I've been carrying. It's getting to be spring, and I'll that extra spring in my step to chase squirrels." Animals are creatures of instinct, slaves to these instincts. We are part animal, and if we let ourselves go, can become slaves to our baser desires and instincts. But we are also much more than animals, imbued by God with a conscience, with the ability to discern right from wrong, able to sacrifice what may be pleasant now for our long term benefit.

That's what new year's resolutions are about, after all: putting off something pleasant in the here and now--eating fast food, watching too much TV, spending too much time on the internet--for something more important, like our good health, more success in school or better quality relationships. New year's resolutions are a good thing; I encourage you to make one. But let's learn something from my former professor and all those other people in the fitness centers right now. If all we're doing is making a private promise to ourselves to do better, the likelihood is we're going to fail in that resolution. Weight-loss organizations like Weight-Watchers understand that. Of all the faddish dieting programs out there, WW has been proven to have the greatest success. The whole foundation of their program is that you are accountable to others: every week, you must stand in front of other people trying to lose weight, get on the scale and weigh in. If you lose weight, you are cheered. If you gain weight, you are booed. So the lesson for us is make a pact with a close friend for your resolution and ask that close friend to help you. Make yourself accountable to that person, so when you begin to weaken, he or she can be there to encourage you. Perhaps that same person can make himself accountable to you for his new year's resolution. If not a close friend, ask your parent or a brother or sister.

I've asked my wife to help me lose 20 pounds. She's going to help me do this in two ways: first, she isn't going to buy stuff like ice cream. If there's ice cream in the house, it doesn't matter how resolved I am now to lose weight, I am going to eat the ice cream. Second, we joined a fitness center in October, and she's going to harangue me, when I don't feel like going, to go.

What is it you need to do? Who can you ask to help you? How can you help that other person in return? Questions worth answering.

May all of you have a great second semester. My congratulations to the seniors, who begin their last semester of high school today. I'll be praying for you that you don't quit too early--I want to hand each of you a diploma in May!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Waiting


Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word “advent” means “coming,” and of course, it’s a reference to the coming of Christ at Christmas. So over the next four weeks, we await the coming of Christ.

We’re not very good at waiting. We want everything immediately! Think about it: The fast food industry has grown exponentially in the last twenty years because people want their food quickly, and don’t have the time or patience to cook it at home. We have fast food drive-through lines because it’s way too much work to park the car, walk several feet and stand in line to order. And even with drive-through lines, if you’re like me, you become impatient if the line is not moving quickly enough! The Internet now provides us with information instantaneously, which is fantastic on one level, but dangerous on another, as it’s too easy to send off an email when we’re angry at someone before we’ve given ourselves a chance to cool down and say things we regret later or post things on a blog that are hurtful to others. We have overnight printing, overnight mailing, instant food, microwave ovens—all things that allow us to get what we want now, without waiting. If we want something and can’t afford it, no need to wait and save for it—we have credit cards! The average American adult has an alarming nine open credit card accounts and carries an average debt on those cards of $8,000. Financial experts agree it’s the worst kind of debt, too, because the average interest rate is 15%, unlike owing money on a house, where one can get loans for as low as 4% right now.

So it’s hard for us to wait for Christmas—we hardly wait for anything else. Retailers are already in the full court press mode, pushing us to get all our Christmas shopping done. I was in a local store in October, before Halloween, and they were already playing Christmas carols over their speakers! So in Church we’re singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” but everywhere we go we’re hearing “Joy to the World, the Lord has Come. “

I want to suggest two simple things we can all do that may help us step back from the helter-skelter world of the instant, the “now” that we all live in—two things that might help us better focus on the event we will celebrate on December 25 and thus help us have a better Advent.

The first is this: Nothing helps us tune into the true “reason for the season” better than helping other people. Unless you are WAY AHEAD OF THE CURVE, many of you have lots of Christian service hours left. There’s not a better time to do it. If you’re working at an elderly home, the Christmas season is a very lonely time for many elderly, as they miss their spouses who have died, or perhaps their children who don’t visit them enough. You can be there for them. Organizations who work with the poor need lots of volunteers to serve meals, deliver presents, and work soup lines. You can be there to help. You know, it’s pretty common that we, too, can get depressed or start feeling blue at this time of year, and our tendency is to say to ourselves, “I need some time for myself”, some “me time” but that’s exactly backwards. The best way to get us out of our funk is to focus on the needs of others, to make others happy. This is a great time of year to do it.

My second suggestion to get us ready for Christmas, to help us more fully appreciate this Advent season, is to spend about 10-15 minutes/day in prayer, asking God to lead you, bringing your worries before him, seeking him for guidance on decisions you must make about college, friends, personal situations. To pray doesn’t mean we must isolate ourselves and burn incense somewhere! Maybe it just means when we’re driving to school or home from school, we turn off the radio and cell phone and have a conversation with God and bring our worries before him. We don’t lean enough on God—but unless we lean, we cannot feel him pushing back, holding us up. And so we put all this pressure on ourselves to make good grades, go to the right schools, have the right relationships, instead of sharing those worries with God and asking him to help us.

If we go outside of ourselves to help others, if we pray and lean on God during these next few weeks, I think we’ll find this Advent season, this time of waiting, will help prepare us more fully for the most important event in human history. May we use this time well.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Books By Their Covers


This is the assembly address to the students of JPII on November 21, 2010.

After winning the Nobel Prize for Physics, Max Planck was in high demand to give lectures on his research. So he toured the country, driven around by a chauffer, giving essentially the same lecture. Soon he grew tired of the talk and said so to his chauffer. His chauffer said: “Dr. Planck, I’ve heard your lecture so many times I think I could give it, and no one would know the difference. “ Planck thought that was a wonderful idea, so they traded clothes, with Planck driving his chauffer to the next lecture. His chauffer, as he promised, gave a brilliant talk and received a standing ovation at the end. But what they did NOT anticipate was a question and answer session. A scientist raised his hand and asked a question. Of course, he had no idea about the answer but thinking quickly, he responded: “I am surprised to be asked such an elemental question in a gathering such as this. Why the answer is so deceptively simple, I am going to ask my chauffer in the back to answer it for me.”

There’s an interesting point to this story, I think. People can be amazingly proficient at appearing to be proficient, when in fact, there’s nothing of substance underneath. The old Canon camera commercial said it succinctly: Image is everything.

Is image, everything? Is appearance what matters? Billions of dollars are spent by Fortune 500 companies on ad campaigns that try to convince you that it does. And they’re largely successful at it. If you don’t believe me, let's do a thought experiment: “If I could convince you that the Kmart brand of generic tennis shoes were made of the exact same materials as Nike tennis shoes and were exactly of the same quality, but only ¼ the price, would you lace up your Kmarts for your next basketball game? If I could show you that Walmart brand shirts were the equivalent of Tommy Hilfigers, would you proudly wear your Walmarts to your next party?

We often pay too much attention to appearances. There was once a good looking junior boy at my old school that had impeccable manners. If you asked him a question, he’d look you right in the eye and say “Yes, sir, Mr. Weber” and he’d shake your hand very firmly. But I learned quickly, with regret, these outward manners were just a pretense. He used this act to earn freshman girls’ trust—they were so flattered that a good-looking, well mannered older boy took such an interest in them—but he would misuse their trust and cast them aside like used furniture once he had obtained what he wanted from them.

There’s a saying that “Character, like a photograph, best develops in the dark.” It’s when no one is watching that we truly reveal who we are. Ethical people don’t cheat because they’re afraid of getting caught; they don’t cheat because it’s dishonest and they’re committed to learning, not to the pretense of learning. Ethical people don’t use God’s name in vain or curse because adults may hear them and they might get in trouble, but because it disrespects God and is crude or vulgar.

Our challenge as Christians is to live privately as we live publicly—to try and be the kind of people God wants us to be even when no one is looking. Otherwise, we are just play-acting at best, or acting as hypocrites, at worst. This is what St. Paul means in Ephesians when he challenges us to live as “children of light” and turn away from the darkness.

May God give all of us the courage and grace to live our lives in the light, so that our example may encourage others to do likewise.

Monday, November 08, 2010

I Can Do All Things


This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on November 7, 2010.

As you’ve no doubt observed, we are hosting a number of prospective families for tours of the school. Today we had “Coffee with the Headmaster” whereas tomorrow we have “Open House”. My thanks to all of you who are helping us with Open House. You are what is most impressive about JPII.

As I’ve been showing people around the school, I have come to appreciate some of the features of this school that I am now so familiar with that I otherwise don't notice. I’ll bet you’re the same way: Does anybody remember what the two Scriptural quotes are in the gymnasium and the weight-room?

In the gym: Teach me your ways O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.” (Psalm 86)

In the weight-room: “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” (Phillipians 4:13, note Tebow's eye patches)

I’d like to speak about both of these Scripture sayings with you this morning.

My mother, when she was 18 years old, felt like God may have been asking her to be a nun. So a few days after graduating high school, she entered the convent as a trial period to further discern if that was right for her. From the moment she entered the convent, she was unhappy. Finally, after a month of being miserable, she went to see Mother Superior, in tears: “I know God wants me here, “ she said between sobs, “but I am so unhappy.” Mother Superior smiled. “Why do you think God wants you here?” “Because I am so unhappy,” my mother said.

I think there’s a twisted fear in all of us that if the Lord really does teach us, that if we really did “walk in his truth,” we’re going to be miserable. Perhaps it’s because we remember so well Jesus’ admonition: If you wish to be my disciple, you must take up your cross and follow me.” But suffering is not the same thing as unhappiness, and we need to know the difference.

There have likely been brief stretches in your life when things were just “right”. You were staying on top of your school work. Your relationships were in good order--with your family, your friends, your boyfriend/girlfriend. You’re were going to Church and building on your relationship with God. You were getting enough sleep. For athletes, this sometimes occurs in mid-season when you get into a good rhythm coming home from practice, taking a bath, doing your homework, going to bed on time. Your life was “clicking”. And here’s the most interesting part. It’s during those times we are most happy. Our life feels right. We’re proud of ourselves!

It’s when we really screw up—when we SIN—that we’re filled with guilt and shame, weighed down, like a depressing blanket that we put over ourselves. The Christian life is a joyful life! When we “walk in the way of Truth” we are happy, fulfilled, satisfied—because we are living as God created us to live.

Look, sometimes doing the right thing is hard. When my daughter was a senior, she went to a party and came home around 9 p.m., unhappy looking. I didn’t ask—It was hard enough that her father was the principal of the school she attended--so I tried to give her some space. But I knew what was going on: she had gone to the party and there were things going on that she didn’t want to get involved with, so she left. No doubt she felt lonely, especially since she had friends involved.

Sometimes doing the right thing will make us feel lonely. But here’s the promise God makes to us. If we rely on him, “We can do all things in Christ who strengthens us. “ Ask him to help you. He will.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Power to Heal or Destroy



This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to students of JPII on November 1, 2010

Here’s a lie that people tell you as teenagers: “These are the best years of your life.” That’s simply not true. In fact, I’d go as far as saying “These are some of the toughest years of your life.” Not only are you working through all the academic demands, you’re also figuring out who you are, who your friends are, what you’re going to do with your life, what college you’re going to attend, what your major is. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Ask any adult, and if they’re honest, they’ll tell you that life gets a LOT better after high school. I promise.

One thing that makes high school life even harder, of course, is when you’re ugly or unkind to one another. There was a sophomore girl at my school some years ago who was very pretty, very popular and generally respected as a moral person by her teachers and classmates. Sometime in the spring of her sophomore year, however, she got drunk at a party and slept with a number of older boys who were also drunk. When she woke up the next morning, she was horrified by what she had done, filled with guilt and shame. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Some of her female classmates, jealous of her popularity, started writing “slut” next to her name as graffiti in the girls’ bathroom. Someone else scraped into a student desk “For a good time, call” and listed the girls’ phone number. She was so embarrassed and so devastated that within one week, despite having grown up with her classmates since kindergarten, she transferred to another school. The meanness showed by those girls is one of the cruelest, most vile things I have ever witnessed in my 26 years in high school.

“Really, Mr. Weber?” “The cruelest, most vile thing you’ve witnessed?” “What about a kid who bullies another student, or steals from them, or gets a gang of his friends to beat someone up? What about someone who sells drugs to another student? Surely doing physical harm to someone is worse than simply talking about them?”

But here’s the second lie that you’re often told, and we learn this early on as kids on the playground: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Not true—again, it’s almost the opposite. A far more accurate saying would be “Sticks and stones only break my bones, but words cut through my heart.”

What you say about each other and what you say to each other has lasting, deep impact, either for good or for bad. The right comment of praise or support to a person who is struggling through a difficult period can be healing; the well-aimed cruel comment to this same person can be permanently crippling. Our tongues, much more so than our muscles, have power to build up or destroy.

I have always said that we're a great school, and I believe that. But here’s the acid test of what kind of student body you are: What do you say about each other—and especially, what do you say about those persons in your class that may be a little unusual or different, who don’t fit the norm?

I’ve given you an example of student behavior that I labeled vile. Let me give you a brief, but opposite example. There was a senior boy about ten years ago who was very effeminate in the way he talked and walked, and because of this, was often made fun of by people around the school. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the social skills to respond to that teasing appropriately, which often just made the teasing crueler. As someone told me the story, apparently during lunch a group of sophomores knocked his books out of his hands, razzing him, calling him “fag” and other things. A senior football player was walking down the hall and heard what was going on, picked out the loudest sophomore doing the teasing, pinned him up to the locker and said: “This guy is my friend, and he’s my classmate. If you got something to say to him, you say it to me and to the senior class. Do you understand?” “Uh, yeah” was the nervous response. The senior then helped the boy pick up his books and escorted him down the hall to be with the seniors. I guarantee you, to this day, that young man remembers that incident and the words “He’s my friend” as if it were yesterday.

So let’s not make the statement “These are the best years of your life” even less true than it already is. Watch what you say about each other. Build one another up. Encourage one another. These are your classmates. This is your school.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Best Policy


This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to JPII students on October 25, 2010.

So here’s a pretty common occurrence in high school: A student comes into class, smacking on gum. Especially if that person opens his mouth while he chews, it’s immediately obvious to the teacher (and everyone else). The teacher asks the student, rhetorically, “Are you chewing gum?” The student swallows the gum, again very obviously, and says “No”.

What’s the worst thing that might have happened to this student? “Please throw it away?” Maybe—a detention? Big deal, right? But what HAS happened, in this relatively trivial incident, is for a puny price, the student has sold out on his integrity to this teacher. He’s said, in effect, “I don’t value your trust, I don’t value how others perceive whether I am ethical or not. I am fundamentally dishonest.”

Many years ago there was a student at my other school who was frequently in trouble for disrupting class. We were a smaller school and there was not a Mr. McLaren, so I got to know this young man quite well. As frustrating as his behavior was, he had one redeeming trait: he would always admit what he had done. “Why were you sent out?” I’d ask him. “Well,” he said, “The teacher asked me three times to be quiet, but I kept talking. “ I’d get the written referral from the teacher which said “I asked him to quit talking three times, but he just continued.” He was a knucklehead, but I knew I could trust him.

One day, I received a phone call from a set of angry parents, claiming their daughter had been sexually harassed by this same young man. They demanded that he be expelled. The young lady had a perfectly clean disciplinary record. There were no eyewitnesses: this had happened in the late afternoon in our hallways, when there were no other students around. I spoke privately to the young lady, who was very specific about what happened—if it were true, the boy would certainly be expelled. But when I spoke to the boy, he denied it vehemently. “She’s mad at me because she likes me and I like some other girl,” he said. So it was he said—she said. The girl who was never in trouble vs. the boy who was always in trouble. But I told the boy, “As much as you’ve been in trouble, you’ve always been honest with me. I am going to rely on that honesty now. But if I find out later that you’ve lied—about this or about anything else, I will know that you’re not honest, that you’ve simply duped me, which will then causes me to revisit this matter and likely expel you. Do you understand?” “Yes sir,” he said, and “Thank you.”

I told the girls’ parents my decision and they were furious with me. A few months passed. I received a phone call from the father of the same young lady. He was so mad he could barely talk: “The same thing happened to our daughter by the same young man. You should have believed her the first time. “ I met with the young lady: “Where did this happen? When did it happen? What did he do?” She gave me very specific details. It was the same place as last time, with no eyewitnesses. But what she didn’t know was that between the first time and second time I had installed a video system that had taped the whole incident, and when I reviewed it, NOTHING she said was the truth. It was a complete fabrication—a complete lie. Instead of expelling the boy, I expelled the girl, much to the embarrassment of her family. Integrity matters. It matters in how people see you, and it matters in ways that we cannot possibly predict, as in the case of this young man.

So protect your reputation. It’s one of the most precious things you own. If you get into a situation and someone asks you a question you feel compelled to lie about, don’t. At the very least, simply say “I don’t feel I could answer that question truthfully, so I better not try.” At least, then, your integrity remains in tact.

In Robert Bolt’s biographical play of Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons, there’s a very powerful scene that relates to the question of truth-telling. You may remember the historical circumstances are these: Thomas More is Lord Chancellor of England, in effect second in command, under King Henry VIII, who wants a divorce from his wife Catherine so he can marry Anne Boleyn. The pope refuses to grant the divorce, which infuriates King Henry, so he breaks off the Church of England from the Catholic Church and declares himself as “supreme head of the Church of England” and demands that all of his subjects, including Thomas, take an oath to this effect. Thomas, in conscience, cannot do so, which causes him to be imprisoned, lose his title, his salary and his home. His daughter, fearing for her father’s life, tells him to say the words of the oath but mean otherwise to God in his heart. But More counters with this:

When a man takes an oath," Sir Thomas explains to his daughter "he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water." (He cups his hands.) "And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again. "

When we tell what seem to be small lies, we lose our very selves, and once we begin losing our selves, it becomes easier and easier to tell bigger lies. There’s a joke out there about a man who asks a woman to sleep with him for a million dollars. She thinks about it and says OK. “Well, in that case, how about you sleep with me for $50?” She is outraged. “What kind of woman do you think I am?” “We’ve already established that, ma’am. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

If you tell lies, even small ones, you are already establishing the kind of person you are. We’re just haggling over the details. Jesus said something similar:

"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much." Luke 16:10

Thursday, October 07, 2010

No place like...


So welcome back from fall break and welcome to homecoming week here at JPII! This is meant to be a week of celebration and fun together, even as we continue to do our jobs as students and teachers. We have much to be proud of at JPII and there is much to celebrate. In just our 9th year of existence—we were founded in 2002—JPII is one of the most highly respected academic institutions in Nashville, a product of your hard work, your teachers’ hard work, college acceptance rates, AP scores and many other factors.

The three big events this week are the bond fire Wednesday night (a new tradition, begun last year), the homecoming game on Friday, and the dance on Saturday. I hope all of you make plans to attend all three events.

The idea of “Homecoming”, of course, is that alumni “come home” to their alma mater, to reconnect with old friends and to remember. Our alums are still very young—the first alums graduated in 2005, which means they’re only about 22-23 years old today. We expect to see many of them at the game on Friday.

Also implied in the word "homecoming" is that school is HOME, which is not the way we usually refer to school—it’s a little odd to call it that. But consider these facts:

You go to school here from 8-3. Unless you get here as the bell is ringing (and some of you seniors have that down to a science) and you’re the first one out of the parking lot, that means even if you’re not a member of a club or on a ball team, you’re spending 8 hours/day, or 40 hours/week here. But if you DO play a sport, it’s likely you’re not going home until 6, 6:30 or 7p.m, which means you’re spending about 11 or so hours/week, or 55 hours/week total—and that’s conservative, because it doesn’t take into account your games here.

Compare that to what else you do:

• “Entertainment Media” (TV, gaming, phone and on line time= 7.5 hours/day (!), or 52.5 hours/week
• Teenagers average a measly 6.5 hours of sleep on school nights and 8-10 on weekends, which means somewhere around 48-50 hours/week.
• Average time with friends per week (outside of school time) =8
• Eating (one hour/day of “primary eating” which doesn’t count grazing in front of TV)=7
• Time with parents—30 minutes/day for mothers, 15 minutes/fathers = 5.25 /week

So in a very real way, you spend most of your life here. This is where most of your friends are. You spend about as much time with your teachers as you do your parents and even more with your coaches.

And as I watch you walk the hallways between classes, or sprawl out on the floor and do homework, or gather here for assembly or mass, as you laugh with team mates and share the ups and downs of winning and losing, experience the satisfaction of doing well in class or the frustration of doing poorly, when you compete in house games, or when I realize how well you know each other and how well you know your teachers—their strengths and their idiosyncrasies—then calling school “home”, albeit your second “home”, begins to make sense.

This is a great time of year. The summer has passed, fall has arrived, there’s beginning to be a cool nip in the air. The leaves are changing color. Just as the seasons come and go, so the seasons of our life come and go, often too quickly. Seniors, you begin your last high school homecoming; freshman, your first. I suspect you seniors are feeling a bit nostalgic remembering how it only seemed like yesterday you were also going through your first.

Appreciate this time. Revel in it. Thank God for it. Celebrate this week with your classmates and teachers. Be proud of your family—your teachers, classmates and friends.

There is, after all, no place like home.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

School Pride


This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on Monday, September 20, 2011

It may sound counter-intuitive, but watching the football game on Friday night made me realize what tremendous pride I have in Pope John Paul II High School.

I am proud of our football team and our players. They competed, especially in the second half when it was no longer a question of winning or losing—it was a question of pride. If you talk to our team, they don’t make excuses, they just go back to work—and on Saturday morning, less than 12 hours later, they were back lifting and practicing, just as they did all summer.

Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said: “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” This team stands back up again and again—a tribute to them and their coaches. Watch this team, be patient. They have a winning attitude, and over time this winning attitude will begin to produce victories.

While I’m at it, I was proud of our student body on Friday night. The crowd was amazing—we literally ran out of parking on campus, and you were there until the end supporting your team. I was proud of our fantastic cheerleaders—they put on a good fund-raiser, and their cheering and stunting is always amazing. I was proud of our jazz band’s first time ever fully amplified performance with our new stage and sound equipment, so much so that I went to Mr. Suska and said “Turn them up”, which he did. Having a real band performing at our games is going to be a lot of fun as we move forward.

I am proud of this school. I am proud of you students, who do some pretty amazing things. Last week the College Board announced “A.P. Scholar” awards based on last May’s testing, and JPII students received an amazing 73 awards, including 3 “National A.P. Scholar” awards, the highest honor possible. I am equally proud of those of you who are NOT A.P. students: It’s easy to be motivated when working hard automatically yields A’s or A.P. awards. It takes guts to keep working hard when those things don’t happen. Your hard work is inspirational—you inspire your teachers, and we’re proud of you.

Work hard this week. Treat each other kindly. Make yourself a better person. My God bless all of you.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Intelligence, Attitudes and Altitudes


This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on September 13, 2010.

The idea that our I.Q is fixed, that our genes alone determine how smart we are, has been long disproven by science, but remains a popular myth that shapes our attitudes, the way we tackle our school work, and often the way we spend our time.

When I was a senior in high school, there was a Korean kid in my Advanced Math class that became a good friend of mine. He always out-scored me on tests—he’d typically get a 98 or 99, I’d typically get an 88 or 89. Since I was competitive, this bothered me, so one day, I told him, half kiddingly, “You Asians are just better than us in Math.” I remember he became serious and asked me, “How long did you study for this test?” “I dunno”, I said, “maybe 30 or 45 minutes.” He went into his bag and pulled out a notebook and showed it to me. He had worked through every problem in that chapter, over 100 questions, on his own. It must have taken him 4 or 5 hours. “I’m not smarter than you” he told me. “I just work harder.” I remember getting defensive, probably because I knew deep down he was right.

In 1995, they began giving international tests to 4th graders and 8th graders in science and math to see how countries stacked up against each other. Out of 36 countries taking the tests, we generally come in somewhere around 10th. Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea and Chinese Tapei come in #’s 1-5. They ask the participants on this test what they believe is the most important ingredient for success in Math and Science. The #1 most common American answer? Ability, or in-born talent. The most common answer among the Asian countries? Practice, or hard work.

It's common to hear in American high schools, even at JPII, “I’m no good in Math or Science.” Unfortunately, that’s often used as an excuse not to work very hard. If I am no good at Math, we might unconsciously think, it’s the way God made me, so it’s his fault, not mine, if I don’t do well in this class. And since it’s the way God made me, there’s really no point in killing myself to try and do well. It’s just who I am.

But that’s hogwash. Yes, it’s true that some people have a greater affinity for math than others. But where ever our starting position, whatever our intelligence in a particular area, we have the capacity, with practice, with hard work, to improve our intelligence in that area. At the risk of over-simplifying brain research, the brain is a muscle that improves its “strength” through exercise, similar to arm muscles and leg muscles. When we exercise our brain, it makes more neural connections. When we don’t, it atrophies, similar to what happens when we put our arm in a cast and don’t use it for several months.

In the end, the people who are most successful in life are not the ones who are the most naturally gifted or talented, but the ones who tackle the challenges of life with the right attitude and who work the hardest.

Your attitude, and not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Least of These


This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on August 30, 2010.

This afternoon we will have representatives from many of the volunteer agencies that you support through your commitment to Christian Service. We have asked them to come out today so they can explain what their particular ministry is and give you a chance to ask questions, so that you can find an agency that you feel good about giving your time to. There’s a huge array of choices, ranging from ministering to the elderly, to tutoring young children, to working with the homeless, to supporting an inner city outreach to the poor via Saturday morning football clinics and tutoring. I ask that you take this time seriously, so that you find the right place for yourself this year.

My 21 year old daughter Cynthia spent a month in India working with a Catholic school there that teaches girls from the streets of Calcutta. Her comment coming home was that we here in the United States have no concept of the kind of poverty you see there. Walking the streets, she said, often gave her the feeling that she was violating a family’s privacy, because families, without homes, would often be in the middle of giving their kids a bath, or using the bathroom right there on the streets, or involved in some sort of intimate moment with their child. But the part that gave her nightmares was the day at the Calcutta train station she spent with a young woman who volunteered with Mother Theresa’s center for the aging and dying. It is apparently fairly common that poor families, unable to care for their parents or grandparents any longer, will abandon them at the train station between stops, telling them they’ll come back for them when in fact they have no intention of doing so. Droves of elderly men and women, without food, without anything really, sit there at the station, waiting for their children to return. Each morning, Mother Theresa’s volunteers come to try and persuade them to leave the station and come to the center, so that their needs may be cared for, but they often refuse, stubborn in their belief that their families are returning for them. So they wait hopefully, searching for their families each time people get off the train. Many in fact die there, waiting. The Calcutta police often place them back on the train, passing them down the line so they’ll be some other city’s problem.

My daughter is right: We are blessed to live in a country where we’re not so poor that we’d feel compelled to abandon our parents. But we DO have the opportunity, as part of our Christian Service Initiative, to minister to elderly who feel alone, who crave for attention, who need someone to spend time with them. Perhaps that’s what God is calling you to do this year.

Look, I understand—all of you live crazy, busy lives. When you’re taking a demanding academic load, doing homework, playing sports, involved in clubs, rehearsing for a theater production, applying for college and all the other things you do, it can often feel like the Christian service piece is just another burdensome requirement that makes your lives even crazier—another thing to cross off your list. But I encourage you to go beyond that kind of minimalist position. Since you have to do it, throw yourself into it. Invest yourself into the lives of the people you meet, give them your attention, use it as a chance to make a difference in someone’s life.

“When did I see you hungry, or thirsty, or imprisoned, Lord?” we may ask Jesus when we come face to face with him one day. " I tell you solemnly", Jesus will tell us, “what you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did unto me.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

FREEEEDOMMM!


This day in history, August 23, 1305, William Wallace, the Scottish patriot, was executed by the English for treason.

Many of you saw the movie “Braveheart” , one of my favorite movies, starring Mel Gibson as William Wallace. At the end of the movie, Wallace has been captured, but before he is put to death, the executioner tortures Wallace, trying to get him to recognize the king of England as his rightful king. Despite being “racked” and pulled apart by ropes, Wallace refuses to honor the king and shouts instead, at the climax of the movie, “FREEEDOMMMMM!” just before he is beheaded.

Here’s a guy who is completely bound in shackles, brutally tortured, with no hope of ever escaping and death certain, and yet, in a very powerful way, he is FREE.

That’s a very different idea of freedom than most of us have today. We tend to think that “freedom” is license to do anything we want, to be unencumbered by responsibility or obligation. I am “free” if I can do as I please, when I please, to whomever I please.

But that’s not freedom so much as it is the selfishness of a spoiled child. Ironically, people who live the undisciplined life of a child, giving in to every craving and desire in the name of freedom, end up being slaves to those desires, like a dog reacting to a smell, controlled by habit or instinct, unable to order their lives by delaying gratification or virtue.

True freedom, our faith reminds us, derives from living virtuously, in discipleship to Christ. Yes, that means there are things we must be disciplined about and not do, just like a husband can no longer date other women! But as couples in good marriages will attest, being married to someone who knows you deep down and accepts you is liberating, just as living as Christ desires gives us an internal freedom that far surpasses the supposed "freedom" of living as one pleases.

So on this, the 705th anniversary of William Wallace’s death, let us remember that no matter what pressure we’re under to do something wrong, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves, we have the power to resist evil and choose what is good. If we do so, we will have a kind of inner freedom which liberates us. May we all have the courage and the grace to live as free men and women.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Struggle


Last Friday, I spent some time in the basement and enjoyed observing your classes there. I’m very excited about what our science program is doing with modeling and was fascinated by the discussion in the 8th period Advanced Chemistry class as you argued with one another about the accuracy of each group's diagram. There’s good, scientific thinking going on there!

I also like comparing your habits as I visit rooms. I noticed an interesting difference between how seniors and freshman tackle math problems, which was the inspiration for this talk.

Typically freshman students have a very low tolerance for not understanding something. When you’re assigned problems, if you look at them and don’t instantly understand how to do them, your tendency is to ask the teacher to show you how. What you’re really asking of the teacher in these situations is the recipe for solving the problem—the step #1, 2, 3 way to do it.

But that’s very different, for example, from a junior or senior level Math class. Seniors understand that it is likely they WON’T instantly recognize how to do things, that it may take 5-10 minutes or so of studying a problem before they know how to do it—or maybe not, even then. The typical A.P. Calculus exam might only have 4-5 questions, so it’s obvious that the teacher expects each question to be a 10-15 minute struggle.

“Struggle” is an often misused word in our culture today. About ten years ago, there was a sophomore that wasn’t doing his English homework, wasn’t paying attention in class, and wasn’t making very good grades. His mom called me to ask that her son be taken out of class, saying that “He’s really struggling in this English class, which is really creating a lot of stress on him.” “All due respect”, I told her, “he’s NOT struggling at all. He’s not doing his homework. He isn’t paying attention in class. So of course he’s doing poorly. But that’s precisely because he ISN’T struggling to do well.”

Teachers and coaches have very similar jobs. One way of phrasing it is their job is to make you uncomfortable. It’s to challenge you to achieve a level of performance that you haven’t already obtained. The football team hasn’t been practicing in 100 degree heat because they are satisfied by where they are as a football team. They’re trying to get better. Classes should not be easy here; if they are, we probably need to bump your schedule up a bit. We want you to struggle some. "If you're growing", John Maxwell once said, "you're always going to be out of your comfort zone." We want you to tackle your classes with a kind of blue collar, roll up your sleeves, bring your lunchbox to work attitude. Struggling is a good thing; it means you are grappling with the task in front of you.

But here’s what is also very important: Our teachers are here to help you through the struggle. You are not alone. If you’re having difficulty in class, seek out your teachers and tell them. They won’t remove the obstacle—they can’t, because they are commissioned to teach a curriculum and must guide you through a certain set of standards, but they will help you overcome the obstacles if you are willing to work with them through it. Attend tutorials, ask questions in class, seek out help from your classmates. Tackle your classes with a swagger—not the swagger that pretends life is supposed to be easy, but the one that says, “I shall overcome!”

That’s what self-esteem is all about anyway. Self-esteem isn’t the result of you being TOLD that you’re great or wonderful. You see through false praise instantly. It’s about what you achieve—it’s obtained when you fight through something which is hard or challenging and come out the other side with success.

So here’s an odd way of summarizing my hopes for all of you this year: I hope that you struggle some. I hope that we can make your life a little uncomfortable.

But in the end, we're here to see you through. Lean on your teachers. Seek help. Ask for God's grace and stamina. If I can help you, some see me. One day, whether that’s next May or four Mays from now, I want to personally shake the hand of each person in this room as you receive the JPII diploma. And when you get it, I want you to know that you’ve earned it—not because it was easy, but because you fought through your most difficult classes and conquered them.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Finding a Groove


This is Mr. Weber's address to students on August 9, JPII's first full week of school for the 2010-2011 school year.

Good morning. I've been speaking to a lot of last year's graduates from JPII recently. Most of them are leaving for college this week or next, including Aaron, my son, who will be leaving for Notre Dame on the 17th.

Freshman year is generally the toughest year of college--not, so much, because of the difficulty of the courses, but because of everything else. I remember there was a guy in my section of the dorm at Notre Dame--a good guy with a very impressive set of high school credentials, who completely unraveled during his freshman year. He drank on Wednesday through Saturday night, recovered from his 4 day hangover on Sunday, tried to squeeze in a week's worth of work on Monday and Tuesday, and starting drinking again on Wednesday. At the end of the first semester, he had a .8 grade point average (and it was only that high because he had P.E.) and by the end of his freshman year, despite the fact N.D. was his life's dream, he ended up having to leave the university for a local community college.

Many freshman do poorly in their first year. Why? Because quite suddenly, there's no one there to order their lives. Do you wake up in time for class? Mom isn't there to wake you up. Do you go out drinking on Thursday night? Dad isn't there to say no.Do you keep your room clean? Do your laundry? Attend classes faithfully? Go to church on Sunday? Pay your bills on time? Do your homework? All of those decisions are your own to make, or avoid making.

When we were children, our lives were structured by our parents, as was proper. Nap times, chores, meal times, homework times and bed times were imposed on us by our parents. Psychologists agree that kids are creatures of habit and need these patterns. If you have a baby brother or sister and go on trips when their sleep times are disrupted, you know what I mean. They're generally cranky and out of sorts for the entire trip. So there was security as children in the routines imposed on us by our parents: our lives had a certain rhythm; we knew what to expect and what was expected of us.

The challenge of high school, in large measure, is that you must start setting up these routines for yourself. What time you go to bed, how much sleep you're getting, how much homework you're doing, when you're doing homework, are largely your own decisions. And as tempting as it is to assume the opposite, as young adults and as older adults, we are STILL in need of a routine to function well. No, we're not babies who get cranky when they miss nap time. But we do feel it when our lives lack order, when we're "winging it" day after day, without a pattern or structure to our day. We feel out of synch with ourselves.

So this week begins the first full week of high school in 2010-2011. The preliminary classes where teachers talk about grading and homework requirements are out of the way. The introductions are over. Now is the time to figure out which routines work best for you, and once you find out what these routines are, to stick with them. Are you a bus rider? Do you find you're able to do math in the bus on the way home? Are you an athlete who gets home around 6:45 and need an hour or so to clean up, eat and wind down a bit before hitting the books at 8? Or maybe you function best, if you get home earlier, in knocking out all your work before dinner so you can relax and talk with friends after dinner? Whatever works for you, cultivate it. Practice it consistently. Find your groove.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

I Dare You!


This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on the first day of the school year.

Good morning JPII!

I hope that all of you have had an excellent, amazing summer and that you’re well rested and ready to have an excellent, amazing school year.

A special welcome to our new students-- 193 of you!—165 freshmen and 28 sophomores, juniors or seniors who are here as transfers from other schools. We’re also happy to have 10 students from Great Britain who are visiting us as part of the Loughlin scholars program—welcome to our visitors from across the pond. Also in our midst are five German students who are enrolled as seniors here—welcome! May you have a wonderful year here in America (the best part of America, I might add—the south!) We hope to get to know you better. It's going to be a great school year.

As I look out at you this morning, I see an extraordinary group of young men and women. You are scholars of the highest caliber. You are dedicated athletes. Some of you are excellent musicians, artists, or actors. Whatever your gifts, whatever your talents, whatever your passions, I hope you will pursue them with great gusto this year. We don’t want you to be average!

We all have a tendency to play it safe, to shoot for the middle, to avoid standing out. It’s like wind-sprints after practice—to keep from being yelled at by coaches, you don’t want to be the last one to finish, but you don’t want to be first too often either, because if you end up first a lot, the coaches might expect you to always be first and start yelling if you end up in the middle later on. So you run just hard enough to avoid getting noticed.

This is not, however, the attitude of the greats. Jerry Rice, legendary receiver for the San Francisco 49’ers, who is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame next weekend, not only pushed himself to finish first in every wind-sprint, but when practices were over, he was often seen running steps in the stadium on his own, pushing himself so that in the 4th quarter, he was the best conditioned athlete on the field, able to run past winded defensive backs.

John Mayer, perhaps the most talented guitarist of his generation, practiced 6, 7, 8 hours/day as a youth, perfecting his craft.

Michelangelo, the great Renaissance artist, once said this:

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting out aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low it too low and achieving our mark.

God has given you great gifts. When you use these gifts to “Be all that you can be” you honor your creator by giving back to him what he has given you. Seek his help to become the kind of person he has destined you to be, make what you know are the right choices, and if you do so, God will bless you and help you achieve your goals.

So on this, the first day of school for the 2010-2011 school year, I dare you. I dare you to be great. I dare you to aim high. I dare you to shoot for great grades. I dare you to try and be the best athlete on the field, the best actor or musician on stage. I dare you to have audacious goals for yourself. Don’t aim for the middle!

May all of you have an excellent, amazing school year.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I teach



Note: Mr. Weber shared this reflection with the faculty of JPII at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year.

In his famous sonnet that begins "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?", Shakespeare has a wonderful line that resonates with us all:

"Summer's lease 
hath all too short a date."

Yes, it does!

Still, it's good to be back together with you.

Many of you many know that John Wooden died this summer. He was the greatest basketball coach of all time—few informed persons would argue that point. His U.C.L.A. teams won 10 national championships in a 12 year span, including an unprecedented 88 straight games (before losing to Notre Dame to end the streak.) During that entire run, including his 10th national championship season, he never made more than $35,000, and he never once asked for a raise!

What is less known is that he began his career as a high school English teacher. He taught and coached in relative obscurity before moving into college coaching, and would later comment that he missed the classroom teaching. When asked once by a reporter why he was so fond of teaching, he quoted this little known poem by Glennice Harmon, which I thought appropriate to begin our year together:

They ask me why I teach
,
And I reply, "Where could I find more splendid company?"


There sits a statesman,
 Strong, unbiased, wise,

Another later Webster, silver-tongued.


And there a doctor, Whose quick, steady hand

Can mend a bone or stem the lifeblood's flow.


A builder sits beside him -- 
Upward rise the arches of that church he builds wherein

That minister will speak the word of God,

And lead a stumbling soul to touch the Christ.



And all about
--A lesser gathering
 of farmers, merchants, teachers,
 laborers, men

Who work and vote and build

And plan and pray into a great tomorrow.


And, I say,
 "I may not see the church,
 or hear the word,
 or eat the food their hands will grow."

And yet -- I may.


And later I may say, 
"I knew the lad, and he was strong,

Or weak, or kind, or proud

Or bold or gay.


I knew him once,

But then he was a boy."


They ask my why I teach and I reply,

"Where could I find more splendid company?"


We are blessed to be teachers here. May we always be thankful for the splendid company we keep.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame




I am blessed to have three children at Notre Dame this fall: Faus, in graduate school through the Alliance for Catholic Education, Cynthia, a senior, and Aaron, an incoming freshman. For all its flaws, Notre Dame remains a powerful force for good in this world. I am proud to be a parent and alumnus.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Modest Proposal for Priestly Life


I was alarmed when I saw him.

Twenty years earlier he had been our high school chaplain and teacher. As a young priest, he was quick-witted, smart, knew us each by name, played pranks on us and received some pranks back in return. The diocese put him in charge of a camp alongside the bay that had fallen into disuse and over the summer, my friends and I spent weekends clearing out brush, painting, and mowing the grass. We loved that guy.

But the priestly years had not been good to him. He was over-weight now, without spark, a shell of the man I remembered. There were whispers of alcoholism, some stints with rehabilitation, and then, a few years later, the bomb: he was accused of illicit liaisons with teenage boys, dating back to the late 1980's. He was quickly removed from the priesthood and lived out the rest of his life in shame, dying a broken man a few years later.

I am now a Catholic high school principal. Seven years ago a young priest was sent to us for his first assignment. He had the makings of an excellent teacher: a deep knowledge of his subject, theology, with that hard to define “with-it-ness” – a quick-wittedness and quirkiness that fascinated his students. I remember once visiting his classroom as he was standing on top of his desk, peering over the ledge in mocked pain. “Rebecca”, he said, “if you don’t know the answer to this question, I’ve failed as your teacher and I’m going to jump.” The class sat on edge, hoping Rebecca would get it wrong.

He combined this talent for teaching with a zeal to serve the Lord and his Church. He attended ball games. He talked sports with the boys and teased with the girls. He heard confessions and gave thoughtful, passionate homilies. A black woman, hearing him preach one day, told me “he had the anointing”. Students loved him.

On June 28, 2005 he took his own life.

We were completely devastated. What happened? Apparently, he suffered from clinical depression. No one knew that, except a very few people in the chancery some 170 miles to the south.

I shudder when I think back to a remark he made to me a few months earlier: “When you’re in the seminary”, he had said, “you are surrounded by 30-40 guys who all aspire to the same thing: ordination. The community, the laughter, the challenge to live a holy life, is incredible. My ordination was everything I dreamt it would be, the best day of my life. The very next day, I was assigned to a parish and I was suddenly all alone.”

How many good men must we see crash and burn before we realize our model for priestly living is wrong?

Up until now, our response to the sexual abuse crisis has been primarily procedural, fashioned by lawyers to protect diocesan liability. We're doing background checks, running workshops for teachers and volunteers, and teaching children the difference between a "good touch" and a "bad touch". In the event of an accusation, everyone knows how to respond.

But we haven't attacked the problem pastorally. The root of it, echoing the words of our chaplain, is that most of our priests live completely alone. Gone are the days when rectories were full of priests, thus providing them with a kind of automatic community with built in opportunities for fraternity and fellowship. Now our parishes have typically one priest, living alone in a rectory, largely unaccountable and generally lonely--many living this way for fifty years! And yet, we're surprised, disappointed and angry when our priests become alcoholics or develop sexual problems.

No, this isn't an argument for a married priesthood. I'll let others argue that point. Instead, I am making a modest proposal: that we rethink our paradigm of how priests live. The parish rectory is an anachronism, designed for a time when people couldn't drive or talk on telephones. To see a priest, one had to walk to the parish, which was often the center of town life. But today, with cars, telephones, cell phones, voicemail, call forwarding and email, the idea of a “priest in every parish rectory” makes little sense. Instead, let us begin to insist that priests from surrounding parishes live together and share some sort of life together. Make a minimal common rule (prayer and dinner once/day, perhaps?) and then send these priests to their various ministries all over the city.

It is worth noting that although the religious communities have not been immune to the scandals, the much bigger problem has been with diocesan priests. It only makes sense: in a community with other men, destructive personal behavior can be addressed long before it becomes an entrenched sickness. But more fundamentally, the laughter, friendships, and yes, the aggravations and "opportunities" for personal growth that living in a community requires are all healthy for priests--indeed, healthy for all of us.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To A.P. or not A.P.?

That is the question.

So we're at that time of year again when you must begin thinking about selecting classes for next year--unless you're a senior, involved in selecting which college you want to attend.

One of the common questions you'll be asking yourself is how hard of a schedule should you take next year. So, for example, should I take an AP class, or two (or three, or four)? What if I take the A.P. class and end up with a lower grade--will that hurt me for college?

Take the A.P. class.

Colleges won’t tell you this outright, but the truth is that grade point averages are so inflated and differ so wildly between high schools that colleges cannot use them to make any meaningful comparisons between applicants.

Instead, they increasingly rely on two simple measurements: entrance test scores and the difficulty of the curriculum taken in high school.

Mr. Brown has been collecting data for years now that confirms the primacy of test scores: Incoming freshman at schools like Belmont or University of Dayton have virtually identical high school GPA’s as Vanderbilt or Notre Dame, but Belmont students score an average of 25-26 on the ACT, whereas Vandy and ND students score an average of 33.

Fair or unfair, test scores allow universities to make a quick “apples to apples” comparison of applicants, regardless of which high school an applicant attends or region of the country he or she resides.

Unfortunately, this means that some students may work very hard in high school and get nearly all  A’s, but if their test scores aren’t within range of the freshman class to which they’re applying, they have almost zero chance of being accepted, unless they possess some virtuoso talent of importance to the university (like football ability) or are part of an under-respresented group the university desires.

The second critical variable in college admissions is the difficulty of curriculum taken while in high school.

On the “common application” now required by 400+ colleges for admission, there is a telling question that must be filled out by the high school counselor:

In comparison with other college preparatory students in your school, the applicant’s course selection is (choose one): “most demanding”, “very demanding”, “demanding”, “average” or “below average”.

I believe that if the counselor must choose anything less than “most “ or “very” demanding, you have very little chance of getting accepted to an elite school.

There’s a seedy side to all this. Because publications like U.S. News and World Report rank colleges partly on the basis of acceptance rates of applicants (thus determining whether the school is “very selective” or merely “selective”), colleges do their best to encourage as many applications as possible so they can reject as many as possible. The “common application” makes it easy for kids to apply to multiple schools and thus plays into this game very neatly. Ever since the common application became—well, common—the volume of applications to the typical university has grown tremendously.

Unfortunately, college admissions offices have not grown proportionately, meaning that counselors now must look for quick, simple ways to sort through the overwhelming pile of applications on their desk. College entrance scores and the difficulty of courses become even more important in this light.

Which brings us back to " A.P. or not to A.P.?"

Advanced Placement courses are based on first tier curricular standards. A.P. teachers must attend professional development workshops sponsored by the College Board to be certified to teach to these standards. They are typically among the school's best teachers. If a child spends a year being challenged by conscientious, talented teachers who are guided by demanding standards, the reasonable expectation is that the student will acquire knowledge and skills that will help him for life—and in the nearer term, improve his college entrance scores.

And oh, by the way, Mr. Brown can check off that “most demanding" box!

And if you're not in that AP or not category, be sure to take the most rigorous set of electives you can handle next year--the logic works the same way: If you push yourself, you'll do better on those national tests, which make all the difference. In the end, hard work matters. It really does. 

Monday, June 07, 2010

Seven Quotes To Live By


Sometimes the simple, well turned phrase can provoke our thoughts and even move us to action. Here are seven of my favorite quotes that have shaped my thinking on a variety of matters, with my brief comments after each one.

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. “ (Michelangelo)
In an age of mediocrity, our job as educators is to encourage kids to aspire for much more.

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” (John Wooden, U.C.L.A. basketball coach)

In an age where "image is everything", the greatest basketball coach of all time reminds us that character, not image, matters.

“The Glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” (St. Irenaeus)

We glorify God by using the talents he has given us to the best of our ability. God desires us to be fully human, to be fully ourselves.

“In essential things, unity. In non-essential things, liberty. In all things, charity” (attributed to St. Augustine)

There are some things, perhaps just a few, that we must insist upon. In everything else, we should respect each other's opinions and treat each other with charity.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference 
between the master builder and the worker.We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
 We are prophets of a future not our own. (Oscar Romero)

We can't do it all. We are the workers. We need to let God be God.

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; 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)

Being educated doesn't make us virtuous. We need God's grace for that.

It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become wore vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. (John Henry Newman, The Development of Doctrine)

We often assume that a belief is in its purest state when it is newest. But our best doctrines and ideas are those which develop over long periods of time, after they've been discussed, argued, prayed about and lived out by the community.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Time to Face the Ugly Truth


Imagine you’re an analyst hired by the C.E.O. of a 130-year old company to advise him on how to turn the company around in light of this alarming data:

• In 1960, the company had approximately 13,000 franchises around the country and a customer base of 5.2 million.
• By 2000, those numbers had fallen off precipitously: The company now has 8600 franchises and only 2.6 million customers.
• By 2010, it lost another 1600 franchises and an additional 20% of its customer base.

As best you can tell, there are three issues driving these numbers:

• In 1960, this company was one of the few privately held companies in its field. Over the last decades, a plethora of new privately supported ventures and new public initiatives have made the competition much tougher.
• Prior to 1960, the company was able to pull its best employees from a training center that didn’t charge the company for their training. Now the company must employ independent contractors who demand higher wages and who must be trained at company expense to attain the same skill set as the previous base.
• Each franchisee must invest heavily in buildings and infrastructure to deliver its product. Unfortunately, many of these franchises are now surrounded by customers unable to pay retail price because of changing demographics. The businesses are now too far away from the customers.

“What has the company done to address its dwindling market share?”, you ask.

“We’ve counseled our franchises to look for ways to raise capital to improve their buildings and hire better employees” says the company C.E.O, fidgeting. “We’ve also suggested to keep their prices low and give discount pricing to those who might need it so as to keep brand loyalty.”

“That doesn’t sound like a winning formula”, you remark. “How can you reasonably expect these franchises to raise revenue for capital improvements when they can’t collect full freight for goods and services? 



"Let me ask it differently” you say. “What has the company done to help the franchises?” “Well”, the C.E.O. says hesitatingly, we’ve created a national association of these franchises, and we have an annual convention to swap good ideas and conduct research that measures how we’re doing.

“It looks like your research says it's been a bad fifty years” you say. " Do we have a new business model? Have we tried to re-organize the way we do things? Or are we still pretty much delivering it the way we did fifty years ago?

“Uh… We've added some technology, but the business model is the same”.



It would be hard to imagine a company in the Fortune 500 operating this way. Several C.E.O's would have been fired long before this latest CEO hired you to be his analyst! His company is crumbling and yet he has no business plan, no plan for his franchises to re-structure, re-locate or try something new.

But this is exactly the state of Catholic K-12 education in this country. From our peak enrollments in the early 1960’s, we’ve lost more than 60% of our student population and closed 6,000 of our schools. In the last ten years alone, we’ve lost 1600 of those schools and 20% of our student population. (NCEA, Annual Statistical Report on Schools, 2009) It’s an absolute crisis—and yet, we seem resigned to allow Darwinian evolution to take its course.

I have three proposals for re-inventing ourselves:

1) First, abolish the pre-K-8 elementary school structure. Kids are beginning in our schools at the age of three or four, which means by the time they get to 6th grade, they’ve been there as long as 8th graders who used to begin in kindergarten. They’re itching for something new! Coupled with the fact that our K-12 or 7-12 competition leverages the athletic fields, libraries, science labs and prestige of their high schools to attract incoming 7th graders and our elementary schools simply can’t compete.

Instead, create Catholic middle schools in grades 7-8 or 6-8 and make Catholic elementary schools preK-5 or preK-6. Or if building a new middle school is too expensive, move the seventh and eighth graders into the high school and make it a 7-12 institution. Either of these options would make the Catholic school much more attractive to sixth and seventh graders, which is where most of the attrition occurs.

2) Build new schools in high growth areas, regardless of their effect on neighboring schools. In my diocese there are two mega-parishes on the north and south end of town without schools, surrounded by declining parishes with schools. As painful as it is to do so, the long-term health of Catholic education depends upon putting our schools in the right spot to attract the most families and then allowing God’s providence to take care of what transpires. Otherwise, in the name of protecting institutions, we end up ministering to fewer and fewer families in the aggregate, and our schools close, one at a time.

3) We must become more entrepreneurial. We must hire first tier business managers with market sense and savvy. We cannot expect over-taxed principals, most with no formal business training, to lead our schools in this way. If a school cannot afford such a person, schools should share resources and hire a talented person to help run 2-3 schools at a time. The pool of talent for this may be broader than we think if we look for successful businessmen looking for a second career who would be interested in serving the Church.

As an example of this entrepreneurial leadership, we should be giving out much more financial aid than we are. According to U.S. News and World Report, there are only 46 colleges in the United States that say they meet the “full financial needs of all their students.” I propose--radically-- that all Catholic schools do so. But wait, this isn’t touchy feely idealism! If we have seats that are empty, we’re much better off filling them with students who pay 50% tuition than keeping the seats empty and getting nothing. This is the same principle upon which airlines discount their seats for less traveled flights.

I can think of other examples for exploration along these lines: Have we considered leasing buses to transport kids to our school to drive up enrollments? How about out-sourcing cafeteria service? What about purchasing textbooks on line? Does our spirit store deliver product in an efficient way, thereby helping us brand the school? Is our webpage sharp, up to date and an essential part of our marketing plan? Have we considered signing bonuses to draw talent into our school despite meager annual salaries? Have we negotiated with empty convents or rectories to provide low-cost housing to young employees?

“The definition of insanity, ” someone said, “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” We must face the ugly truth and begin to act sanely.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thanks, JPII!



Aaron graduated from JPII on Sunday, the third of my children to have graduated from the school at which I am principal. As it is for most parents, it’s bittersweet for my wife and me: We are bursting with pride for our son, but we also know our relationship has forever changed and that he’s leaving soon.

Aaron will enroll at Notre Dame this August. He’ll leave behind a lot of the laughter which has animated our family since he was two years old and learned he could make his older brother and sister laugh by performing silly stunts and saying funny things. That wit is perhaps his best trait and has served him well in making new friends at JPII.

The transition wasn’t easy. He was most unhappy when I told him after his sophomore year that we were moving up to Nashville so I could be headmaster. He had lived his entire life in Montgomery and was quite comfortable with the friends he had known, many since kindergarten. “I’d rather digest pine cones” was his opening line to the “Why do you want to come to JPII?” essay required of all incoming students, until his mother made him march upstairs and rewrite the whole thing. “They’re probably going to accept him anyway,” I had told her. “I know, but I want him to go there with the right attitude,” she had said back. He came down the stairs thirty minutes later, sulky. “The reason I want to go to JPII, “ he wrote with obvious sarcasm, “is that it’s the best school in the country. With a degree from JPII, I can go anywhere and do anything.” His mother looked at me, undecided. “He’s probably going to be accepted, “ I reiterated. We decided to let it go.

Fast forward two years. What a blessing JPII has been for our son! He’s always been good at music, having received his first drum set at the age of ten. He can play the guitar and piano as well. At JPII he’s found kids who are equally talented and passionate and spent many hours in our basement recording music with them. Though a back injury has slowed down his high school athletic career, he was able to play football his entire senior year and was named team captain by his peers. He used his experience in Mock Trial and Youth in Government in Alabama to help promote the program at JPII and even became the youth governor for Tennessee this year. He connected with literature while taking A.P. English from Mr. Stephenson and was able to expand his gifts in writing and interpretation without feeling awkward or effeminate. Betty Mayberry so challenged my son in A.P. Calculus that he arrived to school obscenely early for tutorials twice/week, just to make it through, and is a better student and person for it. He sang in Mrs. Ebelhar’s choir and played in Mr. Suska’s jazz ensemble. He even was able to take a year of Latin! As part of his Christian Service, he worked in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients.

This extraordinary, well rounded experience, I believe, was instrumental in helping Aaron get into Notre Dame. As a “double domer” from ND myself, with two older children already there, I’m both excited for him and deeply grateful to his coaches, teachers and classmates.

Thank you, JPII.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Flood!


The destructive power of water has been awesome and frightful to behold these last few days. I tried to get into JPII on Sunday afternoon, but Caldwell Drive was underwater, making passage into the school impossible, as seen here:



Our lacrosse, baseball, softball and soccer fields were completely submerged, as you can see here:



When the waters recede from our playing fields, it's going to be one ugly, muddy mess.

Only the roofs could be seen of our neighbor’s homes alongside Vietnam Vets (look carefully in the middle right of the video below):



Please pray for our neighbors, as they likely lost everything.

God has a way of reminding us he’s still in charge. It’s easy for us to forget that. When it gets too hot outside, we have air-conditioning. If it’s too cold, heating. We have erected towering skyscrapers, conquered the airways, landed men on the moon and sent unmanned spacecrafts to Mars and beyond. These achievements reflect our intelligence and ingenuity, but they also tempt us to believe we sole masters of our fate, able to control all that is around us.

The most poignant story for modern man in the Old Testament may be the Tower of Babel. “Come, let us build ourselves a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves”, they said. Upset by their pride, God gave them different languages, confusing them, causing them to discontinue their empire building.

I don’t mean to say that all successful people are unduly proud. But success can seduce us, if we’re not careful, into believing we are no longer in need of God’s grace and assistance. If there are “no atheists in the foxholes”, as the saying goes, then the opposite is also true: there are too few believers among the affluent and successful.

Most of us have been merely inconvenienced by this weekend’s flooding. Let’s pray for all those who have truly been hurt by it. For all of us, however, may unexpected weekends like this one remind us that we are not the Creator, but the created.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Now the Green Blade Riseth


This is Mr. Weber's Easter message to the students of JPII, Monday, April 4, 2010

Matt was a 291 pound, 6’ 6” football player, regarded as one of the top lineman prospects in the country. After being pursued by Florida, Penn State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and many other colleges, he committed to Notre Dame and was set to enter Notre Dame this summer as their highest ranked incoming recruit. This past Friday he was on spring break in Panama City with 40 of his classmates from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati. Tragically, having drank too much, he leaned over the rail of the fifth floor balcony to talk to someone the next room over, lost his balance and fell. He died instantly.

This isn’t a talk about drinking.

Instead, I ask for your prayers for his classmates at St. Xavier, a Catholic high school very similar to Pope John Paul II. Matt was just 17, due to turn 18 next week. You can only imagine the grief and the sense of loss his friends, classmates and family are experiencing right now. Please pray for them and the entire Xavier school community.

Some of you have undergone tragedy yourselves, experiencing the sudden loss of someone close to you through an accident or an illness. Others of you have endured lesser but still painful things like divorce, or your father or mother leaving the family, or betrayal by a close friend. Inevitably, when we are suffering through these terrible things, we ask ourselves—as no doubt all of Matt’s friend’s are asking—“Why me (or why him)? Why does God allow this to happen? Why not someone else who’s a jerk and has it coming? In fact, why does it seem like good people suffer more often than evil people? Is God paying attention? Does he care? "

To our Christian faith’s credit, we don’t believe there are easy answers to those questions. “God is testing us” or “God has a plan” are far too simplistic—and from the perspective of Matt’s family or others enduring a tragedy, I imagine, almost obscenely perverse, as if God needed their son to be a sacrificial lamb as a teaching tool for others.

What comes much closer to the truth, I believe, is revealed in the season we are celebrating during this Easter season. At the height of Jesus’ suffering on the cross—betrayed by one of the 12 closest to him, denied by his good friend Peter, turned over to Rome on a trumped up charge by his religious leaders, convicted by his own people, who shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and begged Pilate to let a murderer be released instead of him, scoffed at and ridiculed by the Roman guards--now on the cross, with pain searing through his wrists and feet, Jesus’ cried out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.?” or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The message of the cross, I believe, in response to why God allows suffering, is that God suffers, too. The grief and suffering we feel is real—not something we should pretend is just a matter of perspective. He doesn’t tell us not to feel betrayed or cheated—he himself felt that way. He doesn’t promise us, like some child’s fairy tale, that we’ll “live happily ever after” in a life free from pain. He doesn’t offer some cheap medicine to make it go away. No, Jesus shows us on Good Friday that suffering is inescapable. The pain we feel, the grief, the sense of loss are all legitimate expressions of our human condition.

But he also shows us, through Easter Sunday, that this suffering does not get the final say--that despite the cross, there is also the resurrection, that despite whatever hardship, tragedy, and hatred we endure, that God’s love for us is even more real, deeper and more powerful. From the frozen earth of winter, green blades of grass can rise again. *

I’d like to end with a true story:

It revolves around a small boy of about seven who was stricken with a fatal, ferocious and fast growing cancer. He had been treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering with every sort of therapy known to science. But nothing further could be done. 

Perhaps they could administer one more dose of some experimental drug, but actually there was no real hope of recovery. And the side effects could only complicate the progression of the disease. 

So the family and the doctors gathered in the little boy's room for a final conference concerning his treatment.

They had tried almost everything, what could they possibly think of next? Finally the boy spoke up in a clear, crisp voice, "What I really want to do is to go home and learn how to ride my two wheeler." 

The bicycle had been a Christmas present. It had those little trainer wheels attached. But before the boy had gained enough confidence to remove the trainer wheels the cancer caught up with him and he was sent to the hospital. Learning how to ride a two-wheeler was the last thought the doctors or the parents would have contemplated. It just didn't seem possible. The boy was already physically weakened, why encourage him to do something that clearly would not be possible for very long even if he could succeed.


But the boy insisted and the resistance of the doctors and his parents melted away under the withering assurances of his clear brown eyes. And home they went. 

Not thirty minutes after they had settled in, they were out in the yard, the boy insisting that his father take off the training wheels and let him have a go at it. 

Obediently, but anxiously, his father took out his wrench and removed the training wheels to let him go. To their surprise, after only two false starts and one fall the boy was able to steer the bike, somewhat erratically to be sure. "And now," he said with mounting assurance in his voice, "Now I want to ride it by myself all the way around the block." Before anyone could stop him, he was off, up the street and around the corner out of sight. There were those few minutes of suspense as the parents, brother and little sister, waited for him to appear at the other end of the block, and after what seemed an eternity, there he was, headed for home, a gigantic expression of triumph and satisfaction written on his face.

When the excitement had settled down, the boy retired to his bedroom, and asked if he could be left alone with his little sister. He had his father bring the shiny blue bike into the bedroom. It sat there in the corner, a gleaming symbol of life. Then the boy turned to his little sister and said, "I won't be needing the bicycle anymore. I want you to have it for your birthday. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did." 




From under the shadow of death, and in the midst of life's deepest tragedies, there comes the resurrection of life.

Happy Easter, everyone!

* The title of this blog comes from the song, "Now the Green Blade Riseth". Here's the text:

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

In the grave they laid him, love whom men had slain,
Thinking that never he would wake again.
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green,

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain.
Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.