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.