Sunday, January 30, 2011

It begins with the teachers

Yesterday was the beginning of Catholic Schools Week, a national celebration of Catholic Schools.

We spend a lot of time during the year bragging on you and all your successes, and in fact, we're very proud of all your achievements. But this morning, I’d like to take this occasion to focus on your teachers.

From time to time, I do parking lot duty with Mr. McLaren. One thing I can’t help noticing: some of you have some VERY nice cars. It would be interesting to calculate the average value of the car in the student parking lot with the average car in the faculty parking lot. That comparison will probably reveal what you may have been able to guess: Your teachers make a financial sacrifice to be your teachers.

They could be making a lot more money; these are smart, interesting people! Among your teachers are valedictorians of their high schools, teachers with 4.0 grade point averages in college, teachers of the year, writers of textbooks, presidential award winners, former investment bankers, former principals, former executives in business, former journalists, former premier athletes, former military men, and former university professors.

Unlike most jobs, when teachers go home to their families after a long day, they still have grading to do, prep for tomorrow’s class, tests to create, recommendations to write, emails to respond to, ball games to attend and plays to watch. Most teachers spend at least 6-8 hours preparing classes during the weekend. Most come to school early, some times to help you with tutorials, and leave late, perhaps due to some of their afternoon time has been spent with detentions or with after school tutorials.

They agonize over your failures and worry about you when you seem upset, or despondent, or having a rough time. They rejoice with your successes, cheer loudly when you beat a rival team, and watch with pride during a theatrical or musical production.

Some of you may remember that each June, I ask you to tell me what you regard as the strengths of JPII and also what you regard as areas we can improve upon. Let me share with you some of your comments you made, and see if you notice a common theme.

The strengths of JPII, in your own words, are:

The teachers are very good listeners and really help us.

The teachers are willing to take the extra time to help a student in his or her studies.

The rigorous academic curriculum is made possible by teachers who are willing to put time into helping students.

I honestly haven't thought about JPII's strengths. If I had to say something, it would have to be the wonderful teachers.

Before JPII, I never had a teacher who would stay after school to help with any of my problems in their class.

The skill and enthusiasm of the teachers is the strength of JPII.

Teachers give students plenty of opportunities to go to tutorials and get help with their work. The teachers are friendly and understanding.

I love how the teachers at JPII put an effort into making learning new concepts fun and how they’re always helpful and there if you need help with something.

The faculty and staff are just amazing. From those who have been there from the beginning, to new teachers, all seem to be linked in a drive to assist students in their pursuit of learning and academic excellence. Within the classroom, most of the teachers are unmatched on their ability to keep student interest and to convey the information for their subject. It is also apparent that the teachers sacrifice a large amount of time outside of the classroom, both for helping students and for coaching, chaperoning, and leading many clubs and activities.

An outgoing senior said: The strengths of JP II are definitely the powerful relationships that are built between faculty and students. The teachers genuinely care about whether or not their students succeed. I know I was able to develop wonderful and unforgettable connections with most members of the faculty and staff.

I think you get the picture.

So let me ask you to do something. Teachers, could I ask all of you who are in the hallways to come into the auditorium, please?

Students, I know what you’ve told me privately on these surveys. On this, the first day of Catholic schools week, could you join me in paying tribute publicly to your teachers of Pope John Paul II High School?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Am I done yet?

This is Mr. Weber's address to students on January 24, 2011.

There’s a mirror along the back wall of Snap Fitness and since walking on a treadmill is tedious and boring, I often watch the trainers working with their clients. One day there was a lady who was about sixty, and the trainer was really pushing her to go beyond her comfort zone as she lifted some light weights. She kept saying, in near despair, “Am I done yet?” and he kept saying, gently, “just a few more, you can do it.”

The truth is, she looked pretty miserable the whole time she was exercising. But afterwards, when she was finally done, there was a big smile of accomplishment (and relief) on her face.

It struck me that all of us, really, underestimate ourselves. We are capable of so much more than we think we are capable of, limited by our own vision of who we are and the box we build for ourselves and operate within. We may think we’re terrible in math, and that pessimism in ourselves becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because we then give up too easily, convinced that the Math course we’re taking is too hard, or that a problem is beyond our comprehension.

Much worse than that, I have known people who were convinced that they were fundamentally bad, irredeemable, incapable of living morally, so they lived their lives as sinners, filled with self-loathing, unwilling to believe they were worthy of being happy.

Many years ago, there was a junior girl who had the reputation of being “loose,” based on some situations she allowed herself to get into. Her life was spiraling downward: she was beginning to drink, probably dabbling with marijuana, her grades were dropping, she was fighting with her mother too often, and her friendships were changing for the worse. I called her to the office, and I think she was expecting a lecture. Instead, I told her about a freshman girl who was having a hard time and needed tutoring. “But what she needs more than that is a friend,” I said. She looked at me with sadness. “She’ll need a better friend than me, Mr. Weber. You don’t know what I’ve been doing.”

I remember getting very serious and looking into her eyes. “I know exactly what you’ve been doing,” I said. “But I also know who you are, deep down. You can help this girl. Will you help her?" I asked. You could almost see her sit up straighter. “Yes, Mr. Weber, I will.”

She became an excellent tutor, but more importantly, she became like a big sister to this girl. And by serving someone else, she was able to move past this bad period in her life and slowly become herself again. When I handed her the diploma, instead of the usual handshake, she gave me a hug. "Thank you," she whispered, "for believing in me."

God’s dream for us, his belief in what we are capable of achieving, is far beyond our own. We are limited by our own vision, unable to see in ourselves what God sees, and so we trap ourselves inside the box we create. But we need people that know us deep down, who can support us, encourage us, and challenge us, and by so doing, smash that box into smithereens.

That, in a nutshell, is the mission of Pope John Paul II. That’s the job of your teachers. I was speaking to one of you recently who said about a teacher here: “He frustrates me every single day. Whenever I think I’ve done well, he says, ‘you can do better.’ But I appreciate him, because I know he cares for me and wants me to succeed. “

That’s a fantastic compliment to this teacher, but it’s also speaks highly of the young lady who recognizes what we often fail to recognize: that those who challenge us do so because they see in us, deep down, something that we might not even see in ourselves, and that they love us and want the best for us.

So as you rewrite a paper, or struggle with a math problem, or run laps for a ball team, or come in for tutorials to get extra help because you don’t understand something, and you ask your teachers or coaches, “Am I done yet?” I hope you’ll here them tell you, gently, “just a few more. You can do it.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sainthood Soon!

We learned this morning that Pope John Paul II, the person for whom our school is named, will be beatified on May 1, 2011. That gave me occasion, as headmaster, to "bone up" on the process by which the Church declares people "saints." Here's my quick summary:

It’s important to say at the outset that the Church does not “make” saints. Rather, it tries to recognize what God has already done in the life of an individual. And because saints are held up as persons to be emulated by all, the Church tries to set up a deliberative process that makes sure a person has been thoroughly “vetted” and is truly worthy of such recognition.

Canonization is a 3 step process, which usually can begin no earlier than 5 years after a person’s death. However, there was an overwhelming sense in the world-wide Church upon JPII’s death that we had just witnessed the passing of a truly holy person and a great man. The cry heard over and over at his funeral was “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Now!” Recognizing this sense, Pope Benedict waived the 5 year rule in his case—so in terms of the Church’s usual time-table, this process has moved really quickly.

The first step is a person is declared “Venerable”. A person who is “venerable” is a one the Church has recognized as having heroic virtue. Pope John Paul II was made “Venerable” John Paul II just over a year ago, in December of 2009.

The second step is to be declared “Blessed”, or to be “Beatified”. This is what the Vatican announced today. To be beatified, it must be shown that God has worked through that person to perform a miracle posthumously. The logic is if a miracle occurs, that person must be in heaven. In JPII’s case, the Church recently confirmed the authenticity of a miracle involving a French nun who prayed through the intercession of JPII to be cured of Parkinson’s disease. JPII will be beatified on May 1, 2011. It’s going to be a big deal—the Vatican expects hundreds of thousands of people to come to the Vatican to celebrate that event.

(Intercessory prayer just means a person asks someone else to pray for him or her, much the same way we might ask a member of the Church who is living to pray for us).

The final step is canonization—at that point, one is called “saint.” For that to happen, there must be confirmed evidence of a second post-humous miracle. No time table on that, but a reasonable guess is that it would happen some time within the next 2-3 years.

We'll have to start prepping here at JPII for the inevitable celebration!

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Study Abroad at JPII!

There’s an old joke which I have told many times:

What do you call a person who can speak many languages? Multi-lingual.
What do you call someone who can speak two languages? Bi-lingual.
What do you call a person who can only speak one language? An American.

That's funny, mostly because there's too much truth in it. The average European child, by the time he or she reaches the age of 13, has learned two or three languages, and many more than that. We are unusual at JPII in that we require you to take a language for three years (most private schools require 2), but the truth is, we hope you’ll even consider taking a 4th year in your senior year.

Why? One of the great advantages of learning a new language is that we begin to understand and appreciate cultures different than our own. The foundation of ignorance is isolation. When we are around people that think like we do, talk like we do, and share most of the same assumptions that we do, we’re often trapped inside a cocoon from which it’s hard to escape. Many colleges, for this reason, have begun study abroad programs, in which students study for a semester or a year in a foreign country, usually in their sophomore or junior year.

Our goal at JPII is to provide you a world class education. As most of you know, for the last two years we’ve been working on a new strategic plan for the school, imagining together those initiatives we should implement to further your education over the next five years. One such initiative is a foreign travel initiative: we want to offer you more opportunities to travel abroad.

Five years ago we began the Loughlin Exchange program, in which freshmen from JPII spend three weeks with freshmen from St. Edmunds Catholic school in England, and then they three weeks with us. It’s been a resounding success. Those of you who have been fortunate enough to be named a Loughlin Scholar will attest to the great experience it was, in that it not only allowed you to develop friendships with students and families from a different continent, but it also gave you new insights and broadened your world view.

Last month, we were very pleased to begin planning on a second exchange program, this time with students from Muenster, Germany. We are taking up to 20 JPII sophomore and junior students to Germany in the early summer, and they will be hosting students this spring. To date we have 17 applicants for this program, so there is still time and room to sign up, and I encourage you to do so. See Mrs. McCormack, who I have hired to help us coordinate our foreign travel programs.

Your opportunities to travel won’t be limited to exchange programs. Mrs. Wortman and Mr. Stephenson are taking some of you to Paris this spring. We’re excited about that! Ms. Donovan will be taking a group of students to the Honduras this summer to do mission work, if there’s enough interest. Next fall, we hope to sponsor a trip to Rome. We’re in discussions about trips to other countries in Europe.

I am pleased that we have a well traveled faculty here who are eager to sponsor these trips, and we’re working through a calendar of where we’ll be going over the next two years so that you can plan and save for trips you might like to attend.

Look for that calendar to be published in the near future.

Have a good week!