Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent in the First World

This is Mr. Weber's Advent message to the students of JPII during assembly on November 28, 2011.

My brother sent me an email of a list of “First World Problems,”--a series of quips that mock how lazy we’ve become as part of a wealthy culture. To give you a sense of them:

• My hand is too fat to shove into the Pringles container, so I am forced to tilt it.
• I forgot to bring my smartphone with me when I used the bathroom, so I was bored the entire time.
• I can’t hear the TV while I’m eating crunchy snacks.
• My laptop is low on battery, but the charger is over there.

Those quips are funny, partly because there’s an element of truth to them. We live in a culture of excess, where our values become skewed in pursuit of things, at the expense of our relationships with God and with others. You may remember the accounts a few years back of a woman being trampled to death by customers when a Walmart opened on "Black Friday". This past Friday in a Los Angeles Walmart, a woman was arrested for pepper spraying 20 fellow customers so she could clear the path to be the first one to get to the Xbox consoles that were on sale. And there was also a story of a man who had just come out from shopping at Walmart in California at 1:45 a.m. , and was accosted at gunpoint by another man in the parking lot, who demanded that he hand over everything he had just purchased. The man, protective of his new stuff that he had been up all night to purchase, refused. He was shot. He is in the hospital, in critical but stable condition. No word as to whether he was able to keep his things.

One might hope that excess becomes self-regulating—that once one had too much, one might grow bored and seek less. But the opposite is true. Once one has too much, he does indeed become bored, but instead looks for MORE to satisfy his boredom. There are estimates that the average American will gain 5 pounds from over-eating from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day this year. Others believe this estimate is too high. But what BOTH sides agree on is that those who are already over-weight going into the holidays will gain much more weight than the average American. Excess, unfortunately, inspires more excess.

One of the great things about the Advent season, which began yesterday, is that we’re reminded we’re still in need of a savior. We are still sick. Yes, Jesus came and died for us almost 2000 years ago, and he is ever ready to forgive us and heal us. But we forget that we need him. Perhaps that’s the most serious danger about being in a first world country—it’s not even the excess or the laziness, but that we tend to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, as independent, as NOT NEEDING a savior. People who have nothing rarely forget God. They pray to him for their next meal. They ask him to cure their daughter’s illness. They worry and pray about where they’re going to sleep when the winter comes. But too often, we believe our success is all about our talents, our brains, our good decisions, and we forget that all of the good things we enjoy are blessings from God, and that we still need him to be Lord of our families, Lord of our relationships, Lord of our school work and our business dealings and Lord of our decisions.

Recently, my computer at home had become very sluggish—irritatingly so. It’s been a while, so I spent some time this weekend defragmenting my hard drive, deleting old files, getting rid of some preferences that are clogging things up. It’s working much faster now.

Advent is a time in our lives to do the same thing: to delete some of the things that are taking us away from God, to pray more, to study harder, to become more grateful for God’s gifts and more serious about our relationship with him. The psalmist from this Sunday’s readings prayed: “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then may we be saved.” (Psalm 80:3).

As we prepare for Christmas even within this culture of wealth and excess, and even as we jockey for position in department stores and malls (hopefully, without using pepper spray), may use this Advent season to turn again to God, so that his face may shine down upon us and so that we may welcome his birth in our hearts in a new and deeper way.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Keeping Balanced

Mr. Weber discusses the new extra-curricular policy with students.

Keeping balanced is one of the most challenging things about being a student at JPII. There are so many good things to be part of in this school—from athletics, to Model UN, from Chorus to Instrumental Music, from Math teams to Science Olympiad teams—that it’s easy to overcommit ourselves and for our studies to get the short end of the stick. Notice the choice isn’t usually something like: do I do my homework tonight, or should I go out and get drunk? It isn’t a choice between good and bad. It’s most often a choice between good and good, and keeping all these good things you want to do in some sort of order.

That’s why we implemented the extra-curricular policy this year, to help you keep things in balance. Just to be clear about the policy:

If you have more than 2 or more F’s at mid-quarter or the end of the quarter, you are placed on academic probation, and sidelined from any school activity that takes place outside of the 7:50-3:10 school day.

That probation lasts a minimum of one full week. To become eligible to play for the next week, you must get permission from all 8 of your teachers on Thursday or Friday via a signed form, and give that form to your coaches or advisor.

That will allow you to participate from Monday through Friday of the following week, but you must take around the same form and have your teachers sign the form if you want to play the week after that, and so on until the next set of mid-quarters or quarter grades come out and it’s determined if you’re off academic probation.

It’s your responsibility—not your teachers, your coaches, nor your advisor—to get those forms signed. If they’re not completely signed, you’re ineligible for another week.

And what are teachers looking for before they can sign permission for you to participate again? One simple word: effort. You may be in a class that is tough for you, and even if you work really hard, you may not do well on a test every now and then. But all 580 of you have complete control over how much effort you put into a class.

It’s not hard for teachers to determine if you’re trying or not. It begins with homework. I know there are other schools and school systems that have given up on the idea of requiring homework, but we haven’t. That’s YOUR commitment to your studies, and you’re either doing it or you're not. The second way for a teacher to determine effort is whether or not you’re going to tutorials. If you’re failing a subject because the material is hard, and you’re not coming in to get extra help, you’re not taking the steps you need to get yourself right. The third piece is making up missed work: Have you or haven't you? Those are the questions teachers will be pondering before they do or don’t sign your permission to participate the following week.

So I think it’s important to realize that becoming re-eligible is not a matter of bringing your grade back to passing. You may have had a bad test grade and getting your grade back up isn’t something you can do in one week. It’s not about getting your grade restored, but your effort restored. If you really care about the activity you’ve been sidelined from, you have the ability to get yourself right back within the week by working hard in those classes. We believe if the effort is right, the grade will usually take care of itself.

As I look over the academic probation list, I have an observation. At the end of the first quarter, we had the best set of grades and fewest failures in the history of JPII. Unfortunately, as a result, some of you decided to give yourself a vacation during the first four weeks of this quarter, as if you can't tolerate prosperity. I hope you're back from vacation! If you’re a hockey player, the team needs you back. If you’re a choral student, the Christmas concert is just around the corner and they need you. If you play basketball, this could be a special season if you keep up with your studies. Do what you need to do. Don’t let your team, your coach, or your advisor down.

Get the balance right and enjoy all the good things JPII has to offer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Elevating Spirits, Nourishing Souls

Many of you remember my son Aaron, who graduated from JPII in the class of 2010 and is a current sophomore at Notre Dame. You may also remember me telling a brief story about him when he was a young boy. From the time he was a toddler, he started banging on pots and pans in rhythm to music. I think the first time we realized he had talent was when he was nine, after he executed a drum roll using two forks on a frying pan. So for his tenth birthday, we purchased him a Tama drum set. When he saw the set, he said something that I thought was unusual for a ten year old. Not “thanks Mom and Dad.” Not “Wow! That’s really cool!’ He said instead, with complete joy on his face, “I’m free! I’m free!”

I was reminded of that story as I watched the actors and actresses perform in our school play “Harvey” yesterday. The play was excellent, and I really enjoyed it. But if you really watched the students perform, it was obvious that they really enjoyed it, too. There was joy on their faces, as if performing in the character of someone else, getting out of their own skin and becoming someone else, is, in fact, liberating. And I saw that same joy in those of you who performed in what was a very touching Veteran’s Day concert last week, and as I watched some of you draw striking facial images on the large cardboard posters last week in the back hallway. And if you watch our best singers perform in concert, they almost can’t help smiling as they sing.

“Where words fail,” someone once said, “art often speaks, elevating the human spirit and nourishing the soul. “ That’s why I believe the arts are so important to JPII, so important to our life and identity here. We are a very unusual school in that all students are required to take three years of the arts here—most schools require just one—but because of that, your teachers are able to go much deeper than what too often amounts to “arts and crafts” at other schools. I was reminded of that when I walked into Mrs. Deal’s class last week and they were critiquing a photograph in terms of context and texture: the quality and depth of the students’ comments were impressive.

According to a study published by Dr. James Catterall, a professor from the University of California (cf. “Arts Education Partnership”) the study of the arts has very positive effects in advancing goals in other classes. Drama, for example, helps students understand social relationships and emotions and improves concentrated thought and comprehension. Music improves math achievement and proficiency, reading and cognitive development, and has even been shown to boost ACT or SAT verbal scores. The visual arts improves content and the organization of writing, improves reading skills and interpretation of text, and reasoning about scientific images. All these facts are just more reasons why it’s so short-sighted and sad when other school systems regard the arts as the first thing to cut in the curriculum when they need to save money.

Last year, our Board of Trustees published a five year strategic plan for JPII, called Vision 2016. Included in that plan were two major capital initiatives: upgrading our athletic fields and facilities and the creation of a the fine arts center. With the generous gift from Mr. Carell, we are just about finished with the athletic facilities—they laid down the sod Friday on the lower stadium and are putting rubber on the track this week. We now turn our attention to the fine arts center. The truth is, our fine arts program has been much more successful than even our founders, who were very pro-arts, dreamed. Not only do we have all students taking art for three years, many of you take a 4th year of art as an elective, and some of you take 5 or 6 classes by the time you graduate. We’re out of space!

I already have architectural drawings for the new center which include almost double the space for our 3D program, a digital computer lab adjacent to our Photography classroom, a huge 2D art room with large windows and natural light and an adjacent critique room (that gets Mr. King out of his glorified closet), a big, wide hallway with a skylight overhead that includes recessed walls to display student art, a multi-purpose room for one act plays and mini-concerts, a much larger choral room with elevated ceilings, plus additional practice rooms to support our choral and band programs, and bathrooms. It’s very exciting. The architect estimates the expansion will cost in the neighborhood of 3,000,000, and to do that, we’re going to need a lead gift of a little more than half of that before we can go out and raise the additional monies to make it happen.

How soon? That will depend on the generosity of someone capable of making such a lead gift. Pray with me that someone may be moved to help us. We’ve accomplished a lot in ten years, and all of us have reason to be proud of our school and its many programs. This would be the next big step for us.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Right Way

We find ourselves at the end of the fall athletic season and the beginning of the winter season. I had the opportunity on Friday night to talk briefly with the football team after the game, because I think despite their won-loss record, they’ve really represented our school with dignity and class, and they competed with pride in their team and school from the beginning to the end.

As you know, we’re celebrating our tenth year as a school this year. High school athletics has changed a great deal in those ten years, and not for the better.

• Those of you who are athletes—in any sport—know that it’s a now year round commitment: In addition to weight-lifting, you’re supposed to be playing club ball in the off season, and in some cases, even play club ball during the high school season. Too many give lip service to the idea of “student-athlete” but then expect you to play on two different teams simultaneously, with a demanding practice schedule and travel tournaments every weekend, and expect you to perform at your best in the classroom. Something's got to give; there's only so much of you that can go around.

• Too many of you are also under pressure to “specialize” in one sport by your club coaches, who are telling you it’s the only way to get a scholarship, but the cost is you don’t have a chance to join other clubs and participate in other extra-curriculars at the school, much less represent your school on other athletic teams. And no matter how much you love a sport, if that’s all you’re doing year round, year in and year out, it gets boring at best and stifling at worst. I heard a comedian once say: “My wife was in labor for 30 hours before the birth of our first baby. I don’t even want to do something that feels GOOD for that long!” But some adults expect you to start playing year round ball when you’re 8 or 9, and find it mystifying when you’re ready to quit and do something else when you’re 16 or 17.

• Schools, too, are to blame. Too many are importing athletes, giving them what can only be described as “pay for play” scholarships, simply for the purpose of winning. When we were interviewing candidates for athletic director last year, I asked each candidate what steps he would recommend to improve our athletic program. One candidate said simply: “Give out more athletic scholarships, lower your academic standards, and hire tutors to help the athletes you bring in. “ I appreciate this coach’s candor—we often try to politely avoid being so blunt—but that’s exactly the formula some of our competitors have adopted. And to what end? So that we can feel good about having the best team money can buy? Is that really going to make us proud?

That's not who we are.

I am as competitive as any person in this school, but if we sell our soul for the purpose of winning we have betrayed our school’s mission and the higher purpose of high school athletics. Instead, we will continue to build our program the right way:

• We will continue to seek students who are committed first to receiving a first tier education in addition to the opportunity to play for their school and seek out families who support that goal. That will always be an important priority. If you’re only interested in coming to JPII for a sport, you won’t make it through the academic program. We are committed to the Renaissance ideal here, where you develop the whole person: your minds, your artistic abilities, your faith and your athletic talents.

• We will continue to hire excellent coaches who are similarly committed to the school’s mission, who care about you and your development as young men and women as their highest priority. Our coaches are quite good—show me better lacrosse coaches, for example, or a better weightlifting coach, or a more credentialed high school football coach, or more successful soccer and cheerleading coaches. I don’t think there are any, and I only mention those few to make the point.

• Yes, we will continue to accept with gratitude gifts from donors such as Mr. Carell, who has now allowed us to have one of the nicest facilities in all of middle Tennessee.

• Coach Zazzaro, your coaches and I will lobby the TSSAA for more control over our schedule, so that we have more flexibility to schedule teams who share our philosophy concerning high school athletics, rather than be forced to play too many games with those who do not. We will do our best to encourage reforms within high school athletics that discourages importing of athletes for pay. We will continue to give financial aid to the best of our ability to ALL families who need it, whether or not their children are athletic, because that’s who we are and what we believe.

• And we will continue to celebrate the successes of the MANY athletic teams who win the right way here. Let us not forget, we are the reigning state champions in lacrosse. We are perennial contenders for the state title in hockey. Our soccer teams, boys and girls, typically go deep into the playoffs each year. Our baseball team has been to the play-offs for two years now. Our swim team dominates Sumner County and has individual athletes who are tops in the state. Our golf team has been to state for consecutive years. Our bowling team has won a state championship. Our women’s basketball program is very competitive.

All of us, whether we’re “in” to athletics or not, should be proud of our players, our coaches and teams. Similarly, all of us, whether we’re “in” to the arts or not, should be proud of the quality of our choral, theater, visual arts and instrumental program. We should be proud of our math and science teams, our Model UN teams, our Youth in Government teams, our Forensic team—any group that represents us against other schools. We are proud of the accomplishments of our students and our classmates where-ever and however they shine.

JPII is an excellent school. We are the Knights. I am proud to be your principal.