Sunday, December 02, 2012

A Life Worth Living

Fr. Hunt told us an interesting story a few weeks ago. If you recall, it was about the New York Rangers, who won the Stanley Cup, the hockey championship, for the first time in 1994 (and the last time). All of New York was jubilant, with parades and celebration in the streets. A reporter asked the head coach why winning the Stanley Cup was so important to his players and the people of New York. His answer was very simple: “Because it’s hard.” 

I think athletes understand that comment: The great value of winning the trophy as the best isn’t the value of the trophy itself—it’s the hard work that went into it, the many practices, the off-season conditioning, the summer work-outs, the wind-sprints and the weight-lifting. Becoming the best isn’t easy, but it’s precisely because it’s hard that we value it. If it were easy, who really cares?

Pope Benedict, speaking to students your age recently, said something very powerful along these lines:

“The world,” he told youth, “promises you comfort. But you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness."

The truth is that deep down, whether we are brave enough to admit it or not, we all have a desire to be great—to somehow use our life to make a difference in the world, and not just “get by”. That desire is not meant to go unanswered. God wants us to strive for more than pleasure, more than what is expedient, more than what is attractive or easy at the moment. We sell ourselves short, and sell God’s dreams for us short, by aiming for an easy life. God has higher aspirations for us! 

There are certain times when it’s fun to be a student here, and other times when it’s not.  When you’re struggling academically and you’re looking down the barrel of eight exams, it’s easy for our confidence to be shaken, and easy to begin dreaming of an easier life somewhere else. Yes, you may have some friends in other schools who seem to be working less hard and making better grades. The “grass is always greener in someone else’s pasture” temptation is powerful during moments of stress or suffering.

Stay the course.  Finish strong—you’re rounding the last lap and the end is in sight. Rely on your teachers by seeking them out and asking for help. Rely on each other. Rely on God through prayer to help you work hard these last few weeks.

In May—just a few months from now for you seniors, just a few years for the rest of you—someone will call your name, you will walk across a stage, and the bishop will hand you a diploma. You will be extraordinarily proud, not because of the piece of paper, but what that paper represents, that you’ve pushed yourself through the tough times, that you’ve really earned something that was hard. 

Have the courage to strive for greatness in your life—it’s the only life worth living.

May God bless you in your upcoming exams and may He bless you and your family during this season of Christmas. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Notre Dame: Number One Times Two

Allow me to brag a bit on my alma mater. 

As I write this, the University of Notre Dame's football team is currently ranked #1 in BCS standings and will play for the national championship. For Notre Dame fans, that's a big deal, but for everyone else, so what? Teams play for a national championship every year.

Here's the kicker:  Notre Dame also has the highest graduation rates of any Division I football team in the country (cf here).

It's the first time a team has ever been ranked #1 in both football and graduation rates. In a season rocked by scandals at Penn State, Ohio State and Miami, that's something that all college football fans should applaud, whether you're an N.D. fan or not.

Here's a video that explains how Notre Dame does it:

Many of us tend to think of academic and athletic excellence as "either-or," as if, in our heads, there's a math formula that says "athletic excellence + academic excellence must equal a constant," so that if a school's athletic program is getting better, it must be because the academic program is getting worse, or vice-versa.

Institutions such as Notre Dame prove it's possible to strive for excellence in both without compromising the other.

Go Irish!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Difference Maker

Dr. Bill Gavigan and his daughter, Jeannie, with Mr. Weber at halftime.

In this, the beginning of our second decade as a school, we continue to recognize particular people who have made a profound impact on the life and culture of Pope John Paul II High School from our first ten years. At halftime of the football game on October 12, 2012, we gave honor to Mrs. Mollie Gavigan, founder of JPII's Hand in Hand program. The text of Mr. Weber's remarks follow: 

Tonight we give special honor to a woman who is the founder of our “Hand in Hand” program here at JPII. Hand in Hand is a program for students with intellectual disabilities—and it’s a program we are very proud of. Students in our Hand in Hand Program are paired with a learning specialist, Adrienne Parks, and receive intensive educational instruction and support, even while they grow intellectually, spiritually, and morally as part of our school community.  The program has been so successful that it’s been used as a model by other Catholic schools all around the country.

I can’t adequately communicate, as headmaster of the school, how special this program is to the life of our school, and how wonderful the kids who are part of it.   They are generous, kind, and fun loving—and they bring out the best in all of us.

However, Hand in Hand would not exist here were it not for Mrs. Mollie Gavigan.  Molly and Bill are parents of Jeannie, a young lady with downs syndrome, and there were simply no options that could meet their daughter’s needs in our Catholic school system here in Nashville.

So in the summer of 2004, Mollie met in the office of my predecessor, Hans Broekman, to make the case that JPII should start a program for kids with special needs. We spoke recently with Hans, who remembers that meeting very well. Mollie’s message was simple: “The Church is willing to give my daughter the sacraments, but it isn't willing to give her an education. I’ve tried everywhere.” Hans said he tried to put her off and delay, saying the school was still brand new and growing, and it just wasn’t a good time. “Yes,” Mollie shot back, “When I found out that Jeannie had downs syndrome, I also thought “now is not a good time.”  Hans said at that moment, he was convicted, recalling, “I felt, as one does from time to time, the strong presence of the Holy Spirit in my office.”  So he proposed the program to the Board, and they approved it unanimously. 

Mrs. Gavigan, however, did more than begin a program: Realizing that the cost of such a program was far beyond what tuition covers, she committed to spearheading the additional fund-raising necessary to  defray the school’s cost. HH began in 2004 and has been part of our school ever since.  As a result of her efforts, her daughter and six others are now proud alumni of JPII-- and we, likewise, are proud of them.

We regret that Mollie Gavigan died in November of 2006 of breast cancer, so she could not be here tonight to accept this award personally. Standing in to receive this honor in her name are her daughter, Jeannie, a 2008 alum of JPII, her son, Bill, and his two children, and her husband, Dr. Bill Gavigan.  Please join me in thanking them warmly for the contribution of their mother, grandmother and spouse.  

Outward, Not Inward

This is Mr. Weber's talk to students on October 22, 2012.      
There’s a famous story about a corporation in Dallas that spent several 100 million dollars building a new corporate headquarters—a 50 story building featuring all the amenities. Besides giving their employees more room, the leaders of the corporation hoped that moving into this new building would improve corporate morale. However, when the big day came for the employees to move in, they realized they had made a terrible mistake. Apparently, the elevator system they installed was too slow, such that all their employees began to complain. It got to the point after several weeks that the leadership began to think the new building was actually hurting morale, and were on the verge of ripping out the brand new elevator system to put in a faster one, which would have cost the company over 10 million dollars.

But before they made that decision, they decided to hire an industrial psychologist to study the problem. The psychologist came to the new building, rode up and down the elevators with employees several times, walked into corporate headquarters and made a suggestion that would only cost the company about $1,000. The company took his advice and from the moment they did, complaining almost completely stopped. The original elevator system is still in use today.

Q. What did the expert suggest?

A. Install mirrors inside the elevators. Once the mirrors were installed, the employees spent so much time primping and inspecting themselves, they forgot all about the slow elevators.

That’s a true story, but there is a kind of parable-like quality to it in terms of what it says about us. It is reminiscent, I believe, of the story of Narcissus from Greek and Roman mythology. You remember the story. Narcissus (Nar-SIS-us) became thirsty and went to drink from a stream. When he saw his reflection in the water, he fell in love with it, not knowing that it was himself. As he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to "run away" and he was heart broken. He grew thirstier but he wouldn't touch the water for fear of damaging his reflection, so he eventually died of thirst and self love, staring at his own reflection.

There is within us, I think, a certain amount “narcissism” –vanity and self-centeredness--that makes us unaware of our surroundings, and certainly unaware of the needs and struggle of others. The “mirror” becomes a kind of symbol of that, and perhaps even a symbol of our society today. We don’t need more mirrors. Instead, we need windows that help us look outward and not inward

That's why I am pleased to announce that JPII has formalized an arrangement with a Catholic school in France for an exchange program with us, our third exchange program (the others are Loughlin in England and the German exchange with a Muenster Catholic school). Madame Taylor and Mrs. Phillips spent Fall break with the leaders of this school in France to talk through how the program would work and recommended to me that we go forward, and I am delighted to endorse that recommendation. There's no better way to look outward than to immerse ourselves in a foreign culture for 2-3 weeks--so especially if you're taking French here, I hope you will look into that program. 

But there are other ways to look outward as well. Our Christian service program places us in situations that may be a little uncomfortable to us, but that's a good thing, in that it helps us understand people with less advantages than we have. I like the fact that there's a good mix of faiths in this school--the interplay between Catholics and non-Catholics is something that helps us re-examine our assumptions. The word "respect" means literally to "look at a second time."  I like that this student body comes from 21 cities or towns, ten different zip codes, and two different states. Contrary to the way many think, our differences should not lead to intolerance, but to respect, as we are able to re-examine our beliefs a second time while considering the beliefs of others. 

So let's try to build more windows in our life and less mirrors. Let us live life with our eyes wide open, able to see others' needs, willing to immerse ourselves in unfamiliar settings, willing to challenge our perspectives and get ourselves outside of our comfort zone. Aside from the fact we all need a little stretching, it makes for a more interesting, exciting life. 

Monday, October 08, 2012

Music: The Universal Language

Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He gives one of the finest talks I have ever heard.  Enough said. Enjoy it! 

Sunday, September 30, 2012


This is Mr. Weber's talk to students on October 1, 2012.

We all want it. We don’t get enough of it. We are less without it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to students in Dr. Noah’s class make a presentation on why school should begin later—the arguments, incidentally, were very compelling—but at least three presentations made the point that students don’t get enough sleep at JPII partly because they regard sleep as a luxury—that if they’re getting more than 5-6 hours on a weeknight, they feel guilty about it, as if they were wasting time, or being lazy. (The science, by the way, says teenagers should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep each night. I’d wager a bet that almost NONE of you come close to that.)

Part of the problem is we’re all too busy. The forty-hour work week is no more; the average American works 46 hours/week, almost the equivalent of an extra day, and almost 40% of America works in excess of fifty hours on average. But it’s more than that. The promise of technology was to make our lives simpler and more efficient, but it’s also made us slaves to the present. It’s hard to have a five-minute, uninterrupted conversation with someone without that conversation being interrupted by a text message or phone call. We’re annoyed if we don’t get back text messages back within a few seconds of sending it. The modern day problem of texting and driving is just an extension of the same thing: it’s as if we’re wasting time in the car, merely driving somewhere, when we could be multi-tasking.

I feel badly for those of you who are dating: It used to be that if your boyfriend or girlfriend called on your home phone or dorm phone and you suspected it was him or her and didn’t feel like talking, you just didn’t answer it, pretending you weren’t there. Occasional distance is sometimes good for relationships. But with cell phones or texting, if you don’t answer, he or she knows you’re just ignoring the call. So you’re always “on call. “

None of this is healthy, really. Dr. Noah will tell you it’s not just that we all go to bed too late. It’s that we sleep with our cell phones on, that before we’ve gone to bed we’ve likely spent hours in front of computer screens, and that the light from those screens resets our body clocks so that even when we lay down to rest we lay there wired up, unable to fall asleep quickly. The quality of our sleep has diminished in this country, which is why sleep doctors like Dr. Noah have such successful practices.

Experts say we can do some practical things to improve both the quality and quantity of our sleep, and I pass these on to you:
  • First, about an hour before going to bed, we should stay away from computers, cell phones, and all other forms of “blue light” that prevents our bodies from secreting melatonin, the sleep hormone.  Experts suggest reading a book instead.
  • Second, we should sleep in bedrooms that are pitch black. Our bodies respond to light, and light prolongs our natural drowsiness.
  • Third, cut down on coffee and the so called "power drinks", especially in the afternoon or later.  Marketers are clever to call these “energy” drinks, as if they give us some sort of secret power that will give us the edge up on our competitors. But really, they’re mostly just liquid caffeine and sugar that give us a temporary high before we crash. 
  • Fourth, try to even out the peaks and valleys between weekends and weekdays. The problem with staying up until 3 a.m. and sleeping until 3 p.m. on weekends is that our body clocks reset to these times, making Monday and Tuesday mornings almost useless to us because our bodies are telling us we should be asleep at those times. If you’re an athlete and want to perform at your best for a Monday or Tuesday game, the best thing you can do is try and keep a similar schedule on Saturday and Sunday mornings, waking up at mid-morning, perhaps, but not allowing your clocks to reset entirely.
  • Fifth, we should spend time outdoors each day, preferably getting some exercise. If you’re a member of the cross-country team, you’re set. But a lot of us spend the entirety of our lives indoors, walking back and forth to the car at most. Our bodies need the natural light to regulate our sleep cycles.
  • Finally—and I know how hard this is—we should simply make ourselves go to bed earlier. When I went to college, I used to pull all-nighters before big tests, but after a year of mediocre performances, I started studying less the night before and going to bed earlier, with better results. The truth is, we’re not studying very efficiently past 11 p.m. anyway—whatever we may gain after midnight probably doesn’t make up for what we will lose from our lack of alertness the next morning.  If you want to do well on tests—including the ACT and SAT—give yourself eight hours or so on the TWO nights leading up to that test.

Sleep is NOT a luxury.  It’s how we regenerate. It’s how God made us. There's nothing better than putting our head down at night on a soft, fluffy pillow and allowing ourselves to slowly drift away. Why we fight bringing ourselves to that point, I don't know. But let's fight it less! 

This We Believe: Pope John Paul II High School

We hold these truths to be self-evident—that all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that governments are instituted among men to protect these rights and derive these powers from the consent of the governed.
All successful organizations begin with founding principles—with unshakeable, unalterable truths that give it vision and life.

In simplest terms—here are the truths we seek to uphold at JPII:
  • We believe students are children of God, and this fills us with optimism about what they are capable of achieving and the kind of people they are capable of becoming.
  • We believe that young people flourish when they are encouraged to explore the full breadth of possibilities for their lives: intellectually, spiritually, artistically, and athletically. In this belief, we take inspiration from our namesake, John Paul II, who was a scholar, poet, linguist, outdoorsman, playwright, actor and writer. We hope that this renaissance vision will inspire students to seek full lives, marked by curiosity, a love of learning, and a willingness to try new things.
  • We believe that the goal of education is not inward but outward, aimed at building a more just world, redeemed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The imperative of our faith is to love and to serve others. Though our test scores are excellent, the measure of our school’s success isn’t a test score or A.P. result, but whether our students leave JPII predisposed to make a positive difference in their families, churches and communities. 
The Declaration of Independence concludes with these stirring words: "And for the support of this Declaration, with firm reliance on Divine Providence for protection, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
With firm reliance on Divine Providence, may we, too, honor the principles we seek to uphold. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Referees--Who Needs Them?

This is Mr. Weber's talk to students on Tuesday, September 25, 2012.

I don’t know if you’ve been following the controversy in the National Football League: The NFL referees are on strike, so they’ve imported “replacement referees” for the first three weeks of the season.  These are referees who come from much lesser leagues—lower than DI in college—and the speed and complexity of the NFL game is really beyond many of them. Each week, their refereeing seems to get worse and worse and people get angrier and angrier. Just ask a Packer's fan. 

In last night's game between Seattle and Green Bay,  Golden Tate, JPII class of 2007, went up for a jump ball with a Green Bay defender and the two of them landed in the end zone as time expired.  It appeared initially that the Green Bay defender had control of the ball for an interception, but the refs ruled simultaneous possession--touchdown Golden Tate, giving Seattle a 14-12 victory. It was an amazing play by Golden, but it was a controversial ruling. If you watch ESPN these next couple of days, you’ll see that play over and over again as pundits talk about how the NFL brand is being ruined by referees who aren’t up to par.  And because no one trusts the refs, almost every decision is mistrusted, every close call is challenged, everything is going to instant replay, slowing down the game. It’s a little hard to watch, really. One of the announcers, John Gruden, said that the game "left a bad taste in his mouth.”

There’s a parable in all this, I think. We need rules. We need someone to delineate “right” or “wrong,” and to speak plainly and confidently about those things.  As Americans, we tend to recoil against people telling us things are right or wrong, because we want to be "free". “Who are you to tell me—mind your own business!” is our kind of knee jerk reaction. But it turns out that when we reject rules, or when there is no one to adequately articulate them, or when we don't respect the people making them, the whole thing turns into a horrible mess.

A simple thought experiment:  If there were no traffic lights, no stop signs, no “rules of the road,” if it were every man for himself, would it take us shorter or longer to get where we're going?

Much slower, I think, because at every intersection, we’d have to negotiate with the other driver which of us had right of way. The fact that we have a mutual consensus that a green light means go allows us to confidently pass through without slowing down. By agreeing to rules, we are MORE free as drivers to get where we are going.

Just like the NFL, we need good referees.  We need institutions like the Church to articulate right from wrong. We need governments to establish principled positions and enforce laws consistently. If every decision, every action is subject to debate, life becomes intolerably contentious. We need God’s law to govern us, as seen through natural law and divine revelation. When we follow those laws, we are freer to be ourselves, more secure in our relationships with others, able to live fuller, happier lives. 

A wise rabbi once said: "Keep the commandments, and they will keep you.” 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Moor the Vessel with Silken Thread

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with silken thread; 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 smart is not the same thing as being good, and being well educated doesn't make us virtuous. It may even make us more prideful and devious, or as C.S. Lewis says, "a more clever devil." Newman is challenging here the enlightenment assumption that knowing the good leads to doing the good.

That assumption is still very prevalent in our culture today. I see it when someone tells me after our kids do something wrong: "I thought a Catholic school taught kids better than that." We see it underlying the belief that "ethics" courses in M.B.A. programs will lead to more ethical business practices. Young parents naively believe that "talking to" their naughty child, without further consequence, will change their child's behavior the next time.

Christianity challenges that naivete through its understanding of human sinfulness. St. Paul talks about it in in very poignant terms: "For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate." (Romans 7:15). We may know right from wrong, but in weak moments, we choose what is wrong because it's easier, more attractive or simply more fun.

In Christian thinking, we become good through conversion, aided by the grace of Christ. That conversion is not instantaneous, but is rather a lifetime process of stumbling, seeking forgiveness, and getting up again. Saints become saints through years of building good habits, punctuated by numerous failures along the way.

There's nothing wrong with being well educated, and John Henry Newman was both brilliant and well-educated. But he reminds us, in this beautifully phrased quote, that knowledge alone can't contend with our pride and passion. We need grace for that. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Our faith, our liberty

This is Mr. Weber's talk to the students about JPII's decision to join the lawsuit with the Diocese of Nashville against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

On Wednesday of last week, Pope John Paul II High School joined with the Diocese of Nashville and six other diocesan entities in a federal lawsuit to block implementation of certain aspects of the Affordable Health Care Act that force us to pay for morally objectionable services as part of our health insurance plan.  We are one of the now 50+ organizations around the country who have filed a similar lawsuit.

It’s pretty unusual to levy a suit against one’s own government, and I think it’s important for all of us to fully understand why the Board of Trustees of JPII thought this necessary.

In the spring of 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services instituted a rule that requires almost all private health plans nationwide to provide contraception and sterilization coverage as part of their benefits to employees, including some types of contraception that are more accurately labeled “abortifacients” because they cause a “miscarriage” of the fertilized egg rather than prevent fertilization to begin with. 

The rule makes an exception for “religious employers”, but then defines that very narrowly, as institutions that “primarily employ” and “primarily serve” those who “share their religious tenets.” Under this definition, if groups feed the poor or serve the sick or educate students from other faiths, the exception doesn’t apply and those organizations must comply with the rule.

Obviously, the gospel doesn’t make that kind of distinction, nor do the many religious charities that serve the needs of others. Emergency rooms in Catholic hospitals don’t turn away gunshot victims if they’re not Catholic, Baptist soup kitchens don’t deny food to non-Baptists, nor do international charities require proof of a particular faith before feeding starving people in third world countries.  Jesus didn’t just say “love God with our whole hearts and minds,” but also “love your neighbor as yourself.” Our churches are not merely houses of worship, but are also places that serve those in need, wherever that need exists, and whoever has that need. The mission of our Churches is outward, not inward. 

It’s pretty clear that JPII won’t qualify for the exception, either.  Forty-five percent of you aren’t Catholic, and we’re proud of our association with you and your families.  Not all of our teachers are Catholic, but they serve our school’s mission in a remarkable, powerful way. All of us are leaving school on Wednesday to serve the needs of the community as part of our Day of Service, and the faith of the people we serve doesn’t matter, nor should it. Our Christian Service Internships are with organizations that serve mostly non-Catholic populations.

The Catholic Church has long held that contraception is against the natural law because it intentionally blocks the natural end of sex, which is procreation. Sterilization does the same thing, permanently.  Abortion, of course, is a grave violation of the dignity of human life. So the specific issue is whether JPII or any other organization that opposes contraception or sterilization should be forced to pay for those things or provide them to its employees. We don’t think so.

But there’s a broader question, and I would argue this question is even more significant.  There are many people of good will, both within the Catholic Church specifically and within the Christian faith more generally, who disagree with the Church’s teaching on contraception. That disagreement is like a squabble among family members—an argument between a father and son. Christians may disagree with each other from time to time on matters of faith and morals, but it is not the right or role of government to decide. When the government presumes that right and compels the church to behave a certain way, the issue is no longer about contraception; it’s about the first amendment and the free exercise of religion. 

In the words of Helen Alvare, a professor of law at George Mason University:

“The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, which includes religious institutions being allowed to operate with complete integrity. That integrity includes the right to offer health benefits consistent with their origins, their mission statements and the teaching of their Church.”

"So it's not really about the 'Pill.' It’s about the 'Bill' (of Rights)", says Peter Feuerherd. It’s about religious liberty. And that’s why this issue is much bigger than JPII, or this diocese, or even the Catholic Church. That’s why many religious organizations that don’t even share Catholic views on contraception have testified before Congress against this rule, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Evangelicals for Social Action, and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. That’s why civil libertarians, some of whom avow no religious affiliation at all, support the Catholic Church in its fight against this ruling.

Religious freedom is cherished principle in this country, a founding principle.  Because our government has always respected this principle, our churches have thrived here and have become powerful forces for good. We’ve built hospitals. We’ve educated generations through our schools, including millions of the inner-city poor. We’ve fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and ministered to the sick and dying.

By denying churches their religious freedom precisely because their religiously motivated purpose compels them to serve the common good of society, our government punishes what it should encourage. We think that's bad public policy. 

We also believe the government's underlying message to people of faith--that  faith should be understood as a private matter, something we should do within our churches, without an outward mission to others, OR ELSE be subject to this law --is simply wrong.  It's not who we are. It's not what Jesus commanded us to be. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Labor Day Message

This is Mr. Weber's talk to students on September 4, 2012, the day after Labor Day. 

As you know we celebrated Labor Day yesterday, a chance for all of us to take an extra day off. It used to be that schools began for the year after Labor Day, but they also didn’t have Fall Breaks, and the school year ended in June.  We, on the other hand, begin our fifth week of school this week and mid-quarter grades are determined on Wednesday. Hard to believe we’re already at the mid-quarter mark!

If your grades aren’t what you want them to be, it’s time to take a deep breath and examine why.

For some of you, JPII is difficult, and even if you work hard, you’re going to struggle in some classes here. I have great respect for those of you in that boat—so do your teachers--and the truth is, your drive and determination will turn out to be something that will make you very successful in life, even if your grades are not always what you want them to be.  

For the rest of you, it’s time to take inventory. Here are three practical questions:

1) Are you doing your homework and turning it in every day? I did a quick survey of grades last night: two out of every three of you who have failing grades have missing assignments, which our grade book program averages as a zero. It’s hard to overstate how crushing a missing assignment is to your mathematical grade point average. Let’s say you’re tearing up a class and make a 5/5 on the first homework assignment, 5/5 on the second, 5/5 on the third. Your current GPA is a 100%, or A+. But then you decide to give yourself a night off, and you don’t turn in the fourth assignment. What’s you’re grade now? It’s 15/20, or 75%, or a C. You go from A+ to a C just for taking one night off. And if your grades weren’t perfect before you skipped the assignment, the results are even worse.  So, if any of you have missing assignments, my advice to you is to go see if your teacher will allow you to turn in missing work for a late grade, even if there is some late penalty. If, in my example, a teacher allowed you to turn in that fourth assignment late and only gave you half credit, your overall grade would be 17.5/20, or 88%, a B+. Some teachers may not allow you to do this—as is their right. But for the ones that do, you’d be foolish not to take them up on it. Go see them this week and see if it’s possible.

2) How’s your attendance? At JPII, we have three periods a week for each of your classes, compared to five periods a week in most schools. This means if you miss class in a traditional school, you’re missing 20%, or one fifth, of the classroom content for that week. But at JPII, you’re missing 33% of the class, or one-third. But it’s worse than that: As you know, our classes here don’t slavishly follow a textbook, as if you could make up the missed class by reading pages X to Y in a textbook. Rather, classes here are marked by discussion, questioning, debating, and group interactions with your teacher and your classmates. If you're in class and active in those discussions, that cannot be duplicated by copying someone’s notes or reading a textbook. These facts are borne out by another quick look at Veracross: I took the top ten of you with the worst attendance at JPII so far this year and averaged your GPA to date: The ten of you have a GPA of just over 2.0, compared to a school wide GPA of 3.4—almost a point and a half less!

We do understand when you’re sick—there’s nothing you can do about that  except do your best to catch up. But when you leave school early for a trip, or come late to school because you just didn’t wake up on time, or check out of school because you’re simply tired, you’re really hurting yourself. 

3) Are you getting the extra help you need? I think some of you look at tutorials as a punishment. You think: “I’ve been in school all day, and I am not about to go see a teacher on my own time.” Or maybe you say to yourself:  “I’ll figure it out at home.”  But here’s what happens: Many times, you go home and waste hours trying to figure something out when if you asked your teacher, her or she could show you how to do it in ten minutes. Ask your teachers! Seek out their help! They want to help you, but they’re going to respect your freedom, and if you’re not asking them, they’re not going to force themselves on you. I can’t track this stat on Veracross, because we don’t record every time a kid attends tutorial, but I suspect this is true: if a student is faithful in going to tutorials, he or she generally does well here. They’re getting the help they need. It’s that simple.

So doing your homework, attending and paying attention in class, and seeking extra help when you need it are the three keys to success here.  Do you know what all three of those things have in common? With the exception of when you’re truly sick and unable to come to school, all three of those things are a function of work ethic—NOT ability. You can decide to do your homework-that’s a decision, an act of will. You can decide to tough it out and attend school if you’re merely tired or not 100%--assuming you’re not truly sick—that’s called gutting it out. You can decide to ask for help.

And that’s good news—really, it is! It means that YOU have control of how you do here. YOU have control of what you become.  If doing well here was purely a function of genetics—how smart you were—then how far you could go would be predestined by biology, how God made you.  We’d all be doomed to say at that level for the rest of our lives. But the core message of the holiday we just celebrated—Labor Day—is that we don’t believe that biology is destiny as Americans. We believe that the American dream is possible for all of us, as long as we have the guts and the drive and the courage to labor for it.

May we all have the guts and determination to achieve our dreams!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Jane Everest--One of a Kind

I was asked to speak at the funeral of a revered English teacher at my alma mater in Mobile, Al. This is the text of my remarks. 

I graduated from McGill-Toolen in 1980, and Jane Everest taught me as a junior in American Studies English.  Frankly, most of high school is a blur in my memory—a collection of indistinct impressions and sentiments. It says something about the impact that Jane had on my life that I remember her so vividly.

Many of you know that I am now a Catholic high school principal and have been so for 24 years. I’ve interviewed and hired a lot of high school teachers. In terms of the classroom, I look for two qualities:

First—a deep knowledge and dexterity with the subject matter. A teacher can’t fake that, and smart kids, especially, will dismiss a teacher as irrelevant if he or she doesn’t have the tools.

Second—a hard to define “with-it-ness”: a presence, a person who is on the ball, but also a person with a certain quirkiness that can keep kids’ attention. We forget that students spend all day in desks in consecutive classes, and if the teacher doesn’t stand out or sport some eccentricity, students slumber through his or her class.

Jane had both qualities, in abundance.  In terms of the second, she was wonderfully absent-minded, and even used it as her shtick to keep us amused and interested. One afternoon, I remember that she was sitting in front of her desk and talking with us, and started to fiddle with a stapler as she talked. Suddenly she shrieked: “Agghh! I’ve stapled myself!” She came running over to me in the front row. I looked at it. It wasn’t a nick—the staple was deeply embedded in the palm of her hand. “Pull it out,” she said to me, “I can’t watch.” I did so, somewhat horrified.  The reaction of the class went from deep concern (for about 5 seconds) to secret hope that we might get an extra 15 minutes of free time while our teacher sought first aid in the office. Didn’t happen—undeterred, Jane went right on teaching!

In the late 1970’s, we didn’t have cell phones, so there was no such thing as text-messaging, and therefore no problems with texting and driving. But Jane was a fore-runner to that problem. After school one day, I was driving somewhere and she was in the car ahead of me.  She was reading a BOOK while she was driving the car. That’s an enduring image I have of her: she always had a book in her hand. As a student, I figured she was reading a book and was at the good part, and oh, bother, she had to go home, so she just kept right on reading.

She had a peculiar wit. She asked her students to lead the prayer before each class, and being unimaginative and ill-prepared, we often defaulted back to the same prayer: “Lord, please help Friday get here quickly.” After hearing this prayer for the tenth or so time, Jane looked at us and said “I am concerned. You guys are simply praying your life away.” That comment stuck with me, and I smile about it even now.

But Jane was also the real deal in the classroom—tough, uncompromising, with high expectations. Having been one, having raised three, and now principal of about 300 of them, I can say with authority that teenage boys are know-it-alls. Mark Twain once wrote that when he was 16, his parents were the stupidest people in all the world. When he turned 21, he was amazed at how much they had learned in five years. So when my friends and I arrived that first day in Jane’s English class, we had the attitude of “It’s ENGLISH. What could we possibly learn here?”

Jane’s unequivocal answer: PLENTY.  Really, her class was the first class that truly challenged us.  I don’t remember the grade on my first essay—it was less than I was used to—but I do remember very clearly this zinger she wrote at the top of my paper: “Faustin, you write beautifully, but you have nothing to say. “ Appropriately enough, the first two years of high school focused on the “How” of writing—the structure of the essay, the grammar, the organization. But Jane wanted to know the “What.” What’s the argument? Where’s the evidence? Did you make your case? And if we tried to hide the fact we didn’t really understand a piece of literature in our writing, she called us out.  I have spoken to my three sisters and brother, all of whom had Jane, and to my good friend Vincent Ho, who left McGill, went to Harvard and became a doctor, and we all have the same memory: Jane kicked our rears a bit, and because of that earned our respect even as our writing greatly improved.

One of the great blessings of working in Catholic high schools is that I meet some pretty incredible people, people who sacrifice a life of glamour, or fame, or money in order to help kids.  There’s a pernicious saying out there: “People who can, do. People who can’t teach.” I can’t say strongly enough how dead wrong that saying is. Good teachers can juggle ten things at once, they can hold a room full of teenagers rapt with attention for an hour (if you think that’s easy, you’ve haven’t tried it), they often must deal with the unhappy or unruly student, or console or help re-direct the unhappy parent, monitor the parking lot, create tests, grade papers, enter grades, respond to emails—and the best teachers do all of these things with grace and even joy. People with those skills could make a mint in other jobs if they wanted to.

 The family tells me that Jane taught high school for 28 years. By my estimation, then, she taught well over 3,000 of us before she retired.  When we die, what do we want people to say about us? I don’t want people to say I was rich, or famous, or clever, or cool. I want people to say I made a difference in other people’s lives.

Speaking on behalf of the 3,000 students I have the honor of representing this morning, Jane Everest made a difference in our lives. And for that, we are forever indebted, and forever proud to call her our teacher. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

We are--JPII.

This is the assembly address to students on August 20, 2012.

It’s easy, isn’t it, to point to examples of absurdly bad sportsmanship. We allow our gym to be used for local youth teams on the weekends. Last year, you may recall, during a second grade basketball game, the referee punched one of the coaches during a time out. It made national news—not exactly the kind of story I want linked to our school.  In my hometown in Montgomery, Al, during a high school basketball game, a fight on the court broke into a free for all in the stands, with parents throwing punches, food and anything else they could get their hands on, all the while shouting expletives at each other. That, too, made the national news, and certainly didn’t improve the nation’s opinion of Alabama.  Those of you who are NBA fans may remember the infamous brawl that was dubbed “Malice in the Palace”-- during a game at the Palace of Auburn Hills arena, Ron Artest went after a fan in the bleachers and began beating him, leading to an all out war that resulted in arrests and the suspension of nine NBA players. 

Those examples of poor sportsmanship are pretty clear, easy to label. But there are lesser and more common examples, and as we begin this year and begin cheering for our teams here at JPII, I want to talk about a few of these with you.

Sports ignites our passions. Normal, buttoned up people can become raving lunatics when they’re cheering for their favorite teams or competing on the courts or ball fields. I confess that I am a living example of that. At the age of 32, I was thrown out of church league basketball game for trading elbows with a guy I was clearing out for a rebound. I felt like an idiot as I walked out of the gym—church league! What happened to me?

Competition happened, and I got caught up in it. When we compete against each other, or when we cheer for our team vs. their team, it’s easy to lose our balance, easy to forget that cheering FOR us doesn’t mean we cheer AGAINST them. And that distinction—cheering for us but not against the other—is the essence of good sportsmanship and the distinction I want us to uphold as a Catholic, Christian school here at JPII.

Look, I hope you come to our games en masse and cheer crazily for our teams. I am sure they appreciate the support.  Coach Joslin told you at the pep rally he wanted our student body to be our “12th man” to give us a true home field advantage.  Let’s do that. I support that 100%. But don’t ridicule the other team. Don’t pick out a player on the other side and begin laughing at some peculiar physical feature he possesses as we did at a basketball game last year. Unacceptable-it's not Christian behavior and speaks poorly of us. Blue man group, paint yourselves up, wave flags, pump us up. But handle yourself with class and dignity when you are out in Hendersonville and at local eating establishments—you cannot represent us poorly in public.  Unacceptable. People are more than willing to judge the entire student body of JPII on the basis of a 20-30 second encounter with you, fairly or unfairly, and I want them to know you as I do—smart, talented, caring, fun-loving—not boorish and self-centered.

Authentic cheering doesn’t draw attention to ourselves, but brings attention to the players and the game we’re watching. Authentic cheering builds our teams up, and doesn’t tear the other team down—cheering, but not jeering, yelling but not booing. Real sportsmanship is kind in victory and gracious in defeat.  

At the risk of embarrassing him a little bit, I want to tell you we vetted Coach Joslin pretty well before we offered him the job here. I went back on the internet and read every article I could find about him, what his players said, what other coaches said, what HE said in interviews. I noticed a trend that convinced me he’d be a good fit for us. He was unfailingly positive. Whenever he had the opportunity to say something nice about the team he was playing or the team he just beat, he used it.  I don’t remember the exact words, but to give you a sense of it, if his Cookeville team just hammered somebody, the first thing he’d say in the interview, before he talked about his team, would be something like: “You have to admire those guys—even when they were down, they were still firing off and hitting hard. There’s no quit in them.”

Let’s follow our coach’s lead here. Let’s be the kind of school that is classy in victory, classy in defeat, that builds up our team without putting the other team down.

We are JPII. Go Knights!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Beyond Ourselves

It was June in Mobile, Al in 1974—I had just turned 12 and had finished sixth grade--when my father yelled upstairs for my three sisters and me to come down for a “family meeting” in the living room. Family meetings were never good: it usually meant that one of us, or all of us, were in trouble. But what my father told us that afternoon was far more startling than I could have imagined:

“We’re moving downtown,” he said, “and changing Catholic parishes. You’ll be leaving St. Ignatius School. We’ve enrolled the four of you at Heart of Mary School.”

You’d have to be from Mobile to understand the full impact of that announcement. I think my reaction was “Yeah, right, Dad. Very funny.” But Dad wasn’t joking. St. Ignatius School, where my sisters and I had attended since kindergarten, was widely regarded then as the best Catholic school in Mobile.  It was from a wealthy section of town. I had only even met just one black student in my life.  Heart of Mary, in contrast, was from the inner city, and had zero white students—or at least that was true until my sisters and I enrolled that fall.

I won’t go into all the reasons why my family did what it did, but I will tell you from my perspective as a 12-year old boy, I was terrified. All I knew about Heart of Mary being at St. Ignatius was that they destroyed us every year in football and basketball. They would come to the ball fields in an old bus, and you knew exactly when they got there because they would be cheering loudly as they pulled into the parking lot. Even as an Ignatius boy, I knew one of their cheers by heart: “Who are we? LIONS! Who are we? LIONS. What we want? MEAT. What we want? IGNATIUS MEAT.” Long before the game started, we were so scared, we had already lost. And sure enough, we’d get beat 44-0 or 56-0.

Up until that point in my life, I thought I was pretty good in football, despite the blow-outs against Heart of Mary.  On my 6th grade team, I was the tailback, linebacker, punter, punt returner, kicker and kick-returner.  So when I entered Heart of Mary as a 7th grader,  I decided that to be accepted, it would be smart if I joined the football team. I can remember that first practice 38 years ago as if it were yesterday. I was shocked by the intensity. During the warm-up exercises, Coach Seals, a large, dark black Mobile policeman who coached the team and of whom I was terrified, barked out, “200 push-ups.” I thought I had misheard: At St. Ignatius, we typically did 20. “200 sit-ups” was next, and we were just starting. By the end of exercises, I was on the verge of throwing up and was relieved when he said: “Take ten,” thinking he meant a ten minute break. No, he meant ten laps around the field. Nearly faint, I started jogging at my usual speed, but every person on the team sprinted passed me, running hard. As I limped around the track, holding back tears, I realized I had entered a brand new world.

And it was a brand new world. For the first three or four months, they thought I had a hearing problem, because I constantly asked “What did you say?” Truth is, I couldn’t understand them.  They, in turn, had never met a white person, and asked me, in all seriousness, if I were a member of the KKK, because that’s all they knew about white people. They often joked on each other using what appeared to be a secret code at first, usually about someone’s “momma,” and classes were often unruly. In fact, we had 7 different teachers in my seventh grade. New teachers would last about two weeks before they’d quit, unable to control the class.

I adapted, over time. On the football field, I had gone from the fastest kid in my school, the kid who always ran the ball, to being the blocking fullback who got to run the ball about 4 times a season.  I remember one time at practice, Coach called my number, I broke past the line of scrimmage into the open, but was instantly run down. Coach yelled out in amusement  “Weber, you’re too slow to catch a cold, ” and all my teammates laughed.  I laughed with them--it seemed to be true.

A strange thing began to happen over the course of that fall, something I didn’t expect. Despite the cultural differences, these guys became my friends. They respected the fact I gutted out football, and the truth is, they were just as terrified of the coach as I was.  I learned about all their mommas just like they learned about mine and joined in on the teasing back and forth. The fact that I was white and they were black seemed to matter less and less to them and to me. 

The root of all prejudice, when you strip it down, is ignorance. When people don’t know each other, when they don’t have the opportunity to build relationships with actual people, they find it easy to generalize about a group, as if any group of humans can be accurately characterized by one trait, one skin color, one religion, one nationality. But when we get to know people personally, when we come to understand their unique personalities, their sense of humor, their strengths and weaknesses, prejudice evaporates.  It just seems silly. 

I am proud of JPII for many reasons. But one of the things I think is great about our school is our diversity. Yes, partly our ethnic diversity: 20% of you are students of color, a number that has held steady the last 3-4 years. But it’s more than ethnicity. 45% of you are not Catholic, but contribute greatly to our spiritual life here. Some of you come from wealthy families. Others of you do not. You live in 33 different towns and two different states, and before you went to JPII, you came to us from one of 98 different schools, an amazingly high number. Because we aspire to be more than a little school from Hendersonville, we send buses to pick up students across the middle Tennessee region, including Lebanon, Gallatin, Clarksville, Nashville, Mount Juliet and Bowling Green.

Our tagline is “Faith Leads Us Beyond Ourselves.” The beautiful thing is when we reach beyond neighborhoods, beyond our ethnic group, beyond our religious affiliations, we discover some pretty interesting people.  We’re not clones of each other, and that’s a good thing! Over the course of this year, I encourage you to reach beyond your circle of friends and get to make new ones.  Stretch yourself, join new clubs, move outside your comfort zone, and learn from each other. The education you receive at JPII is not just what you learn in the classrooms.