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. 

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

This is Mr. Weber's opening school address to students on August 6, 2012.

Welcome students! 

There’s a famous motivational story about two salesmen from competing shoe companies who are sent to a foreign company to assess the market for shoes.

The first salesman scouts around for a few days and then goes to the telegraph office to contact company headquarters.  He writes: Research complete. A disaster.  Natives here don’t wear shoes.

The second salesman does his research and heads for the same telegraph office.  Once there, he composes the following: Research complete.  Glorious marketing opportunity!  Natives here don’t yet wear shoes!

The message of the story is pretty clear: opportunity is there if you recognize it.

Students, as we begin this new year together, opportunity is here at JPII if you recognize it and take advantage of it.

Seniors, just one more year, and it will be one of the quickest of your life—it will seem like a blur before you are receiving your diploma at the Grand Ole’ Opry, dressed in cap and gown. Juniors, you’re now upperclassmen and are entering into upper level electives in what students tell me is our most challenging year. Sophomores, it was just a year ago that you sat in this auditorium for the first time, nervous about beginning here, unsure of yourselves, but it’s different now—and one of the big things that will happen is that most of you will be getting your license, no longer tethered to your parents, able to get around yourselves—a significant breaking away. Freshman, I know you’re nervous, unsure, everything is for the first time, new, uncertain.

No matter which year you’re in, though, you have an opportunity this year—an opportunity to make yourself a better friend, a better student, a better Christian, a better person. You can do that first, I think, by recognizing the extraordinary opportunity you have at JPII.  It’s easy to be the critic, and God knows, our world is full of them! They sit on the metaphorical sidelines of life criticizing everyone who has the courage to play in the game.  They nitpick and complain, always pointing out the deficiencies in others. Don’t be the critic in the bleachers—be the player on the field. Get “in the game.”  JPII is an extraordinary school, with amazing teachers and amazing students. Soak up everything this school has, whether you’re in your last year as a senior or first year as a freshman. Be grateful for what God has given you here, and show that gratitude by pushing yourself and challenging yourself to be all that he hopes you will become.

We are the Knights. There’s a lot of rich symbolism that goes with the idea of knights, and many colloquial expressions that date back to the middle ages concerning the knights. No doubt you’ve heard the expression:  “He was a Knight in Shining Armor,” referring to a person who acts chivalrously, coming to aid of another, usually a damsel in distress, in a gallant and courteous manner. 

An expression which is particularly interesting is “throwing down the gauntlet.”  A gauntlet was considered an important piece of the armory of knights, which covered their hands and forearms in a kind of glove like fit, protecting a very vulnerable area if they were engaged in hand to hand combat or sword fights.  By tradition, when a knight challenged other knight to a fight, he would take off one of the gauntlets and throw it at his competitor’s feet.  If the second Knight bent over and picked it up, it symbolized that he was accepting the challenge—thus “throwing down the gauntlet” meant you were being challenged to a fight and picking it up meant you were “all in.”

Here’s the thing. When we were younger, our parents carried us. When we first learned to walk, they were there to catch us when we wobbled. When we first learned to ride a bike, they ran behind us to keep us from crashing. But as we have become older, we have learned how to walk and ride bikes on our own. This is how it should be. As scripture says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned as a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways ways behind me. (1 Corinthians 13:11).

This place will challenge you. This place will at times, frustrate you. In a very real way, it may feel like your teachers are throwing down the gauntlet at your feet, challenging you to a fight. Your parents, as much as they might want to, can’t be the ones that pick up the gauntlet for you. 

Recognize the opportunity this place provides for you. Pick up the gauntlet—accept the challenge. Fight the fight. Don’t be the one that watches from the sidelines.  

May God bless you and give you an incredible year.

A few tips for new high school parents

This is a summary of Mr. Weber’s talk to new high school parents, given at new parent orientation. 

Remember we’re partners.

It’s not a customer-vendor relationship—I don’t think that business metaphor accurately describes the unique role you play as parents and unique role we play as teachers. But one thing is clear—if this partnership is going to work well, we have to communicate well between us. So a few things about that:

Veracross—Our online grade program--you can check your child’s current grades at any time.

Read the "Knight Notes", an email sent home usually Tuesday afternoon or Wed morning that summarizes news and upcoming information you need to know. 

Become familiar with our web page, especially the calendar of events, school news, and the faculty/staff directory (book mark us on your smart phone for easy access to everything)

If you need to talk to a teacher, don’t hesitate to contact us—you can do that with either voice mail or email (email preferred).

You can expect to hear from us—not for every little thing that your child does wrong, but for the big things…or if a pattern of little things is beginning to develop.

Remember that raising kids is more of an art form than a science—knowing how soon to intervene when your child stumbles vs. letting him/her work through it themselves is tricky. When in doubt, talk it out.  If you’re not sure who to talk with, talk to your child’s advisor….he or she can find out information for you.

Help your child develop good study habits.

If your freshman child doesn’t seem to be doing somewhere around 90 minutes/homework a night, you should be concerned.

You’ll be meeting your child’s teachers on Thursday night, and they’ll talk about their HW requirements, so you can measure your child’s work output against what they say.

Getting into a HW routine is one of the big adjustments of HS—in some schools, it doesn’t count for much, but it really does here. 

If your child is NOT a reliable studier, I suggest some place other than the bedroom—there are too many distractions.  When our children were younger, we checked homework for quality, but teenagers despise that and I don’t recommend it.  Shift from being quality inspectors to environmental control experts.

Each child learns differently and has their own pace…some are slower, more careful. If your child seems to be doing much, much more than 90 minutes/night—3 hours/more, that’s probably too much, but seek out your child’s advisor and let us look into it.

Involvement is key, both for your child and you!

By school policy freshman must sign up for at least one extra-curricular.

Club “fair” day on Thursday—students will be introduced all possible extra-curriculars

Gently push your children toward participation in clubs and teams—don’t tell them what, but insist on something.  Diversify—if your kid is an athlete, great—but join something else, too. Part of our “renaissance goal” for students here. Child will be happier, friendships, makes life interesting.

Same for you! Booster Club, PTO, team parent—find someway to get involved. You’ll feel more connected, you’ll get to know the families your children are friends with, you’ll be happier.

Look around this room—likely that over 4 years, some of these people will become your best friends!

Be vigilant.

Lot of temptations for teenagers—especially alcohol…but with alcohol comes a whole host of other destructive behaviors. 

Know where your kids are and where they will be.  Ask the question: are there parents home? On occasion, call the other parents to verify--unpredictability on your part is good. (Worried about calling another parent? An enterprising parent I once knew called the parents of the house their child was going to and asked if her child could “bring anything?--cokes, chips, etc. )

Establish the inviolable principle: If I call you on the cell phone, you better answer it (used to say if I called twice and you didn’t answer either time, the cell phone was mine for a week—a killer!). And I recommend calling once just to check in.  Texting doesn’t count.

Establish curfews. Be up when your children get home….

Know that even the best kids can be tempted to do stupid things—yes, even your child. Through my oldest son’s junior year I was feeling pretty good about the job I had done with him –NHS kid, president of student body, QB of the football team—until one night he came home stone cold drunk, having DRIVEN home.  Don’t be the parent that says “my kid would never do such a thing.” Teenagers have a way of humbling us.  

Keep the long view

In four years, you want your child to be a healthy, confident, happy and GOOD young man or woman, a person of faith, ready for college, ready to stand on his or her own feet. That’s a process—and if we’re doing our job, there’s going to be some angst, there’s going to be some disappointment, perhaps even some frustration.

Talk to teachers if you’re worried, but don’t get on that same roller coaster of ups/downs that your teenager is going through. The school and its teachers are your allies. 

Let us speak well of each other and remember that kids are master embellishers. As a friend of mine used to say: “I promise to only believe 50% of what your children say about you is true, if you promise to only believe 50% of what they say about us. “ When in doubt, talk it out. Email us. Call us. We’re here for you.

May God bless us in this magnificent adventure we begin together.