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!