Saturday, January 18, 2014

Against the Tide

My daughter Cynthia and soon to be son-in-law, Grant Schmidt
Student assembly address:

Good afternoon, JPII!

Some of may know I have three sons and one daughter, and we’re going to have two weddings in our family in the next seven months. My oldest son just proposed to a young lady from Columbus, OH and they’ll be getting married this summer, whereas my daughter is going to be married in three weeks down in Mobile, AL. Girls, if you have dreams of a big wedding, this would be your thing: It will be in a Cathedral, with organ and trumpet, there will be huge wedding party, the reception will be at a large, white mansion that dates back to the 1850’s, with live music, good food and a lot of “refreshments.”  More important than that, though, my daughter is marrying a great guy. We are now in those final weeks of preparation with all the details, like how long the linens should hang from the reception tables (!), and I am doing my best to stay out of the way.

So weddings and marriages are very much on my mind these days.

Here’s a telling stat about marriages. Marriage rates in this country have declined by almost half since 1970. Many are becoming cynical about marriage and question why a public commitment or sacrament matters.

And I really can’t blame young people for this cynicism. The truth is, my generation has not been a very good witness to your generation about how awesome married life can be.  About half of all marriages end in divorce, and many of you have seen first hand how difficult that divorce is on your family—on each parent, on your brothers and sisters, and on you yourself.  In this age of technology, when our work lives now blend too seamlessly with our personal lives, we’ve not done a very good job finding life-work balance,  often at the cost of our relationships. We’ve spent money too freely and borrowed too liberally, forcing both mothers and fathers to work long hours to pay bills, often not able to give enough time to each other or to their children.

It’s no wonder, then, that some people believe it’s better to live together BEFORE getting married, almost like a “trial marriage,” to see if you are compatible first. That seems reasonable at first blush—except that the statistics are overwhelming. Couples that live together as a prior step to marriage have 50% GREATER likelihood of divorce than those who wait until marriage.

It’s also no wonder, given high divorce rates, that pre-nuptial agreements are on the rise (a contract between husband and wife that spells out who gets what just in case there’s a divorce). They’re particularly common if one of the couple is wealthy. But such contracts poison the well of trust between couples even before the marriage begins: “Honey, I love you very much, and I promise we’ll be married forever, but just in case something happens, please sign this contract so you can’t take me to the cleaners in a divorce proceeding.”

The truth is, we live in a culture that doesn’t believe in permanence, where just about everything is perceived to be negotiable, where promises are taken to be temporary.

But marriages don’t work if the couples stand by the pool and test the water by sticking their toes in, or by planning which way they’ll get out of the pool once they jump in if it’s too cold. Marriage is an “all-in” commitment, where the couple holds hands and jumps in together, with the promise that they’ll help each other learn to swim. That’s the risk. That’s the adventure. That’s the fun and the joy and the mystery of it.

Pope Francis, speaking to young people recently, had this to say:

God calls each of us to be holy, to live his life, but he has a particular path for each one of you.  Some  of you are called to holiness through family life in the sacrament of Marriage. Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion. Is it out of fashion? In a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of ‘enjoying’ the moment. They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, ‘for ever’, because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, I ask you to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love. I have confidence in you and I pray for you. Have the courage ‘to swim against the tide’. And also have the courage to be happy.”   July 28, 2013  Address to the World Youth Day Volunteers

It’s not too early in your life to begin praying that God will one day help you find the right person for you--someone who will love you forever, who will be a good father or mother to your children, and who will call you to become a better person. And it’s not too early to pray that God will give you strength and grace to be this person for someone else.

May you have the courage to swim against the tide, as Pope Francis says, and to be revolutionaries in the way you live and the witness you give others. 

Please pray for my daughter and my soon to be son in law, that their lives together will joyful and blessed, and for all married people, your mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. We need strong, happy married couples. Our culture depends on it. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Choosing Classes: To A.P. or not A.P.?

Student assembly address:

That is the question.

So we're at that time of year again when you must begin thinking about selecting classes for next year--unless you're a senior, involved in selecting which college you want to attend.

One of the common questions you'll be asking yourself is how hard of a schedule should you take next year. So, for example, should I take an AP class, or two (or three, or four)? What if I take the A.P. class and end up with a lower grade--will that hurt me for college?

Take the A.P. class.

Colleges won’t tell you this outright, but the truth is that grade point averages are so inflated and differ so wildly between high schools that colleges cannot use them to make any meaningful comparisons between applicants.

Instead, they increasingly rely on two simple measurements: entrance test scores and the difficulty of the curriculum taken in high school.

Mr. Brown has been collecting data for years now that confirms the primacy of test scores: Incoming freshman at schools like Belmont or University of Dayton have virtually identical high school GPA’s as Vanderbilt or Notre Dame, but Belmont students score an average of 25-26 on the ACT, whereas Vandy and ND students score an average of 33.

Fair or unfair, test scores allow universities to make a quick “apples to apples” comparison of applicants, regardless of which high school an applicant attends or region of the country he or she resides.

Unfortunately, this means that some students may work very hard in high school and get nearly all  A’s, but if their test scores aren’t within range of the freshman class to which they’re applying, they have almost zero chance of being accepted, unless they possess some virtuoso talent of importance to the university (like football ability) or are part of an under-respresented group the university desires.

The second critical variable in college admissions is the difficulty of curriculum taken while in high school.

On the “common application” now required by 400+ colleges for admission, there is a telling question that must be filled out by the high school counselor:

In comparison with other college preparatory students in your school, the applicant’s course selection is (choose one): “most demanding”, “very demanding”, “demanding”, “average” or “below average”.

I believe that if the counselor must choose anything less than “most “ or “very” demanding, you have very little chance of getting accepted to an elite school.

There’s a seedy side to all this. Because publications like U.S. News and World Report rank colleges partly on the basis of acceptance rates of applicants (thus determining whether the school is “very selective” or merely “selective”), colleges do their best to encourage as many applications as possible so they can reject as many as possible. The “common application” makes it easy for kids to apply to multiple schools and thus plays into this game very neatly. Ever since the common application became—well, common—the volume of applications to the typical university has grown tremendously.

Unfortunately, college admissions offices have not grown proportionately, meaning that counselors now must look for quick, simple ways to sort through the overwhelming pile of applications on their desk. College entrance scores and the difficulty of courses become even more important in this light.

Which brings us back to " A.P. or not to A.P.?"

Advanced Placement courses are based on first tier curricular standards. A.P. teachers must attend professional development workshops sponsored by the College Board to be certified to teach to these standards. They are typically among the school's best teachers. If a child spends a year being challenged by conscientious, talented teachers who are guided by demanding standards, the reasonable expectation is that the student will acquire knowledge and skills that will help him for life—and in the nearer term, improve his college entrance scores.

And oh, by the way, Mr. Brown can check off that “most demanding" box!

And if you're not in that AP or not category, be sure to take the most rigorous set of electives you can handle next year--the logic works the same way: If you push yourself, you'll do better on those national tests, which make all the difference. In the end, hard work matters. It really does. 

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Standing In and Standing Out

"Miz O" circa 1980, in her element
I learned this morning that Alice Ortega passed away.

Alice taught English at Catholic High for over forty years. For nineteen of those years, I was privileged to be her “boss” as principal or president of the school. 

“Boss,” however, isn’t quite the right term.  I was only twenty-seven when I became principal of the school in 1989, and by then, “Miz O” (so called by her students) had been teaching at Catholic for over twenty years. I was smart enough to realize that teachers like she, “Mr. Frye” (Math, 20+) and “Coach Arban” (History, 20+) were the real leaders of the place. They were kind enough to let me have the title of “principal” as long as I didn’t mess things up.

Alice was a true pillar of Catholic High—quick of mind, with a prodigious work ethic, and passionate in her love of Shakespeare, poetry, plays and good literature.  Her “Freshman Comp” class was a wake-up call for students with lackadaisical academic commitments.  The expectations of that class were the same for over a quarter of a century:  Write 12 paragraphs per quarter, the first ten of which would be graded  “pass or fail,” the final two of which would be given a letter grade.

BUT, each of those paragraphs had to be structurally and grammatically perfect. They could only be written in Mrs. Ortega’s presence (to prevent a student from getting unauthorized "help"). And if a student didn’t complete all twelve by the end of the quarter, he or she failed—no exceptions.  Some students would write and re-write the same paragraph as many as 10-15 times, and when the quarter drew near to a close, it was very common to see as many as 25 freshmen in her room after school, writing feverishly, desperately trying to meet the deadline.  That meant, of course, they were learning to write, and generations of alumni have Mrs. Ortega to thank for their writing competency as a result. 

It also meant that Mrs. Ortega had to grade thousands of paragraphs each quarter—the same ones, over and over! I am guessing that over a forty-year career she graded well over fifty thousand paragraphs.   My enduring memory of her will always be carrying around a stack of them, which she’d grade  at any available opportunity--at lunch, before and after school, during faculty meetings in which she judged I had nothing important to say (we talked about that), on weekends and during holidays.  I’m not sure anyone in our school ever worked as hard as Alice, but I know that no one graded as much.

She also had a way of inspiring our brightest students. She taught “Honors Brit Lit” for well over thirty years—a pretense, I told her, that allowed her to study Shakespeare and get paid for it. Kids loved that class. Then she'd offer Shakespeare as an elective, and our best students would quickly register for it.  Mark Crowley, who now teaches English at my school in Nashville, told me that because of Mrs. Ortega, he had “four years of Shakespeare in high school. How many kids can say that?” My daughter Cynthia, a Notre Dame grad now in her third year of law school, told me “I began to love poetry under Miz O--if you tried to B.S. your way through an interpretation, she’d call you out in front of your classmates. Interpreting literature was a serious discipline, and she made you accountable to the author's intent--I loved and respected her for that."

We had our spats, she and I. As the school’s drama teacher, she was a pack rat, and never wanted to discard the furniture, props and costumes that had accumulated over the decades. Frequently, I'd tell her to meet with our custodian and tell him what to throw away, and she'd scowl at me and say "I'll get to it.” Of course, as the years went by, she never did, so one summer I met with the custodian and discarded about 50% of it without her knowledge.  She was so angry with me she could barely speak, but over (a long) time, she forgave me.  I told her that her classroom was "next", but she told me if I touched anything, she’d quit on the spot--that she would only forgive me once. Stubborn as she was, I believed her, and left well enough alone!

She had the enormous respect of her peers. If I wanted to introduce a new initiative to the faculty, the first person I’d talk to, privately, was Alice, for I knew if she agreed, the rest of the faculty would follow. She was extraordinarily generous, volunteering to “man the office” during her lunch break every day for over twenty years so the secretary could get some down time. She came in most of the summer, on her own dime, to put together a master schedule for the fall and to help students register for classes. She had a devilish sense of humor—once, early on, she and David Tokarz were told by Dr. Doyle to do a cross-curricular project with the Fine Arts teacher, and they named it the “F. Arts” initiative in protest.

I wrote a blog article in 2006 (here) reflecting on the legacy of the sisters in Catholic education in this country, asking who would "stand in next", now that the sisters were no longer with our schools. For over forty years, Alice Ortega "stood in" for Montgomery Catholic High School. We owe her an enormous debt.  

Rest in peace, good friend.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

2014: Looking back and looking forward

Happy New Year!
Gears from the 10,000 year clock, being built in
the caves of Western Texas.
Student assembly address:

The end of the year is always interesting--people are fond of making “best of” lists. ESPN’s top play of the year in 2013, for example, was Chris Davis’ 108 yard touchdown return off a missed field goal with one second left on the clock, elevating Auburn to beat Alabama in this year’s “IRON” bowl. Time Magazine recently picked Pope Francis as their “Man of the Year” and CNN says that Pope Francis was their top newsmaker. Madonna is the most highly paid “celebrity” in 2013 at 125 million dollars, so says Forbes Magazine, beating out Steven Spielberg at #2, who made a mere 100 million dollars. Tiger Woods was the most highly paid athlete, edging Roger Federer. The best selling motor vehicle was a Ford 150; the best selling car, strictly speaking, was a Toyota Camry.

Oxford Dictionary on line picks a “word” of the year every year. The 2012 word of the year was “Hashtag.” The 2013 word is “selfie,” defined as a picture of yourself or yourself with friends, usually taken with a smart phone, that you post on social media sites. 

If the language we use is a window into the way we think, then the “word of the year” is probably a window into the way our culture thinks. SELFIE. I once heard a comedian discuss the evolution of popular magazines. He said that LIFE Magazine came into existence in 1883. “Life”—that’s a broad, inclusive term. PEOPLE Magazine began in 1974. “People”—still pretty broad, but doesn’t include all life. US Weekly began a few years later—narrowing the focus further: US-- but not them. Shortly after that, SELF magazine came into being. The comedian predicted that soon there will be a magazine that takes it right to the core: ME magazine!

There really is a narcissistic quality to our culture, a kind of infatuation with our selves, isn’t there? You can even see that is in our New Year’s resolutions. New gym memberships are swelling as people have resolved to get into shape. We’re being deluged with commercials about diet plans, as people have resolved to lose weight. Others are vowing to quit smoking, to drink less, to manage stress better, to manage money better, to take a trip. These are all good, but they have something in common—they aim toward self-betterment, rather than making things better for others. Of the thirteen most popular new year’s resolutions, according to, only two are altruistic—volunteer more, and recycle more.

I’m not suggesting that trying to improve our selves is a bad thing—it requires real maturity and self-discipline to be able to look at our selves critically and muster up the resolve to improve those areas of our lives that need improving. We should all do this.

But I am suggesting that we do something beyond that too. How can my life make other people’s lives better this year? How can I make people happier? How can I be a better member of my family? How can I be a better son, or daughter, or friend? What difference does my life make to others? How does my faith play out in terms of service to others? You may have heard the old adage: If I were arrested for being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me? What is that evidence in terms of the way I treat others?

I heard about an interesting project over Christmas. A group called the “Long Now” is building they're calling is a “Ten Thousand Year Clock,” and they’ve secured millions of dollars of contributions from people such as Jeff Bezos, founder of, to help them build it. Their idea is to build a clock in a desert mountain in Western Texas that will last 10,000 years-- requiring very little maintenance, that will survive a human catastrophe, if we blew each other up in nuclear war, for example, or even if humanity ceased to exist altogether. It will chime a special melody at the beginning of every new century, with the first chimes to go off on January 1, 2100, well beyond the lives of all those involved in building the clock. (For more information on this project, go here. )

Why in the world are they doing this?

As their organization’s name “The Long Now” implies, they want people to begin thinking beyond the here and now. We’re all victims to what I heard someone once refer to as “present-itis,” being locked into the now, without the ability to really think about the future. The ten thousand year number reflects about the same number of years that humanity has existed, and these guys want us to think about and care for our planet for the next ten thousand years, whether we’re talking about climate change, or nuclear proliferation, or food supply, or clean water, or whatever. They hope this clock will serve as a monument to the fact we have a duty to care about each other and to care for future generations. They want us to begin thinking more along the lines of the Greek proverb that says simply, “A society becomes great when its old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” They want us to ask, "Are we being good ancestors?"

As we begin this new semester here at JPII, as we begin this new year together in 2014, may we live in such a way as to reflect a real concern for each other—to not just make ourselves better, but our schools, our families, our communities, our country and our planet.

“Faith leads us beyond ourselves,” is a saying we’ve been using a lot around here. The best life is one lived for others. May we resolve to live this way in 2014.  

Happy New Year, everyone!