Sunday, August 24, 2014

Friday Nights Lights and Being Grateful

Student assembly address:

Friday night was a great night for our school. First, congratulations to our football team for their 59-34 win against Stratford. The 59 points were the most points ever scored by a JPII football team in our school’s history, so it was a heck of a start to the season. In the decisive second quarter, we scored 35 points, all touchdowns from "Q" behind really magnificent blocking from our offensive line and a defense that completely shut down Stratford in the quarter. Great game, fellas.

But Friday night was great for more reasons than that. Y’all were great. Our cheerleaders, our dance team, our blue man group, our pep band (with just two weeks of practice)—all of you guys made the evening a great celebration of spirit for our school.

My congratulations also to the House of Gregory for their ALS Icebucket Challenge. I and nine other teachers were doused with ice water to raise money for ALS research at halftime. And before I say anything else, I understand that once you take the challenge you can challenge someone else, so I am calling out Mr. Mila, who was on the football field on Friday as a spectator, laughing at us. Mr. Mila, you’re challenged.  Next Monday assembly—in front of the students—man up.

And in case you didn’t know, another JPII athletic team had a great weekend, too. Congratulations to our Lady Knights volleyball team for winning SEVEN matches this weekend in rout to coming in first place in the tournament at White County.  SEVEN matches in two days is a lot of volleyball—congratulations, girls!

Let’s keep that spirit going this fall—keep coming to the ball games, for sure. But let’s keep that spirit going, too, in terms of kindness to others, reaching out to people that look like they need a friend, supporting the teacher’s efforts in the classroom,  striving to be the best students we can be, challenging ourselves to stretch, dig down and study hard.

On my way to Nashville from Montgomery to be interviewed for this job almost seven years ago, I stopped at a gas station to fill up. A late model car pulled up on the other side of the pump, and an old man got out of the car, looked at me with some embarrassment, and asked me for $10 for gas. I told him when I went in to pay for mine, I’d put $10 down on his pump. Casting his eyes downward, he said with some feeling: “Gratitude”.

Since I had little else to do as I drove home, I thought quite a bit about this fellow for the rest of the trip. Judging from his car, his clothes and his diction, he didn’t appear to have a job, or a good one at least, and his language suggested he wasn’t very well educated. His sad eyes conveyed loneliness, and I wondered if he had a family, or was close to them if he did, and guessed he may not have been. Few things are more humiliating than asking for a handout, but he was out of gas and so he had to swallow his pride to ask a stranger. And yet, despite all that, I sensed his gratitude was real.

To be honest, his gratitude was unsettling to me, for it forced me to compare myself to him, and in so doing, made me wonder if I who had so much in comparison was as grateful as he with so little. And that’s not a bad thought for all of us—as we come can cheer at ballgames, as we wake up each day and come to this magnificent school, with great teachers, good friends, and fun things to do—are we grateful for all this?

I don’t know why some people are given so much and others so little. But for we who have been given much, much is expected. Let us, at minimum, be grateful each day for all God has done for us-- for JPII, for our friends, our family, our talents and abilities. And for Friday night home victories—Go Knights!

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Student assembly address:

On my way back from dropping my youngest son off at Purdue this weekend, I was listening to National Public Radio, and they were doing a story on living with someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Most of you know that Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that affects memory, thinking and reasoning skills— and for women over sixty, there’s a one in six chance that your grandmother or great-grandmother might start showing some symptoms, so it’s pretty common. You may have someone in your family that has Alzheimer’s, and if you do, you know it’s hard on the family because when the disease becomes advanced, people don’t remember much about their past, and when they do remember, they often don’t have the timeline right—something that happened forty years ago in their mind might have happened yesterday, and even worse, they often forget their loved ones, or important details about their loved ones’ lives, of even their children themselves.

Since ‘who we are’ is a function of our memories and experiences, people with Alzheimer’s often change personalities, and that too, is very difficult for loved ones.

The NPR feature concerned a middle-aged couple caring for their elderly mother.  In her younger years, this woman was so proper that she believed that saying the word “Dang” or “Shoot” was swearing, but now, when the daughter didn’t let her have a second bowl of ice cream, she called her daughter a “supreme –itch.” In fact, it was war all the time in the household, because the couple found themselves always correcting their mother—“No, Mom, your husband’s name was Frank, not Bill.” “No Mom, that’s Jenny, your grand-daughter.” “No, Mom, you have never been to France” and things like that, which meant that the woman was being constantly reminded of her Alzheimer’s, constantly frustrated by her declining memory, constantly angry. It was as if they couldn’t even talk to her anymore without everyone getting upset.  

So they began to read research and talk with Alzheimer experts about that precise question: How do we talk to her? Should we, for example, correct her? Should we try and cue her to reality by placing reminders about who the president is, what the date is, pictures of her children with labels around her room, to keep her from losing her memory even faster?

And the fundamental insight they came away with is—no, don’t try and correct. If you want to have a relationship with your mother with advanced Alzheimer’s, you should instead enter her world in conversation, on its own terms, where ever she takes the conversation.

They described this amusing back and forth as an example of what they meant:

Mother, looking out the window:  “The monkeys are back in the trees.” (How might we respond? Those aren’t monkeys, mom, those are squirrels.”)

Instead, the son in law says, “Are they back already? They’re a little early this year—it’s not their season yet.”

Mother: “No, they’re back, I’m looking at them.

Son in law, looking out the window: “I wonder if they’d make good pets?”

Mother: “Oh heaven’s no, you couldn’t bring monkeys into the house. They’re not house-broken.”

Son: “Well, they’d have to be trained…and wear pants.”

And they proceeded to have an extended conversation about it, with the mother obviously pleased to be engaging in what felt to her to be human dialogue with someone—a very basic human need.

Honestly, I was a bit moved by the whole NPR story—impressed first of all by this couple who loved their mother so much as to keep her in their home, but also that they looked for ways to lovingly engage her, even while her mind was failing.  The willingness to bracket themselves and “enter into her world, on its own terms” seems to me to be a genuine act of selfless love.

But here’s the cool part. According to this couple, when they started bracketing, letting her lead the conversation, and engaging her on her terms, the warring ceased, she was happier, and they were happier, as they felt good to be connecting with her again, however amusing the conversation became. 

We are blessed here in our daily interactions with each other not to be dealing with Alzheimer’s patients. But all of us have the human need to connect, and if we can develop this skill of bracketing—of putting the other person first in the conversation—we can both build them up, but in so doing--following the laws of spiritual physics which says the more we give to others the happier we become—we can build ourselves up in the process.

Try really paying attention to your younger sister or brother, or your mom or dad, or your friend, without an agenda, on their terms alone, totaling entering their world in the conversation. I think you’ll be pretty amazed at how much power we have to make others feel good about who they are. 

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Enemy of the Good

These are my opening remarks to students to begin the 2014-2015 school year, August 4, 2014. 

Good morning and welcome back! It is good to see all of you again, and I think our year is shaping up to be something special. A special JPII welcome to our many new students and teachers—though our mission is constant, your presence gives us a new chemistry and allows us to recreate ourselves each year, keeping this place fresh and interesting. We are glad you are with us! 

The gospel reading from yesterday is worth reflecting on as we start the year together. You remember it—it’s very familiar: Jesus has been preaching all day, and crowds are getting bigger and bigger, and it’s now late in the day and people are hungry, so he tells his apostles to go find some food to feed the nearly 5,000 people. After scrounging around, they can only find five loaves of fishes and two fish, so they come to Jesus and tell him that it’s not enough, and advise him not to even start down the path of trying to feed them. But Jesus says feed them what they have, and as you know, as they begin to do so, he blesses their efforts, and they end up with food left over.

As we start this new school year, it occurs to me we’re a lot like the apostles. We want to be successful, but often, as we size things up, it doesn’t look like we’re going to measure up, so our natural tendency is avoid failure and keep from even trying. You’re likely hearing from a lot of different people—it was my advice to new students last week—to “get involved.” But maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “I would get involved, but I’m just not good enough.” Coach Joslin is looking for more freshman for the freshman team, for example, and perhaps you’re thinking, “Yeah, I’d kind of like to play football, but I’m not that good, and certainly not as good as some of the guys I know are already on that team, and I don’t want to embarrass myself.“ But the message of the parable of the loaves and fishes is “give your best, and let God take care of the rest.”

Maybe in a couple of your classes this semester are difficult, and you hear that voice inside your head say “There are a lot of smarter kids in that class than me and I’ll never be able to get an A, so I’m just going to do as little as I can to get by. Better to shoot for the minimum than to be disappointed missing the higher mark.”  Maybe there’s a club that interests you, but there’s people who are more talented, more socially gifted, or more clever in that club and that intimidates you from joining up  because you’re worried about being awkward. But the message of the story of the loaves and fishes is, “dare to take that first step, and trust the Lord to bless your decision.”

We’re obsessed in our culture with perfection. If our favorite team isn’t winning the national championship, the season is a failure. Our cultural standard for beauty is impossibly high—as if everyone is capable of looking like Beyonce, recently named by People Magazine as the “most beautiful woman in the world.” Our sports heroes are the best players in the world: Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson. The problem is, if Beyonce is our standard for beauty, then the rest of us are ugly; if Lebron is the measure for basketball, then the rest of us have no game. We can get paralyzed by the gaping distance between them and us, and our human tendency is to shut down.

There’s a wise saying that “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” It means that if perfection is the standard, we often avoid being good, because being just “good” isn’t good enough. But that’s wrong, and it’s not what God expects of us.

However smart or not smart, however athletically talented or klutzy, however beautifully we sing, or play, or do art—or not--the Lord wants us to bring that to him and do our best this year, and he’ll take us from there. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t even really to carry with us the burden of being “successful”—that’s really God’s burden. Our responsibility is to be faithful and to try. The apostles started feeding the five thousand with a puny amount of food, but God multiplied their efforts and fed his people.

Jump in this year. Join things. Do your best in the classroom, on the stage, or on the ball-fields, and let God take it from there.  If you do that, I think you’ll be pretty excited about the amazing impact this school, its teachers, its coaches and its students, will have on your life. 

I am looking forward to getting to know you. It’s going to be a really fun year!  

Friday, August 01, 2014

Opening Year Faculty Meeting

These are my remarks to teachers and staff of JPII at our first faculty meeting of the year, the week before the first day of school. 


I love the first couple of weeks of school!  Kids are happy, enthusiastic, glad to be back with their friends, eager to tackle new challenges, optimistic about their classes and excited about their futures.

We who are older, often jaded by the years, are part of a privileged profession in that as teachers we get to experience all this with our students.

And hopefully, experiencing their joy re-enkindles in us the beautiful sense of wonder and mystery that marks teenagers’ lives as the world slowly opens up to them.

Whatever the challenges of last year, whatever the ups and downs, whatever the frustrations and joys, it’s a new year, a new sunrise, a chance to commit ourselves again to helping our students become “strong in mind, body, character and spirit for lives of learning and service, according to the gospel” (JPII mission statement). 

As is appropriate at this time of year, we begin the year with “first principles.” As teachers in a Catholic school, we are heirs to a great tradition in this country, started by the sisters, mostly, and now handed down to us. What are the unshakeable beliefs that mark this tradition?

First, that our students are children of God—worthy of being educated, loved, listened to, cared for and believed in. 

We talk a lot about our optimism in kids at JPII—about what kids are capable of achieving if they’re immersed in a culture honors high standards, with supportive teachers and opportunities to get back on their feet with they stumble. This isn’t polly-annish idealism, but is borne out of a fundamental belief of God’s presence in our students’ lives and the power of grace to create them into “new creations,” not “conformed by this world”, but “transformed by the renewal of their minds” that they may find God’s will for them, “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:12)

There is tremendous cynicism about youth today. Too many people launch too easily into tirades about “kids these days”. But you know what? If there is any basis for the cynicism, it’s our generation’s fault, not the teenagers’. It’s not 18 year olds who are responsible for high rates of marital infidelity, lack of commitment, corporate greed, political scandal, or sexual deviancy. 

IN fact, I believe that kids are naturally idealistic. But our society tells kids it’s impossible to lead a moral life, that it’s impossible to abstain from sex for example, and people who try to do so are either prudes or (worse) na├»ve, so practice sex safely. Television stations like MTV aren't created or produced by 18 year olds, but by 40-somethings—and there is something very sick about corrupting the natural idealism of youth in order to sell products for profit. 

So let this place be a shelter from such cynicism—in fact, let this place become an antidote to it! When kids enter our classrooms each day, may they see and FEEL the hope and FAITH we have in them--especially, our most troubled students! They are likely our most troublesome students because they have been least well cared for, and as a result, the ones who are least convinced that they are worthy of being loved or believed in. So much of their acting out is a test of US, to see if we can confirm in our reactions what he despairs about himself: that he is not worthy of love, that he feels little hope for his future. We cannot give in to despair for these kids! We must be, rather, people of the resurrection in their lives.

I once knew a teacher who by November had it up to here with a particular sophomore boy. To be blunt, this boy was really acting like a horses’ rear end, and to make matters worse, I think she taught him for two classes each day! But I remember her saying, deeply frustrated, almost in tears, “As much as I want to, I will NOT give in, I will NOT write him off. I will NOT become cynical about him. He WILL be better behaved eventually, and we WILL get along, but on my terms.” I remember being very edified by her toughness and attitude. I asked her, several months later, how things were going with him, and she said something like “Well, there is the occasional bad day, but we’re getting along pretty well now. He’s actually becoming a pleasant person, most of the time”. What made the difference? The teacher did--despite the boys' actions, she refused not to love him.

There’s a story about two shoe salesmen who were sent to the tribes of Africa to see if their company could begin opening up new revenue streams. The first shoe salesman emailed back: “No opportunity here—natives don’t wear shoes.” The second salesman wrote “Huge opportunity for us to expand our business—no one here owns any shoes yet.” Some times it’s a matter of perspective, and  we have to tackle our most troublesome kids as an opportunity to make the most difference. 

The real truth that we must never forget as Catholic educators is: LOVE is redemptive. If we bring Christ’s love to our students each day, even our most annoying, troubled student, Christ’s love can redeem them—and redeem us in the process. 

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)

2. Education is a moral endeavor, undertaken by a community of adults—

Schools have a tendency to measure success in terms of test scores, college scholarships, graduation rates, A.P. test performances. We do that too—97 AP Scholars, 10 National AP Scholars. Amazing results this year. Those are good things, and we’re right to be proud of them. 

But let these stats not obscure the true measure of our success—the Ockham’s razor by which our school should be judged a success or a failure is simply this: do we help children become the people God wants them to be? Our ultimate aim: cooperate with God’s grace to help them become these people. In so doing, we know they will be happy. 

This isn’t just a responsibility of the theology department, but of the entire community of adults: teachers, coaches, office staff, and parents. 

As Aristotle taught, people do not naturally or spontaneously grow up to be morally excellent or practically wise. They become so, if at all, only as the result of a lifelong personal and communal effort. 

So yes, it takes a village.

3. Parents are the primary educators. 

Now we have to be careful: I’ve heard this line used by teachers in this room as an excuse to get out of work: A kid hasn’t done his homework in 4 days. “Oh well, the parents are the primary educators…if they’re not going to do their job, how do they expect me to do mine”…. And then, you see, the teacher absolves himself from that kids’ failure. “Not my fault”.

In Catholic educational philosophy, parents ARE the primary educators, and we ASSIST parents in that role. In other words, we’re a team, and I think that means three very practical things for us:

  • First, we trust parents to make the right decisions for their kids 
  • Second, we try and foster good communication with parents—in both directions. On Back to School Night, you should give your school email address and voice mail number at school to every parent. Maybe even have a business card, and invite them to call you whenever they have concerns. You should similarly CALL THEM, not just for concerns, but for praise. Open lines of communication. Especially in the case of a kid doing poorly, we should do much more than take the contractual, minimalist position “Well, I informed you through the report cards and you never contacted me”. That’s simply unacceptable. 
  • Third, I think being on a team (and I think every married person in this room understands this) means forgiving and moving on. Parents aren’t going to always respond as they should. We have to forgive them for that, insist on a professional working relationship, not let it affect us the next time we should communicate with that person. We must remember that when we’re talking to parents about their child, we are treading in an area where parents are MOST vulnerable, and often, they don’t respond as they should. Let us tell the truth with love, forgive if responded to inappropriately, and always remember to put the needs of the child first.

4. We make no compromises, no excuses.

I think this is one of the great legacies of the sisters.

They had very little money, but they had grit and determination. These were well educated women, but they VERY poorly paid, no “benefits”, and they worked, by today’s standards, in deplorable working conditions. But as a group, they were most responsible from moving Catholic families out of the immigrant ghettos in this country and into the middle class suburbs.

I worked with a nun in my first few years as a principal in my previous school. She taught Chemistry to juniors and seniors and Introductory Physical Science to freshman for 42 years before she retired. But before teaching high school, she began as an elementary school teacher at the age of 19, without her degree, which she had to complete over 5 consecutive summers. Her first teaching assignment at age 19? 51 students in one classroom-- 25 first graders and 26 second graders—teaching simultaneously. And people have wondered why the sisters were “mean” ?

But those kids were WELL educated. The sisters didn’t complain about their working conditions, their salaries, how under-appreciated they were. No compromises, no excuses!

This is our legacy. The mission of this school comes before all else—before any of our needs, before any convenience—more important than winning games, test scores, college acceptance rates. We will try everything for a student to be successful, and we will NOT give in to the temptation to quickly write kids off because they’re not doing well.

All students in our classroom will learn. And if they aren’t learning, we will intervene,  first as teachers, then as the school itself. The mission of the school is first.

Sometimes teachers might wonder why we hang onto kids so long before asking them to withdraw. This is the reason. We are not rightful heirs to the legacy of the sisters unless we embrace this challenge directly.

In summary then, as Catholic school teachers, we believe that: 

All students are children of God; 
Education is a moral endeavor undertaken by the whole community; 
We are team-mates with parents; 
The mission comes first, no excuses, no compromises.

Have a great year!