Sunday, April 26, 2015

“Embracing the Optimism," Part II: Our Teachers

Student assembly address

Last week I mentioned that as I prepare to leave as JPII’s second headmaster, I wanted to reflect with you on why I believe JPII is such an exceptional school. Last week, I focused on you, the students, who embrace the optimism of this place, living out our renaissance ideal whereby you strive to become scholars, people of faith, athletes, and artists. This morning, I want to reflect on the people who set the bar and the context for this optimism: your teachers.

I think it’s worth remembering the ambitiousness of our goals for you here: 32 credits for graduation, service requirements, three years of foreign language, three years of the arts, broad enrollments in A.P. courses; we play in the most competitive athletic division in Tennessee, striving to be an excellent Catholic school in Tennessee’s most competitive market for private schools. We have truly created a school that has tried to live out what Michelangelo once said: "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."

But all of these lofty expectations are just meaningless drivel unless a school has a faculty and staff willing to work with you to make it so. The remarkable thing about JPII isn’t our goals, but that you achieve them, and you do so because your teachers help you. You recognize this. In survey after survey, you cite your teachers as to what is truly special here. Here are some of your recent comments:

The teachers are very good listeners and really help us.

The teachers are willing to take the extra time to help a student in his or her studies.

The rigorous academic curriculum is made possible by teachers who are willing to put time into helping students.

Before JPII, I never had a teacher who would stay after school to help with any of my problems in their class.

Teachers give students plenty of opportunities to go to tutorials and get help with their work. The teachers are friendly and understanding.

I love how the teachers at JPII put an effort into making learning new concepts fun and how they’re always helpful and there if you need help with something.

The faculty and staff are just amazing. From those who have been there from the beginning, to new teachers, all seem to be linked in a drive to assist students in their pursuit of learning and academic excellence. Within the classroom, most of the teachers are unmatched on their ability to keep student interest and to convey the information for their subject. It is also apparent that the teachers sacrifice a large amount of time outside of the classroom, both for helping students and for coaching, chaperoning, and leading many clubs and activities.

An outgoing senior said: The strengths of JP II are definitely the powerful relationships that are built between faculty and students. The teachers genuinely care about whether or not their students succeed. I know I was able to develop wonderful and unforgettable connections with most members of the faculty and staff.

I have been honored to work for seven years with teachers who are the very top of their profession— knowledgeable about their subject matter, caring, generous with their time, self-sacrificing, deeply committed to the mission of JPII. When I came to JPII in 2008, I told the Board that when I looked under the hood of JPII, what I saw was a Ferrari. And I am happy to report that all the data says, 7 years later, we’re still a Ferrari. I’ve had the great privilege of sitting in the driver’s seat and steering this race car, but what makes a race car isn’t the driver, it’s the engine—and the engine here is a magnificent group of men and women who work here, who teach here, and who coach here. 

Before I announce those teachers whom you believe are especially worthy of recognition as part of our annual Harvest Awards, can I ask that all of our teachers and staff stand, please, and can we thank them as a school for all they’ve done for us?

The Harvest Awards are annual awards we give to teachers whom you believe are exceptional here at JPII. Teachers so recognized are given a plaque, and through a generous donor, a cash award. The donor insists this award be determined by a vote of the students, so these people I call forward are teachers you’ve chosen. I will only add that I regret we cannot honor twice as many people this morning, because when I do the annual performance reviews at the end of the year with department chairs and Mrs. Phillips, we have many exceptional faculty and staff here who are also deserving of this award.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Embracing the Optimism," Part I: Our Students

Student assembly address

As most of you know, I’ll be returning to my hometown of Mobile, Al in June. The archdiocese of Mobile has asked me to begin a new Catholic high school in Baldwin County. Baldwin County is on the eastern shore of the Mobile bay, and includes Gulf Shores and Orange Beach to its south. I’ll begin working on that this summer, and the school will open a year later in August of 2016. I’ll have the opportunity to do as my predecessor Mr. Broekman did here: to design the program, hire all the teachers, begin creating the traditions that define the school, and hopefully start something as special as JPII.

And this place IS special. For the next couple of weeks, as I prepare to leave, I want to reflect on why I think so—what has catapulted JPII to becoming one of the very best schools in Tennessee--and I would argue one of the best Catholic schools in the country--in just 13 years. Next week, I’ll talk about our teachers, in conjunction with announcing the Harvest Awards that you voted on last Thursday. But this week, I want to talk about YOU, the students of JPII.

We take a lot of inspiration from our namesake, and I think it’s worth remembering who he was every now and then. Yes, he was Pope John Paul II. But before he was pope, he was one of Europe’s brightest minds, with 2 PhD’s--one in Philosophy and another in Theology. He spoke 8 languages fluently, and wrote books that were critically acclaimed by university professors. He was regarded as a world-class scholar long before he was pope. But he was more than that: he wrote plays, he was an actor, a poet, and as our ski-jacket display makes evident, a skier, a kayaker, and even played soccer in his youth. Most importantly, he was a man of deep faith, prayed about two hours each day, and took his commitment as a priest very seriously, preparing good homilies, visiting the sick, trying to live as Christ did. He was a true Renaissance man, a “Man for All Seasons,” and as you know, we talk about that Renaissance ideal for all of us quite frequently around here.

But it isn’t just talk. On Friday morning of last week, we received back results from the regional Math competition last week, involving students at all levels in our program. We killed it, winning more awards than any other school. On Friday night I  watched our girls’ softball team lose a heart-breaker to Baylor in 10 innings (they came back and beat GPS 2-1 on Saturday), then watched our girls’ lacrosse team jump out to a remarkable 11-0 lead against a good GPS team (It was a good weekend for them--they beat the #2 team in Kentucky on Saturday). The lacrosse game well in hand, I walked down to watch the baseball team win game 2 of a 3 game series against MBA (they completed the sweep on Saturday). Incidentally, our spring sports teams are having a heckuva a year--we're competitive or very good in every sport. Come out and support them! On Sunday I came back to JPII to support our amazing fine arts program in its annual “Arts in the Round” set of performances: special congratulations to Caitlin Barnes, whose art work won best of show. Our jazz program also performed, as did our theater program and our choral program. You couldn't walk away from Sunday without being impressed.  So taking just a snap-shot of our school based on this weekend--Math, sports and the arts--you get a sense of this school's renaissance emphasis. 

And if I drill down and look at individual students, I see students like senior Jacob Telli, he of diminutive size for a catcher, who blasted a three run home run on Saturday and who has been starting catcher on our baseball team for 3 years. It’s worth remembering that Jacob has been the backbone of our jazz ensemble during his four years here, playing the trombone, and that he’s a National Merit Finalist. Or how about Casey Thompson, another senior, who is an all-state football player but also carries over a 4.2 GPA? Or Madison Taylor, one of the best soccer players in the state, with a cumulative over 4.1? Or Thomas O’Berry, who just signed to play lacrosse next year with Oglethorpe next year, also with a 4.1+ average? Or Rachael Leonard, who plays 3 sports, is one of the leaders of Search in the diocese, and has a 4.1+ average? (BTW, did you know we have 14 signed signed up to play at the college level next year?) Or how about the number of seniors who've done international service work—people like Michael Koen, Grace Wood, Anna Veazey, or Christian Cook? Seniors, you graduate in less than a month now, and it's time to say it: you're really a remarkable senior class. Because you’ve embraced this renaissance ideal, you are living very full lives, very busy lives, but ultimately, very happy lives.  I hope you underclassmen will follow their example and embrace all JPII has to offer as they have done,  as you move your way to graduation. 

Pat Weaver, our former admissions director, used to say we get kids to walk through the door of JPII using their language: they may come to JPII to be a lacrosse player, or an artist, ­or a scholar. But we want them to walk OUT the door when they graduate using our language: not either/or, but both/and—a baseball player, and musician, and a scholar, and a person of faith, or whatever the combination of things turn out to be. St. Irenaeus once said “The glory of God is the human person fully alive,” and I think when we embrace all of these possibilities for our lives, discover talents we didn’t know we had and develop them, we do, in fact, honor God by accepting his gifts for us.

JPII is a special place because you guys embrace the optimism it has in you. You know, by reputation, that if you come to JPII, you’re going to have to work a little harder. Yes, you’re going to have fewer snow days. You'll earn 32 credits for graduation, about 4 more than anyone else. You may be asked to take A.P. courses that stretch you, whereas other schools may allow you to take an easier path. This place will bump you out of your comfort zone. But you came to JPII anyway, and even those of you whose parents made you come,  you eventually accepted the challenge and bought in.

This place is special because you’re special: because you push yourselves, because you want more for yourself, because you know that God is calling you  to do something great with your lives---something great for yourselves and your future family, but also great for this community, this Church, and who knows, maybe even great for this school down the line with a Mr. Carell-like gift when you become rich and famous. 

Jesus said, “To him who much is given, much is expected.” Keep working hard, keep embracing the optimism, and God will bless you. And He will continue to bless this very special school through you. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

In Praise of Magnificent Women

I was 23 years old, right out of graduate school at Notre Dame, when I was hired to teach Theology and English at Montgomery Catholic High in 1985.

By then, "Sister Martha" Belke had been teaching Chemistry and Introductory Physical Science there for almost twenty five years. 

She had been assigned to be my mentor, but I confess I was too cocky to seek out her help early in the process. No matter. Teaching has a way of humbling people, especially in their first year, and Sister knew to be patient. I can’t remember the details, but somewhere around early October there had been an incident between two freshman boys involving toothpaste in my class. “They won’t listen to me, “ I confided to her, exasperated, “and it seems like every day is a battle. “

She looked at me, choosing her words carefully. “Teachers talk too much,“ was all she said.

At first I was a little taken back. “Of course they talk a lot, “ I thought to myself. “It’s called TEACHING.” But as I considered it, I realized she had nailed my problem in those four words: I had come out of graduate school, where lecture was the only mode of teaching, and so I naturally adopted that model for my classes. But it will come as no surprise to any veteran teacher that students cannot sustain their attention for 60 straight minutes, and this was leading to a lot of mischief and disruption. I began varying things up—lecture, group work, 5-minute video clips, research, mini-competitions, visits to the library, different types of assessments—seeking Sister Martha’s help each step of the way. In short, I was learning the CRAFT of high school teaching, and now, thirty years later as a high school teacher and principal, I credit her for helping me learn this craft in what has become my life’s work.

It was with real sadness, then, that I heard she had passed away at the Sisters of Loretto motherhouse in Nerinx, KY this last weekend.

She was the last of the Loretto sisters to teach at Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School, retiring in 1997. One hundred and twenty five years earlier, in 1873, four hearty women from that order were invited by Bishop Quinlan of Mobile to start a Catholic school for girls in Montgomery, Al--the capital city of the Confederacy, a city still ravaged by the after-effects of a disastrous war. There was strong anti-Catholic prejudice in the south at this time, and certainly these strangely dressed "outsiders" raised suspicions, but that didn’t matter to the sisters—they were doing God’s work. The opening of the school was delayed by a yellow fever epidemic, and the nuns offered their school building as an auxiliary hospital, caring for the sick in such an admirable way that they earned the trust and respect of the city fathers, many of whom placed their daughters in the school when it opened. Though it became a co-ed school in 1929 and a diocesan school in the 1950's, the school remains as the oldest continuous school in the state of Alabama, private or public. 

Sister Martha came from that same stock of tough women. Once, after listening to a faculty member complain about being asked to give up her free period to cover a class for a sick colleague, she told her: “It’ll be OK. I was only 19, two years short of getting my degree, when I got my first teaching assignment. I had fifty kids that year… “ (pausing for effect). “Twenty five were in the first grade,” she continued, “and twenty five were in the second grade. There was an aisle down the middle, and if they looked out across the aisle, they had their recess taken away.”  

Along with Miz O's “twelve paragraphs,” Coach Arban’s “reading quizzes,” Mr. Frye’s challenging Algebra tests, Mr. Tokarz's Freshman theology class, and Dr. Doyle's Physics and Calculus classes, Sister Martha’s freshman year “blackbox” experiment for I.P.S. and “sludge test” for juniors in Chemistry were the anchors of Montgomery Catholic High’s academic program for nearly a quarter of a century. Sister believed that students should DO SCIENCE in high school classrooms rather than LEARN ABOUT science in textbooks—she was a “hands-on” teacher long before “hands-on” became a catch phrase—and she spent countless hours setting up labs for her kids in class for the next day so that they could learn as scientists learn. As is true of every excellent, iconic high school teacher I’ve ever met,  it was a labor of love for Sister Martha; she cared about her students and the kind of people they became, and worked hard to challenge and stretch them in her classes.  

One of the great highlights of my professional life was inviting Sister Martha back to Catholic High for the dedication of the Sister Martha Belke Science building in 1998. She commented then that despite the 150+ years the Loretto sisters had founded, staffed and led Catholic schools across the country, this was the first time, to her knowledge, that a building had been named after one of them. I'm pretty sure they deserve more than just one, but we were happy to be the first. 

Her picture, shown here, hangs in the Belke Building today. May she and the magnificent Loretto sisters always be an inspiration to Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School, to its students and to its teachers. We owe her, and them, a great debt. 

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The End of the Story

Student assembly, Easter Monday

"We are Easter people”, St. John Paul once said, “and alleluia is our song!”

TV producers would love my wife. Every emotional turn the movie makes, my wife makes that turn with them—highs and lows, joy and sadness--she experiences the whole gamut of emotion right along with the movie. She gets so into it that I tease her sometimes, reminding her that she’s watching a movie in a box in our living room; that she’s not a character in the movie itself. And if the movie ends well, she’s happy. And if ends sadly, it will take her a couple of days to get over it.

That’s why, whenever I’ve seen a movie and she hasn’t, she will ask me: “Will I like it?” That’s code for: “Will everyone live happily ever after?” If I tell her no, then she won’t watch it. "There's too much sadness in real life," she says. "Why would I want more sadness?"  It’s why she likes Disney movies so much.

A few years ago, we were both watching a made for TV movie that neither of us had ever seen, called “Blood Vows,”-- not the title of a movie that my wife would typically risk watching, but it starred Melissa Gilbert from “Little House on the Prairie” fame and a young and dashing Joe Penny, whom my wife liked. The story line is that Melissa Gilbert meets the man of her dreams, Joe Penny, who is fabulously wealthy, mysterious, good-looking, but also, impeccably well-mannered and charming. They get married in a huge, traditional Church wedding, so everything seems to be going well. However, over the next couple of months, Melissa Gilbert begins to realize what the family business is: Joe Penny is the only son of the godfather of the Mafia, and she’s now married into the family, the wife of a crime lord. Having made a blood vow to be faithful in good times and bad, what is she to do? That’s the fundamental conflict of the movie. At first, she tries to live with it, but the more she knows, the more horrified she becomes, and in the climatic scene, on a gazebo in the back yard of the family mansion late at night, Melissa Gilbert tells Joe Penny that she can no longer live this double life, that she loves him, but she cannot condone the family business, and that he’s going to have to make a choice between his family and her. Penny, with love in his eyes, says “Of course I choose you," and they kiss and embrace, when suddenly, a shot rings out and Melissa Gilbert slumps in his arms. The shot pans back, and the viewer sees the gun in Penny’s hand, and you realize he’s killed her. The shot pans back even further to a window in the mansion with a silhouette of the godfather rocking in his chair back and forth. The movie ends instantly and the credits begin rolling. 

My wife was so mad she could barely talk for a week.

I tease my wife, but there’s an important lesson in all of this about human nature: When we know the ending, when we are confident that things will end well, we can endure just about anything. 

Living as Jesus wants us to is a joyful life, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy one. Sometimes, we’ll be ridiculed for it, excluded by others, whispered about. Some times we’ll feel as if others take advantage of us, knowing that however badly treated we are, we’ll not sink to the level of our persecutors and retaliate or seek revenge. Sometimes, it feels like the bad guys win in this world, that the cheaters DO prosper, despite the phrase to the contrary. Sometimes, we wonder what Job from the Bible wondered: Why does God allow bad things to good people?

But God’s answer to that is the resurrection of Jesus. No matter how difficult the story, we know the ending: We, too, will be resurrected one day, and this world of ours, however much it appears that evil triumphs over good, God, ultimately, wins, goodness prevails, He redeems us and saves.

And that’s why, I think, authentic Christians are people of JOY. Think of someone you know who is truly religious—the real deal, not just a pretender. Every such person I’ve met in my life who is that kind of Christian is a person of great joy—optimistic about the future, kind, genuinely interested in how you’re doing, fun to be around. They are convinced, deep in their soul, that yes, life is sometimes difficult, sometimes sad, but that ultimately, sadness doesn’t have the final say. These people approach death with courage, knowing that they’re on the other side of a great homecoming, where they’ll be reunited to those they love, and ultimately meet their final destiny with the Lord. They know the end of the story. 

We, too, should be people of great joy. We, too, know the ending of the story. We are Easter people, and alleluia is our song!


Bad joke for the day: Why do kleptomaniacs have such a hard time understanding puns? Because they always take things literally.