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. 

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