Better Man Blog
From becoming to being while at Vancouver College.
The purpose of this blog is to share inspirational stories that demonstrate how our students at Vancouver College are already exceeding our stated goal of ‘becoming better men’. In fact, as the narratives here illustrate, they are already well capable of being amazing people during their school years. This is not to say that they, like all of us, don’t occasionally fail to reach that ideal exemplified by Blessed Edmund Rice in their daily actions, but rather that they can already use their many talents for the betterment of society today. This is especially relevant in 2019, as society increasingly challenges old stereotypes of masculinity, and asks what young men in particular have to offer our troubled world as they mature into adulthood.
If you have a story you would like to share for the Better Man Blog, please email Mr. Daryl Weaver at email@example.com .
- Memories of Henrik - February 2020
- Brownsville Redux - November 2019
- When No One is Watching - October 2019
- The Class of 2019 Edition - May 2019
- The Bronx Edition - March 2019
- "Toxic" Masculinity: Is This an Issue at VC? - February 2019
- The Power of Connection - December 2018
- It's a Journey - October 2018
- Opening Doors - September 2018
- The Graduation Edition - May 2018
- The Brownsville Edition - April 2018
- Starting Young - March 2018
- What Motivates You? - February 2018
- Christmas Stories - January 2018
Henrik Parker was a student at Vancouver College for as long as I have been there, and I am honoured to say that I was his high school principal throughout his three years in our Senior School. While we are not a small school, with over a thousand boys, and while Henrik was not a loud or brash young man, I feel that I did get to know him very well, and my life has been blessed by his presence in it. I also know that there are many, many people in our greater VC community who can say the same thing.
I was recently forwarded an Instagram post from one of his classmates in the graduating class of 2019 that sums it up very simply with the clear brevity of social media: ‘Still at a loss for words, rest in peace to one of the good guys.’ Because that’s who Henrik was when you stripped him down to his essence: one of the truly good guys.
Because that goodness shone through so brightly and definitively, it is easy to forget what an exceptional human being he was in other ways - and he was certainly never one to trumpet his own feats of excellence. Instead, humility was like second nature to him. I actually met Mattias before I met Henrik: during our Walkathon in 2016, I took the opportunity to run the route, as someone who never misses the chance for a quick dash. I was feeling pretty good near the end of that 6K route on a brisk September morning when a streak of red hair went zooming past: yup, Mattias, only in Gr 7 and a foot shorter than he is now, but already pushing the envelope. I recall how he celebrated his ‘victory’ for finishing first in the school, only to later join him in being upbraided for breaking the first rule of a walkathon: don’t run. Clearly, these Parker boys move to the beat of a different drummer.
So Henrik seemed like a lower key version of Mattias when I did make his acquaintance. I was struck immediately by what an ideal student he was. Sure, he scored ridiculously high marks, but that is not unique at our competitive school. Instead, he seemed to have a depth, a wisdom beyond his years, a maturity that eluded most of his fast-paced, results-obsessed peers. Henrik was a lad I often encountered still in deep conversation with his teachers after class, right through break and even lunch, as he explored the depths of a concept or questioned an essential understanding. Alway respectful, but always inquisitive. What a joy to find such a mind in a world obsessed with marks and ‘What do I need to do to get into UBC?’
And then we found out that Henrik was a world-class sailor. I believe it was his parents who first mentioned it to me, seeking permission for him to miss class for a race in some exotic locale. I encouraged Henrik to share his awesome results with me, so I could share them with others as an inspiration for those pursuing excellence in their own ways. But, again in his humbleness, he rarely did, always being self-effacing if I questioned him. In his senior year, he shared with me that he sometimes felt that he missed out on the true brotherhood of VC, because of the long hours he had to devote to sailing instead of to a VC sport or activity. But I know from the honour of being in his group at our Encounter Retreat in Grade 12 that he was much loved by his brothers, many of whom are here today on Reading Week break or with us in spirit. Thank you, Class of 2019.
That love of Henrik was no better exemplified than in his work as a peer mentor. A couple of years ago, he was described to me as the ultimate peer mentor (though I understand that his good friend Darren Zhang might be the successor to that title). So many boys spoke to me of his impact on them through his academic tutoring and mentorship. A current Grade 10 boy told me he would have never passed Middle School math without Henrik. Another young man just posted a personal message on Instagram:
In his own wisdom, Nate touches on what made Henrik so special and successful in helping others: he didn’t see them as an inferior other, but saw them as equals, those he could share his many talents with. This even went so far as Henrik taking them sailing and literally teaching them the ropes. In other words, Henrik epitomized what we hope for amongst the best of our boys at Vancouver College: he certainly left us as a ‘better man’ and will continue to shine as an inspiration in our community for many years ahead.
At Henrik’s recent Celebration of Life, one story struck me most deeply. His father shared that when Henrik was a little boy of four or five, he was on public transit one day when a man who had suffered serious burns got on the bus. In his beautiful innocence, Henrik pointed at the gentleman, and said’ “I think he needs a hug’. He then walked over and embraced the man. As they separated, tears streamed down the cheeks of the man, and every other passenger on the bus was either crying or smiling, often both. I can think of no better example of seeing Christ in everyone, a wish I have for each of our boys. Thank you, Henrik.
‘Where is everyone?’
That was our alarmed reaction as we entered the Catholic Charities Sacred Heart branch in McAllen, Texas, just across the border from Mexico, where we had planned to spend most of our week working with asylum seekers on our recent Brownsville Faith In Action Immersion experience from November 16-23, 2019. For the past six months, our team of twelve boys and three teachers had been planning and meeting weekly with the expressed goal of trying to serve this marginalized population and to delve into the complexities of their challenging situation.
Sacred Heart had been at the nexus of our first VC trip to the border in March 2018, and our boys then were deeply affected by the hundreds of refugees to which they gave basic food, clothing, and most importantly, the first kind smile the weary migrants may have encountered in months. Sacred Heart had also been all over the international news this past summer, with celebrities giving them major donations and their leaders nationally recognized for their tireless work. So it was with some frustration that we learned upon arrival in Texas that recent policies enacted by the Trump administration had effectively stopped all non-Mexican asylum seekers from crossing the border; instead, an enormous camp of 1300 refugees sat huddled right across the bridge from Brownsville, waiting patiently in the roughest conditions for their cases to be heard by US Immigration.
Brownsville 2019 team faces the ugly reality of the border wall for the first time.
A less resilient group of young men would have complained over the sudden change and their inability to engage in face-to-face encounters with those they wanted to serve. However, the ‘twelve apostles’ as I dubbed our boys, never hesitated for a moment: they sought out other ways to be of service, be it scrubbing the refuge center from end to end, painting parking lot stripes and street addresses in an impoverished suburb of Brownsville, or whitewashing a long-term asylum-seeker residence in nearby San Benito. They also devoted creativity and energy to assembling treat bags and care packages for children and teens trapped just on the other side of the border. Finally, they spent their last day painting, cleaning, setting up and hosting an open house for the Good Neighbour Settlement House in Brownsville, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen that caters to both the local homeless and the refugees that do make it across. As Ms. Wicken said, these boys embraced the spirit of ‘ganbatte’, meaning they simply saw a need or task that needed to be done, and they did it.
The boys preparing care packages and treat bags for youth & children in the Matamoros refugee camp just over the Mexican border.
What was even more special in my eyes, though, was how these young men found ways to connect and learn with locals and make every moment and chance encounter meaningful. Whether it was the Central American unaccompanied minors on excursion from their detention center that we happened across at a local museum, or the Sri Lankan refugees they spoke with at La Posada Providencia, or the middle school, lower-income students at our brother school, Guadalupe Regional Middle School, they opened their hearts and minds to these warm, loving, inspiring people. The ultimate highlight was mid-week, when we sat down in the presence of greatness, in a 90-minute informal discussion with Bishop Daniel Flores, who has defiantly stood up to the inhumanity of the treatment of migrants. One of our boys ultimately asked him our big question:
‘What can we, as a few young Canadian men, do to help, to do our part? What do they need from us?’
His Grace’s answer mirrored that of so many others who were selflessly serving the migrants, and it was, somewhat surprisingly, not a plea for funds or material goods.
'Be our voice when you return home. Advocate and witness to what you have seen here. Understand that no one can consume the Body and Blood of Christ, and then turn away from the needs of these people begging for our help.’
So powerful was his message that our boys left that meeting humming with inspired energy and stimulated intellects. It was ultimately fitting, then, that on our last night, Mr. Seppelt was able to join a group called Team Brownsville that crosses the border daily to deliver meals to the migrant camps in Mexico. When he returned and shared with our boys how he had seen the face of Christ in each migrant he served an orange or cookie to, he broke down with emotion. In that moment, we all felt closer to that ultimate message of servant leadership, of seeing Christ in the marginalized, of witnessing in solidarity with every human being.
Connecting with students at our brother school, Guadalupe Middle School (Its motto: ‘Our goals: college & heaven!’), in Brownsville.
In reflection, this intense, sometimes difficult, and ultimately enriching experience may seem to have only touched the lives of twelve of our over one thousand boys. But I look forward to witnessing each of these twelve as they go out and live the message of Bishop Flores, both within our community in the short-term and in the way they lead the rest of their lives as truly Better Men.
Inspired by the amazing Bishop Flores, the Brownsville team prepares to return and witness in solidarity with those they have encountered in the Rio Grande Valley.
In VC’s Senior School, we have an inspirational banner, provided by our Value Project team, that reminds our boys of one of the best definitions of character or integrity; “What do you do when you think no one is watching?” Attributed to one of my favourite Catholic thinkers and authors, C.S. Lewis, it resonates because it implies something intrinsic about our students’ behaviour, unmotivated by external rewards such as marks, accolades, or even a compliment. What is wonderful is when someone, unbeknownst to the young man, observes his admirable behaviour and shares it, so that the story gets out and can inspire others to become Better Men.
We’ve only just started the school year, but already I’ve had the joy of witnessing three such examples, one occurring before school even began.
Every year, we have a small number of boys who are new to VC join us in our Senior School. Understandably, it can be hard and even bewildering to join such a tight-knit, extroverted community like ours at this time of one’s adolescence. To help smooth that transition, we ask a few current students to ‘buddy up’ with a new boy, emailing him before school starts and meeting with him for lunch and a tour of the school the day before anyone else arrives. This year, one new student missed the memo about his buddy meeting and showed up on the first day of school a little confused, attending the Middle School opening assembly instead of the Senior School. What made my heart sing was witnessing how his ‘buddy’ actively sought him out and took the initiative to take him under his wing for those first few days. Since then, I’ve spotted the buddy student seeking out our new student when he was alone in the cafeteria at lunch, keeping him company and never making a big deal about it. This is character and empathy in action.
The second instance occurred the week before last. We do sometimes hear from our neighbours when our boys are bordering on boisterous in our community, so this note from a local transit rider really warmed our hearts:
"Last Wednesday mid-afternoon I was on a crowded #41 bus heading east. The passengers were jostling for space and it was a rather confused and ungracious scene. Students from Vancouver College boarded the bus and sat down. And then one stood up and offered his seat to a not very elderly woman. And that started a chain reaction of others offering their seats. No fuss; no sense of duty. Just the right thing to do."
With a little sleuthing, we were able to find out who this noble lad was, and in our weekly assembly, Mr. Roselli shared this story. Again, this was not because this boy was looking for accolades; he simply acted from that inner goodness which we are always trying to both instill and encourage. The sharing of the story was not meant to pump this boy’s ego, but to inspire others to tap into that place of goodness when the simplest opportunity presents itself.
Finally, yesterday I heard a story about our new Urban Studies 12 class, which went on a field trip to downtown Vancouver last Friday. This excursion included viewing an exhibit at the Art Gallery, exploring the Downtown Eastside, and visiting the Vancouver Police Museum. The last spot on this tours is, by all accounts, a unique and thus popular educational destination, with many groups coming in and out. According to my source, the tour guide was flabbergasted by both the courteous respect and the deep desire to learn among our boys. He commented that he had been doing this tour for many years, but had never had such an engaged and classy group. Again, this collective group of gentlemen were not out to make an impression as much as they were just being their true selves. I have had the personal pleasure to drop into their classroom several times and I am consistently blown away by their engagement and the level of discourse and discernment they attain. They are already functioning on the level of a university seminar course. More importantly, they have already become Better Men in every sense of the phrase.
These are just a few of the inspiring stories of our boys that I am certain I will witness this year. At our staff meeting this week, we talked of focusing on gratitude and the positive stories all around us. As we look forward to the welcome break of Thanksgiving this weekend, I know I will actively take time to thank God that I am part of a community that values, encourages, and witnesses young men becoming the best versions of themselves.
This is the story of a group of young people who are about to leave our community as the better men we always knew they could be: the Class of 2019. This year, our school community has been focussing on the pursuit of excellence. For many, the focus tends to be on the product: the excellence, and this grad class certainly has a lot of that. Thousands of dollars in academic scholarships will be celebrated at Grad in June, many top athletes will go on to star in their sports at the university level (Chris, Adam, Noah and Owen in football, John in soccer, Nick and Lukas in lacrosse, to name a few), while others have been selected to some of the top American art colleges (Felix and Bruce, for example). But every graduating class seems to have a pervading personality, and, if you ask their teachers, this group would be simply described as a bunch of nice guys. However bland or beige that moniker may seem, I would argue it is exceptionally difficult to be so nice, so kind, so empathetic of each other, in our post-modern world of social media diatribes, a society that celebrates nastiness, makes memes out of meanness.
So I will share with you a few of their stories; not an exhaustive list, simply an illustrative one, that shows a little of their character. I’ll start with Kelly, whom I had the pleasure of reminiscing with recently as he reflected on his last few weeks here. On the outside, Kelly looks the part of the ideal VC grad: captain of our first-ever Provincial soccer championship team, basketball star, confident public speaker at our recent Grad Dinner, the kind of guy who always has a smile on his face and a lighthearted spring in his step. But he has had his struggles: academics, especially math, has not always come easy to him and he has had to face those challenges head-on. In his elementary years, long before he became an athletic leader here, he was diagnosed with a rare disorder, Legg Perthes, that literally hobbled him and made him vulnerable to teasing. He never forgot that lesson, and actively sought out those most vulnerable to bullying in his grade throughout middle and senior school. It is no wonder that he is now universally liked and respected by his peers and teachers alike.
Then there is the story of Ryan. When very young, Ryan was diagnosed with a brain-based disorder and medical experts said he would never write, read, or even talk. Now sporting a nearly 90% academic average, Ryan overcame those limitations, showing incredible determination in the face of early diversity. It is not surprising that he was able to translate that strength of character elsewhere, as over the past few years he has won several major Track & Field awards, and is one of the highest ranked high jumpers in Canada. But despite this exceptional success, you will never meet a young man who is more humble or kinder. I have witnessed him, every day over the last three years of his Senior School career, shining a little light in everyone’s life through his daily positive attitude; as he says himself: ‘That is why when I walk down the hallways at VC, I smile or greet people, because I want Vancouver College to be not just a meaningful experience for me, but for everyone else.’
Then there is the story of David. A popular classmate, strong academic student, and soccer star, he was a front-runner for Student Council president last year, but lost a close race. Rather than dwelling on this failure, he has turned his senior year into one of true servant leadership. He led an Encounter group of his peers in October, and inspired his group (which included me) with the depth of his reflections and his gently effective leadership. More notably, on more than one occasion this year, he has sought out an adult in our community because of his concerns about vulnerable, hurting members of his class. His teenage empathy and wisdom exceeds that of many adults I know.
Finally, there is Sean. When he entered Senior School, he was one of the first students I met at Vancouver College, as he asked for a meeting with me. It was an unusual one: rather than asking for a specific need, he wanted to talk because he wanted to be sure that he could become the best version of himself and make the most of his high school life. And he certainly has: more than any single student in his fabulous class, Sean has come to typify excellence and service to others. Always one of the top students academically, he has now become the undisputed voice of the grad class, visibly as their Student Council President but more deeply as their advocate and example of excellence every day. He is a top provincial-level decathlete and solid cross-country runner. He spearheaded a student-faculty exploration of the House System (think Harry Potter) as it would pertain to Vancouver College. He has delved into our campus ministry program, leading our first Encounter retreat in October, and participating in, and later becoming a spokesperson for the marginalized he encountered on, our immersion trips to Brownsville, Texas, and the South Bronx, New York. These were transformative experiences for him and for all those he interacted with because of his openness and willingness to grapple with the deep issues and intensely personal situations there. There is no doubt that he is met his goal set at our first meeting: he is truly leaving here a better man.
Sean and one of his after-school care ‘buddies’ in the South Bronx
This list could go on and on - these stories only serve as a sampling of the outstanding character and deep empathy that resonates through the Class of 2019. I am proud to stand with them this June to celebrate their pursuit of excellence, but more importantly, their pursuit of goodness. I’ll end with an apt quote from Sean, featured at the closure of this year’s graduation video:
'This grad year is special because we are all pretty real...guys know who they are, and so they get along. They’re not trying to put up ‘weird’ images of themselves, but are pretty real and honest with themselves. As a result, there are good connections between everyone.’
Congratulations to the Class of 2019!
‘Are you sure this is a good idea? We usually mainly have girls volunteer here.’
So said Norah Schaft, volunteer director at St. Ann’s nationally famous After School Program, which has been featured in several books and NY Times articles for its fabulous work educating and empowering the underprivileged children of the South Bronx, the poorest Congressional District in America. She was referring to our plan to have a group of twenty-two VC boys spend ten days co-teaching, coaching, and connecting with their children, ranging in ages from K to Grade 6. Chris Seppelt, who led this Faith In Action experience this past March, had formed a key ongoing relationship with St. Ann’s and had taken many groups from his previous school. The difference, as noted, was that mainly female students had signed up to go with him in the past. He was also initially unsure how our boys would respond.
Brendan (Gr 12) poses with his ‘buddies’ at St Ann’s After School Program
I was fortunate enough to witness how this worthwhile risk worked out. Without exception, every single boy went into the experience with the right attitude, determined to make a difference in these children’s lives. Most importantly, they were able to individually connect with them on a personal level, thus providing positive role-modelling and inspiration that will help to keep these young people in school and focussed on literacy and numeracy. Within a day or two of their open-hearted and focussed work, the St. Ann’s teachers started to express their wonderment with our boys, and by the end of the week, the phrase ‘best volunteers ever’ was overheard frequently.
I am equally proud to say that this impressive group of guys came through just as well in our other volunteer placement in the Bronx, at PS/MS (Primary School/Middle School) #29 just a few subway stops away from St. Ann’s. This was where we spent most of our full school days, and again, the boys were assigned to different classrooms, this time from Grade 2 up to Grade 8. The school’s dynamic principal had intentionally planned to have a subset of our boys work with her school’s PE classes, using sports as a vehicle to break down the differences between our privileged boys and her students who live mainly in a nearby dilapidated housing project. Again, our VC students allowed themselves to be vulnerable and opened up to the many young people they met. Within a few days, our boys were popular fixtures in their classes, and many an overworked teacher thanked me personally for bringing them as they helped so much with the many academic and socio-emotional needs of their students. One teacher even commented that a mom had brought up at their parent-teacher conference that week that the ‘new teachers’ (i.e. three of our boys) had helped her son understand algebra for the first-time ever. On the last day, their amazing principal thanked our group, saying they had made such an impact that she would be able to correct future misbehaviour amongst her students by simply saying:’What would your Canadian buddies say about how you are acting? Don’t let them down!’
Owen, Jason, and Jonas play a competitive basketball game versus the much younger but equally talented boys of MS 29 in the Bronx.
Immersion experiences like these have the most impact when our boys have the opportunity to reflect and make sense of these powerful interactions, and to integrate their learnings into their understanding of our world. That was certainly the case in the Bronx, as each time we had an evening debrief, the boys dug deep into underlying issues and causes of the injustices they were witnessing, and shared for far longer than originally scheduled. Now back in comfortable Vancouver, their next challenge is to be the voices for these people they have met and to advocate for them. While they’ll do this in the short-term through assemblies and class visits, the experiences and lessons they’ve had the opportunity acquire will go with them their entire lives. Here is one participant’s (Sean’s) sharing already through the BC Catholic. No doubt, these will shape them regardless of which path they take upon leaving Vancouver College, leading them to become even Better Men who will truly make a difference in our world.
‘Hold the stretch! Don’t forget to breathe!’
Last week, our own yoga instructor, Ms. Nina Greaves, led over a hundred of our top athletes through her weekly yoga session in Cartier Hall. When she showed me some of the images (see below), it was yet another moment that gave me hope in the current climate. I am sure you have also heard about it: the vitriolic discussion from both sides around the currently trendy term ‘toxic’ masculinity, and the spotlight that now shines on all-boys’ and Catholic schools, in particular.
VC athletes stretching it out in a yoga session in Cartier Hall last week
The upside of these swirling controversies is that I and others in our community have had reason to critically examine our culture and programs, which is always a healthy exercise. Aside from the openness to the likes of yoga, an activity sometimes mislabelled as ‘feminine’, these are some of my reasons for optimism regarding this topic:
I have the profound privilege of being able to visit many classes in our Senior School, and the depth of discussion around the complex challenges of modern masculinity is impressive. For example, one Religious Studies 10 class recently dealt with power imbalances between young males, and quieter boys were confident to step up and speak out about when they feel uncomfortably pressured. As a result, some of the more extroverted males in the class had an eye-opening moment in which they realized the potentially negative aspects of the power they wield in even casual social situations. One even spoke to me about his growing empathy for his classmates here, and a growing understanding around his own previous comments to his peers he had intended as ‘just joking’.
We intentionally engage boys in experiences that will develop that empathy, by exposing them to interactions with the ‘other’. These experiences range from the hypothetical in a classroom discussion on economic disparity, to local outreach at the Door Is Open or Bumpin Bakery, all the way to international service trips where they dig deep into root causes of social injustice and grow in awareness of the randomness of the lottery they have won simply by where, when, and into which family they were born.
In their Religious Studies 10 and 12 classes, perhaps made easier by the absence of girls, they have honest and open discussions around sexuality, love, consent, and the treatment of women. These work particularly well because of the trusting relationships they have with their teachers, and these lessons are reinforced by professional experts we bring in. Two recent examples are the excellent Sexual Integrity Presentations by the Crisis Pregnancy Centre in all of our Grade 10 classes a few weeks ago, and the impactful ‘Don’t Be A Bystander’ presentation by the BC Lions to our Grade 11s. The latter focussed on the issue of consent, and included a follow-up session with twenty-five of our student leaders, as we know peers have tremendous positive potential to influence each other’s behaviour at this age and stage.
In what could be considered the most ‘macho’ of our courses offered here, Strength Training 11 & 12, I conducted an informal poll with a number of student athletes during a few recent class visits, while also collecting feedback around culture from our Athletic Director and weight trainer Mr. Scott Vass. Instead of referring to any hidden, body-image-obsessed, masculine stereotypes, the boys talked and wrote about the healthy, open-minded, and mutually supportive atmosphere that dominates our workout routines. The physical education faculty and coaches are hyper-aware of the role of culture in their classes and on their teams, and respond in a timely fashion to any behaviour or comments that could be of a toxic nature.
Finally, I had the fortunate experience of attending the opening night of our major annual drama production last night, High School Musical. While the energy and talent of the performers blew me away even more than I expected, I was struck by how this was yet another healthy sign of our culture of masculinity at Vancouver College. While ostensibly about high school cliques, the show featured, as usual, a wide range of our boys, and whether their passion lies in more athletics, academics, arts, or service, they destroyed so many stereotypes in coming together as a cohesive team, across traditional friend groups and in defiance of the overly masculine accusations littering Twitter and other media these days.
VC & LFA actors wow us once again during High School Musical 2019
Vancouver College is not perfect, and we are always reflecting on our current culture and looking to improve our practice. But I know it is a healthy place for boys to learn who they really are, how to behave in modern society, and ultimately, how to leave this world a better place. Supported by an involved parent community and an incredibly dedicated faculty and staff, our boys will graduate as truly Better Men.
‘What do you want for Christmas? How about a book?’
‘I just got a new one about Goldilocks - can I read it to you? Once...upon...a...time…'
So went the FaceTime interchange I witnessed between Brendan, a Grade 12 lad, and a Grade 2 student in the south Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States. This young reader attends St Ann’s school, and the oldest Christian Brothers’ school in North America, All Hallows, is nearby. In early March 2019, twenty-four of us will be lucky enough to visit both schools in person, but the groundwork and connections are already being made through technology. And it is ultimately the long-term relationships and mutual understanding created by such interactions that will make these connections most impactful.
Brendan & Jonathan FaceTime with Grade 2 students (while Darren does his math homework!)
This is all part of the next step in the evolution of our service and outreach program. Geographically, the program is expanding: our second visit to Peru also happens in March, we are planning to return to Brownsville next November, and the possibilities of a South African partnership are exciting. More substantially, though, we are providing the opportunities for our boys to go deeper. Many still hold the noble notion of outreach as simply a chance for us privileged folks to provide material or service to those less fortunate - and, of course, there is an imperative for us to do just that. However, at the heart of our Irish values is the Essential Element that calls us to ‘stand in solidarity with the marginalized’, those at the edges of our own local and global society. This demands us to go further, to walk in their shoes, to advocate on their behalf, and to actively campaign in the long-standing Catholic tradition of social justice, for equity for all.
This is indeed an ambitious goal, and realistically may be one we do not completely achieve in any of our lifetimes. However, the first step is for us to recognize the Christ in the other, to break down those walls between us, to realize how similar we are, to make those human connections.
Our entire staff and Senior School student body were blessed to be visited by Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, in late November. He is a Jesuit priest working in the roughest areas of inner city Los Angeles, and has been internationally recognized for his hugely successful gang rehabilitation programs. While here, he inspired our boys to go beyond the superficial charity sometimes inherent in collecting their thirty hours of annual service work. Speaking from decades of his own raw experiences with ‘homeboys’ and ‘homegirls’, he credited any success he has had (and his programs have helped re-integrate more gang member than any other organization worldwide!) to his insistence on meeting each of them as the person they are, gifts from God, fellow human beings with the same talents and foibles as any of us...but complicated by terrible burdens and backgrounds we don’t have. They have endured far more, and overcome obstacles we cannot imagine. As a result, they often teach us more than we can offer them. Father Greg related that he was interviewed on NPR recently and asked how many gang members he has brought to Christ: his response was: ‘None; instead, they have each brought Christ to me’.
Father Greg Boyle poses with Mr. Taggart, who sports a ‘Just Us’ Homeboy Industries t-shirt
So our boys are now being challenged to make those human connections in their daily lives, be it at the Door Is Open or Bumpin Bakery on the downtown eastside, or at our various Edmund Rice Christian Brother communities worldwide. The opportunity to start to comprehend the value of these relationships now will lead them to richer lives, fuller understandings of complex social issues, and ultimately a better world for all. With much thanks to Mr. Chris Seppelt for setting it up this year, the Bronx connection is just one of those many opportunities our current and future boys will have to understand one of the mottos of Homeboy Industries, ‘Not we and them - just us!’
Poster in Mr. Seppelt’s classroom challenging us to pursue the power of connection.
‘Jesus loves us! Jesus loves us!’
We always cringe a little bit when we hear our boys use this or similar chants that are on the edge of being inappropriate at least, or exclusionary and irreverent at worst, but they seem to pop up every time we compete against our rivals at St. George’s in any event. This October, we are in the midst of another intense encounter with our secular friends across town, in the annual two-game soccer series. The combination of history, with its bitter legends and overblown stories, plus the current over-familiarity between individuals in a game that will decide who goes to the playoffs, can bring out the worst in our boys. As I talk to individual players (and even some adults) , I am troubled by how fixed they are on the ‘us versus them’ mentality. So it was after Game 1, that I was impressed by two real men who stepped up in the face of this trend. One was head coach, Ryan Shams, who immediately pulled the whole group together after the fairly heated and chippy game, and called them out on their own inappropriate language, at a time when I’m sure many of them were expecting praise for a sweet victory. The other was team captain, Kelly O’Brien, who reacted immediately to the final whistle by calling the team together to give three cheers to the Saints’ boys, thus preventing any victorious preening by our boys. As his coach commented, instinctive actions such as these are why Kelly is a natural leader in our community.
Yet Kelly is not atypical of his peers. It is becoming increasingly evident to me that our senior class this year has already evolved into Better Men. Two more examples of this happened this week. First, many of them voluntarily participated in the Thanksgiving meal organized cooperatively by Mr. Seppelt and Ms Redden at the Door Is Open past weekend. While the hours of preparation and the serving of a delicious meal to the local inhabitants of the downtown Eastside was significant, what was more impressive was how our boys took that next step, sitting, talking, and eating with the people they served.
Tyler connects with a local at the Bumpin Bakery/Door is Open Thanksgiving feast last weekend
These boys have deconstructed that notion of ‘us versus them’ by making themselves vulnerable, reaching out, and getting to know these people as individuals, each with their own stories, rather than viewing them as a perennially problemed, homogeneous community. Mr. Seppelt is guiding more of this sort of paradigm shift by connecting our boys through Skype with elementary children in the South Bronx. While they are a vulnerable population very prone to dropping out of school in their impoverished, crime-ridden neighbourhood, it is the power of human story that will open our boys’ eyes to true understanding and genuine empathy with this marginalized community.
Finally, I finished up my week on Encounter retreat with many Grade 12s. While I cannot reveal the stories and ceremonies that fall under the cloak of confidentiality at this transformational event, I was blown away by how many of the boys spoke of the word ‘love’ in the context of their relationships not just with their families, but with each other as well. It is so refreshing to see them break down the stereotypes of ‘bro culture’ and take off the masks society imposes on them.
So, in a week in which we celebrated the official opening of our new building by having a boy from each year from Kindergarten through Grade 12 represent their peers, I am left to reflect on the journey each boy undergoes as he goes through his time at Vancouver College. Certainly, there are bumps, and the path is rarely straight up. In the pressure of the moment or heat of competition, mistakes are made and wrongs are committed. But I also see an increasing number of inspirational occurrences that convince me that there is truly something special happening at our school. Our boys are showing that they can and will do the right thing, that they understand and empathize with the marginalized who they see as their brothers and sisters, and that they absorb and learn from all their experiences to truly become Better Men before they walk out our doors.
- Daryl Weaver, Assistant Principal, Senior School
‘Where are you boys from?’
‘How come you’re here today?’
‘We’re trying to help out...it’s just part of what we do.’
Like it is for a parent, nothing makes a principal or a teacher happier than hearing spontaneously from someone outside the community about the exemplary behaviour of our boys - not so much when they win a competition or excel in academics, though of course those victories have their own sweetness, but when they exhibit the goodness that we know is in their hearts.
Early into this school year, I have already had a couple of opportunities to be the recipient of such tidings. One occurred on the second weekend of the school year, when I was lucky enough to accompany a group of fifteen of our lads to the Door Is Open, a non-profit on the Downtown Eastside that serves meals to those in need. While our own Brother Gattone has taken several groups of Grade 12s down there over the past years, this was the beginning of a new monthly initiative organized by a new-to-us-but-highly experienced teacher, Chris Seppelt. He admitted to me he was nervous beforehand, as although he has taken student groups down there for years, they were often female-dominated from his previous co-ed school. He wondered frankly if boys of a certain age would be ready and able to show empathy and openness at the same level. The morning consisted of a few hours of food preparation, a truly communal mass at Sacred Heart Church, and then the serving of lunch at the Door Is Open. We wrapped up in the early afternoon with a reflection session in which each participant shared their observations of the experience. Afterward, Mr. Seppelt told me he was blown away: not only did our boys openly reach out to the people they served, treating them with dignity and warmth, they were able to dig deeply into the underlying causes of such injustice in the debrief session. What encourages us most of all is that this is only the beginning of this venture: how much deeper and further can our boys go on this journey of social justice? I know many of them will return in October and each month to serve at the Door Is Open, while some are planning to travel to the Bronx next March as part of our international outreach program.
Later in September, I helped chaperone our Grade 10s as they volunteered at local Catholic elementary schools as part of their annual retreat, which comprises of a day of spiritual inspiration and reflection led by Mrs. Wicken, and a day of community service. I supervised a groups of boys at St. Patrick’s in Vancouver and St. Joseph the Worker in Richmond. ‘Supervise’ turned out to be somewhat strong of a term: as soon as our boys had the opportunity to interact with the younger elementary students, they rose to the occasion with aplomb.
Aidan B, Jedson H., & Marcus L. teach ukulele class to St Patrick’s Elementary students.Their task was to split up and act as teacher assistants in each of the elementary classrooms, and to show initiative in helping in any way necessary. Needless to say, the younger kids looked up to them with stars in their eyes, as several were alumni of the schools we visited. It was also awesome to see boys that do not always shine in our classrooms at VC rise to the occasion in helping out their youngers. But what impressed me most of all was the feedback from the teachers and principals at both locations. Again, they were blown away by the diligence, respectfulness, helpful nature, and over character of our boys. One related how they were just touched by their goodness, be it in including all students in an activity or simply holding the door open for another.
Duke W. & Oscar O. paint a bookshelf for Grade 1 at St. Joseph the Worker Elementary as part of Grade 10 Outreach 2018.So the school year begins, new doors open, and our boys will find even more opportunities to become the better men they were meant to be. I look forward to bearing witness to this process, a pursuit of true excellence of character, this year.
- Daryl Weaver, Assistant Principal, Senior School
Last Sunday before mass, I met a lady who asked me where I worked. When I said Vancouver College, she became very animated and told me both her sons had graduated from VC a decade ago and how much influence it had on their lives. ‘Grade twelve was such a special year for both them’ she said. ’It was when everything that had happened to them there really made sense.’
Reflecting on her words during this graduation season, I realized I had heard echoes of them several times over the last year, and though they are generally true, I feel that this year’s senior class have embodied this notion to a greater degree than many. During last week’s Graduation Celebration, I shared with their parents some of their special accomplishments. As usual, several already know they are off to play sports at the collegiate or university level in football, lacrosse, basketball or hockey, thanks to the accolades and scholarships they’ve earned while being supported by brilliant coaches and devoted parents for years. We are also in the midst of collecting information about the likely millions of dollars in academic scholarships these boys have garnered while heading off to engineering, business, art schools, fashion design, science and humanities programs at post-secondary schools of their choice. I have witnessed their artistic, dramatic, and musical talent this year at various concerts, Arts Week, during Romeo & Juliet, and even in Disneyland.
Senior concert band performs at the Canadian Anaheim Music Festival in Disneyland
Most impressively, however, they have embraced the challenge we’ve given them to make a difference in the world now, while at Vancouver College. Some of these efforts have been minor, even mundane, whilst others have been more obvious and flamboyant. In the latter category, the Class of 2018 will be remembered as the boys who ‘brought back the dance’, as they presented a sophisticated proposal for hosting a school ‘spring fling’ for the Grade 12s and their dates. I was pleased but not surprised to see that they followed through on promises of classy behaviour and top-notch style! This will also be the graduating class forever known for the resurrection of VC Hockey, staging an electric two-game series with rival St. George’s. While the energy of the fans and the classiness of our players stood out, my favourite moment was when both teams spontaneously embraced in the spirit of sportsmanship.
VC-Saints Hockey Series ends in brotherly embrace despite bitter scoreboard result
Finally, the intellectual highlight of the year was the first-ever TEDx Vancouver College, beautifully student-run and organized by Timothy Nguyen and his team. An opportunity to be inspired by so many innovators and entertainers inside and outside our community.
‘Endeavour’ was the inspirational theme for TEDxVC
But these grandiose gestures are not stand-alone; every day, I witness acts of kindness, generosity, or character that are simply typical of what being a better man is all about...and it can be harder to follow through in these minor ways on a consistent basis! One incident last week that stands out occured when I was touring the halls and found several of the seniors out of class. Somewhat suspicious, I challenged them on what they were up to, only to find out that they were headed to the primary classrooms to read stories to boys as young as kindergarten. No simple entertainment, here, though; these lads were using the power of narrative to convey one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to their junior audiences, and were reinforcing the stories with small group discussions about how these gifts can come alive in everyday life.
Ethan, Ryan, Cam, Ruben, & Matthew share their stories & life lessons with their Elementary brothers
Perhaps more than any other achievement it is this legacy that the Class of 2018 will leave behind: creating positive role models for their younger counterparts here, impressions that I know will linger far after the cheers have gone quiet and awards have gathered dust. We will miss this group of gentlemen, but look forward to future years of excellence in all things, but most especially, in character.
- Daryl Weaver, Assistant Principal, Senior School
The US border agent frowned.
‘Brownsville? Are you sure? You really don’t wanna go there…’
But we did: fourteen of us representing the VC community on our annual spring break outreach trip, connecting for the first time with Guadalupe Regional Middle School, an Edmund Rice Christian Brothers school located on the very tip of Texas. What we faced, though - and what the customs official was referring to - was the hot-button issue of immigration, as Brownsville sits on the Rio Grande, right across from Matamoros, a much larger city with a high crime rate. The Brownsville border itself is a conduit for refugees seeking asylum in the US from mainly Central American countries.
Over the next eight days, while their peers slept in, lay on beaches, or generally relaxed, our boys painted and cleaned out storage sheds, tended community gardens, cooked and served meals, and distributed clothing, all in aid of refugees and other ‘undocumented’ immigrants. However, although there was a plethora of physical tasks, the most impactful experiences for our boys occurred when they interacted directly with these marginalized people. The two most intense opportunities for these were at Sacred Shelter in McAllen, Texas, and at La Posada Providencia in nearby San Benito. At Sacred Heart, our boys welcomed asylum seekers arriving from several harrowing weeks or months of living in fear and harassment on the road. They fed, clothed, and provided showers for folks from newborn to middle age, but most importantly, treated these beaten down people with dignity, playing with the children and sharing a welcoming smile or simple Spanish phrase with the older ones. At La Posada, the boys spent the day teaching English on a one-on-one basis. Here, again, the simple task of practicing the alphabet quickly turned into witnessing astounding personal stories of hardship for these longer-term refugees from as diverse cultures as the Congo, Cuba, and the Ukraine.
What impressed me most of all on this trip was not how hard our boys worked or how open their hearts were to these downtrodden (though both of these were highly impressive as well!), but how they struggled deeply with the shocking realities they were facing. The long and intense work days inevitably turned into deep and involved discussions that often lasted until midnight. I watched as our boys grappled with the complex issues of immigration after having witnessed the personal and tragic stories of the victims caught in an unjust system exacerbated by political gamesmanship. Their global outlook went from ignorance to oversimplification to genuine empathy and outright rage over the course of a few days of action and reflection. They found it difficult to accept that they could not solve the problems they encountered, but were ultimately empowered in understanding their mission to witness and advocate, truly be the voice for these voiceless as they return to our lives of privilege.
I encourage you to read more about one young man’s experiences in Brownsville and his story of advocacy here. In my mind, these kinds of transformative experiences in the service of others are the true capstones on a VC education. Encourage your sons to get involved early with our relationships with Brownsville and Peru, and look forward to more of these experiences as we connect further with our global Edmund Rice network in the years ahead. The ultimate expression of our Better Man aspirations lies in these opportunities as we equip our boys with the awareness, skills, and faith, to truly make a difference in our world.
The Brownsville 2018 team outside long-term asylum seeker facility La Posada Providencia in San Benito, Texas. The many people we worked with there could not be pictured for fear of identification as their immigration cases are still in limbo.
As I read over the comments our Grade 12 students are submitting to accompany their graduation photos in their final yearbook, I am struck by how many of them reflect on their earlier days here, and how, though they didn’t realize it at the time, it was those experiences that ultimately made them into ‘better men’.
Then I became aware that some of our youngest boys are already doing extraordinary actions that are shaping their character in profound ways. Two young brothers, Blake in Grade 3 and Felix in Grade 1, learned of our Bumpin’ Bakery student-led initiative, which involves preparing baked goods during the school week and delivering them into the hands of the hungry on the Downtown Eastside each Sunday morning. The boys helped with some sandwich preparation, and, accompanied (as required!) by their parents, joined our senior boys on a Sunday delivery in January.
I’ll let their mom and dad describe the boys’ reactions to this initial encounter with our city’s disadvantaged:
The boys were sad - especially Blake. He was sad to see what homelessness looked like. He noticed the dirty hands, and how they were eating with them regardless. It was very humbling. Felix was nervous (at first)....however, he was faithfully helping from the sidelines carrying bags, buying the groceries…
Eventually, after three weeks, Felix grew more comfortable and is now handing out food along with his brother Blake (who you can see in action below!). One of their more powerful experiences was an encounter with a young man around twenty who came up to Blake and Felix and said, "Look after your brother. You guys are best friends, so you have to protect each other." The boys and their parents had a good discussion about what this meant and why the man might have said it.
The power of this experience is not that it occurred in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada. The depth of learning and character formation that we are witnessing here happens because of the potent combination of experiential learning with support and reflection from family and school, all motivated by our Essential Elements that push us to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed. As these two lads grow older and eventually leave VC, they will no doubt go out into a world that needs them to do just that...and I won’t be surprised to read about their readiness for that task in their own graduation write-ups for their yearbook!
- Daryl Weaver, Assistant Principal, Senior School
‘Mr. Weaver? Can I make an appointment with you? There’s something really bothering me…’
I consider myself blessed to hear this request dozens of times a week, because it means I might have the opportunity to help one of our fine young men navigate a tricky situation and learn from the experience. However, recently I’ve noticed that a fair proportion of these requests actually have less to do with the self and more to do with others and the greater good.
Two recent examples come to mind. One concerns Michael, a Grade 12 student, who has always been motivated to make a difference through his own efforts. Last year, that drive was for resurrecting the tradition of hockey at VC, a longtime dream that is close to realization this spring with a St. George’s-VC hockey series in the works. But this year, Michael’s motivation went a little deeper. Perhaps originally pushed by the student requirement for service hours, he has long served in the migrant outreach ministry for mainly Latin American farm workers in Ladner, serving meals for them through our Sacred Heart Parish. He realized, however, that he wanted to do more, and met me last fall about trying to organize a warm clothing drive through VC. With all of our many outreach partnerships, it was difficult to see how we could sustainably add another. However, Mrs. Vernier, our Outreach Coordinator, saw a connection between Michael’s stand in solidarity with the marginalized migrants here and our planned service trip to immigrants between the U.S. and Mexico in Brownsville, Texas, in March 2018. She invited Michael to share his story with the Brownsville team, and work with them to plan a shared fundraiser. Ultimately, Michael was successful in collecting funds to buy new (not used) clothing for the farm workers. And he has repurposed his hockey series idea so that it is now a fundraiser for our partner Christian Brothers school in Brownsville.
A second instance occurred this week. Two senior students met with me about a former member of our support staff that they had learned had been going through some difficult times, including family illness that was putting a financial strain on his family. They weren’t sure what to do, but they felt strongly that they wanted to do something. At the moment, they are working through how to do so meaningfully, being sure to meet his real needs in a sustainable way rather than simply doing a one-off event that may just make them feel better but accomplish little long-term. Regardless of how this works out, I am inspired again by their motivation; they are looking outwards instead of inwards, and deeply exploring what it means when we say that we ‘stand in solidarity with those marginalized by poverty and injustice’.
I look forward to more conversations that reflect this deeper, selfless motivation. Be sure to share your own stories of how our boys continue to be Better Men.
‘Snow day! Snow day!’
While an afternoon off classes may have been a highlight for some of the boys during our last week of school in 2017, many others inspired me by getting being the superficial feel-good moments of the impending holidays and realizing the deeper meaning of sharing gifts at Christmas:
- The Giving Tree - The Pro-Life Club, the Edmundians, and the Student Council all worked together to make our annual Giving Tree more effective and meaningful this year, part of a school-wide plan to help the whole community shift to the countercultural concept of giving versus receiving. We worried that the community might be in ‘donor fatigue’ with all of the focus on the new building fund, especially the recently completed Walkathon drive. Our fears proved unfounded as each elementary class, middle school homeroom, and senior school advisory chose an item to collect for either our upcoming service-learning trip to Brownsville or the Missionary Sisters of Charity who work on the downtown eastside.
I was fortunate enough to be able to deliver the clothing and supplies to the latter on one of the last days of school, and witnessed the gratitude and humour of these sisters as they received our donations. Looking forward to seeing our boys do the same when they embark on their mission trip to Brownsville and our brother school, Guadalupe Middle School, in mid-March.
- Thinking of Their Brother - With classes going into late December, staff and students alike were certainly ready for the Break and looking forward to spending time at home with their families. But one of our Grade 11 students did not get to spend his Christmas at home, as he is still undergoing treatment at BC Children’s Hospital. Teachers, support staff, and students have been keeping this brave lad in their prayers, but some of his VC brothers wanted to ensure that he knew they were thinking of him. Mrs. Redden helped the boys create a giant card, and Mr. Vass, his advisor, shared it with his classmates in the High Performance Centre. It was heartwarming to see the boy’s face light up when he received the card, but more impressive to me is the empathy our boys showed in wanting to reach out to him and respect his privacy at the same time.
- A Bumpin’ Christmas Eve - Further proof of the depths of their empathy came my way via Twitter on Christmas Eve. While most of us were starting to feast, a contingent of students, alumni, and staff spent their Christmas Eve morning serving coffee and nourishment on the downtown eastside.
Bumpin’ Bakery continues to blow me away, not just because these dedicated young people have never missed a Sunday (regardless of whether it’s summer, spring break, or Christmas), but because this is a student-driven initiative. The presence of alumni in particular shows that these young men understand the power of going beyond charity and connecting personally with the marginalized in our society.
Clearly, our young men at Vancouver College truly understand the power of the real spirit of Christmas. Please share these stories of their character, and, even better, send me any examples you encounter of the proof that they are already becoming Better Men.
- Daryl Weaver, Assistant Principal, Senior School