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Merry Christmas, Bill Burke


Once upon a time, Bill Burke was a high school athletic coach. One day, a bit like Stephen Harkness, who was said by later generations of his family to have been so dumb that he tripped over an oil well (he was a silent partner of John D. Rockefeller), Burke stumbled onto Shakespeare. Now a scholar, William L. Burke III is the headmaster of St. Sebastian’s School, an all-boys Catholic day school in Needham, Massachusetts.

As with Levy’s Real Jewish Rye, you don’t have to be Catholic to go to St. Sebastian’s. But the chance of becoming Catholic there is somewhat greater than the chance of becoming Jewish after eating Levy’s rye bread. Students don’t have to be Catholic to be admitted to St. Sebastian’s, but all 375 of them do have to go to chapel. Every day. Students who are uncomfortable with that rule probably … should go to St. Sebastian’s. Despite the chapel rule, the school makes it very clear that St. Sebastian’s is not arrogant about its faith. Nor is it apologetic. Catholic means “universal.”

What is the stated mission of St. Sebastian’s? What is the stated mission of your school? A typical statement reads something like: “The Hedge Fund School prepares students to seek meaningful lifetime success in a changing world”; or “The Brahmin Academy (TBA) trains its students to exercise responsible citizenship through local and global engagement, service, and environmental stewardship”; or “San Dollaromo is committed to excellence in education, preparing the next generation of global leaders.”

St. Sebastian’s mission is probably radically different from that of every public school in the country, as well as most private schools.

A Catholic independent school, St. Sebastian’s seeks to engage young men in the pursuit of truth through faith and reason. … The ideal St. Sebastian’s graduate will be a moral and just person, a gentleman of courage, honor, and wisdom, a life-long learner who continues to grow in his capacity to know, to love, and to serve God and neighbor.

Pursuing truth though faith and reason? Saints alive! Don’t you wish you’d thought of that? Despite that/Because of that [circle one], 16 percent of last year’s graduating class at St. Sebastian’s went to Ivy League colleges. (Hmm … Is that good or bad?)

In addition to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, St. Sebastian’s also teaches its community how to support important academic endeavors. In 1990, when Burke arrived at St. Sebastian’s, its endowment was $30,000. Today it’s $36 million.

Now do you believe in the efficacy of prayer?

St. Sebastian’s is currently engaged in another fundraising effort. It’s trying to raise $24 million, not so much to compete with the well-heeled competition (how many schools seek to engage young men in the pursuit of truth through faith and reason?) as simply to pay the faculty more and build better facilities. If your bonus is seven figures this year (c’mon, we’re all going to know), and maybe even if it’s not, you could do worse than give to a school that teaches students how to live a life according to the best of Western Civ.

. . . And to a school that makes a particular effort to teach students how to write — an underrated skill in the age of 280-character tweeting. The cornerstone of St. Sebastian’s writing program is Freshman Writing, a course taken by all ninth graders. One aspect of writing that students are taught is structure. Students learn that structure doesn’t stifle creativity. Structure demands it. Readers who want to learn more about structure should read the absolutely unputdownable Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric.

Here’s a sample writing assignment St. Sebastian gives its ninth-grade students. Give it a try.

Write a seven-sentence paragraph in this form:

Simple sentence.

Complex sentence.

Compound sentence.

Complex/compound sentence.

Compound sentence.

Complex sentence.

Simple sentence.

(If you’ve forgotten what those definitions mean, you can look them up on the Internet.)

Here’s my attempt: It’s Christmas time again. Even though we know each year that Christmas is coming, we’re never prepared for it. We weren’t prepared for Christmas last year, and we probably won’t be prepared for Christmas this year. We are never prepared for Christmas because it is our nature to think primarily of ourselves; we tend not to think about God and we tend not to think about others. We are human and often selfish, and we need to practice being more generous and godly. If we understand our problem, we can attempt to solve it. It’s not too late to prepare for Christmas.

And it’s not too late for me to thank all my readers, especially those who comment — flatteringly and unflatteringly — from whom I take much pleasure, and often wisdom, to all of whom, as well as to Bill Burke, I wish a very Merry Christmas.