Character Matters: It’s What We Believe Here at CM

By Mike Kotsopoulos
How do we practice what we preach? Our all-school read of Tom Rinaldi’s book 'The Red Bandanna' encouraged our faculty to build active lesson plans that change the way young men meet and understand role models in today’s world.
Michael Norwood sat next to his grandfather and skimmed through his notepad one last time.

He looked over each of his questions, reciting them word-for-word under his breath.

After a few minutes, he looked up. 

An 8th grader at CM, Michael smiled at the camera and cleared his throat before watching the red light flash on top of the device. 

Behind him, a poster commemorating the World Trade Center hung on top of a stool. 
“Ready?” he asked his grandfather. 

“Ready,” his grandfather replied in a steady, stern tone. 

Michael recognized the tone. His smile disappeared. After practicing the interview a few times, he and his grandfather understood the weight behind Michael’s first interview question. 

“Do you remember where you were on 9/11?” Michael asked.

His grandfather took a deep breath. A short yet deafening pause filled the room. 

Amid that pause, Michael thought back to the instructions that Ms. Ellen Eberly, his 8th grade English teacher at CM, provided him. She had asked his class to interview a person who lived through the 9/11 attacks after the CM community finished its all-school read of The Red Bandanna over the summer.

Knowing that his grandfather served as a Boston police officer during that time, Michael chose him for the assignment. How his grandfather responded to the question, however, proved more valuable that any lesson learned in a textbook.

In fact, it gave Michael the role model he needed in his life during the most formative time of his adolescence.

While Ms. Eberly’s assignment began in early September, its inspiration traces back months ago to a school leadership meeting in April.

And it all began with two simple words.

Character matters.
When President Dr. Peter Folan met with CM’s leadership team in April 2019 to discuss options for an all-school read, he wanted his team to examine the school’s “Portrait of a CM Graduate.”

Created in 2018, the portrait lists key attributes that the leadership team expects its students to carry at graduation and beyond. The words “empathy,” “compassion,” “integrity,” and “resilience” recurred often on this list.

But the word “character” repeated itself most.

This proved fitting. From 2018 to 2019, CM saw its students bury veterans who died with no known living friends or family, launch their own Kairos retreat program, and log 16,000 service hours.

With that in mind, Dr. Folan knew the word “character” defined the CM community best.
“Ethos is the Greek word for character,” said Dr. Folan. 

“We use the word ethos to describe the beliefs, principles, codes, and culture of a community. The challenge is to bring forth the values of an organization. Here at CM, we embrace Gospel values.” 

To reinforce these Gospel values, the CM leadership team and faculty designed programming for the 2019-20 academic school year that best taught what it means to grow into a man of character.

Knowing that boys learn best with an active curriculum, they decided to introduce students to role models who embody this ideal sense of character. But, who represented this high sense of character best?

Tom Rinaldi’s The Red Bandanna gave them the real-life role model they needed.

The Red Bandanna chronicles the final day in the life of Welles Crowther, known as the “Man in the Red Bandanna.” Welles worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center during the attacks. While growing up in Nyack, N.Y., he expressed a desire to join his local Fire Department. On 9/11, he died bringing at least 10 people to safety.

Those who survived remembered Welles for the red bandanna that he wore over his face  a personal symbol Welles had adopted as a student at Boston College.

According to Dr. Folan, Welles’ bravery and courage in the face of disaster exemplify the kind of character that he wants CM’s students to embody most. 

“It is hard to be a young man in today’s world,” said Dr. Folan. 

“It is our job to provide role models and guides for our students on their journey. We are a school that understands how the conversations in the classrooms, hallways, stage, and athletic fields fundamentally impact our students.” 

Word spread quickly about the all-school read.

The excitement culminated when the school dedicated its “Friday Night Lights” football game to local first responders.

Weeks later, word made its way to Nyack, N.Y. when Dr. Folan called Mrs. Alison Crowther, Welles’ mother, to tell her about the project. He even asked her to share the story of her son with the CM student body on the day of the football game.

Honored by the gesture, she agreed and arrived to a sea of red bandannas tied to the school’s front fence in honor of her son.  

Students wrote the names of their own personal heroes on each of the bandannas. After Mrs. Crowther addressed the student body, Dr. Folan presented her with her own red bandanna to tie to the fence. 

Later that day, former New England Patriot Mr. Joe Andruzzi, whose brothers served in the New York City Fire Department on 9/11, addressed the football team prior to their game. At halftime, CM honored a group of first responders and two alumni who died on 9/11, Mr. Mark Bavis ’88 and Mr. John Cahill ’62. 

Mrs. Crowther stood in solidarity with the entire CM community during the commemoration ceremony.

“Just like my son, each of you is called to greatness,” she told the students. “That’s why you’re all here. I want you all to reflect on those heroes in life who remind you that character matters.” 
In the days leading up to and following Mrs. Crowther’s visit, CM administrators encouraged the faculty to program curriculum around The Red Bandanna. The programming ranged from inviting role models into the classroom to reflections on role models in the lives of students. 

In Ms. Arndorfer’s freshman English class, her students watched the movie Rudy. Together, her class compared that film’s main character, Rudy Ruettiger, to Welles. Then, they took a step back and identified heroes in their life who displayed those same character traits.  

“In discussions and written reflections that we’ve had in class, many freshmen have asserted that integrity, or having a quality of ‘wholeness’ is an essential character trait of a CM Knight,” said Ms. Arndorfer. 
“Every student saw this as the defining character trait of Welles Crowther on 9/11.” 

Meanwhile, in Mr. Bradley’s history class, students listened to American Diplomat Mr. Patrick Geraghty ’82 speak about his commitment to public service. Mr. Geraghty, who currently serves as the deputy spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, works in the midst of international conflict on a day-to-day basis. 

“Both [Mr. Geraghty] and Welles were both willing to put their lives at risk for the protection of others,” said freshman Will Masferrer, a student in Mr. Bradley’s class. 

“They both show what it means to be a man for others.” 

When Ms. Eberly began planning her own assignment, she decided to team up with fellow middle school faculty member Mrs. Barbara Flynn. 

Mrs. Flynn, a theology and history teacher, wanted her students to research news articles and other primary sources related to 9/11. She showed her students videos from the Library of Congress that feature witness testimonies from New York City on that day. 

“I think my students learned the importance of being able to interview, listen, and ask important questions,” said Mrs. Flynn. “[The viewings] really helped them learn from the primary sources.” 

Aware of Mrs. Flynn’s assignment, Ms. Eberly challenged her middle school students to take another step. She wanted them to use their newfound primary source research skills and interview someone in their lives who lived through 9/11. They then needed to find out the role that figure played in their community in the days that followed and write a feature article about them.

“Many told me that they didn’t really understand how traumatic 9/11 was for everyone until they listened to the person they interviewed,” said Ms. Eberly.
 “Some were even reduced to tears.” 

When her students turned in their assignments at the end of September, Ms. Eberly marveled at their work. 

“I’m amazed at who they chose to interview,” she said. “Students really found heroes in everyday life. They found character in the people they interviewed. Just interviewing these people gave them a role model to look up to.”

According to Ms. Eberly, plenty of students knew of the tragedy that occurred that day. However, few knew anything about the heroes who brought hope to the country in the months after 9/11.

“They were about parents, godparents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and neighbors,” said Ms. Eberly. “So many of these people had already played an integral role in their lives.”
By the time Michael Norwood finished his interview with his grandfather, he learned that everybody possesses the potential to serve in extraordinary ways—no matter the distance.

Now retired, Michael’s grandfather, Richard Devoe, told him that he remembers the morning of September 11, 2001 all too well. He worked as a police officer in Boston at the time. Before he left the house to start the day, a scene on the television screen inside his South Boston home caught his eye. 

“He just assumed it was part of a movie,” Michael later wrote. 

A thick black cloud of smoke engulfed the Twin Towers, his grandfather explained to Michael. A news station reported that a plane had crashed into the North Tower on accident, he remembered. Then, when he watched the second plane crash into the South Tower, he knew the country was under attack.  

Michael nodded his head and took in every word. 

Born four years after 9/11, he had heard about the attacks in history class. He had read about them in textbooks too. Of course, his parents mentioned it whenever September rolled around, he said. 

But Michael, like most children who were either too young or not yet born in September 2001, never understood the courage and character of the first responders who risked their lives saving others that day.  

 “My grandfather traveled back-and-forth from Boston to New York every other week in the wake of 9/11,” Michael wrote in his report. 

“He had to see some gruesome things that caused a lot of trauma. Ever since his time at Ground Zero, he’s been dealing with respiratory issues from the debris around the wreckage.”

Michael learned that, during the clean-up of Ground Zero, his grandfather helped identify the remains of countless civilians, supported shell-shocked survivors, and assisted in removing tens of thousands of pounds of debris over the ensuing nine months.

Now, with four years ahead of him at CM’s high school, Michael feels inspired to follow the example set by Welles Crowther and his grandfather. He wants to sign up for the Blessed Edmund Rice Solidarity Initiative, a travel-based program that immerses students into the lives of those living on the margins.  

Until then, he plans to continue serving in the Random Acts of Knightness Club in the middle school. The group sends students to areas of need across the local Boston community. 

And of course, whenever the opportunity to serve presents itself, Michael knows how to act. 

“Anytime I see someone in need of help, whether it’s someone who drops their books or if someone forgets their lunch money, I try and do whatever I can to best help them,” he said.
 “I saw Welles in the actions of my grandfather. Now, it’s my turn to carry out those actions too.”