Teaching Empathy and Empowering Advocacy

By Dan Chisholm '03
CM provides students with experiences inside and outside the classroom that will shape their mindsets well beyond graduation.
As Mr. John Burke ’68 walked along the Charles River and made the final turn back to the Hatch Shell, he saw 400 boys wearing red T-shirts with Vince in Bono Malum emblazoned on the back.
Moved by the sight, Mr. Burke turned to his wife Mary and exclaimed, “Here come our boys! My boys from CM.”
Mr. Burke had made the trek through the Esplanade each October since 2001 – the year his world stopped. After a doctor’s visit, Mary returned home to deliver the news that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. By now in 2007, she was in remission, but the Burke family continued to participate in the walk to support her and to show solidarity for those who were just beginning their own battles.
That day served as Mr. Burke’s introduction to the “Sea of Red,” the contingent of CM students, faculty, staff, and parents who participate annually in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk. CM began its participation in the walk in 2005. A few years later, CM helped launch the High School Challenge, which encourages other high schools to form teams, join the walk, and fundraise for the cause.
This October, Mr. Burke returned to Baker Street to share the memory of meeting CM’s team for the first time and to talk about the impact that experience had on his wife and him. Instead of a “Sea of Red,” Mr. Burke walked up the steps into the Ronald S. Perry Gymnasium to see a “Sea of Pink.” The entire CM student body donned pink T-shirts that read “Character Matters.”
The boys immediately connected with Mr. Burke as he shared details of his upbringing in South Boston and reminisced about his own days at CM. As he spoke, the boys sat with rapt attention. While Mr. Burke spent his career at Staples and retired as its Global Chief Culture Officer, he became a CM faculty member on that day.
As Mr. Burke began his reflection, he asked the audience to close their eyes and imagine a woman who had a significant impact in their lives.
“Ask her to take care of herself,” Mr. Burke implored.
Mr. Burke’s talk provided many students with an important perspective – why they walk each October. Some students understand the meaning behind the walk all too well; they have mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or other relatives or friends who have battled breast cancer. For others though, the pain of this disease is unknown. Mr. Burke’s words make the walk more than a Sunday spent with friends for these students. They will feel what the women wearing survivor sashes and their families felt.
“[Mr. Burke’s] speech helped to testify that CM is more than just a place to learn. CM is a family with open arms and can comfort those in need,” said junior Sean Fay of West Roxbury.
CM's Portrait of a Graduate describes intended outcomes for CM graduates. These outcomes call for students to critically examine the ideals and values that guide his life and to respond with compassion, empathy, and generosity to those in need.
But why teach empathy, compassion, and generosity?
“Whenever we respond with compassion, empathy, and generosity to someone in need, because of poverty, or illness, or some other form of marginalization, we are doing what we are designed to do,” said Dr. Michael Corso, Chair of the Theology Department.
CM seeks to help boys become the best versions of themselves. So while academic skills are critically important, the Portrait of a Graduate and CM’s curriculum would be incomplete without core values.
“Many schools focus only on content and academics, but CM inspires us to be better people,” said sophomore Jerry Sewack of Needham.
In 15 years of participating in the Making Strides walk, the CM team has raised more than $240,000 dollars to fund cancer research. Furthermore, the walk has become one of the core student experiences that help them develop empathy and compassion and inspire them to become advocates for those in need. But it is only one of many.
To teach empathy, CM has created a nuanced and intentional system of programs and initiatives. It starts in the classroom when students are asked to consider other people’s perspectives and experiences.
“Inside the classroom, students are challenged to wrestle with complex questions that ask them to use their learning to solve real world issues. Our teachers model empathy by engaging and empowering student voice in the classroom,” said Mr. Andrew O’Brien, CM’s Principal.
In Theology and Economics, a new senior theology course, students are challenged to navigate their own decision making and consider the implementation of economic policies within the context of human dignity and solidarity. In English, students read works like The Other Wes Moore to see how cultural and political divides can impact one’s life.
For students in Mr. Brad O’Brien’s Design Engineering class, students are challenged to design new games that allow people who are blind or require the use of a wheelchair to fully participate. To solve the problem, students have to take on a new perspective.
“Before this project, I didn’t really stop to think about the challenges other people might face. Classes like this will change the way I view problems in the future,” said senior Jamall Griffin of Randolph.
The teaching moments extend beyond the classroom. Students grow lettuce and other greens in a hydroponic Freight Farm to deliver to food pantries like Rose’s Bounty. They travel to Peru to build houses for impoverished families. And they collect hundreds of canned and boxed goods to feed fellow Bostonians at Thanksgiving. These most experiences change the way students think. They have a much better understanding of food scarcity, poverty, and injustice.
Looking into someone’s eyes or hearing people tell their stories allow students to connect with people. And these are the moments that help students develop compassion and empathy; a new mindset which will influence the rest of their lives.
At the end of his talk, Mr. Burke asked one final question.
“Who is going to walk next year?”
More than 630 boys sprang to their feet, cheering and applauding."