Not By the Book

Summer reading at Catholic Memorial means more than just sand between the pages. It brings life to the school's mission before the academic year and beyond.
The theme of the all-school read is a theme for the entire year, not just a theme for September first,” says Al Murphy, associate director of admissions. Sat beyond a desk arrayed with novels, each with their own dog-eared corners and colored page markers sticking out, is Murphy, fresh out of an interview with a family curious about joining CM. “The way our program builds out actions and activities from the book tells families who we are,” he says. The books read each summer by students, faculty, and parents alike are not simply picked up, put down, and forgotten. Instead, they are the beginning of an exploration into themes across curriculums, conversations with authors and characters, and a call to action for each of their readers.

“We all remember summer reading experiences that felt like checking a box,” says another member of the Admissions office and Assistant Head of School, Brian Palm. “You read the book, maybe you answered a question or two on the first day of school, and then it was done. That makes a student feel like, even though they just invested a fair amount of time over the course of the summer, the school didn’t place the same amount of value on the book as the time they just put in,” he adds.

Conversely, readers at CM receive a considerable return on investment. No book ends with a single assignment, rather each lays a foundation to build upon throughout an academic year. Each book is selected intentionally based upon how its themes can be reinforced across CM’s diverse range of experiences.

Devotion by Adam Makos tells the true story of Navy Wingman Thomas Hudner Jr. and his heroic, attempted rescue of squadron mate Jesse Brown. Brown, a hero in his own right, overcame racial injustice to become the US Navy’s first black pilot. Hudner risked his life in an attempt to save Brown after being shot down in the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. “The ideals of sacrifice and camaraderie in Devotion are already part of our mission; the book allows us a real example to teach from,” says Palm. 

During the 2023-24 school year, Devotion has been expanded upon in a number of ways. Theology classes use Hudner’s example of sacrifice to talk about service to others in the Catholic tradition. History classes use Brown’s story to facilitate Socratic seminars about race relations. Middle school engineering classes explore the mechanics of airplanes while math classes solve equations about gravitational force and wingspans.

“Teaching character requires one to link the head and the heart,” says the President of the school, Dr. Peter Folan. “I believe the best way to do that is by having students read something that then becomes fully integrated into their lives.” 

Perhaps the most impactful integration comes when a person affiliated with the book pays a visit. In the case of Devotion, Thomas Hudner III, the protagonist’s son, arrived with his father’s Medal of Honor in-hand, accompanied by Commanding Officer Cam Ingram of the USS Thomas Hudner, a Navy destroyer ship currently deployed off the coast of Israel. 
Hudner told tales of his father both as a hero and as a man. He reminded students that anyone can be extraordinary and that everyone in the auditorium was capable of taking part in similar stories in their own lives. After which, Cmdr. Ingram described the formidable firepower of the USS Thomas Hudner and the pinpoint accuracy of its missle systems. To describe the student applause as thunderous would be an understatement. 

“Hearing these stories reinforced by the people who experienced them allows our boys to see that real people can do amazing things,” says Folan. 

When the CM community read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind in the summer of 2021, author William Kamkwamba brought his story of ingenuity and adaptability to life when he visited the school in November of that year. Kamkwamba’s speech spotlighted the realities of poverty in third-world countries, a new perspective for many on Baker Street, while universally resonating with the creative ambitions of teenage boys. He recounted his childhood in Malawi where, with the hopes of saving his family from starvation, he designed and built a windmill out of bicycle parts. “An example like Kamkwamba’s,” says Murphy, “shows the necessity of interdisciplinary learning. In building a windmill for his village, William combined creativity and art with engineering. Like a basketball player using their weak hand; we want analytical students to work on creativity and vice versa.” 

For Folan, it’s all about preparing students for their lives beyond CM. “The world that our boys are graduating into is filled with ambiguity,” he says. “We need to equip them with the mindset that we can make a difference, we can solve real-world problems.” Murphy seconds this notion, saying, “the days of teaching content are behind us now that boys have access to so much fingertip information. Now we’re trying to teach them something that they can’t find just by a quick Google search. The question becomes how do you teach creativity, or loyalty, or drive?” 

The answer to that question came with the program’s first book, Tom Rinaldi’s The Red Bandana, in 2019. The story of equity trader and volunteer firefighter Welles Crowther is well known. Thanks in part to the annual Red Bandana football game hosted by his alma mater, Boston College, Crowther is remembered for his heroic sacrifice while saving 18 lives in the attacks on 9/11. The familiar story was expanded upon when students made a tactile connection in honor of Welles, as recounted by Folan. “When the community writes the names of heroes in their lives on red bandanas that they tie to the gates of our school, that has an impact,” Folan says. Furthering the book’s significance was a visit by Welles’s mother, Allison Crowther. She gave an intimate and impactful talk that raised strong emotions even in the stoic dispositions of President Folan and Principal Andrew O’Brien. 

“Everything we do in our education begins with answering the famous question, ‘Why am I learning this?’” says Murphy, reflecting on the intention in selecting a book suitable for grades seven through 12. Each fall, it’s the faculty who get the ball rolling for the next summer read. “It’s collaborative,” says Murphy. “Suggestions come not just from the English faculty, but the math department, engineering, admissions, and so on.” As the decision narrows, faculty from across disciplines brainstorm how they would reinforce themes and pitch lesson plans for the following
school year. “Our interdisciplinary approach,” notes Folan, “allows faculty members to take their gifts and talents and infuse them into a theme of a book. Because we link this process to the greater community, the unique value systems and imaginative views of our faculty allow their giftedness to connect in. And that’s, I think, the secret sauce.” From there comes the reading of many books and ideating on the programming that can be built from them. Before making the final decision, Dr. Folan insists that “the speaker and the programming are as important as the book itself. It’s the continual reinforcement of it that connects it to the boys. You can have a Pulitzer Prize winning book,” he continues, “but if we can’t bring it to life, I don’t think it will have the same positive effect.”

It is this infusion of life that prospective families notice when touring CM. “We make a point to stop on the tour and talk about the all-school read. The program immediately establishes to families the sense of community,” notes Palm. “Parents often take note of the books we read and the value we place on our boys,” he continues. “I’m often asked the question, ‘Why doesn’t every school do this?’”

The summer reads are often historical stories that relate to present-day issues. Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon exemplifies courage and ingenuity in the story of Italian cyclist Gino Bartali who, during World War II, sheltered a family of Jews and smuggled identity documents in the frame of his bicycle. Among the diverse range of topics covered through programming in the classroom, history classes discussed the theme of antisemitism. Dovetailing on the theme was program speaker Josh Kraft, who called the community to action on behalf of Kraft Family Philanthropies and their Foundation to Combat Antisemitism alongside the Patriots Foundation.

Al Murphy recalls a tour he gave with a Jewish family that year. “They were surprised,” says Murphy, “that a Catholic school was doing more about antisemitism than their local public school in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. That conversation,” he adds, “reinforced to us that our job is to take care of each other.”

As senior Alex Pappas prepares to graduate into the twenty-first century world described by Dr. Folan, he looks back, saying “these books are so vital and integral to our curriculum that every project I remember doing in seventh grade somehow tied back to The Red Bandana. Having that inside view of events like 9/11 and historic wars, especially for a bunch of teenage boys who weren’t even alive for the severity of them really inspires us to follow the call to service exemplified in the stories.” Reflecting, Pappas says, “I’m not going to forget when Welles Crowther’s mom spoke to us before a football game. I’m not going to forget William Kamkwamba teaching us to finish what we started, no matter the obstacle. I’m not going to forget when Tom Hudner III showed us his dad’s Medal of Honor. Five years later,” he adds, “I absolutely remember walking to school in the early autumn and, in the breeze, all the red bandanas were flying from the fence. Seeing that symbol on the literal front door of CM speaks volumes about what we were taking away from the experience.”