EL PASO — Can character be taught in a school?
Should it be taught there?
Experts debate it, but Cathedral High School in El Paso resolved the dilemma years ago.
When the sun rises each school day, Brother Nick Gonzalez, the principal, awaits students entering the school. His welcome is a personal one to begin the day.
"Good morning!" he says. "Hey, I had a nice visit with your dad the other day."
That's not what some students might want to hear from their principal first thing in the morning, but Brother Nick greets his students at the door every morning, hand outstretched, expressing a firm "hello" to each new day.
"Good morning, Brother," responds a passing student, shaking hands and returning the smile.
Cathedral High School is not like other schools, and Brother Nick, of the Catholic Christian Brothers order, is not your average principal.
Brother Nick is a member of the Cathedral Class of 1980. He is a Top 10 graduate, now leading the school and demonstrating the intense nurturing that sets Cathedral apart.
As a senior student approaches, Brother Nick, with no prompting, already knows what to say.
“Congratulations! Is it one single scholarship?” he asks.
The student is yet another success story of whom the school of 500 can rightfully be proud.
Like many other schools, good grades are important at Cathedral High, but Brother Nick says they are not everything,
“It’s great if kids get into some awesome colleges — and they do — but it’s the kind of men they are 25 years out, 20 years out that matters most,” he said.
That distinction is a reflection of the mission at Cathedral, a simple but important one: To prepare young men to take up prominent roles in uplifting their community.
The staff and faculty engage in such encouragement daily, through constant attention, high expectations and no excuses.
Much is expected of every student; not just an effort to perform well academically, but to become good citizens, and — someday — good husbands and fathers.
It’s a heavy burden these students take very seriously.
“You don't look forward to that coming in,” said senior Erik Teolez-Giron, “but then you kind of get in the whole swing of things and you say you know this is something that's big… that can be a life-changer."
In 90 days, Erik will receive his high school diploma and his college associate’s degree. It’s been a lot of work, but worth the sacrifice as he prepares to head off to TCU with two of years' of college study already under his belt.
Freshman Juan Ramos already knows he wants to go to the Air Force Academy. He has the grades, but hopes to be recognized “for not only academics, but morality and character.”
Morality and character.
They are important words, repeated words on this campus.
Everywhere the young students look inside their school, the walls are covered with the pictures and exploits of past graduates who have come before them. Admirals, educators, astronauts, community leaders, prominent businessmen and fathers — all dedicated to community service.
As the morning begins, an announcer interrupts activities, bringing all noise to a halt.
“Please stand for this morning's prayer and pledge. Let us remember we're in the Holy presence of God."
In every hallway throughout the school, no one moves.
No student. No teacher.
Every head is bowed; every eye closed, until the prayer is finished.
These are all, in a sense, “men of faith in training.”
“I read something recently that said boys want to be heroic. They want to lead heroic lives," Brother Nick explained. "I believe that.”
To the idea that you shouldn’t be too tough on young people, he responds: “No, I think we're too lenient, and I think that they want more discipline," he said. "There's nothing wrong with calling a kid on the carpet. There's nothing wrong with chewing them out, because I think they hunger for somebody to say 'enough.'”
It’s an approach that is definitely working. No school has contributed more Latino doctors, lawyers and educators to West Texas.
Also, being a border town, two cities are affected by what happens at Cathedral: El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juarez.
Each day, dozens of Cathedral students from Mexico spend two hours waiting to cross the border — sometimes dodging violence that has plagued Juarez — just to get to class.
It’s that kind of commitment that makes Cathedral's regimen of accountability and trust successful and strengthens the ties between the two communities straddling the border.
“We need to find a way to tell people that the heirs to the power structures of both countries are being cultivated here,” said Cathedral Development Director Andrew Napier. "They’re being trained here... they're being raised here."
Junior Carlos Dominguez has already learned that people that are sacrificing for him to do well. “My mom's a single mother, and she's on top of me. The principal and the coach are always on top of me. The book store lady here, she's been my guardian since I was eight; she’s on top of me,” Carlos said.
Role models for the young men are everywhere. Appeals Court Chief Justice Richard Barajas, Class of ’71, runs the Center for Advanced Studies here and has a story similar to Carlos’.
One of 10 children, his single mother worked two jobs to put him through Cathedral. He has 72 people in his extended family benefiting from Cathedral.
“It's the kind of education where the educator is fully engaged with the student,” Justice Barajas said.
It made all the difference in his life, and he told me he placed the same faith in his students during his last election.
“My entire campaign was run by my government class,” Barajas said.
I must confess, I was stunned and asked, “High school students?"
The justice smiled and repeated himself. “My entire political life was in the hands of high school students in Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas.”
Not surprisingly, he won.
By the way, the student who served as campaign manager is now a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the student who served as Barajas' media director is now a Stanford Law School graduate.
Over 86 years, Cathedral has proven that character can be nurtured, but to be successful, two things are necessary.
Number one is this: The students, the educators and the parents must believe and have faith.
“I believe in the idea that we're yeast for this society and this culture, “Brother Nick said. "That’s what we do, because that’s what men do. That’s what men of faith do."
Number two: There can be no excuses.
As Brother Nick Gonzalez told me: “Where you grew up doesn't matter. Your last name doesn't matter. Your ethnicity doesn't matter. Those are excuses," he said. "You want success, you go out and you work very hard at it, and with God's help you're going to be fine.”
The Catholic Diocese of El Paso owns the school, but the Christian Brothers have always been associated with it. While Cathedral is a private school, its students are by no means only from wealthy families. Some — along with their parents — work multiple jobs to attend.