FACULTY FOCUS: Fenwick Theology & Film Teacher John Paulett

Renaissance Man: Clevelander, Golden Apple winner and Fenwick Theology/Film Teacher for the past 12 years, Mr. Paulett also is a writer, musician and theater aficionado.

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Mr. Paulett enjoying his vacation in Paris, France, this summer.

What is your educational background?                  

JP: My undergraduate degree was in Linguistics and Classical Languages from Georgetown University. I have a Master’s degree in Theology from Felician University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. During my Golden Apple Sabbatical, I began a doctoral program in religious studies at Northwestern University.

What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?

JP: I taught for 10 years while I was in my twenties — at Lake Catholic High School in Cleveland and then at Kent State University, where I was doing doctoral work in theater and film. I then left teaching for family reasons and went into business. I had planned to work in business for two years but it turned into 25 years. I had always planned to return to teaching. When my daughter was through college, I had my opportunity and joined Fenwick.

What are you currently reading for enjoyment?               

JP: I always have several books going at the same time. Right now, I am reading David Brooks’ new book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. I am also reading a history of the Second World War in the Aleutian Islands. Rounding that out is Wasn’t That a Time? — the story of the folk singing group The Weavers. 

What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?

JP: I am a theater fanatic. In most weeks, I attend two or three performances. I love opera and subscribe to the Lyric Opera. I also subscribe to the Chicago Symphony, the Music of the Baroque and three theater companies. I fill in the other nights with smaller theaters and films at the Gene Siskel Center. I am a writer (I have four books published) and am active writing almost every day. I have a new book in progress that I hope to finish by fall. I play music (guitar, banjo, mandolin) and usually pick up an instrument for a few minutes every day.

To what teams and/or clubs did you belong as a student?

JP: When I was in high school [at St. Ignatius in Cleveland], I was a member of the Debate Team and was fortunate to have some success. I was also in the theater. I acted in several plays and, during my senior year, wrote and directed a play. I sang in the choir and played in a rock band. I was a dreadful athlete and got cut from every sport I attempted. I wrote for the school newspaper and, for a while, published an underground newspaper. The teachers caught me running this off on the mimeograph machine and the paper was ended.

Which clubs/sports/activities do you run at Fenwick?

JP: I have moderated a variety of groups at Fenwick. I was the chess coach and the moderator of Touchstone [the student literary magazine] for several years. I directed the spring musical and was music director for Banua. I have been the moderator of the Photography Club for the last few years. Next year, I will guide the new Film Club.

What quality/characteristic marks a Fenwick student?

JP: Fenwick students generally have a seriousness of purpose that sets them apart. I teach Moral Theology. In that class, we study philosophers such as Kant, Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Most students will not encounter these thinkers until junior year of college. Fenwick students deal with this advanced content with thoughtfulness and diligence.

When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?

JP: I was deeply affected by several teachers in high school, probably none more than my speech teacher Mr. William Murphy. He was an intense, rigorous and sometimes difficult man who drove, excited, demanded and inspired his students. I suppose that my desire to become a teacher started with a hope to be like Murph. I have been very blessed in my life, and I think I have an obligation to give back. Teaching has been the best way I have found to return what I have been given.

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‘Death to Self:’ Bishop Barron’s Calling Began at Fenwick

By John Paulett, Fenwick Theology Teacher

Editor’s note: Monday, January 28, is the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest and doctor of the Catholic Church and patron of students.

Three years ago Bishop Barron (left) reconnected with Fr. Thomas Poulsen, O.P., his former teacher at Fenwick.

Readers interested in exploring the excellent videos of Bishop Robert Barron, the recipient of the Lumen Tranquillum Award from Fenwick High School this year, might start with the short presentation he gives on the man he describes as his hero: St. Thomas Aquinas. The bishop explains how it was at Fenwick, when he was 14 years old, that a theology teacher first introduced him to St. Thomas Aquinas. He describes it as a “bell-ringer” event and goes on to explain how it changed the course of his life. He seems to suggest that this seminal moment led him, through the grace of God, into the priesthood.

Besides his description of the encounter in his freshman theology class, there is another deep Fenwick link in Barron’s explanation of Aquinas. He lists three ideas, which he believes characterize the thought and teaching of Thomas. It is interesting to note how closely the three themes he describes resemble three main ideas characteristic of a Fenwick education. Many high schools talk about the “grad at grad,” or what a graduate will know and be. I would suggest that these three concepts, reflective of the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, might be a good description of a Fenwick student after four years on Washington Boulevard.

Bishop Barron first explains in the video that Aquinas believed there was one truth. He explains that people of Thomas’s time (we might note of our time as well) often thought there were two truths — scientific and religious. Aquinas refused to accept that. He knew that there could be only one truth. If science and religion seemed to be in conflict, there was a problem in either the scientific or the theological method. More thought and study were required.

‘Dominicans are not afraid of reason; we embrace it.’

Barron calls St. Thomas Aquinas his hero.

At Fenwick, we sometimes express this same idea as, “Don’t leave your brain at the door of the church (or the theology classroom.)” It is a characteristic of Dominican education to apply rigorous study and thought to every aspect of our education, including our religious belief. We are not afraid of reason; we embrace it. We are convinced that reason and critical examination will lead to the Creator, not contradict creation.

And so we teach Fenwick students to question, to wonder, and to apply the lessons they learn from science and philosophy to their faith. Bishop Barron reassures us that Aquinas had no fear of reason. Neither should we.

Radical Humanism

Secondly, Barron describes the Thomistic understanding that we are contingent beings. This is a fancy way of saying that we depend on something else for our existence. That thing that is the First Cause, what does not depend on anything else for its existence, is what we call God. It was this explanation of the Proofs of the Existence of God that first rang the bell of 14-year-old Bob Barron. [A Western Springs resident, he transferred to Benet Academy in Lisle.]

I often say to myself, “There is a God and it is not me.” When we recognize that we are dependent on a power beyond ourselves (12-step programs would call it a Higher Power,) we are on the path to faith. We begin this journey with the destruction of self-centeredness and ego. Christian theology calls it “death to self.” In the gospel of John, Jesus tells us, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it produces great fruit.”

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