Part I of III Series
“St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians tells them that he kneels before the Father praying, “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” He yearns for them to “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” This is exactly what we want for our own hearts, to be filled with this “strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of God. This is what we want for the hearts of all our loved ones, for the hearts of all people. And this is the gift Jesus gives us in giving us his Sacred Heart.” – “Pondering the Word, The Anawim Way: Liturgical Meditations,” 2018.
“Kindness can save a life…don’t let your character change color with your environment. Find out who you are and let it stay its true color. Go after God. Whatever it takes, do it. And don’t give the excuse, I am just a teenager or I’ll do that when I grow up, because it doesn’t work that way. God wants to know you NOW.” – Rachel Joy Scott, as told by Beth Nimmo to St. Gen’s Parents/Students Assembly, for their Character Education Speaker Series, on April 12, 2018.
What would it be like if we all “live in, dwell in and remain in” all the fullness of God and the Sacred Heart of Jesus? What if folks are received this way in any environment, especially in a school? Would you perform your absolute best?
Niche’s Ranking of Private High Schools in America places St. Genevieve in Panorama City at #3 of best diverse private 476 high schools in California. Similarly situated high schools at a comparable zip code, like Bishop Alemany High School, ranks #68 of 476 high schools and with higher student density per teacher, while Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), ranks #10 of the best high school magnets in LA and #90 out of 1, 510 public high schools in California.
St. Gen has 600 students in high school and 537 students in elementary with a multiculturally diverse population: “5 percent African American, 9 percent Asian, 8 percent Caucasian, 17 percent Filipino, 52 percent Hispanic/Latino, 8 percent Other/Mixed, and [the] majority are Catholics,” with even some international students from China.
Incoming students at St. Gen learn that hatred and deep rage led to massive loss of lives, as in Columbine’s young martyrs of faith and its opposite: “trust, honesty, compassion, love, and the desire to believe the best about people,” that Rachel Scott wrote about: “My codes may seem like a fantasy that can never be reached, but test them for yourself, and see the kind of effect they have in the lives of people around you. You just may start a chain reaction.”
In “Real Diary of Faith: The Journals of Rachel Scott,” adapted by Beth Nimmo and Debra Klingsporn, they described, “Richard Castaldo was the first person shot and Rachel Joy Scott was the first person killed by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. As Richard lay stunned and Rachel attempted to crawl to safety, the shooters began to walk away, only to return seconds later. At that point, Harris grabbed Rachel by her hair, held her head up, and asked her the question, ‘Do you believe in God?’”
“‘You know I do, Rachel replied. ‘Then go be with him,’ responded Harris before shooting her in the head. Four bullets from Eric Harris’s gun killed Rachel. Richard described Rachel’s death to his mother in the initial days after the shooting, but has since blocked those details from his memory. Although Richard survived more than half a dozen gunshot wounds, he remains physically paralyzed and emotionally traumatized as a surviving victim…” of what was considered the most deadly school shooting in U.S. history until the incidents at Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012) in Newtown, Connecticut and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida (2018).
The lives of Rachel Scott and the survivors of the Columbine High School mass shooting become reflection points at St. Gen’s school year opening retreats, one for incoming girls, and another for the boys. They ponder on the invisible hand of God that continues to create bittersweet symphonies about Rachel’s life, a spiritual giant gone too soon at 17 years old, and with help from St. Gen’s seniors, these freshmen develop their school goals.
A year before Rachel Scott died, she wrote to her friend Sam about having a heavy heart: “I have gotten what I want Lord. Thank you. The world you have created is making my death. I am a warrior for Christ. Create in me the church so that wherever I go I find sanctuary.”
Rachel drew 13 roses, symbolic perhaps of her prescience that she would be one of the 13 killed, a year after.
“You are free to choose, but you are not free to choose the consequences of your choice,” Craig Scott — brother of Rachel Scott, who witnessed two of his high school friends die that day — said to a packed assembly of students and parents in April 2018 at St. Gen.
The killers of Columbine planned to kill 400 to 500 students that day, but their plan failed, as the bombs did not go off.
“These boys were addicted to violence yet, their addictions increased their pain and changed their character,” Scott told the assembly.
He continued, “Shooter was writing about how he was being treated badly at home. What if our world was kinder? We have a lot of heart problems in America. We have a lot of broken hearts. He was looking for respect. Hurt people hurt others. They feel so bad about themselves. Bullies are flashing a card: I have no respect for myself.”
Free to be one’s self at St. Gen
Anthony, a transfer student from El Camino Real High School in West Hills, captured St. Gen’s impact, “I became who I am because of the people who care for me – there’s no reason not to be who I am. There is no reason to not be myself. This is the environment I embrace. The foundation is welcoming.” He is a baseball player, a football player, takes four honors classes and one Advanced Placement course.
“If you see your teachers working long hours till 6 p.m. with open doors to you, you simply walk in and ask for their help in the topics you did not understand in class,” Anthony said.
Christian, a sophomore football player who towered at 6’8”, is not just a skilled athlete who is also a graceful liturgical dancer. He was inspired by Hines Ward, a former Pittsburgh Steeler and MVP of Superbowl XL who has spoken at St. Gen twice.
“When I meet people, I am constantly reinforced. I love it,” he said.
With an affirming and welcoming atmosphere, students learn to respect the school, but mostly respect for one another.
Take a knee
Before Dan Horn became the principal, St. Gen was known as the gang-ridden school in the Valley, with low-performing academics and athletics. Why would families come and watch athletes lose a game after another? High school enrollment was at 300, waiting simply for a shutdown.
“‘Your athletes make this league look bad,’ one angry principal approached Horn. Then, as Horn listened to the bench-clearing brawl, he realized St. Gen’s girls started the fight, and that made him recognize there was definitely room for some character development,” he wrote in his book, “Anointed Moments.”
Horn recruited a new athletic director, Marlon Archey, and working with him, brought on new hires.
After years of a bad reputation and the longest losing streak in their division’s history, St. Gen’s team had a chance to make playoffs in 2000 if a coin toss would favor them.
“One of the players commanded, ‘Let’s pray to St. Genevieve…take a knee. Following his command, the team, coaches, and I [Dan Horn] went down on one knee, and as this inspiring young man held out his hands to his teammates beside him, every man on the ground became connected by hearts as well as hands. The rough patch of asphalt became our holy ground. The dim glow from the overhead streetlight became a candle. The men kneeling and holding hands were the church, and the baritone voice praying confidently, ‘Sweet Genevieve, help us,’ became our inspiration,” Horn wrote.
These thugs became valiant leaders, but their faith preceded their attitudes and the coin simply followed: the toss came out heads. From then on, their internal software programmed them to be winners.
“From 1990-1999, St. Gen HS had various teams make the playoffs 11 times. From 1999 to Feb. 2014, the various teams make playoffs 101 times, Horn cataloged.
“Coming to St. Gen is an adventure, but also, you leave with a smile,” Archey said to a television reporter.
Nurture their hearts and artistic spirits
Archey, the parish school’s athletic director now for 16 years, describes the six pillars of character development they train students at St. Gen: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, fairness and citizenship.
Archey, during an interview with Dan Horn and his inner circle (St. Gen’s teachers and student leaders) in the school library, shared his coaching intentions: “I am nurturing the souls of these students. I am focused on ingraining in them kindness and how to be welcoming to one another. I am nurturing their spirits, taking where these people are at, this is what they are, this is where they are going to be [for four years]. So why not meet one another, and [know] each of their personalities?”
As the physical education and athletic programs got stronger, Horn was concerned about building the performing arts component. His earlier experience as St. Thomas elementary school’s principal in Pico-Union taught him that performing arts can bring out students’ potentials, illustrated by his befriending Helen Reddy to perform at this elementary school and the children got transformed by these onstage experiences, Horn observed.
Horn convinced St. Gen’s seniors on the football team to sing and dance for the Welcome Freshman Day in August 2000. It became a bonding experience as they spent time practicing but it also encouraged the freshmen to attend football games. Even the Los Angeles Times wrote about the football team’s “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” interpretation and since then, they have been the media darlings of local television stations.
St. Gen’s values came to be known as: “to know God, to live with honor and to change the world.”
Dr. Gerald Durley, an inspirational speaker invited to the Character Education Speaker Series, was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s foot soldiers who spoke of “loving ourselves more, to love humanity more, to never give up, and to always find the best in ourselves in order to find the best in others. One of his most memorable phrases, always delivered in impassioned style was: The only time you ever have a right to look down on another human being is when you’re offering them help in getting back up,” Horn wrote.
In a Kairos retreat, students often share personal stories about what they have gone through. A student questioned where was God when tragedy happened to him, to which, Horn replied: “It boils down to faith. God is everywhere. God does not cause tragedy, but God is there during the tragic moments. At a time of suffering, if we look hard enough, we can see God. We can find the spirit of Christ in those who are there to help.”
Horn memorialized in his book, “By revealing what happened to you, it allows us to get you some help and it opens the door for others in the room who have suffered silently to step forward and reach out for assistance in dealing with their own heartaches and pain. You’ve become an angel tonight. Always remember to look for the angels and you will see God.”
On October 17, 2003, “St. Gen teachers John Van Grinsven and Maxine Bush took the stage at the Crystal City Marriott across the Potomac River from D.C. to accept the National School of Character Award,” Horn wrote. This accolade made St. Gen “the first high school in California — and the first Catholic school in the nation — a “National School of Character”.
It is now on a huge banner hung at the school entrance heralding for all what this school has gone through, but also, as an aspiration for each incoming school year.
Part II is on the nuggets of wisdom derived at St. Gen and Part III is on their church pastor, Fr. Alden Sison.
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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 10 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.