When I started my second year at Prep, I never would have imagined how it was going to end. As rumors and news spread suddenly, Prep’s campus closed down as uncertainty surrounded us. In the beginning, students believed distance learning would be a breeze, but navigating online learning was a difficulty for all. As assignments stacked up and sports were cancelled, morale was knocked. Classmates and teachers rarely saw each other except through written text — a strange and new phenomenon. Seniors missed out on graduation, AP exams fell online and the year’s ending felt unceremonious despite the faculty’s best efforts. School lacked structure, yet, through it all, Prep stayed connected. Teachers dropped off diplomas at the homes of graduating seniors while Prep’s Instagram, daily announcements and prayers allowed for a new normal to form.
Students have still missed seeing and hearing from some of the Prep faces that they used to hear from daily, so I decided to talk to some of these familiar faces. This year has been one of many firsts and monumental events including our first year with Dr. Gomez, the first lay president. Below, he shares his thoughts on his first year. After, Mr. Morris will reflect on his own experiences. To close, Suvan Bhat gives his final takeaways as a Prep student!
Part I: Dr. Gomez
Welcome and thank you for joining us here at The Commons’ Questions. Many students have been picking up new hobbies during this quarantine. What have you been doing to pass the time?
Well, I feel like I’m working almost harder here because there’s so many balls in the air trying to close out the year in a really strong way and at the same time planning for next year which is completely unknown to us because of the pandemic. It’s been busy. That being said I do like PS4 and I love Star Wars Battlefront 2. I don’t know if that’s been a hobby, but that’s been fun. I also like to jog, and I have been cooking a lot.
As you are well aware, you are the first lay president Prep has had.
I am aware.
Although your year has not been what you expected, how has your first year been overall?
Let’s see…I think I have the greatest job in the world. I love being back at Saint Peter’s Prep so that’s my general reaction. I thought the first seven months leading up to the middle of March went really well; I thought there was a really good vibe on campus, a lot of energy and joy and hard work. In a short period of time, I got to know a lot of students which I have been happy about as well as obviously the faculty and staff. I was a principal for 13 years. I was a principal at Saint Joe’s Prep for six years and then I started the Cristo Rey school in Philadelphia 8 years ago so it is interesting to experience the difference between a president and a principal. It’s very different so that was a learning experience for me. Even though there have been some unexpected challenges this year to say the least, as you can probably guess, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else and I wouldn’t want any other job. I really do love it, love it.
Off of what you were saying about what you didn’t expect coming into Prep, the difference between a president and a principal, was there anything else that really surprised you as you were starting out in your new position?
Well I still don’t understand why students do not know the fight song. That still troubles me a little bit. I failed in terms of getting people to know it. I’ll try again harder next year I guess. It’s interesting, the amount of time I spend externally with either benefactors or alumni or at different events. I don’t want to say that was surprising but there’s a lot of stuff that happens outside of school and I enjoy that. It didn’t surprise me how much I love watching Prep sports. That’s for sure. I missed that…that was thoroughly enjoyable and when I’m cheering with you guys, I have to remind myself that I’m not a 15-year-old kid from Bayonne, that I am president of your school. I have to calm myself once in a while. Again, no surprise, you guys love the place and that’s awesome, it’s palpable; that brings me a lot of joy because I share the same love that you guys have.
Was there anything you would have changed or look to change as you continue in your position?
I mean I would have given you a different answer three months ago. Now it’s, “How do we get students and teachers safely back on campus?” That’s first and foremost and then number two is, “How do we continue to educate and form your minds, hearts, and characters?” And we have to do it in an awesome way because that’s what Prep is. So there is going to be a lot of reflecting this summer on what we did well with the distance learning and what we didn’t do well but we got to be honest about that. That being said, I’d like to look five years in advance; I would hope to someday tell you that the next Capital campaign is going to be the English building. First I have to change the name from Humanities back to the English building, that’s probably my first step. If I look at campus a few years down the road, that’s probably the next thing we are going to do, I’m pretty sure of that, but I can’t take my eye off September or October and getting ready to welcome people back safely. Of course we have the anti-racist protests happening in our country and around the world. How do we as a Jesuit school help you to understand what’s happening and why it’s happening? How do we challenge you to be ready to make a difference in our world…to truly understand what it means to be a man for others? How do we push you to think about racism? How do we continue to be intentional about building community and being inclusive at Saint Peter’s and making sure that all people, when they walk in, feel safe and loved and valued? That’s always been really important to me, but now that’s even more important to me.
That was actually part of my next question. Regarding the rallies and the death of George Floyd as well as what happened during the gala, how can students continue to act as men for others and prep men? As you mention in your email students are feeling a bunch of different emotions so I was wondering if you had any guidance for them.
That’s a great question. Let me go back to one of the phrases I have used before: “Hard work, good work, our work.” That idea of our work, the way I explained it to you, is that your success is my success and your failure is my failure and if you can think about that with the person in front of you no matter who they are, how old they are, what gender they are, what race they are…he or she is your brother or your sister. That’s one. The second is one of the very first things I said to you guys which was, “Good morning; I love you.” It’s a Prep kind of love. We’re trying to build young men who know how to love the person in front of them, and we’re not ashamed of that and see it as a strength. At the end of the day, an Examen or reflection is so helpful. We ask the question: “How best did I love my neighbor today?” Again, a simple question, this is not rocket science. But if you answer honestly, sometimes you are going to say: “You know what? I didn’t do a great job of loving the person in front of me today.” We have to commit to doing better tomorrow. We have to be honest about how we treat people. How best am I serving others? How best am I trying to bring about change in the world? And you have to answer that honestly for yourself.
You mentioned a 15-year-old from Bayonne. Is there any is there any experience you had at Prep while you were a student that helped you in your new position?
I was the Marauder so that did help me. I think I learned the importance of trying to rally people around things that we love that’s for sure. I also learned that school culture is really important. That how a person feels when they walk in a building, what people talk about, the language people use, the phrases we say. I think that’s all really important. Did I learn it when I was 15? I don’t know if I learned it, but I certainly felt it and experienced it. I would say, and I have said this in other articles, I am proud of other degrees I have earned. I worked pretty hard for them, but the most important education I received was at Prep because it taught me discipline and maybe that’s even a better answer. It taught me how to be disciplined, it taught me how to own my mistakes like if I mess up on something–to say it’s my fault, I should have done that better. I have the same eight or nine closest friends that I did when I was 13. So the value of brotherhood and friendship are really important, I hope you’re learning that, too. And even one of the most important experiences for me the Emmaus retreat, which used to be for Juniors when I was there, and learning that I don’t have to only recite the ‘Our Father’ to pray, even though obviously that’s a great prayer, but that experience of utilizing my talents as best I can can be a form of prayer. You know the actual cornerstone of Prep on Grand and Warren says ‘AMDG.’ That’s really important to me–that the way I treat you, the way I play baseball, the way I give a talk, the way I entertain someone at a party, make them feel welcome, those are all different ways to give glory to God; that’s a really important lesson.
As you mentioned, distance learning has been a new challenge. Was there anything that you learned or implemented during distance learning you want to continue to utilize as school returns to normal?
I speak to the faculty every Tuesday morning in a Zoom group of 125 people. I definitely did not do that prior to distance learning so I would want to ask, “How will I continue to best communicate formally with the faculty and staff?” I don’t know the answer, but I have to question that. I have responded to more emails by calling people than I normally would; I usually just respond with an email. I think people are pretty grateful when they get a phone call and response from me so I will probably keep doing that. It’s interesting, I don’t know how many videos or things I’ve done for the students or faculty or the staff; it’s certainly more than I did in the first few months. I have addressed you guys at different assemblies, but I didn’t write much to you and I certainly didn’t make videos for you. I want to ask myself, once we go back to normal, what are the best ways to continue communicating with you guys?
I am sure a lot of people have been wondering about this next question. What is the etymology of your phrase, “Let’s Go Prep”? What caused you to implement it into your daily vocabulary?
That’s a great question, probably my favorite question you have asked so far. It’s just something I used to say when I was a kid and it just stuck with me… Does it bother kids that I say that?
Definitely not. It’s become an expected and appreciated way to boost student morale and Prep spirit; it helps show your care for the school. This next part is going to be a bit of a lightning round, I am going to ask you some short answer questions.
What is your go to meal when at Prep?
Was there any extracurricular you enjoyed the most while a student at Prep? If so, what was it?
It was called the Spirit Committee. It was the equivalent of Marauder Nation.
What live sport do you miss watching the most?
Star Wars Episode IV, but the Godfather is a close second.
Other than your family, if you could quarantine with anyone else, who would it be and why?
Bruce Springsteen so I could just listen and sing with him.
That is the end of our lightning round. In closing, I was wondering if you had any specific advice for either the seniors as they depart from Prep or the student body at large as we head into the upcoming summer, as well as final remarks or comments in general?
To tell the current student body that I miss them, that I couldn’t be more excited to see them in person and to be together again. And no surprise here, to tell them I love them and let’s go Prep!
Those are all the questions I have for today. Thanks again for joining us here at the Commons Questions. It was a pleasure to have you and enjoy the summer!
The pleasure was all mine. Thanks for having me!
When you walk through the halls of Prep, you are bound to see Mr. Morris either on bike or surveying Prep. Mr. Morris’s face is a symbol of life at Prep for students, and the lack thereof made Prep seem more distant. When Mr. Morris appeared during the Zoom assemblies, students were reminded of the days when they would check to see if their shirt was tucked in. Even during the assembly, I am sure many students looked down to check for a belt. Mr. Morris shares about his life both before and during quarantine.
Part II: Mr. Morris
Thanks for joining The Commons’ Questions! It is a pleasure to have you! To start us off, how have you been spending your time this quarantine?
Exercise has been a big part of my day-to-day. In the beginning of quarantine, I was very wary of going outside for biking. As you have probably seen, I normally bike to and from Prep. Soon after quarantine began, I began regimented workouts on a “smart” trainer setup indoors. We all know that regular exercise is really helpful, even vital. In my house there is me, my wife and daughter as well as my father-in-law. Like most folks during this time, time spent with family has sharply increased, which has been enjoyable and, surprisingly, without much friction! So, I would say exercise and family. I also have increased my reading.
How has your role changed since distance learning started?
Well, first and foremost, I am not in front of the students in the way that I ordinarily am. In terms of standards and rules, the vast majority of my work is with personal interaction. My position as Dean is predicated on being among you: being in the hallways, being in front of you in the Commons, in the gym. When need be, I engage in the challenging process of ‘holding up that mirror’ to help the person make that judgement for themselves, realizing, “Hey, maybe that’s not the best way to be.” The lack of physical shared space has been the most significant shift during this time. As we prepare for starting the year, whatever format that may be, I know that from my office, we want to try to invigorate that. Even if students are not physically at Prep, that there is a sense of standard and being positively held to those standards, even if there is not personal interaction.
Has this quarantine caused any changes to how you will fill your role when distance learning ends?
Recently, as you may have seen, I have been announcing students’ birthdays in the announcements. To do that, I do the work of knowing when each student’s birthday is and place it in the announcements. I try to use bright colors that pop so while students read the announcements they are drawn to the text. As well as this, I have also been personally emailing students and their families on their birthdays, wishing them words of encouragement. And I have found that the responses I get from students are almost simple, grateful and sometimes profoundly so. Now that I have begun that, it begs the question, “Why stop?”
Regarding the rallies and the death of George Floyd as well as what happened during the gala, how can students continue to act as men for others and prep men? As you mention in your email students are feeling a bunch of different emotions so I was wondering if you had any guidance for them.
This issue in American life is going to take a commitment to, on one hand, the sheer simplicity of what is wrong. What’s wrong is that based on racial labeling, identity, life experience, the contours of your life in the United States are impacted. There is clearly a disparity in how people of different racial backgrounds are affected by that. That begs the question, “Why?” So on the one hand there is the sheer simplicity of recognizing the issue that one’s race can likely affect their contours and their experiences in their life. For example, my parents are immigrants from Ireland. My life has been lived white. I have always viewed police as helpers and on the other hand, people who I would not want to get in trouble with. But for anytime in my adult life that I have been stopped I have always been treated very fair, very friendly. I know that’s not the experience some of my friends have experienced. Recognizing what the issue is and at the same time being able to recognize the complexity of how that needs to be transformed and the tremendous amount of work and cooperation needed to change it. When you look at the protests, it would be wrong if there were no protests. It would be wrong if my reflection over the last week would not be dark and troubled. It would be wrong if there wasn’t difficulty. But of course, it is troubling to see destruction and violence. To go back to the heart of your question, “Is there any guidance to be shared with Prep men?” I think it goes to the heart of the ‘Grad at Grad.’ One is to be open to growth, seeing the sheer importance, simplicity of the problem and recognizing it and open to, at the same time, the very dense work on so many levels that sometimes seems so far beyond us. How do we change government structures? How do we change any number of a thousand things? The results of which will truly address this issue and transform it so that the problems of this american life are not really going to be the problems of the future. To be incredibly vigorous and sharp and probent. To be intellectually alive and alert. To dig deep and examine ourselves and our work. To begin conversation with hundreds, thousands, millions of people with different backgrounds while together. To look at all the dimensions of the ‘Grad at Grad’ — to every once in a while do a self-check.
What made you choose Prep as a place of work and want to step up to the role of a dean?
I made the decision to come to Prep because my previous place of work was simply too far away. Lo and behold — Saint Peter’s Prep. The principal at the time was someone with whom I had worked with before and I had never even seen the school; I grew up in New York. I applied for a job in the Religion Department. I was gladly given the job and I worked as a teacher for three years. The opportunity then arose to become the assistant Principal for student affairs. I said yes, even though I knew it came at the cost of not being in the classroom because, in terms of the mission of who we are at Prep, being a vibrant and robust presence at that level contributes to the growth of our students. This is now since 2008 so it has been quite a while now. I changed the title of my position to match other Jesuit schools.
So this next part is going to be a lightning round. These are going to be a couple of short answer questions.
… I will find a way to make the answers very long.
What is your go to meal at Prep?
That’s a tough one because I have the bad habit of not eating during the school day. I know it’s a very bad habit especially for someone athletic, but when I do eat at Prep, I’m going to say toasted sesame bagel with butter and jelly from Legal Grounds.
What was your favorite extracurricular when in High School?
Well I worked six days a week. I saw a value in working; I actually liked to work. I did manage to become part of the tutoring society at my all-boys high school in Queens. In my senior year, I was president of the tutoring society.
A favorite movie?
When you walk into my office, the first thing you see on the wall is a very collectable and valuable cast signed movie poster for The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers. So, I would say The Lord of the Rings trilogy is something I will always enjoy watching. It’s a pretty good attempt at relaying Tolkien’s beautiful, masterful story.
Other than your family members, if you could quarantine with anyone else, who would it be and why?
Giorgio Chiellini from Juventus. He shares the same birthday as me. He really is a thoughtful person and at the same time on the field he is very aggressive, but lighthearted. Because sports are gone during this time, I think I would have enjoyed having meals with him and spending time together this time of quarantine.
Finally, do you have any final advice for either the departing seniors or the student body at large as we head into the upcoming summer?
Well, it would be hard to think of something other than the moment we are in right now. However, this is not just a moment; it requires a transformation. If not men like Prep men as they move into more active roles in society and if not men like Prep men to become part of the transformation, then who can we look to? I would encourage all of the graduates and students to embrace the ‘Grad at Grad’ to ensure that they are being true to developing those parts in themselves and to bring that to others.
That is the end of our interview! It was a pleasure having you here at The Commons’ Questions!
When I opened YouTube this morning, I noticed a whole category dedicated to the graduating classes of 2020. The category was filled with many famous faces congratulating. Although the students missed out on events they anticipated, a new sense of connectivity was formed. Before quarantine, as I sat in the Commons or on the floor of the library with Mr. Reese walking up to raucous tables, I would hear the same announcement every morning from our student body President, Suvan, telling me to push in chairs and to get to class. Suvan shares his insight on graduating as a member of the class of 2020.
Part III: Suvan Bhat
Welcome to The Commons’ Questions! Thank you for joining us! To start us off, how has your quarantine been and how have you been spending your time?
Yeah, it’s been interesting. I have been trying to get out as much as possible: runs, hanging out with a select group of friends while social distancing with car meets. Just trying to stay active, keep my mind sharp. Hobbies like playing guitar, photography.
What were your feelings towards your graduation? I am sure it was different from what you expected.
It’s certainly an unprecedented time to be graduating, definitely. I think my feelings are the same as the rest of my classmates: we wish it wasn’t ending this way. But by it ending this way, we found a newfound appreciation for what we did have. I saw my classmates throughout social media and texting and I can say that we definitely appreciated what we all had to offer before we went into quarantine. It has been melancholy. Yes, we lost what should have been the best last couple of months in our Prep careers, but certainly out of that came a new appreciation for what we had and what we developed throughout our four years.
Over your four years at Prep, what has been the biggest change to the school?
I think physically, after our Freshman year, Mulry Hall was renovated and Hogan Hall was renovated. We were the class that saw both while we were at Prep and I think it’s indicative of the shift and change both physically and in attitude of where Prep is heading. We are definitely in a place of more modernization. I think updates to the curriculum that allow students to take more advanced courses earlier and in general, outreach and global exchange programs growing throughout our four years here, is definitely some of the growth I have seen at Prep over my four years.
What characteristic would you use to describe your graduating class?
It’s tough because during this time you want to think about COVID and just say resilience. I would say resilient and outreaching, if there is a word to describe that. Both in quarantine and out of quarantine I have seen a lot of individuals and the community as a whole helping others. That mentality very much encompasses our class year. So many individuals and groups and clubs trying to intermingle with each other. The amount of interconnectedness between certain cliques and groups was so much of a thing when we were underclassmen so I would use interconnectedness and with this pandemic, resilience to describe us.
When you look back at your time at Prep, what will stand out to you?
Personally I would say junior and senior year because I was elected President; I was able to be at the forefront of change for our class and all the responsibilities that came with that. I just had an absolute blast and I think I will remember that the most. For our entire class, unfortunately, I think what will be the most memorable looking back ten years from now will be not having graduation as usual. I think in the grand scheme of things, the fact that we all grew up together. I remember looking back at so many pictures of us just looking like absolute babies. Many of us still do, especially me. Certainly the fact that we grew up together and shaped each other’s experiences, I will definitely look back on the most.
You mentioned your class being one of resilience, being born during the aftermath of 9/11, growing up with school shootings and now graduating during COVID. How do you think all these events and graduating during this time will affect the people you will become?
It establishes, in a lot of people, a sense of mindfulness. When you have all these otherworldly events going on around you, you think to yourself, “How can I pay attention to that while also focusing on myself? How can I focus on what is going on the world, how things are developing and being a societal contribution to that?” while also looking inwards and saying, “How do I get where I need to go?” With all the things we have gone through as a class year that sense of mindfulness and understanding how to keep a level head in certain situations is certainly a trait unique to our class year and the class years during this time period, because it is certainly a lot for a kid growing to take in a lot of these things and be able to still focus on what needs to be done in order to develop into a future adult. So certainly levelheadedness
Time for our lightning round! What is your go to meal at Prep?
Cava. It’s a spot across the street from Milano’s. I would 100% recommend it.
What is your favorite extracurricular at Prep?
Does this include sports?
Then playing for the soccer team.
If any, what live Prep sport will you miss watching?
I would certainly say football.
Good Will Hunting.
Other than your family members, if you could quarantine with anyone, who would you quarantine with and why?
I would have to say a combination of my Prep soccer friends and Nutley friends.
That is the end of our lightning round. What lesson that Prep taught you are you most grateful for?
It would really be compartmentalization: being able to take things seriously when needed, but to have fun along the way — know when to focus on certain things and when not to.
As your class departs from Prep, what do you think you personally and your class in general will miss most about Prep?
I think that goes back to being around each other and being a kid once again. It is a sad reality that once you are 18 and graduate from high school, your childhood more or less ends. I think that general nostalgia of being in high school and being on this constant downhill slope of fun. I think that in general is both what I and what I would say what most people would miss.
For my final question, I know this is a common question, but if you could speak to freshman, Suvan, what would you tell him?
I would tell my freshman self to enjoy the ride. It goes by very, very quickly and just look out for things on the way. Make sure you know what you are doing and think before you act. These four years fly by quickly and you want to make sure you are living in every single moment, whether bad or good, so that when it is eventually done you can look back at those moments because a couple of years from now you are going to look back and those are the moments you are going to remember. The ones that are explicitly bad or explicitly good, those are the ones you will remember. Be mindful and attentive in every single situation.
Thanks for coming on!
Of course. Good luck next year.
And to you in college!
Although Prep has changed and the world surrounding us is unprecedented and daunting, the people of Prep are still the same and they always will be. Buildings and conditions may change, but the relationships between the people at Prep make Saint Peter’s a feeling rather a place. No matter what changes, I am certain that the ‘Pride and Glory’ family will endure. Thanks for another great year, enjoy your summer and beyond, and to quote Dr. Gomez, “Let’s Go Prep!”