Friday, August 31, 2007

The Ever Popular Howard Zinn

I became a “disciple” of historian Howard Zinn a little late in my history career. I say late, because I always think of my “history career” beginning in 2nd grade when I was homebound in the body cast, and I fell in love with history books. It was only in the mid-1990s that I discovered the point of view of Howard Zinn.

Howard Zinn is an American and a historian of America. His name and ethos figures prominently in Matt Damon’s movie Good Will Hunting and he has long had a following with a certain college crowd and activist group. I didn’t know him for so long, I guess, because for a good, long time I had a “disdain” for United States History. Ah, pretension.

As a senior in high school I took Jean Michaels’ AP European History class and was forever changed—I decided I just had to be a historian, and it must be European history. I think I took one history class in college that covered the US (a great course on “The Old South”) When I went to Brown to get a Phd, I still hadn’t decided what area in which I would specialize. Ugh. That always reminds me of my second night at Brown, out to dinner with some fellow new-Phd students, trying to make great conversation at this Wendy’s in Providence. The group with whom I dined was incredulous at my lack of decision. One guy said, “I am a Europeanist for sure. The French Revolution.” Another guy leaned toward U.S. history. The first scholar turned to him, and said, “I don’t even know what I would have to say to an Americanist.”

Good grief.

That anecdote does not really matter to my musings about Howard Zinn. Just remembering that exchange shows how early on in the Brown experience, I knew I was around some dolts. It always gives me a hearty chuckle. I digress…

When I joined the history department at Hackley, I was assigned to 3 Modern European history classes, and 1 U.S. History class. I tried to change Walter Schneller’s mind! I probably sounded as remote and ridiculous as the Wendy’s diner had years before as I said to the venerable chairman, “I really don’t do American history.” But he guessed I would now!

So that summer of 1996 I read tons of U.S. history to polish up on what I had missed.
I discovered Howard Zinn. What I loved about Howard Zinn was his desire to look at the history through a different lens—not the lens of the presidents and leaders, the men I had studied and loved as an elementary school historian, but the lens of the “common man,” the people who worked and struggled to create this American citizenry. Zinn looked at why history had been written about as it had been, and found some flaws and, well, lies in standard history texts. It wasn’t the flaws that really interested me, but it was the myths of history he hoped to explore. Zinn didn’t just expose historical lies, he made you want to see why those myths might have been created and embraced. He made me think in a way I had not considered before. He made me re-think all of United States history. His work made me develop into the kind of independent historian I probably had not been before.

All of that is background to this last week as I assigned the preface to Zinn’s memoirs, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train to my history-phobic 9th graders. I wanted to see how they handled the reading and the discussion of the book—and it has long been a favorite assignment of mine in the beginning of a history course. I first read this book right around the time I invited Zinn to speak at Hackley in the spring of 2000. That visit was one of the highlights of my Hackley tenure. I remember that Zinn began his talk before the student body with the line, “I wanted to change the world, so I became a history teacher.”

A sizable number of students laughed, but Zinn waited for the laughter to fade so he could explain what he meant. By the end of his talk, students understood how a history teacher could possibly reach a sizable audience, and how that work and openminded thinking could possibly change the world. After his talk about 50 students vied for his attention and clamored for him to sign their copies of his book. My students really enjoyed talking with him, grilling him, and Zinn stayed much longer than his contract had stipulated so he could participate in a genuinely thrilling dialogue.

I wanted to see how Howard Zinn would work here at KA. I assigned the preface. Some students told me they had never had to read 12 pages in one night before. They were not sure they would, or could, or, I guess they might explode or something. I explained how the book was a memoir, and not a textbook. I gave them a little background about his life (“he’s that old?” “why should I know about him?” “what is this Kalamazoo on the first page??") and asked them to turn to page 9.

On page 9 we learn that Zinn wrote this memoir in the summer of 1993—I waited—many of the students got excited…I thought this might strike a chord…95% of these teen-agers in the class were born in 1993. He wrote the book in 1993, and wrote of the despair he felt permeating the world. The class liked that this was not ancient history, but the year in which they first danced upon the world’s stage. I wanted them to find a passage they found the most “literary” (that was a challenge explaining that word) the most “historical” and the most “important.” They couldn’t believe there were no right answers or wrong answers, as long as they explained their choices. I read them a choice I liked as the most literary. They were a little, a little, more interested.

That night in study hall, two students asked, “Is this book in our library?” and another said, “I’d like to borrow your copy of that book.” And one even dared to suggest, “I’d like to read the whole thing!”

As I walked around the study hall, almost half had liked the reading. One boy said, “he really made me think about taking action. He gets you thinking.” But the best moment came when Jadallah came up to me and said, “Howard Zinn has a MySpace page! That is so cool. You know his birthday was last week?” Jadallah and Sarah then went and googled some more things about Howard Zinn. I gotta admit—this was going well.

The following day in class, we had good conversations about how Zinn led his history classes in Atlanta, and then in Boston on marches for what changes they wanted in American society. Jadallah proudly announced that he had stopped the headmaster that morning at breakfast and asked him if we could invite Howard Zinn to speak at KA. Wow!

That night in the dorm, my night of duty, there was a loud group sound, so I went and discovered a group of about 10 boys marching through the dorm, “We want AC now! We want AC now!” I wondered what they were doing, and one guy said, “It’s just like Howard Zinn, we are marching for what we want.”

Would that some marches around the dorm would grant us air conditioning!

In class I shared that my friend, Mrs. Anne, doesn’t really like the title of Zinn’s memoir. Bright Rashed said, “But Mr. John, does this Mrs. Anne know what neutral on a car means—it means you are not moving. Howard Zinn does not want us to be neutral! We need to be acting!”

Not everyone cared for Howard Zinn—some didn’t know what the big deal was. But the sharing of the passages allowed for me to finally have everyone turn to page 12 so I could share what I think is most important in that preface.

Zinn had talked about the horrors of fighting in WWII, and how some of his buddies died. But he had come to treasure his gift of life, and he writes in reaction to his mood of despair with which he felt burdened in 1993: “I have no right to despair. I insist on hope.”

We talked about how great that verb, insist is. They knew it meant, demand.

We talked about this quote in light of their birth year, 1993, and this quote in light of the founding of our school, for 2007. We turned this quote into a prism for the political struggles plaguing our world now, and how this school aims to act as a place where, as others have so eloquently said, compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness might shine.

The fact that Howard Zinn might capture some minds here says something to me. Remember, these students hate history, and regard it as their least important/favorite subject. But when Jadallah urged our headmaster that we need to fly Howard Zinn here, it must have tickled him too.

At the conclusion of this school year, we will read the end of the Zinn memoir, and hopefully even more might be engaged in this insistence on hope:

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we only see the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

I’ll have to ask Jadallah on Sunday if he has invited Professor Zinn yet. I think he’d get a kick out of a trip to Jordan.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


One of the most frequently used, and most beloved words in Arabic is inshallah. In English it comes closest to “God willing,” but it carries more weight in Arabic I sense. It is used in many circumstances—if you tell a friend, “see you tomorrow for lunch!” the other puts his/her hand on heart and sighs, “inshallah.” If a civil engineer is presenting a proposal for how to find more water resources for a town, he or she would end the presentation with, “inshallah.” Whenever you have deep hopes, you beseech God for His richest blessings, that is “inshallah.” I like this word—I think it has gravitas.

So, the other night I met the King.

I am suppressing a giggle at the casual way/tone with which I just offered that declarative sentence!

The convocation was really breathtaking—enough glitter and glam in the background so that it felt special, but also very down-to-earth, a trait certainly reflective of this headmaster. All day the Communications Department had been busy with setting up a dais, and creating a lovely outdoor seating area for the event—flowers, chairs, lighting, working on a procession, all to officially open the school year.

The setting was on a patio in between the Dining Hall and Student Union, timed for 7:00 p.m. that exact moment when dusk glimmers on the uber-clear sky. His Majesty was to arrive a bit before 7:00, and greet the faculty in the Dining Hall. What to wear? While I wore the same outfit on the first day of classes I had chosen for the last 15 years, there really was no wardrobe precedent for chatting with royalty! I chose my grey suit and the shirt and tie I often have worn to the Harvard Club in New York for Hackley Alumni events. Feel free to draw any conclusions you like from that choice.

The faculty arrived to meet and greet, and minutes, really—literally five minutes before the motorcade is to arrive, I get a nosebleed! What??? In our family nosebleeds have occasionally happened at inopportune moments (just to show you how our family must prepare, on my sister’s beautiful Wedding Day, she made sure our cousin, the ENT guy, sat on an aisle nearby in case of any sanguinary disasters!) I rush to the bathroom, grab toilet paper and WILL the flow of blood to stop. (A colleague is trying to help, clucking, “it’s the dry heat I tell you!) I am not going to miss my chance to talk with the King!

I elbow my way back to the front—I had simply “casually” been in the front before, and about a minute later he arrives, and walks in. He greets each faculty member, ahaking hands and smiling the entire time, asking questions about how it is going, hoping that the experience has been good so far.

He makes me feel kinda tall! I am at least an inch taller, but he looks like such a nice man. He is wearing a grey suit, similar to mine, although I honestly think my tie is a little snazzier. After all, I tell myself, he has just flown in from a state visit to Libya. Maybe he didn’t have a chance to get out his Armani-Harvard-Club tie.

After this low-key chance to meet and greet His Majesty, the bagpipes begin signaling the procession. His Majesty leads the way, followed by the Board of Trustees and the faculty. The students are seated, and quiet, maybe awed in the same way I am. I swear I am not making this up, but the first tune the bagpipes play is “Yankee Doodle”! Oh my.

As His Majesty and the Headmaster sit on the dais, beyond them are about 14 flags, of the countries represented by the faculty and students. Here is the proof that this is an international gathering place!

The program is refreshingly simple, and very moving. The Headmaster greeted everyone with a short speech, followed by a teacher offering a poem in Arabic. No, I didn’t get many words, but there was such a lovely sonority and drama in the rendering of the poem, you just enjoyed the presentation. I did detect the word, inshallah, however.

The highlight of the program was a speech by a Deerfield Academy English teacher who is here for a year. After she greeted the bigwigs, she directed her remarks to the ones who matter the most—our students. “Years from now, you will tell your children about coming to this school. You will tell your children we hoped compassion and respect and patience would triumph… You will tell your children about this night.” At this moment, I apologize Doris Jackson and Anne Siviglia, I am forgetting the English rhetoric device when a speaker repeats a phrase for effect…it begins with ‘a’—anaphora? It also reminded me of one of my favorite theatrical moments, in the musical Ragtime, when Coalhouse Walker, Jr. senses his imminent death, and urges his followers to "Go out and tell our story, let it echo far and wide. Make them hear you."

Well, anyway, the speaker lovingly exhorted these rascally teen-agers that they will have the opportunity, and the responsibility to tell their children what this school means, and what it was like to sit there in that cool, sunset-glow, absorbing the promises of this school. I tried oh so nonchalantly to wipe away the tears that gathered—not only were her words so transcendent, so honest, so firm, but she was giving a great advertisement for history class! Of course I watched His Majesty as often as I could, imagining his thrill at seeing this long-held vision radiating in front of him.

A student group offered us a possible song for the school’s anthem—the Headmaster had written verse and set it to a Shubert piece. A small group played and sang the piece, and then the King offered some words about the importance of the elements of the school—the chance for academic rigor, sportsmanship, waitering in the Dining Hall, making friends of many backgrounds—all the elements he had treasured at his Deerfield experience 30 years ago.

After the program ended, the students met the King. He shook every hand. One little boy in my class, one of the nicest boys, who comes from a Bedouin family, gave the King his own official dress code school tie to wear—His Majesty immediately smiled, took off his own tie, and put the new regulation tie on. That boy looked positively thrilled. That moment ranks as one of the sweetest I can think of.

Of course there would be a reception, but for once, I put my gastronomic interests second. I stood on a step, and just watched the King greet everyone—every last student, every last worker who had rigged the electric stuff, the nurses, the kitchen help, thanking them all for their hard work at KA. How can you not be impressed? The man patiently works for world peace and Jordanian economic development by day, and on this night he basks in the glow of what this school might come to mean.


Monday, August 27, 2007


John Van Leer, an iconic teacher at Hackley School, would greet colleagues on the first day of school every year with a devilish smile and the announcement, “Okay, it’s Showtime!”

That proverbial first day of school had arrived at KA, but not just any first day, of course. The first day for me at a new school, and the first first day ever in the history of the school! (I know you know this—no one is rushing from the computer to scream, “honey, it’s the first day ever at that school in Jordan!” But can I not bask in this momentousness a little longer??!”) As I was thinking/dreading/preparing/thrilling to what this day would be like, I realized that this is just the fourth time in my entire life where I have had a true “first day” of teaching at a prep school, and of all the “first days,” I thought to myself, “Hmmm…I might be the most relaxed I have ever been! Go figure!” At Gaston Day School, Charlotte Latin School and Hackley School, I entered that first day with scant knowledge and no contact of the students, so it was always a bit terrifying. Here I had spent four days of orientation and knew maybe 35% of my students a little bit. There was a comfort I had not expected.

I had been thinking of this first day since I accepted the job here at KA exactly 6 months ago today. So many emotions leading up to this day, and indeed, if I were filming my life (and be honest—you know you have imagined your life as a screenplay from time to time as well) I would thoroughly enjoying the musical scoring of this morning. There are five soundtracks I think I would go to for some background music, ranging from Chariots of Fire to Henry V to October Sky to Fargo to the grand-daddy of musical scores, Shawshank Redemption. If any of these films is unknown to you for its musical score, go to the library and check them out. You will want to create moments in life through which to react to these musical wonders.

I have found that on the annual first day of school, it is very crowded in my head! There are so many people that pop in to offer a pep talk, or inspire me. First of all is my grandmother, a woman who taught in her church for a total of 62 years, besides a quarter century of public school as well, and she never ceased to marvel at the curiosity and the potential of any child. I think of my mother, and hope to steal some of her charisma and power as she greeted people, genuinely interested in what each human might teach her. I remind myself of the “pentarchy” of genius of teachers who inspired me: Nina Wilson in 5th grade, Mary Schneider and her sister Jean Michaels at Western Hills High School, Ken Bork and Amy Gordon at Denison. When it came time to choose a career, I always returned to those five in my mind—who wouldn’t want a life of excitement and learning as they projected to me? I also think of Chuck Edwards, a former student who went on to be my colleague at Hackley for 5 years. Each year when I start anew, I remind myself of the privilege of knowing students like Chuck. So, with that many people in my head—you can understand why there isn’t much room for knowledge about science and car repairs.

Pick-the-movie-score: it is time for classes! It is a little underwhelming seeing the students this morning since only 80% of the school uniforms arrived, and everyone is allowed to wear casual clothes. But no matter. And the students received their maps of the academic building just seconds ago, so there is much chaos. Oh, and no one can find the bell sound they wanted to use over the PA system. (Oh. My. The meetings about how the bell should sound were a little silly. No—more than silly. Let me put it this way. Someone had forgotten to get printers and copiers for the faculty—they are for administrators in that building—so we keep asking, “ummm, where shall we print and copy our syllabi??????? Yet, we are debating the tone quality of a passing bell. “It shouldn’t be too harsh,” one offered, while another agreed: “oh no, it should be a gentle sound.” Okay. At one point we entertain, and have not yet dismissed, playing music for the passing time. Anyone like to apply be the DJ at KA??

I’m jealous of all the teachers in the early morning—I have to wait until 4th period to greet my first class. By the way, I am wearing the same outfit I have worn every first day of school since 1992. One might see that as sweet and nostalgic, and one could see it that I simply should go out and buy some new clothes! But according to the headmaster’s wife, I look “dapper” in my olive ensemble.

It’s time. It is showtime. They walk in. I decide not to do the names aloud the way one always does. I figured I would butcher the Arabic sounds and they do not need to twitter at my linguistic deficiencies. As each student comes in, I check the roll with him/her.

I get going, and it feels right. But there is a girl in the corner who is chatting with a neighbor, and after about 7 minutes of class, raises her hand and asks, “Can I drop this class?” My rejection of that plea brings forth an eye-rolling the likes of which I would have to really think about when I last saw such virtuosity. I tell the class that they do not need to bring the textbook every day—it does weigh 7 pounds. The sullen scholar then says it will break her back to take the book home. I patiently explain that she can take the book home today and keep it there—so after today, that news should indeed help save her back. She responds with a, I can’t call it a belch exactly, but I guess an expectoration of “whatever.” Oh, how wonderful that the American Valley Girl-speak has stood the test of time and crossed such distances.

It does not get better! My smile/charm/whatever does not win her over. The rest of the class is nice, maybe even enthusiastic, but the SS (sullen scholar) announces quite loudly that she hates history. I said, “that is a great way to get to my point today—why do so many people dislike history?” I had learned that when the admissions team polled incoming KA students, they did indeed rank history at the bottom of their favorite courses. I told them about “Family Feud,” the game show, and I asked them for reasons, a la the show, why people disliked history. This was her chance!!! And, no, not a chance she would participate.

I then told the class we would do the hardest assignment, perhaps, of the year: each person free draw a map of the world on a big, very blank piece of paper. I wanted them to think immediately about what they know, don’t know, and to try and imagine the whole world at one time. I encouraged them that if they didn’t know the world well today, we had all year in world history to understand the world! While the other students are trying to remember the shapes of continents, my new best friend draws a circle and stops.

Her mother would be so proud! That map is a keeper—maybe it even belongs on the fridge!

I go to lunch, and my new colleagues are excited about how well their classes had gone.
I smiled, and said, “Well, it’s good to know that Americans do not have a monopoly on rudeness!” I hoped the afternoon would be a little better.

It was. Interestingly enough, as I look back on the last couple of days, there was such a symmetry in my first teaching experiences here. On Friday, that first drama class was a joy, and the group skit preparation in the afternoon was maddening. On Sunday, that inspiring adolescent proved to be the undoing of a nice class, followed by exuberant, memorable classes. Ahhh—symmetry. When I did the “Family Feud” exercise in one afternoon class, a young man named Jaber kept saying, “But Mr. John, history is sooo important!” I assured him that I agreed, but we needed to try and understand why the other team thinks the way they do. As that class left, a class of 12 boys and 4 girls, I think I got about 7 or 8 high-fives, and one “you’re the man” comment. The nettles of inconsistency in this biz are amazing!

After class I bumped into the head of the World Languages Department, a Spaniard who has lived in some exciting places like Morocco and Ireland and Greece. He looked a little glum, and I asked him how the day went. He sighed. “There was this girl in my last class…” and recounted a tale of ruination. A few sentences later I said, “Let me see if I could guess her name.” Yes. Indeed. She the SS had wreaked havoc in more than one first class!

The rest of the day I was busy with my crowded brain—I had a pretend reception in my head with friends Anne and Mary and Cristina and Doris and Debbie and Adam and Sean—and dozens more as I processed the day, and looked forward to seeing where we might go in this course.

At dinner—the chef decided to skip the more formal meal like roasted lamb for a more teen-ager friendly chicken patty and French fry meal—I stood waiting for more fries and saw a girl’s nametag, “Zaha” as her first name. To make small talk I said, “I have heard of that name. There’s a famous architect with the great name of Zaha Hadid.” She gushed and said, “My family knows her. She’s Iraqi too. She designs such cool buildings!” I asked her what “Zaha” meant and she said, “Well, I love my name. It means ‘pride.’ My mom always says to remember the meaning of my name and take pride in my work.” The fries came, so thus ended the pick-up conversation, but that is just another moment that is unusual and didactic.

That evening, after the study hall, I enjoyed some interesting talks with the boarders about their homework. They had had to find an adult and interview the adult as to what the adult believed to be the 10 Most Important Issues or Events of the time the students have been alive (if you want to feel old—that is since 1993). They liked talking to their teachers or parents about it, and several revealed some great insights about what they thought the interview had shown them. “My dad picked 7 political events in the Middle East and 3 soccer victories,” said one. Another said, “My teacher must be a very kind man, he was so interested in stories about people.” “My mom only said negative things. Why is history always just negative things?”

And thus begins the real year…the work, and the beauty.

There was another day deep into August, August 28 to be exact, in 1982, 25 years ago when for six months I had been thinking/dreading/preparing/thrilling to what that day would be like once it came. That was the day my family moved me to Denison, and the day that my mother said I “broke up the family.” I had no idea what lay ahead, but leaned on my friends and family for support—much like now, and with much amazement to follow.

Oh, by the way, did I tell you that on Tuesday, His Majesty King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, comes for the opening convocation? Hmm, another showtime!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A double-take of feeling

I discovered how good that SPF 30 sunscreen is that my sister sent me after our grueling day in the sun for our Olympic Games today! I used it generously, except, aha, for the now-crimson triangle where my purple-shirt-for-the-purple-team was open two buttons at my neck. I should be used in an advertisement for Coppertone Sport!

The boys are now in their rooms, lights out, and now the real work begins! Tomorrow we put away our camp counselor hats, and don the much beloved teaching hat. In a strange way, I think I am more comfortable for this first-day-in-a-new-school than I have felt before in those three previous U.S. schools. Maybe the games and skits and near-sunstroke today bonded our ragtag “Wadi Rum” group. Each of the 8 KA Olympic teams was named after a city or region in Jordan. Wadi Rum, my group, is an area in Southern Jordan that is the exotic desert as we all imagine. Scenes from the film “Lawrence of Arabia” really were filmed there. Supposedly it is the height of bohemian chic to camp out there. As my traveling companion Anne would likely say, “my idea of camping is when the maid service is every other day.” Actually Anne is very adaptable, but I remember on one of our first trips together, to Spain, when I hadn’t quite understood the style of accommodation Anne enjoys when traveling. We were in Cordoba, and as she sized up our little hotel I had chosen, she raised her eyebrows, smiled and said, “well, this must have been a bargain!”

But I digress…

The Olympics were well-organized, the students showed good sportsmanship, and enjoyed the camaraderie during the 16 events. Parents came for a barbecue (I had my first hamburger since coming to Jordan) and we all were hot and dusty.

So now that the boys are in their rooms, I get to muse about tomorrow and the promise of this school year. Earlier today I thought about a poem I really like, a poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, but one I had not thought about for awhile. Take a moment and read his words:

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home

History says,
Don't hopeon this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.

if there's fire on the mountain
or lightning and storm
and a god speaks from the sky.

That means someone is hearing

the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

Seamus Heaney, from The Cure at Troy

This poem starts out pretty hideously, doesn’t it? “Human beings suffer”?????? What kind of lovely, lyrical poem is this? And by the second stanza, one begins to beat one’s breast over all the angst and mistreatment in the world. Then we get to the third stanza, and we meet the mundane historian mouthing conventional wisdom that we should not hope for goodness in this life…But then…the little tiny hint that once in a lifetime, oh, and I love this phrase: hope and history rhyme. It could. It might!

Then the rest of it is this rush of possibility. The Pollyanna in me loves that possibility of “a great sea-change.” The global citizen in me longs for that “further shore.” The dramatist in me revels in the special effects of fire and lightning and storms. And of course, the teacher in me seeks to cultivate that “utter self-revealing double-take of feeling” in students.

I used to teach this poem when I taught a certain 20th century history class at Hackley. It was a poem beloved by James Agee and Walker Evans, two intrepid men who worked together in the 1930s hoping that their prose and photography might spark new empathy in Americans. I used to teach about Agee and Evans, and that little opening allowed me a chance to share this poem with my seniors hoping they might enjoy it as well.

As I enter my classroom tomorrow in the King Hussein Humanities Wing, I will lean on those possibilities. I will look for those possibilities. This school is certainly founded on a noble ethos, and it may take a long time for this school to live out the lofty principles and promises set (and of course there is always the possibility it will not), but tomorrow I will start to enjoy that double-take of feeling along the way, and I can help my students long for those connections when hope and history rhyme.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Blessings of Noise

They are noisy teen-agers!

And they are here…that stillness which had permeated the campus for my previous three weeks is joyously and youthfully dispelled.

This last Wednesday morning, with the sun shining brightl—wait, we get the point, it is sunny and bright every day in Jordan, the 109 inaugural families arrived with their suitcases, a few fans, their new KA blazers, some snacks, a few limousines, a million cell phones and lots of happy faces. And a little trepidation mixed in too. I learned in the last few days that there are no boarding schools in the Middle East—before university, this idea of a 9th grader going off to a boarding school is an unknown concept. Granted, a few teen-agers of this area may have journeyed to Switzerland or the US for a boarding school experience, but this is a foreign idea for them.

From 9:00 until 1:00 they arrived for this 4-day orientation, signed forms (nothing nearly as dramatic as the experience I had getting boxes from the cargo hold at the airport!) and signed up for laundry service, shook hands with various Deans, visited the nurse, and made their way to the dorms where a very eager group of faculty helped with bags, tried to pronounce names correctly, and extolled the virtues of our advisor/advisee system.

At 1:00 all of the families and the faculty filled the auditorium for a welcome address by the headmaster and the chairman of the board. All these parents had decided to turn over their most precious investments to a strange school, an unproven school, but a school whose mission, ethos, hopes and dreams obviously appealed to them. It must have been a heady experience for the two men on stage since they had been working on this school for years.

The very best part of the day came next. Lunch. Now, yes, we all know I love food. (My dear friend Anne always says, “Oh, look—food! Our favorite!!”) But it was not the actual meal, nor even the prospect of food that moved me.

After the opening remarks (just to remind everyone: on this historic day) there was a formal luncheon for families faculty and staff in the dining hall. I was maybe right in the middle of the crowd (for once it was okay not to be at the head of a food line) and before me, and after me, there was this stream of people. You couldn’t really see the path! There were mothers and fathers and little siblings and teen-agers and faculty all in this wondrous pilgrimage to lunch. It reminded me of the crowd in Central Park back in February, 2005 for the project known as “The Gates,” in which part of the art was experiencing this outdoor art installation with a crowd, and it was always a happy crowd during dismal February. This was a crowd cognizant of the excitement and possibility that any school year offers, but maybe this is ramped up a bit since everything is new here. I saw our headmaster, and he and I looked at each other, and with a nod to each other, we knew how electrifying it was to have this crowd eager to see what would come of this experiment in education.

At lunch the faculty served the parents (even if it is just a metaphor—how typical!) and got to know some of the people. At my table I had parents from Holland, Dubai, Jordan, England, and Syria. Just at my table!

For the rest of the day there were meetings, handshakes before and after every proffered door opening, and then finally around 6:00 the parents left. Of course they were more bereft than their children!

We met with the boys on our floor (I have 12 boys on the floor, and by the end of the night I had memorized all their names, and even pronounced the names close to Arabic accuracy—by the way, some of these Arabic sounds are so subtle and tricky. Another bytheway aside: if you ever need a catch-phrase that works in almost any conversation, the phrase is “hamdillah.” It covers everything from, “Fine, thanks be to God,” to if someone asked how the meal was, it can be, “just wonderful—from the hand of God,” to a nosy query about your salary, you can answer “hamdillah” and it means, “God blesses me well.” The emphasis seems to be on the –dill syllable. Finished with the Arabic lesson of the moment.

We have formal sit-down dinner with our table—a group we will see at various meals for three weeks and then they move to other randomly selected groups. We remind them that this is our home, and we are all family, and how families must survive and thrive together. The drudgery of rules is hard to make exciting, and we remind them that King Abdullah treasures his experience so much from the US school that he wanted to recreate the ethos right here in his homeland for his people. He believed the rules shaped him so powerfully and purposefully that he insisted on this matrix of rules. You know, America should have thought again about rejecting monarchies, perhaps. It is powerfully handy to bring up a popular, successful king in urging these 14 year olds to follow the rules!

That night, we had a S’mores J’ama. (J’ama is the new word for the term “feed” often used in schools for feasts at night—“J’ama” is Arabic for fun gathering, and also a little less bovine sounding than “feed.”

Finally I settled Suhaib, Mohammed, Hashim, Lawrence, Adel, Abdullah, Tamer, Tareq, Matt, Suhayb, Zaid, and what’s-his-name (that was all done without cheating, and as Maria says in “The Sound of Music” when she forgot a Von Trapp child: “God bless what’s-his-name.” They are here. The real adventure begins.

Yesterday was full of summer camp-like ice-breaker games and group initiatives. In the afternoon the coaches and co-curricular teachers tried to sell their programs so these 109 students could sign up for sports/games/communityservice/dance/art/music/drama in the afternoon. Wow. They had 10 choices for how they could spend 4:15 to 6:00 every school afternoon. By the way, an addendum to last week’s crisis. Somebody figured out I was not a Squash star (think of the myriad ways they may have come to that conclusion!) and I am co-teaching the Drama. Yes, a victory of sorts. I get to teach drama. But the
“co-“ part will be a challenge. I think co-doing almost anything in the arts is troublesome at best. But, there are lessons to learn here I am sure.

Last night we met with our groups for preparations for the finale of orientation: the KA Olympics. There are 8 teams, with 13 or so students and 6 or so faculty on a team. There will be Olympic events tomorrow (there is talk of medals and awards—who wouldn’t want to win the inaugural cup?????). But between now and then, the team gets to work on banners, t-shirts, skits. Good heavens—a veritable summer camp extravaganza! My friend Mary Massey would love to join in—she is a friend who always wanted to be a Professional Group Sing-a-long Leader.

Finally, at the end of the day, there was a Faculty Recital of sorts. Sana, the art teacher, brought out a blank canvas, and as she started to fill the canvas with design and color and hope, a violinist and pianist played, and soon an Arabic teacher recited a poem over all these cultural flowerings.

I participated in a skit, playing a venerable History Professor called in to wax about the historic events at KA. If any of you are Denison alums, you would certainly recognize the voice and mannerisms I used—can you guess? I wore a tweed jacket and scarf (trying for that ivy-league-tweedy-stuffy look) and searched vainly through a pile of books on anything that might help interpret these momentous events at KA (In the indices of my books I see B.B. King, and King George’s War, and Kenya, and Kuwait…but…and I guess it went over, for there was laughter and applause, and you know, I guess there is a hammy side to my personality. It was exciting to jump into doing something funny at the beginning.) One Arabic teacher commented, “Mr. John—you were an entirely different person there.” Okay, I will say it: it was nice enjoying compliments from these new people for whom I have given myself over.

I will offer a few quick words about today—and I hesitate to invoke the clichéd phrase, “from the sublime to the ridiculous,” but it is apt!

Today was Sports Try-outs Day. And of course that means that the arts classes had their first day to begin teaching their discipline. Eight students signed up for drama (one of my new friends here, a gifted swimmer, had only two sign up to gad about in the pool and train). This was really it. The first day, not officially in a coat-and-tie-with-syllabus-in-hand, but students, me, a room. The magic baby!

It was a delightful two hours. I used many of the classic theater games, explaining the reasons behind them; their favorite was “Killer,” one of the best loud-is-there-a-homicidal-maniac-in-the-room games. It was easy. These teen-agers from the Arab world were so much like the classic drama classes at Charlotte Latin back in those glory days of my Drama Department, albeit, the first day of a year, but still enthusiastic and fun.

I was on cloud 9 as I went to lunch—this would be a snap this teaching gig!

Teachers always need to watch the cocky strut. There’s always something else after lunch!

We met with our Olympic group to work on our skit. We had about 2 hours. But hey, we already had a great idea and framework for this 3 minute skit…

But hey, nothin’!

After two hours I told them we should at least run through the skit one complete time before we went to an all-school meeting. During that “one time,” after all my directorial flourishes added to jazz up this skit, all my hearty instructions about how we were going to pave the way for drama at KA, in the middle of that run-through, a girl loudly, proclaimed, “I don’t want to be in this play.”

And there was deterioration of spirit and material…

The entire gamut of an educator’s experiences in one day…

Postscript: it is night now, the performance is over, and I can relish the noise of the dorm, the unfamiliarity of Arabic sounds, the attempts at theatrical splendor, and the not-so-surprising realization that teen-agers are darn similar, in the Arab world or the western world.

Tomorrow I will relate the terrors of trying to operate a copying machine in Jordan, and the preparation for the real first day of school.

Always more to tell, but now bloody noses to wipe up and boys to check on (the girl’s dorm is not in another country, which might have been wise…).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Joy of Opening Packages

There is a song I know that begins, “As little children we dreamed of Christmas morn, and all the gifts and toys we knew we’d find.” Well, for the last 9 days, I have felt, again, like a child anticipating that exciting morning. My wonderful sister Elizabeth announced to me last week that she had put together a care package, and sent it off with the U.S. Mail. She had asked what I might want, and I rattled off some things, but some things were meant to be a surprise. She also hinted how much the shipping for this precious package set her back (when I inquired, “was it $35?” she retorted, “I wish!” Double or nothin’ baby!). She had also said our father had gotten the chance to throw in some things goodies.

It took 9 days for the package to make its way to KA. I had proudly told the receptionist a few days ago that a package would be arriving soon for me. She smiled and said, “no one else gets as excited as you about mail!” The funny thing is I had received only one postcard so far (a shout-out to my friend Noah who sent me a Velazquez art postcard). That last line was not meant to be a guilty dig at anyone—it just really was fun to get a postcard. See Meg Calacci—you are right again; there is such a child-like joy in getting mail and packages here!

I was at the Mecca Mall yesterday picking up my new dark suit from the tailor when Russa, the receptionist at KA, called me on my mobile—that is what cell phones are called outside of the United States (he says in a fairly pretentious voice!)—and she practically squealed, “John, it’s here! Your package arrived!” What excitement (in my head at least) as we made it back from Amman—I have never been so excited for toothpaste, sunscreen, and razors!!

I proudly carried this 12 pound package with the $70 postage sticker on it back to my apartment, and it felt so much like that rush of getting the Christmas stocking and discovering what goodies made their way into it. Oh wow. The toothpaste, sunscreen, and razors I asked for!! And the Immodium, Pepto Bismal, and oatmeal!! But as I unpacked the box, it really was a delight to get this package, all wrapped and secretive at first, and unveiling its contents. Elizabeth had put in several entertainment magazines, and drawings from Jack and Emma, and pictures of our family, and it couldn’t have been more fun. I could tell my father’s touches. I nag him about the number of containers this man has accumulated (it is not an overstatement to say that containers have taken over that wonderful man’s kitchen like the monster in “Little Shop of Horrors.”) He had put several of the gifts in those old styrofoam and plastic containers, knowing the laughter at my pulling them out. They put in a fan, a couple cans of Cincinnati chili, and the last season DVD of “The Golden Girls.” I mean, you could hardly have imagined a more motley bunch of presents.

It was serendipitous laughter as I looked through the “treasures” in this package, loving the drawings, prayers, and notes of good will. The only thing not like Christmas morn is that you can’t immediately turn to them and issue the heartfelt thanks in person.

Today there were a couple other package-like experiences.

There is an electrician on campus named Fadi, and he and I have talked a bit in the last week, and he lives in nearby Madaba. Fadi said we should get together sometime. As I hope I have made clear, Jordanians are immeasurably friendly. I asked him he if he could take me to a barber, so I could have a good cut before the students arrive.

Going to a new barber is fraught with tension in the best of circumstances, like when you speak the language. So today when Fadi met me to take me to Madaba, he first wanted to go on a field trip to Mount Nebo and enjoy the view. I reminded him that I had a meeting at 6, and a fancy dinner at 7 to celebrate the beginning of student orientation tomorrow.

Fadi drives like a madman—heck, driving in Jordanian seems to be utterly rule-less. There are no lanes, as I can tell, and people just try to get where they are going expeditiously. As we enter Madaba I tell him about the grid system of the streets in New York City above 14th street, and he thinks that is ridiculous. The roads in Madaba just go everywhere and anywhere and in my mind nowhere.

We end up at Fadi’s friend, the barber, and away we go. Every five minutes Fadi asks me if I like how the haircut is going. The guy does a great job, and washes the hair at the end. Now that does make more sense, doesn’t it? You don’t leave with all those hairs in your inner ear.

Before heading back to campus Fadi takes me to his house for tea. Fadi comes from a family of 12 children, and I meet a couple of them (or they are nephews or, I don’t know Bedouin cousins or something). One guy raises sheep and has between 300-600 sheep he tends. Just not at teatime I guess.

Anyway, my real point in telling the haircut story is that it was another “package” of sorts—spending time with generous Fadi, not quite knowing what this package would entail, and utterly reveling in a kind man’s friendship.

When I got back on campus, I got another package—the names of the five young men who will be my advisees this year. As most of you would guess, teachers often have advisees, namely students they watch out for, and shepherd (pun intended) through the year. All day long I was waiting to get this list—just to see who they would be. When I got back, the Dean of Student Life gave me the names—wow. They are Abdulkareem, Ismail, Hashim, Mohammed, and Hamdi. Two of these guys are from Saudi Arabia, two from Jordan, and one is Canadian-Egyptian. What a great package!

But of course I don’t know what to make of this package yet—it isn’t as easy and heartwarming yet as the comfort foods and wishes from Cincinnati, but, wow, this is the package I have been waiting for!

Tomorrow the students arrive. My dear friend Debbie wrote me an email the other day saying, “Our greatest adventure in our careers is when the students show up for class.”

Let’s see how this package unwraps tomorrow!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Let me tell you about my weekend…

Friday dawned warm and sunny; bright and clear—wait, that’s every day in Jordan!

We had a field trip planned for Friday morning for us to journey about 1½ hours to Karak, a town that European crusaders used to build a formidable castle in the 12th century—I mean that fortress seems relatively recent given our trips to 2,000 year old Petra, and centuries-old-I-mean-from-the-Bible-old to the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo.

So I show up on Friday morning, armed with my sunscreen, camera, and sunglasses (the most imperative things for any of you planning to come and visit me!). After about 15 minutes, the nurse is there, the bus driver, and soon a colleague huffs and puffs over to say he can’t join us today. Now he was to be the tour guide, so it looked like it was just the three of us for the excursion to Karak. I decided the very nice nurse and bus driver did not need to spend the whole day taking just me to this town, so I said we should cancel the trip. I really didn’t want to cancel—I really wanted a dozen colleagues to run up and happily get on the bus, but I guess everyone else had to write their syllabi, go shopping, sleep in, blah blah blah, so I moseyed on back to the dorm.

I don’t like it when activities don’t happen. It is safe to say I am an activity-aholic. I like them as didactic thrills, distracting devices, and a chance to add one more to ‘dot’ to my mess of dots I am trying to connect here.

So as I walked back, the prospect of a long day on campus looming before me, I decided to walk around the campus, and pretend I hadn’t seen it before. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, “Now pretend you are giving a tour around the campus. How would you introduce the buildings and the setting?” Darned if it wasn’t an interesting and illuminating walk!

As I sauntered (that might be the right verb—I wasn’t in any hurry) around the campus, I was struck by the horizontality of the landscape around me. Beyond the confines of KA, there are these beautiful, rolling hills to the north—in fact, they look like the rolling hills in Tuscany and Umbria, if you have had the good fortune to travel in Italy. As I walked around, yeah, really killing time, the horizontality of the sky, of the hills, reminded me how very different this was from my years in New York, which of course is so much about the reach, the verticality of nearly everything and everyone. Here, it is the expanse of the fields—some of the most arable and bountiful fields in the Middle East, the groves of olive trees, and vegetable farms that provide me with all the great produce we have to eat here. It struck me as a little odd that I really am not a very good “Country Mouse,” or at least I have seen myself as more of “City Mouse.” But I will benefit from this country calm. Indeed.

I come back to my apartment and decide to read some more of the history of the Middle East I am finding so compelling—these searing, quixotic, passionate stories of settlements and betrayals, promises and divides. When I finished Queen Noor’s memoirs I could not believe how much I did not know about her husband, King Hussein, who ruled Jordan for 46 years. I loved her reminiscences of how he struggled to foster peace in the region, and how he would try and break down the barriers of prejudice in the Arab-Israeli conflict, often through marvelous speeches Queen Noor recounted. In one speech from 1994, as Israel and Jordan edged closer to signing a peace treaty, ending nearly 50 years of a state of war, King Hussein said, “I have asked God the Almighty, to help me be a part of forging peace between the children of Abraham.” Over and over in speeches King Hussein invoked that image of the “children of Abraham” embracing reconciliation. Okay, I had some time on my hands, so I decided to get out my Bible to remind myself of Abraham. I knew the story with Isaac (especially with all the references to the tale in art history) but I wanted to learn something new. I had a couple hours to kill before lunch.

I open to Genesis 12 to read about Abraham. What a smile I must have had as I read how God called Abraham to leave his country and family and “go to a land I will show you.” By faith, Abraham obeyed. He took a leap of faith. Gulp.

I know it is odd to relate to Biblical characters, but what a parallel! And of course as I looked at the map at the bottom of the page—you know where this is going, I am sure—Abraham moved to, oh, about 40 miles to the west of where I am sitting and writing this blog. My dear friends Doris and Debbie would simply smile at me and remind me that we just have to take that leap and move out in faith. Of course I miss the comfort and security of that NewYork/Cincinnati life, but we’ll what’s in store here?

The rest of the day I worked on my syllabi and went to the gym. A quiet day of horizontality and standing on the promises.

Saturday I went to the Mall. They even call it, “Mecca Mall,” which seems a little sacreligious in such a religious area, but—what a mall. Now it is not nearly as big as the Mall of America near Minneapolis, but it is huge! I walked around, taking it all it, and then saw a sign sure to set any bargain-hunting-Leistler blood a’racing: “Big Sale!”
It was a men’s clothing store, so I should probably walk in and see how good the sale was, right? It was 75% off. Ahhhh….so I got a blazer and a suit for about $215 total. And no charge for the alterations…

I am feeling pretty good about the purchases when I come into the Food Court. A gourmand’s delight! Did I want Turkish food? Lebanese? Indian? Thai? No—I head toward the sign for “Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits”! I want fried chicken. I want that biscuit. I want to pretend I am eating at my favorite place for fried chicken in the world (that would be Charles’ Southern Fried Chicken, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in New York, up around 155th street. If you are any where near there, make your way there, and get the fried chicken and candied yams).

What can I say? A great expenditure of $4. As I am making my way toward the exit to get the bus back I see a sign for a place called “The Chili House.” Gotta check that out.
The closer I get, I see a poster—maybe 3 feet by 4 feet—of a—no way, can it be?? A 3-way!!! And a poster of Coney islands!!!! If you are not from Cincinnati, you may not know what this ambrosia is: a 3-way is chili on top of spaghetti with a mountain of golden, shredded cheddar cheese on top. A coney island is kind of a chili dog, again, with the delectable, cheddar cheese on top. In Cincinnati, we have chili parlors. Maybe 150-200 of these chili “diners” around town, all doing a variation on this Greek chili thing.
You haven’t lived until you have sat down at a Skyline’s (or the competitors) and indulged in the chili experience. I worked one summer at a chili parlor—ate it every day and never tired of the experience. Often when I fly back to Cincinnati, my dad and/or my friend Sylvia and I make a beeline to a Skyline’s to get the fix.

So back to this serendipitous moment—I am here in the Middle East—fully cognizant that I will have to wait until about midnight on December 21 to have a 3-way—when I am sure my jaw dropped at seeing the poster. I rush up and ask, “is this like the Greek chili that is only available in my hometown?” The nice counter guy just smiled, and I said, “I gotta have two coney islands please!” I know, I know, I had just eaten a wonderful greasy chicken meal, and no I wasn’t hungry, but I had to know, was this like the stuff in Cincy? [an aside is probably important here—if I get this excited about a hot dog in a bun covered with chili, onion, and cheese, aren’t we all infinitely grateful I never tried crack???!]

I have never had to wait so long for a coney in Cincinnati. But I waited, and then the plate arrived. 11 bites later I concluded that they were definitely a first cousin to my Skyline’s coney islands.

I wonder if Abraham discovered a fond meal from his home in Ur when he moved to the Canaan area???

The coney island was a sign!

Later that day a Jordanian colleague named Randa, picked me up to take me to a church in Amman. Many services are on Saturday since Sunday is a work day.

I am getting a little more used to Amman (but all, and I mean 99% all, all the buildings are white limestone—so hard to orient oneself) and Randa drove up to this area to a Baptist school where there is an International Christian church.

The service was laid back, people dressed casually, and while I didn’t talk to many people, I can see myself going back and trying to make some contacts there and enjoy a church service not unlike a church camp service. Anyway, very nice to get to broaden my horizons.

Randa invited me back to her home for tea and dessert after church, and it was a wonderful chance to meet her family, see family pictures, gobble a plate of Arabian sweets (I don’t think they like it when you say, “isn’t this just like baklava?”) and pass the time with new friends.

Randa told me that Jordanians like nothing more than spending time with family. They are not like New Yorkers and Bostonians, she said, in that quiet evenings, or whole days even with family is the norm, and “we really enjoy that time,” she smiled and said.

I couldn’t help but think that exactly three weeks prior, I had had the good fortune to spend a day with my mother’s side of the family, the Griley family, two days before I left. Aunt Dot had somehow managed to corral 30 members of the family together for what was the most superb time I can ever remember with cousins and aunts and uncles. The party also came on the occasion of what would have been our beloved grandmother’s 104th birthday, but I have thought many times in the last 3 weeks how delightful it was to spend time with that branch of the family. Aunt Dot deserves many kudos for that organization and special day.

So as I came back to KA, preparing for a new work week, and an important one at that, I had some lovely, albeit small, subtle moments to savor.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Google Giorgio de Chirico!

It is just before 7:00 p.m. and almost time for supper. I have just walked back from the gym to the apartment, and I did not see a soul. From the gym, I walk past one dormitory, through a courtyard, by the dining hall, and as I turn the corner, I see down past my dormitory and several other buildings to the parking lot.

These buildings at KA are just splendid. It was a Turkish-born, London-based architect who specializes in fusing the tastes from the West with the tastes of the East, who designed the campus; hence the look of a college campus that has gone through an Islamic cookie press, if you will. The buildings are quite nice, but there is something a little eerie in making this walk and not seeing anyone. Not scary at all, just very, very still.

I didn’t open all my boxes at once the other day. I decided to savor them a bit more, (yes, one needs to pace oneself with activities until the full force of school life begins!) and only open 1 or 2 boxes a day. Yesterday I opened the box containing my beloved, yet monstrous, Gardner’s “Art Through the Ages” textbook I have used the last six years with AP Art History. I was paging through the book for a little while, enjoying the trip down memory lane with the art works and reminding myself of the sensational students I met doing that course. I came across a painting from 1914, a work by Giorgio de Chirico entitled, “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street.” You really should go to Google Images and see it now. Do you know how to do that? Go to and right next to the word “Web” on the left will be Images. Click onto Images, and search for the painting.
Did you find it?

This is how KA looked today as I walked back (minus the strange little girl with her chasing her hoop). Thursday afternoon of course is the beginning of the weekend here, and so the staff had headed home, and many on campus, obviously, had left, creating an unusually deserted feeling. In the textbook, the author notes that de Chirico’s scene recalls Nietzsche’s “foreboding that underneath this reality in which we live and have our being, another and altogether different reality lies unconcealed.”

Oh my. I am not sure if I subscribe to the Nietzschean foreboding at all, but you know art historians, always enjoying a metaphysical moment!

What I think is invigorating is that a week from right now the campus will have the 102 students joining us for the opening year of KA here for the four-day orientation period. Today is maybe one of the last days I will walk around and see the imposing buildings and be struck by a stillness of any kind!

I am not one to indulge in much stillness. Hmmm…Interesting exercise being still. But as dusk gives way to what a writer I like calls “the violet hour,” I am enjoying this “mystery” of what will be.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Everything 101

This odyssey to Jordan is, as I said yesterday, akin to the state of powerlessness one feels as a child, but it is also reminiscent of another exciting turning point in one’s life—the freshman year in college. (Adjust your mental musical score to some 1980s Duran Duran or Air Supply type music! Or maybe “Pomp and Circumstance” if you feel like it.)

It has certainly been a long time since my family dropped me off at Denison University (oh, one can even use fractions of centuries quite easily now!) but being here at KA brings back maaaaaaany of those feelings—you are stunned at the newness of every moment, you don’t know lingo, will you find someone you know/like to sit with or laugh with, you have such high expectations, such a sense of adventure, people tell you, you have such promise, you have a drive and excitement to learn everything, you bristle with energy and possibility, opportunity is your new middle name, you are dewy with naivete—and another thing I remember—the mood swings!

Oh my—I remember back to those days in late August and September of freshman year I would go down to the lobby of Shorney dorm and call someone—usually my best friends Dawn and John—and tell them what was great, maybe even stupendous and what was hideously heinous. I would call my mother and pour out my heart, and then she would worry, call me back later that day, and I couldn’t even remember what the problem had been! The ups. The downs. Like, every two hours. The drama of the adjustment to it all.

Welcome back to freshman year Johnny! And it is one whoppin’ course—Everything 101!

And the trip down memory lane is interesting—if you would normally ask me if I had been happy at Denison—I would trip over myself talking about courses I loved, professors I idolized (Amy Gordon, Ken Bork, Walter Eisenbeis, Susan Diduk), professors who challenged me and opened me up to exciting things (William Osborne, Chuck Flynn, Marjorie Chan) lifelong friends, serendipitous moments, silly moments, study abroad thrills, the overpowering importance of the Denison Singers, accolades, success…….but wait….if I go back to that first semester, it was not all fun as the plate tectonics of my life shifted (ahhh…once in awhile a science metaphor returns to my humanities/TV-soaked brain!). I remember those mood swings even better now. I am having a post-40 year old version!

Today is a perfect example. This morning the Chairman of the Board of Trustees arrived on campus to greet us as a faculty for the first time. I had not seen him since I interviewed with him in his Chelsea apartment in February. I liked him then. Today he was even more of a titanic presence. He addressed us for a solid hour (well he was speaking to all of us, but boy, it felt like a personal pep talk extraordinaire) and he was so inspirational. I don’t remember a Chairman of the Board of Trustees ever addressing any of the three schools in which I have taught, and he relayed to us the journey to get to this day, and his gratitude, his sheer appreciation as we uprooted our lives, and believed in this history-making moment of starting this school.

If he had passed an offering plate, I would have happily put in my year’s salary!

To paraphrase Renee Zellweger, he had me at ‘thank you.’

There was a moment in his speech when I felt that my whole life had brought me to this juncture, and for those who know me well, I love these historic/dramatic moments. I love the chance for reflection, evaluation, connection—and frankly, it feels as if you are soaring over the earth.

You know there has to be a mood swing, right? It wouldn’t be a very satisfying blog entry if the narrative didn’t move in that direction, huh?

So after a meeting about the school logo and school stationery this afternoon, a woman approached me for a chat. This is a woman with whom I had had a not satisfactory chat yesterday about my extra-curricular duties. I had told her that one of the things that excited me about the prospect of coming to KA was that I could head the history department, and continue with the drama education I have been doing for my teaching career.

Well, it seems there are not enough people to help with intramural sports, and she said it was a done-deal, I would not get to do drama, but help with intramural sports. Y’know, like watch kids play squash or table tennis or something.

And thus the pendulum swings.

Maybe she just thinks I “like” drama, the way people “like” going to the mall, for example. Maybe she doesn’t know how integral it has been in my teaching career, and my life, but I didn’t get the impression that the longevity of my work with drama education, nor my direction of 60 plays matter. There isn’t a male teacher working with intramurals.

Maybe I have a new calling!

What will be the surprise around the corner for the mood upswing?

One last remembrance of that first semester in college: I took a course entitled, “Thinking, Believing, and Understanding,” and afterward I could say it changed my life. However, during the course, I couldn’t figure what was going on. All this class discussion about abstract ideas (Ummmm…did I read the course title???) and no facts?? What? And then every Friday Professor Walter Eisenbeis had his secretary put slips of paper in our boxes with our current grade. Dr. Eisenbeis, veteran of the Russian Front in WWII and ex-concert pianist and profound insighter extraordinaire, had the idea that each freshman started at the same grade, an F. We worked our way up (hopefully!) and earned better grades. Can you imagine, on like September 13, going to your box, and kind of cheering, because you had gone up to a D-???!!! He said in class, that by midterm, if you had a C+, you would probably end the semester with a very good grade.

Okay…but the weeks of waiting, and the mood swings just over the walk to the box, and the retrieval of the grade sheet—arghhhhhh, it was torturous.

I should probably conclude the anecdote by saying that when the semester ended, I earned an A+ from Dr. Eisenbeis. It is very easy, all these years later, simply to remember the A+, and not those mood swings, the weeks as you adjusted, evolved and shifted your sights.

Now is a good time to remember Dr. Eisenbeis and those grade slips.

Now is also a good time to remember the definition of “risk” I coined many years ago, the very words I said to myself as I boarded that plane to come to this place:
Risk is when you sacrifice who you are for what you might become.

But I will happily welcome the mood upswing nonetheless!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Where are the Marx Brothers when you need them?

I got my boxes today.

But oh, dear reader, it was not as simple as that declarative sentence might sound!

On July 27 my father and I dropped off 10 boxes (nice regular size book boxes in case you are trying to picture the moment) near the Cincinnati airport. The way it was supposed to work was that the boxes would travel by truck to Chicago, then fly by cargo freight arriving in Amman 6-8 days after I dropped them off.

I don’t remember if I mentioned it before, but the day I left for Amman, there was a glitch in this smooth process. The shipping company did not have the security clearance for Homeland Security, and so notified me that they might have to return the boxes to Cincinnati, and I would have to sign this document in person. Not quite frantic yet, I explained to the shipping agent I was set to leave six hours hence for a new country! I couldn’t be there for this new plan. The man said he had to verify I was who I said I was. He wouldn’t call the school in Jordan (“I’m not calling another country for you!”) so I suggested my former employer at Hackley. (“All right, but you better be who you say you are!”) A couple of hours later he and I spoke again, and he asked me cryptic questions, checking my answers with what had been said by my former employer. I passed the security clearance! I faxed the signature, and I was good to go.

The part that made me nervous was the warning he gave that once the boxes landed at Amman, I had to claim them within three days, or they might be confiscated.

Okay, okay, all of that is back story. That is simply the landscape against which I will paint today’s story and learning experience…

At the 6-8 day mark I emailed the US shipping agent inquiring about my boxes (“I don’t know anything about it once it leaves US soil,” he barked. Well, in an email it is hard to gauge the tone of voice, but I certainly sensed a snarl or a bark.) So a woman named Rita here at KA was put in charge of helping me find/track/claim the boxes. She said, “I think they land on August 6.” On August 6 I went and asked. Rita said, “Well, not yet, we’ll see. I bet soon, John.”

A day or so later I told her of the dire 3-day warning. She said in her fabulous husky accent, “John—don’t be so scared. The boxes will arrive. We’ll get them.” You know, in just reading the words, you miss the thrill and drama of the accent. Say it again to yourself in a kind of throaty-Arabic-Bette-Davis accent. See! It’s much better.

Back to the news of the day: yesterday I learn the boxes have arrived! Sam, the wonderful driver and new friend, will accompany me to get the boxes and present documents so as to expedite the customs clearing.

This morning we leave at 10:00 a.m. for the 25 minute drive to the airport.

We return to school (with the boxes—I will spare you the excruciating suspense) at 2:50 p.m.

You might ask—why did it take nearly 5 hours???

Oh. The farcical bureaucratic ballet I witnessed today was priceless.

For one thing, the cargo area is nowhere the airport I have used the couple of times so far. It looked like we were driving through the desert to Saudi Arabia. And the security clearances to get to the cargo area were bizarre! There were three check-points to pass—one where Sam and I had to leave the car, check all the IDs in our wallet, get special security badges to wear…all of this reminded me of the trips I took to Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

We clear those hurdles and arrive at the cargo hangar—about the size of a proud suburban Home Depot store. And now the fun begins…the first stop is to look for the papers in the file, and I notice about a dozen men huffing and fussing with files, not sure if they were doing anything, just fussing. Lots of furrowed brows, staring at my passport, the landing documents, and finally—the papers are found.

I am whisked down a loooooooong hallway (it felt like the long hallway in “Willy Wonka”—the real movie, not the Johnny Depp one) and meet a man who will help me. Sam and I walk in, and there is such chattering and busybusybusying—sort of like an Arabian stock market trading floor. He looks in the file and gets on the phone, looks at the passport, and then we go down to the cargo floor. I see boxes there—there are boxes to be had in Jordan! Many, many boxes.

I lost count at the number of men who had to approve this pick-up. I wanted to count after it was 2 or 3, because I thought it would be funny to recount, but I seriously, and I mean seriously, lost count after 12. There is lots of very important stamping of papers going on. We go through supervisors (Sam wondered if the Prime Minister had to come and stamp the papers) and oh, the head supervisor is on a bathroom break. We’ll have to come back in 15 minutes!

Sam and I go to the employee cafeteria and have a Pepsi. He is such a gem. We had talked the whole way to the airport about many things, mainly relationships, and how much he likes to learn about relationships from watching “Oprah” and “Dr. Phil.”

A man comes to say—“It is time Mister John to get your boxes.” That previously occupied head supervisor says, “Welcome to Jordan—today and every day.” Thank you, thank you—may I see my boxes???

While we wait for them to get the boxes, Sam and I watch the incredible number of inspectors at work—there must be dozens of them, opening every box, inspecting every single package. One group had some women’s dresses, presumably for a store, and as they inspected, some of the men were trying on the women’s hats. Sam wonders why they don’t just scan the boxes, and stops an employee and asks why not. “It gives more people jobs,” he explains. Okay.

My boxes come on a forklift. 1-2-3-yes, yes, all 10 are here! They made it!

Now a round of inspectors have to come and—I don’t know do what, see what, but they open every box, look at every book, take the few CDs and DVDs I packed to be stamped (I kid you not!). I packed a cookbook called, “The Cake Doctor” cookbook where you add stuff to enhance cake mixes, well, you get the point. One inspector picked it up, and asked, “Who is this Cake Doctor?” I kid you NOT!

The boxes are left on the floor, my things around them, and we need to get more stamps upstairs on the papers. Sam says it is safe to leave all the things there on the floor.

This is when I wonder if the Marx Brothers ever came to the cargo area in Amman for a movie…what a farce!

Just as we go to the last man for a stamp, the “muzzein” cries out for early afternoon prayers. We are 10 feet away from the man who can help me liberate my boxes, and he leaves the office for prayers.

Sam and I go to have another soft drink in the cafeteria. He tries Mountain Dew at my suggestion and loves it.

Twenty Minutes later, we get the signature from the head man. We go downstairs, we get a few more signatures and stamps—and we get to take my boxes and head back to KA.

Yeah, I got my boxes today.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Made in HKJ

The night before I left the U.S. two weeks ago I got a call from Meg Calacci, mother of the incredible Khosrowshahi children at Hackley. She called to send me off on the journey with love, wish me well, and remind me that this odyssey was a gift: “you get to become a child again, with all that is exciting and scary. You won’t intuitively know the customs, you won’t know the language, but you get to experience things in that wondrous way children do.” Meg, you are so right, as usual, and thank you for that reminder.

I have a curious niece, Emma, and an enthusiastic nephew Jack, and since I have been in Jordan these two weeks, I have thought about them so often. Not just missed them, because they are such a joy, nor just wished to play with them again, but thought about what it is to be like them, as children—the naivete, the impatience, the excitement, the curiosity, the fatigue, the frustrations, the white noise, the hopes of loving arms nearby—and the experiences they accrue every day.

When I came for my quick Middle-Eastern weekend in February, I thought I saw many road signs in English. Well, there are some, but not as many as I thought I saw then. On our infrequent trips to Amman I now look out the bus wondering how I will ever make sense of the roads—what does that sign say? What if I get lost? Will I ever roam aimlessly as I did in New York (or roam purposefully, for that matter!) What are the drivers saying to each other?

I remember last summer sometime I showed nephew Jack a book that Emma and were reading and asked him what the words said. Jack sighed and wistfully said, “King [in case you do not know it, niece and nephew call me ‘King’—what smart children they are! And now I have my own Academy!] King, I don’t how to read!” It is cute that Jack didn’t know he needed the verb ‘know’ in the sentence! I remember that moment now, because Jack and I are more alike than ever—I see the Arabic, and I hear my own inner monologue—“But I don’t how to read/speak/understand Arabic!” Like a child again! But our first class in Arabic instruction is this Thursday. Maybe I will learn the alphabet! Heavens, when was the last time we looked forward to learning the alphabet! And applying it to building and understanding all those hidden puzzles. Knowing that alphabet will be a gateway to so much more.

Today a kind teacher, and one of the more conservative ones here, took me aside and said, “John, I so enjoyed our small group discussion the other day, but I wanted to tell you something. After the meeting, you touched my elbow, yes, you were trying to be nice, but that is something very unusual for us here. Please be aware!” For those who know me well, this strikes at the core of my demonstrative personality. I am a hugger, but here I am not well-versed in the social customs, and so need to be more conscious of my interactions and body language. Like a child again! One has to learn the conventions and finesse one’s way in social interactions.

If you read the long blog entry from the other day (remember? The day of the three-goat-feast?) I learned so much from that first dinner party in someone’s home. It was all a learning experience—from the no-utensils-no-plate-free-for-all-mansaf to the segregation of the men and women, every moment you watch others and imitate what they are doing, hoping not to cause a scene. When I was a little boy I created a scene on an airplane by jumping into the aisle and belting out, “Hello, Dolly!” My mother had to tell me that was neither the time nor the place for a Broadway showtune! I learned…well, kinda.

The other day I went to turn in my tray from lunch, and saw some bread lying on a table, so I picked it up to throw it out. A dining hall worker looked distressed as I put the discarded pita into the garbage. I apologized and said that I had cleaned it up after someone else. A Jordanian then explained that in this region, bread is more than just bread, it was seen as a symbol of something sacred. Instead of throwing it out, make sure you leave it for birds or animals or in some way you pass it along to someone else, she instructed. She said, “you will see clumps of bread on windowsills, or if someone drops bread, they may pick it up and give it a little kiss. It’s just an affirmation of what we have, what matters to us. No one throws out bread!” There is so much to learn!

In a small group discussion the other day we had to put together a brand-new thingamabob that you use to write down responses in group work. What is the name? Well, watching a group put something together, as a group, is probably funny in and of itself, but as we put it together, I saw on the back of the stand, the label, “Made in HKJ.” I asked, “where in the world is this?” Someone giggled, and said, “Jordan.” Hmmm…and before they could tell me exactly what the HKJ stood for, I guessed it—Made in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan! I got it right!!

So like a child. You get something right. You feel a little empowered. You lose one of the giggles surrounding you, and you become a little more confident.

Here’s to more of those moments!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

One of the wonders of the world!

About five weeks ago, some international agency released the “winners” of the Seven New Wonders of the World, and on that list sits Petra, in my very own Jordan.

Yesterday we had an excursion to this newly-minted wonder.

We 14 KA explorers started out early—a little after 6:00 a.m. to make the 3-hour trek. Tucked away in a remote valley basin in Southern Jordan is the fabled ancient city of Petra. I had seen photos of some of the monuments, but I wasn’t quite sure what Petra was—a funerary monument? An acropolis? A palace? An archaeological park? But I knew I wanted to go. After all, it is Jordan’s #1 tourist attraction.

We stop for breakfast along the way (hummus and yogurt, hummus and yogurt, everyone sing the chorus together, hummus and yogurt) and arrived about 10:00 at the bus drop-off point. I had been warned: do not forget a hat, sunscreen, and lots of water.

The first thing I see is the “Indiana Jones Snack Shop,” reminding myself how Steven Spielberg shot on location here for the third installment of the Harrison Ford series. Once you pay your admission (about $32) you are immediately thrown into the rocky landscape of the desert. You walk on what is called “The Siq,” a dramatic 2 mile entrance way to the ancient city through a high, narrow gorge. It looks really cool, especially as you come into these canyons that are so high and tilted and a little forbidding. If any of you know the contemporary sculptor, Richard Serra, he creates sculptures that look just like these canyon walkways.

Then all of a sudden, through the canyon walls you glimpse a sliver of a façade, and you remember the photos you have seen. It was so incredible, because as you get a wider angle, the John Williams “Indiana Jones” movie score starts sounding in your head! You come through this long canyon, and there is the Treasury, the flagship tourist monument of Jordan dominating the entrance to Petra. It is grand. It is breathtaking. No wonder Steven Spielberg asked to film the “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” at Petra! This façade was designed to impress, and in the 2000 years since it was crafted, the effect is undiminished. It is so well-preserved too. It is cut deep into the rock face, and concealed in a high-walled ellipse of the valley—somehow shielded from rain and wind and it has been protected from day one. The detailing of the capitals and pediments on the 150-foot tall façade is so crisp. So this is the entrance to Petra, a greek word for “rock.” Here we are at the entrance to an entire city carved into the rock complete with classical facades, reminding the art historian in all of us of the influence and spread of classical architectural structures. My first 360 degree turn of the head ensures that this is a place rich in historical and natural drama.

Of course we all go photo-crazy. I just looked at the camera and I took a dozen shots essentially of the same thing, but you might have missed one angle of the spectacular sight. Okay—before I go further, let’s have a little history.

Petra was the seat of the Nabatean empire, and an important stop on caravan routes to Arabia and the Red Sea. Nope, I had never heard of the Nabatean empire either, but they were enemies of the mighty Assyrians, so they must have been something. At the empire’s peak (first century BCE and first century CE) 30,000 people lived in Petra, and it challenged the might of commercial Rome. Archaeologists tell us that this was a city with sumptuous gardens, and an incredible system of accessing water, providing the citizens with Bellagio-hotel like fountains. It seems a 4th century earthquake caused considerable damage and a decline set in to the area.

In the 19th century a Swiss daredevil decided to explore the area. He had heard tales of an amazing ancient city locked away in the heart of an impenetrable mountain. He connived his way into finding it, and as he came out of the Siq back in 1812, and saw the Treasury (the building I just encountered), he recorded his thoughts into a secret journal. A few years later he published his journal and the rediscovery of Petra became a hot topic among other adventurers looking for new glamorous sights to behold. Artists and poets soon took up the romantic mysteries of this long-forgotten city, and a trickle of tourists began coming to this off-the-beaten track sight.

It is more than a building. It is a city. I guess one way to describe it is, it is the Pyramids meet the Taj Mahal inside the Grand Canyon with reminders of Las Vegas. Wow.

One added element that made the entire trip more special was that our colleague Salwa joined the 14 of us for the trip. Salwa works at KA, and comes from Petra. She has an extraordinary family story. Her mother, an Englishwoman, came to Petra as a young woman, fell in love with a native Bedouin, stayed and married him. They raised their family in a cave, and started a tourist business in Petra. Their daughter is Salwa, our colleague.

We trek down into the city center proper, and meet many of Salwa’s family. Everyone knows her, and greets us with warm hospitality. Salwa’s mother wrote a book about her experiences, entitled, “Married to a Bedouin.” Probably available on… One of the pictures in the book has toddler Salwa meeting Queen Noor and her guest, Queen Elizabeth II who had come to meet Salwa’s family. Can any of our family albums boast such a visit??

We meet uncles and cousins, they offer us tea, and then we set out to explore some of the caves, see where Salwa grew up in a cave (!). Then they invite us to a café for a buffet lunch. During lunch it seems this is a big day for Salwa’s family. They have just bought a new house, so in order to celebrate their good fortune, they have invited half the village tonight for a feast. Salwa says, “it’s a three-goat feast, so it’s a big deal!” Salwa’s mother invites us to come along tonight and join the party. Someone says, “but that’s 14 extra people.” Her mum says, “If you’re having half the village, what’s 14 more? It’s a 3-goat feast!” I have remembrances in my head of Sophia, the character on “Golden Girls” that came from a village in Sicily and always told stories that sounded like this night!

After lunch Salwa says it’s time to get serious about our exploring. We have some work to do. She can’t join us she says, she has the goats to cut up and roast at home. She commandeers her cousins to get us donkeys to help us with the trek.

I haven’t been on a horse since the late 1970s at Camp Kirkwood, and I don’t think I lasted too long on that horse then. So I decide to get on the donkey. Oh. My. I should have just hiked on my own! My donkey decides he has to be the first in line, the first to win the contest up the over 800 steps he is going to take me. Now, I know that sounds like a donkey I would want, but I wanted a slow, leisurely, love-the-shade, stay-by-the- mountain-not-by-the-cliff donkey. No I get a daredevil donkey. An incredibly nice, helpful colleague starts yelling advice, “Lean Back now John,” Lean Forward as he goes up John,” “Bring your heels down,” “Stabilize your weight John,” “You look great John!” Let me assure you, any notions I entertained about being somewhat of an Indiana Jones type, the donkey ride dispelled them.

I don’t know how long the donkey ride was. I know he traveled up hundreds of steps. With me. In the desert sun. Wondering if I would get to the 3-goat feast or not. Sadly, there are no photographs of this moment in my life, since the donkeys were not the leisurely type I felt I deserved.

Yet as the donkey lurched me up these hundreds of steps, I did, once or twice, admire the
colorful sandstone rock and jagged peaks of Petra. The colors remind me of the gorgeous area in Sedona, Arizona with the ochre and red stone. Mostly, though, I prayed I would get off the donkey. I should add, one of the other teachers, had a worse experience—his donkey ejected him. He is skinnier than I am. I did feel a little better.

Finally, there is a stretch of the walk that must be done on foot. All the donkeys know when it is time to part company. It is a long climb, but when you get there, and turn the corner, you are rewarded with the most imposing façade. It is called the Monastery, but is not a building really what that word implies. As you are walking, what is maybe an hour climb you think—am I tired of facades? Well, this sight is so stupendous, it also feels like an optical illusion! It is an hour’s climb easily, even with the scary donkey ride.

It is like the Treasury, but even taller, and even wider. They took a mountain, and carted away rubble, and crafted a façade that is just dreamy. For those hardy types, one can walk farther up to get even better views of the valley and the Monastery. Yeah, it’s like being on top of the world. Being a hardy type, I went.

I also spied this gorgeous little creature, which I learned is a Syrian Blue Lizard. On the top mountain is a souvenir stand—natch—and a Bedouin guy named Tasir that we talked to awhile. He has learned English from tourists, and sleeps in the Monastery at night, he said. He pointed out another mountain-top, a whole day’s climb, according to Tasir, called Jebel Haroun, a shrine to Moses’ brother Aaron, perched on a high summit.

Some smart entrepreneur put a café opposite the Monastery allowing for tea and postcards and pondering the walk down. Yeah, you have to go back.

On the walk down we sneaked into the archaeological dig of a 4th century mosaic church, a church just discovered by archaeologists in 1990. It was closed for the day, but having a shred of Indy Jones left, I scaled the wall. No kidding.

To make it a little easier on the walk to the Treasury we took camels. Now I have gone Middle Eastern! Not nearly as scary as the donkey, I felt stately, and even relaxed, considering I do not think I am a natural to ride animals.

Exhausted, we had to leave Petra, and walk back up through the Siq. Any visitor who comes to Jordan, we have to come here. It is taxing, but thrilling.

We make it back to the bus—it is only 6:30 p.m. but it feels like we have put in a 24-hour marathon at the gym. Salwa meets the bus to help the busdriver get to her house. Her house has a view of the valley that is stunning, and we arrive, they bring out pillows for us upon which to rest, and bring us fresh figs and tea. The relaxation is nice.

Well, an hour later, the villagers begin to arrive, and we quickly learned the order of social occasions in Bedouin parties—the sexes are segregated. The men gather on one patio, and the women on another—no mingling. No kidding. Soon the mightiest platters I have ever seen come out, resting on the patio itself, and groups of people start digging in. A little boy had come by so each of us could wash our right hand in a bowl, so we had clean hands with which to dig in. It was rice spread all around, with roasted peanuts, parsley, and goat. Crowning the platter, in the middle, was the goat’s head. I decided not to look at it very long, and just focused on getting yogurt sauce to go on top of the steaming food. There must have been 100 people at this 3-goat feast!

Since we had been gone a long time, and we worried about our driver’s fatigue, we begged off about 9:00 p.m. to make the drive back to KA. As we left, I thanked Salwa for inviting us, and started to offer her a hug—she quickly cut me off—“not here! Not now John!” I forgot that men and women do not share such levels of intimacy casually or publicly.

The day was one of sensory overload: from the colored sandstone of Petra, to the whooping sounds of children at the village party and the pulsing Arabic music on the bus, to the sweetest most delicate figs I could imagine, to the smells of the camels in the city square, to the sweaty grip on the donkey’s neck! We arrived back at midnight, exhausted. So many wonders in one day!

As trite as it sounds, “It looks like we aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

Thursday, August 9, 2007

My Two New Buddies

Yesterday I went to the Fitness Center at the school.

Don’t give me that face—teachers can see through the cyberwaves, y’know.

It was actually my third visit to the Fitness Center, if you must know.

But yesterday I walked in and saw two 12 year-olds, children of faculty at KA. I went over and introduced myself, and a few minutes later they followed me over to the chest press machine (no doubt overly impressed by the weight I had chosen) and started asking me questions about my time so far in Jordan.

Almost an hour later, I told my new friends Zaid and Ali that I needed to go and change for dinner, but looked forward to seeing them again. We eagerly shook hands, smiled and waved good-bye. It had been among the most satisfying hours of the odyssey so far.

Earlier that day we had undergone a two-hour orientation session on cultural sensitivity and trying to understand the hearts and minds of the Jordanians we will meet and teach. While it was interesting, it also made people nervous. At lunch there was a twitter of questions: What missteps am I going to make? What misperceptions might I inadvertently cultivate? What will my body language say? Can I touch someone on the shoulder? What does it say if I open the door for a woman colleague? If they know I watched Friends for 10 years, what does that say about my morality to a conservative family????? Yikes. Should I stay just in my apartment and conduct class on-line????????

So I go to the Fitness Center to stairmaster away a little nervous tension and meet Zaid and Ali. No pretense, no wondering about international incidences as we talk about the movie stars we like, or about what parts of the world are fun…and what charming, interesting guys!

As I said, both young men are sons of colleagues, and I had heard their names from their parents, but somehow, instead of worrying about all the problems you might create—all you gotta do sometimes is go up to someone, smile, shake hands, and say it’s nice to meet them. The desire for human connection might trump everything else.

They wanted to talk about their previous schools (in Riyadh for one, Dubai for the other) and what they thought was great about American fastfood. They asked me if liked Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party (evidently in 6th grade in the Middle East you study some U.S. History) and if I was hooked on the TV series Lost.

I didn’t get much exercising done yesterday—there was a trip to Amman to celebrate another colleague’s birthday, and at some point I did have to tear myself away and go change for the trip to the Intercontinental Hotel for Mexican food, but for the rest of the evening I basked in the glow of how fun it was to talk to these 12 year-olds, and ask questions back and forth. I had two new buddies.

They promise to help me learn Arabic, and their greatest hope (they said) in our becoming friends is that I tell my American friends that not all Arabs are mean terrorists. As we shared likes and dislikes, they relayed their perceptions of the Middle East (“not everyone here likes everyone either—when I am in the Gulf states they call me Jordanian crap,” said one of the commentators and wondered if the world will get past the Iraqi war. They wanted to try out some of the American accents they have heard in various films. Topic to topic—smile to smile—it was, well, wonderful, chattering away in the Fitness Center. There is a moment when you know it is more than small talk. It is like reconnaissance work in the accrual of friends.

Everyone has been polite here. No denying that. But getting beyond politeness is that really important, and difficult plateau—that moment when you brush against people with that desire to talk and chat and burn through the introductory stage, past politeness, eager to see someone again and reach a level of comfort, of comradeship, it’s really exhilarating. Leave it to the younger set to make that mark.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Some As to your Qs...

It is exactly one week ago that my dad took me to the airport in Cincinnati. One week on the Jordanian odyssey…

Several people have emailed me with questions, so I thought I would now entertain those queries! If you are old enough to have been a fan of “The Carol Burnett Show” she always opened her show fielding questions from the studio audience. While I am not red-haired like Carol, or clad in a Bob Mackie gown, I am imagining right now my own studio audience and taking your questions!

Q: How hot is it?
A: The weather reporter must get so tired everyday: sunny and warm! The temperature here is usually about 93 but at night it goes down to about 60. At the Dead Sea the other day, however, it was a scorching 114 degrees! Without the humidity folks, it is not as bad a humid day in Ohio or New York. But it is weird how the perpetually all-blue sky is a little disconcerting—I miss a cloud or two! But all day, until dusk, it is sunny, sunny, sunny.

Q: What do you eat for breakfast?
A: There is a buffet for breakfast, so there are many choices, and indeed, it is the first chance of the day to have hummus. By the way, this is something—the hummus is presented not only with lovely garnishes, but a gorgeous imprint of the school’s logo is made on top of the pile of hummus! Just so you know, the logo of the school is a beautiful flower, because…(pause for dramatic effect) knowledge flowers here.
I tend to have corn flakes, a banana, and mango juice.

Q: How expensive are things?
A: Here is the most unusual dichotomy of prices—ready? At the Dead Sea, a bottle of sunscreen was priced at $25!!!! But to pay for someone to clean my apartment, and pay for their transportation by bus to/from the school, will set be back simply $5!! American brands of products are very expensive, but hey, I own stock in P&G so shouldn’t I support the Cincinnati-based company??

Q: Where does the title of the blog come from?
A: My friend Judy who set up the blog for me decided it might be nice to do a wordplay on the 1967 Sidney Poitier film about a teacher in England, entitled “To Sir, With Love.” Poitier (playing Mr. Thackary, to be addressed as "Sir!") is assigned to teach a tough classroom of young working class Brits, who are about to graduate and enter the workforce. The pupils are poorly educated and thuggish. Thackary quickly realizes that their real problem is that they lack a moral and social compass, or any appreciation of the value of an education. He confronts the class, and inspires most of them to steer a more proper course in life. Poitier encounters prejudice, but transcends it by his talent, intelligence, and force of personality. So Judy thought I should do a reverse version, hence, the FROM Sir, and the love part is pretty obvious.

Q: Is your school an American school?
A: This is a vexing problem, because actually it is considered a Jordanian school with an American-influenced system. But since it is Jordanian really, it has to follow Jordanian educational requirements, laws, etc. But, the model is Deerfield Academy, a venerable New England academy.

Q: Do you watch TV?
A: Not yet. I have about 6 channels; 1 in Spanish, 3 in Arabic, and 2 in English (BBC News and a European CNN). So I just decided to wait and not watch—which means I guess not getting much news either. My sister had said earlier this summer that if there was no cable, “oh, you’ll be home by October!”

Q: What is wonderful so far?
A: The sunsets are wonderful. Close your eyes and imagine the ideal sunset. Or get out your old albums, and if you find a Barry Manilow album, “Even Now” the sunsets are those pure colors of red, pink and blue, and at the front of the school, you see right into the Jericho Valley with these sublime colors. That word sublime is an interesting word, for it comes out of struggle and finally a peaceful resolution. This volatile region yields such calming sunsets. You can almost Moses or Joshua seeing the same kind of sunsets thousands of years ago, moved by God’s simple, yet deluxe, magic.

Q: Have you been to Amman often?
A: We have gone a few times, for shopping and out to eat once, but not enough yet to walk around and establish any sense of territory or bemusement. I go tomorrow to get my residency visa. I need to go and wander. With a map.

Q: What is the best part of Queen Noor’s book?
A: I still have some of the book to finish, but the most astonishing part of the book thus far is her explication of how the Anwar Sadat-Monachem Begin Camp David Accords affected Jordan, King of Hussein, and did not work toward peace in the Middle East. The best part of the book, of course, is an Arab perspective I have rarely seen. As we know as historians, getting at THE truth about something is like chasing Jello tigers, and as I remember the cries of triumph over those 1978 Jimmy Carter-led meetings, Queen Noor explains how this actually set back the process for years and years. If you want to know more, get her book and see how she helps see another side to a thorny issue. Her name Noor, means “light,” and frankly she has shed light for me on the Middle East in an exciting way.

Q: Are you happy?
A: I am overwhelmed! I am adjusting. Happy? Gosh. Happy is such a difficult concept, isn’t it? Maybe happiness is something you glean after sifting through the realizations, the pains, the joys, the insights of a particular time. Maybe it is when you reach for that quilt of memories and warmly recall laughter and smiles and hugs and tears of cherished ones. As when I moved to New York in 1996, I am reserving real judgment. Probably for months. But, I am happy that I have a family supporting and loving me while I go halfway around the world. I am happy that I have a network of friends in New York and Cincinnati and elsewhere that wanted to see me off with smiles and good wishes, probably knowing that going into the unknown, without a local support group is hard. I am happy I got a fan for my apartment today. I am happy that we can email each other with a few spare moments and a few clicks on a keyboard. I am happy to think about priorities, opportunities, and choices.

Any more questions??