Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Last week when I was on safari in Africa…

I know, I know, I am already past the expiration date of that phrase. Last week I was actually back teaching at KA. But, you know, while the shelf life of that phrase was short, it was a fun phrase to toss around.

In the last blog entry I focused on the adventures seeing the animals on the safari. While I have been to Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo and the Cincinnati Zoo, and have seen Tarzan films, there, of course, is nothing quite like seeing the magnificent wildlife parks in Kenya. In one park we walked through the park (there were no predatory animals there) and I was just a couple feet away from the giraffes and zebras. It was thrilling.

In this blog entry I want to focus on some of the stories and experiences from the more human side of what I discovered in Kenya. No doubt, the most unusual encounter with Kenyans on the trip came on Day 5 when we visited a village of the Masai tribe. This tribe is well-known outside of Kenya because they are a tribe that has welcomed tourists for a long time, showing off dances, tribal rituals, their homes, and offering their crafts for sale. This tribe is also well-known for their exceptional height, and brightly colored blankets with which they adorn themselves. The Masai is that quintessential tourist delight and dilemma—we wish to see something “native” and “primitive” but then we are “shocked” by some of their habits (they love to drink cow’s blood, they cut out their ear lobes and stretch them, the women construct their homes out of dung and mud, they send their teen-age boys out in the bush country to live alone and become self-sufficient). Whenever we travel abroad, we long to see something that seems to have missed the train of western civilization, but then, of course, we want them to speak English so we can ask them questions about their lack of flush-toilets. In the end, we got what we wanted, and paid for: oooooh, watch them do a war dance!; ahhhhh, step inside their incredibly dark and dank homes which are maybe 5 feet tall; hmmmm…those brightly colored fabrics are so festive; yikes, watch them herd zebras and elephants. And yet, several things made us laugh and scratch our heads: all of the teen-agers wore knock-off designer watches, a few had cell phones, one young man had a NY Yankees ballcap on, and finally, as Zeina bought a nice amount of merchandise at their crafts, a Masai young man gave her his e-mail address so she could buy more merchandise on-line. Good heavens!

So after the dances, and jumping demonstrations (the Masai are known for unusual jumping as they leap into the air, knees never bending, and ascending about four feet in the air), and visits to family huts, we were escorted around the corner and introduced to maybe 30 separate family-run booths offering carved masks, carved animals figures, and beaded bracelets. For being pretty primitive, they revel in a high-pressure form of capitalism. They haggle. I don’t like to haggle. I like to know the price, and then determine if I should spend money at that establishment. The way Kenyans typically operate is they give you a basket, encourage you to fill it with all your desired gifties, and then commences the haggling over the price. They said the price of my goody basket was 9800 Kenyan shillings (about $160). I said, “Here is the price I will pay—2500 shillings and no more[about $40].” They thought that was my low-ball offer. No, that was what I wanted to pay! Zeina said, “Oh dear, that’s not how the game works. You should have offered 1000 shillings and then you would end up at 2500 shillings.” Here is how good Zeina is: she said to one of the men, “Here is how the game works—you say it’s 10,000, and then I say 1000, and you move to 7,000, I move to 1,500, you say 5000, I say 1,800, you say 4000, now I offer 2,000, you counter with 3,000, I walk away, you call me back, you say, what will you pay, I say 2,500, you suggest 2,700, and then we agree to 2,500.” Those expert salesmen had met their match in Zeina. She robbed them of the game and explained the whole charade to them. She got her merchandise for what she wanted.

I tried, and got my loot for 2,700—not bad for a pasty-faced non-haggler.

Admittedly, I didn’t have much prior knowledge about the history of Kenya. In fact, what I remembered most about Kenya was that Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is the site of the American Embassy bombing in 1998. I remember wondering when the news story broke about the bombing, I wondered if then-President Bill Clinton had fabricated the story since this was at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That year the brilliant satirical movie Wag the Dog had come out and probably made many wonder if such tragedies might be staged simply to divert our attention. But then being in Nairobi, seeing the bunker that is the American Embassy now, made the tragedy much more real and searing than witnessing something on the evening news. Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for this bombing that killed 12 Americans and 200 Kenyans. It is still a fresh wound for the Kenyans.

Politically, Kenya was called British East Africa for about 85 years until it gained its independence in 1963. The richest and most populous of the East African colonies, Kenya was also the last to achieve independence. The British just didn’t want to give up the revenue of the lucrative coffee and tea plantations. Just so everyone knows, Kenya is bordered by Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania.

Tourists! Bombs! American Embassy! What other excitement might there be??

A thumbnail sketch of recent history: Beginning about 700 trading networks lit fire across the Indian Ocean between the Arabs, Phoenicians, Indians and Chinese. Then the European explorer Vasco daGama rounded the tip of Africa in 1498, and soon the Europeans discovered East Africa. The Portuguese built Fort Jesus in the 1500s to protect themselves from the Arab traders, and they held on to Kenya until 1729. For 150 years Arab dynasties wrestled over East Africa. In the 1880s Britain took Kenya, and created large farmlands, growing the tea and coffee that made East Africa so much a jewel in a crown. In the 1920s several tribes began to resist colonial rule, and demand land ownership rights and education. In the 1950s the Mau Mau revolt sparked the British Army to crackdown. In these years roughly 63 Englishmen were killed and about 11,000 Africans (a new came out in the last two months arguing that the British crackdown qualifies as a genocide). Finally, in December 1963 Kenya earned independence and installed Jomo Kenyatta as the first president. Thousands of Europeans left Kenya.

I asked Daniel and John, our drivers for the safari, “What do Kenyans worry about?” They enjoyed thinking about their responses. They decided that the two biggest worries are “crime and health care.” They didn’t say it, but a new friend of mine here at KA, a young science teacher from Botswana said that in the last 10 years AIDS has become a major problem for Kenya—over 15% of the population now is HIV-positive. AIDS has cruelly affected the life expectancy of Kenyans—statistics reveal the life expectancy in Kenya to be only 48, when it is 77 in the US.

I did a little looking on-line and found a consensus that recent challenges for Kenya have included many of the same things seen throughout all of Africa: the legacy of oppressive colonial rule, the residue of hard-won fights for independence, tribal conflict, corruption, struggling economies (besides the devastating effects of AIDS).

I learned that polygamy exists in all social classes in Kenya, and the custom of inheriting the wife of a deceased brother’s wife is common. This has been seen as a source for the spreading of HIV spread since the widow of a man who died from HIV-AIDS is usually infected and may infect her new husband who in turn infects his other wives.

Moreover, many Kenyans earn about $1 a day and live without electricity and running water. In Nairobi (by the way, Nairobi isn’t referred to as “Nairobbery” for nothing—it is a hotbed of petty crime, I learned) about 50% of the 2 million+ population lives in shanties that are grindingly poor. But John and Daniel see hope on the horizon: there is a presidential election in December, and since in the last 10 years there have been more than one political party, there see hope for their damaged country. Both John and Daniel said a major source of comfort for Kenyans is religion. They were quite proud to relate that roughly 75% of Kenyans are Christian.

My favorite story from the trip involving humans and animals came during a routine, quiet meal at our camp site. We were finishing off the meal when all of a sudden two monkeys jumped down from the trees above our primitive al fresco dining hall. Before we knew, two monkeys grabbed a box of English biscuits. However, we all felt superior, and as I recall, started laughing at the monkeys: silly monkeys they grabbed an empty box! As we laughed, another monkey jumped down by one of the women’s tents. The monkey grabbed Natalie’s purse, and pulled out her passport, waving it at us. We ran to chase away the monkey by the tent—yes, we successfully got the monkey to drop the purse. As we turned back toward the dining table, we saw a monkey at the table, and he seemed to be laughing at us. In his hand were the cookies, the real cookies, and not the empty box. We looked like fools! Did the monkeys purposefully create a diversion, so they could grab the cookies, and make us look naïve and clueless? It certainly seemed to be a choreographed event, reminding us that we humans can be trapped in a ruse by animals!

After we left the camp we went to a lodge. It had bathrooms in the rooms—a sign of luxury in Kenya. We stayed in little cabins with names on the doors. The names were so bizarre. The names were clothing items, and toiletry articles. I stayed in Soapdish, another colleague stayed in T-Shirt, and one woman stayed in “Tootbrush.” They forgot the ‘h’ in tooth. Down the way was a cabin with the serious moniker, “Bra.” What were they thinking?

I mention the cabin names in part because on the trip Zeina decided our 7-member safari should all have names similar to the Seven Dwarves. One colleague we named “Drunky,” because of his favorite activity; his girlfriend had decided not to shower for a week, and we called her “Funky,”; another colleague also decided that the un-washed smell felt very “Africa” and we labeled him “Stinky.” One of our colleagues, a flamboyant young man earned the name “Fruity,” and the occupant of “Tootbrush” we endowed with the name, “Toot-y,” and Zeina, a resident of the posh suburb Abdoun, I christened “Douny” due to her upscale tastes; and Zeina called me “Snazzy.” I think it is because the only long-sleeve shirts I brought on the trip (necessary at night to fend off the mosquitoes!) were dress shirts.

Towards the end of our trip, after umpteen nature walks, we returned to Nairobi for two days. We went to a Giraffe Feeding Center. The giraffes ate out of my hand! Fruity actually kissed a giraffe named Daisy. But the really meaningful part was seeing the dozens and dozens of school-age children, about ages 5 and 6, and obviously from poor schools, and watching them thrill to the animals at this park. Seeing children on a trip to a foreign land is a must—seeing and sense what the future of a country is.

On the last day I did what I think constitutes a great vacation—I had a massage at a spa (best $30 spent on the whole trip) and a wonderful meal. We went to an Indian place, and the food had such flavor—and heat. The food on the trip was unsurprisingly bland, and so it was fun to have the taste buds tempted again.

Maybe the best part of the trip happened upon the return to KA. After landing at the airport in Amman, I hoped I might feel like I was “home.” I did not, but that first day back, last Sunday, I was so excited to see my students again in class. They seemed happy as well to be back after the break. You can’t really fake that genuine excitement. It was a delightful sign that these students here just two months had touched my heart in the ways that are so psychically important for teachers.

The safari was a thrill, but that return to the classroom with these young charges of mine was the most moving part of the Break.

Friday, October 26, 2007

In and Out of Africa

Last week when I was on safari in Africa—okay, I know it sounds pretentious and name-droppy, but come on! How often does one get to begin a journal entry with, “Last week when I was on safari in Africa…” hmmmmmm?

So, as I was saying, last week when I was on safari in Africa, I saw a bunch of animals.
In fact, when I returned last Saturday, I called my father to let him know that his treasured son had returned from the African jungle, he asked me, “So was it worth it?” And I replied, “Well it was the most expensive trip to the zoo I have ever had.”

Of course it was more than that.

I got to go to a new continent, get to know colleagues in new ways, see lush vegetation, and remind myself that camping is for suckers.

The heart of any safari is, naturally, the exposure and proximity to wild animals. I will get out of the way, right off the bat, the list of animals I saw within 25 feet of my person: giraffes, lions, zebras, cheetahs, buffalo, wildebeests, baboons, monkeys, elephants, and hippos. Some of you real animal experts may spot the absent animal in the list: we never saw a rhinoceros. We looked. They must have been busy last week.

But any trip is more than the sum of the animals one observes. It is about a new place, a new airline, a new dish, new words, new experiences ranging from the climatological to the sociological. So really any trip, and every trip, is then “worth it.”

The seven of us left on a shuttle bus to the airport last week Thursday bound for Dubai where we would spend the night before jetting across the Indian Ocean to Nairobi, Kenya. I had never heard of Emirates Airline before last week (strange, since according to their in-flight magazine they fly to 120 countries around the world) but after that first flight with them—I am in love with an airline. First, I announced to my 7 KA travel buddies, “I would actually pay for this entrée if I were going out to eat! This Thai Chicken Curry is great!” How often does that happen?! Next, like many upscale airlines, each passenger has his/her own TV screen…the better to keep potentially annoying passengers lulled and complacent. Thirdly, the seats were comfortable and made your back feel good! And lastly, the female flight attendants on Emirates Airlines have a dishy accessory to their traditional outfits: attached to their Jackie Kennedy-like pillbox hats is a veil which they have elegantly tossed over the opposite shoulder—what a cool, 1001 Arabian Nights homage they have going for this Dubai-based airline.

So we land in Dubai—a city I will admit I did not even really know about until a few years ago. In case Dubai is unfamiliar to you, I would imagine it will not stay unfamiliar for long. This uber-up-and-coming city is a wonder to behold. It is hard to describe the building boom one sees in this city. Dubai is oil-money rich, in a country (The United Arab Emirates) that is more a collection of city-states, and it is simply the most jaw-dropping site I have seen since Diane and Anne visited Las Vegas in 2004. There are gated communities, skyscrapers, and gleaming silver metal everywhere. I was trying to think what it reminds me of, because it is more than just Las Vegas. So I decided that Dubai is like Miami Beach meets Dallas meets Beverly Hills swirling in Las Vegas sauce. Everyone we talked to (in our oh-so-short overnight stay) mentioned a statistic that went something like this: Did you know that 75% of the world’s cranes are in Dubai for all the building projects? Now the statistic ranged from a much more modest 20% to the incredulous 75%, but you know, the exact figure doesn’t really matter. Many, many of the cranes in the world used to build skyscrapers are in Dubai. Just last week (in honor of our visit, no doubt!) the Dubai Tower was declared the world’s tallest free-standing structure, when it reached 1,822 feet, topping Toronto’s CN tower, which had held the record since 1976. The Dubai Tower will loom over the earth at 2,684 feet when it is completed next year. The developer of the tallest-building-on-earth has said, “This architectural and construction masterpiece is truly an inspirational human achievement that celebrates the can-do mindset of Dubai.” Let us remember that if the Freedom Tower ever is built on the Ground Zero site in New York, it will rise 1,776 feet into the air. Can-do indeed…

Oh, what happened to the animals? Oh, yes, I do love an intriguing city. I digress.

The following morning we boarded our plane for Nairobi. The desk clerk in Dubai was so excited for us—she comes from Nairobi, and she said we would love everything about Kenya. What I certainly loved on this trip already was a new friend, the school counselor named Zeina. Zeina and I hit it off immediately on this trip. On the second day of the trip I recorded in my journal, “Traveling in a group is always revealing. Whom do you like more than you thought you would? Whom do you discover can you barely stomach, and about whom do you remain neutral??” Zeina and I had fun from the first time the Veiled Attendants came down the aisle offering us a hot towel—as you said thank you to them, they practically purred, “pleasure.” We started giggling and that was the beginning of the fun.

As the plane shot in the air, Zeina got out her I-Pod, shared her earplugs, and she played two songs she had downloaded especially for the trip: the 1980s Toto song, “Africa,” and the so-unbelievably-catchy “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” During this five-hour flight to Kenya Zeina and I made up a whole dance for the song about the Mighty Jungle. Cute, huh? Surprisingly, the other 5 on the trip were uninterested in joining rehearsals for the lip-synch number.

When we landed we were surprised not to feel the pressure of humidity. In fact, the weather in Kenya was wonderfully temperate, ranging from a high of maybe 82 to a low in the evening of 60. I have been to San Diego twice, and what seemed like perfect weather there seemed also a godsend in Kenya.

We also were surprised to see that Nairobi had excruciating rush hour traffic. What might have been a 30 minute drive to our hotel on the outskirts of town, became a 2 hour madhouse. Ahhh…but the slow crawl gave us time to admire the lush vegetation around us. Maybe to those of you not in Jordan you wouldn’t notice the greenery as much, but I come from the desert now, and they had hedges in Kenya. I saw lawns again, and trees, and all the things we typically put in our yards…ahhhh…after a shower in a country that is not water-deprived we dined, wrapped ourselves in our mosquito netting in the hotel room and slept fast until morning. In the morning we would depart on the safari part of the adventure.

The next morning we met our drivers, John and Daniel, who taught us some Swahili and readied us for the long drive out to the bush, to the wildlife park areas in Kenya. “Jambo” is Swahili for “welcome,” and that was such an easy word to learn and use with reckless abandon.

Kenya is about the size of Texas, with roughly 32 million people, and we set out from Nairobi to the southwest part of the country, to the Masai Maara, the famed wildlife park. The drive offered us a chance to see some of the physical geography of Kenya—quite unusual and often spectacular: snowcapped mountains right on the equator, herds of wildlife roaming across the horizon of the savanna grasslands, and lush, tropical rainforests near coral beaches. Moreover, Kenya may well be the “cradle of humanity,” since some of the earliest evidence of human existence has been discovered in the Great Rift Valley.

Most of us are aware of the San Andreas geological fault in California—but that is only 780 miles, and kind of minor when compared to East Africa’s 4,000 mile long “Great Rift Valley.” It is the longest and most spectacular such feature on the earth’s surface (actually, here is something really cool to me: The GRV begins just about 10 miles away from me right here in Jordan, and continues for those 4,000 miles through Africa to Mozambique. It is like a huge scar across the earth’s surface, and is marked by volcanoes and lakes along the rift.) We ate lunch along the way.

Lunch marked the end of the calm part of the trip. After lunch, the rest of the driving was seriously on the WORST roads I have ever experienced. And these were highways. In the van we were trying to describe what it felt like in our car—someone said, “I know what a martini feels like now!” And another offered, “No, it is like popcorn kernels at the heat of passion,” and another rejoinder, “I am a human ragdoll.” These roads were simply unbelievably rough—a cratered madness hard to imagine.

But in time, well, like six hours later, we arrived at the camp.

Now, you have to know that my expectations of our trip were formed from two sources: my family has been to Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World, and my dear friends Caroline and Chuck spent part of their honeymoon at a resort and wildlife preserve in Mozambique—I think it is Mozambqiue. Anyway, I saw pictures of their wonderful accommodations. Splendor. And as I said, my own firsthand imaginings of darkest Africa were formed from our 20-minute safari at Animal Kingdom. If you get too hot there, or find the animals tedious, you can always board that bus that takes you right back to the plush Polynesian resort, complete with electricity and running water, no less! All courtesy of the benevolent Mickey Mouse.

So, try and conceive the picture I harbored in my head as I paid out my $240 a day for room and board on the safari trip to Africa. A combination of Chuck and Caroline’s suite and the Polynesian Hotel luxury? That is what Zeina and I had in our heads when we alighted the van at Olperr-Elongo camp. Oh well. You see, I knew traveling with Anne Siviglia would ruin me for life. (As a funny aside, on our first trip together outside the US, to Spain in 2002, Anne surveyed my hotel choice in Cordoba, and she sweetly said to me, “Well, this must have been one of your bargains you told me about!”)

In fairness to this camp, one of our travel companions, science teacher and former Boy Scout Arthur announced, “This is ballroom camping everybody! Someone cooks the food for you!” Oh, yes, ballroom indeed, complete with outdoor latrines, showers, kerosene lanterns, and monkeys in the trees above us.

I told you I would get to the animals!

Monkeys in the trees above us! That is exciting.

Just after we unpacked the van, John and Daniel took us on our first hike. We hiked maybe an hour away from the camp to this bluff overlooking this valley where our camp was nestled into the landscape, and saw our first real animals in Africa. We counted 9 zebras. Hey, there were nine of us too, including John and Daniel! We saw 3 elephants, and a family of baboons.

That night we had our first meal from the camp cook. It was okay. I mean, you know. Certainly a step above edible. I asked the cook what kind of meat it was, and he said, “Roasted.” As companion Tristan pointedly said to me, “John, there is ample food.” I know, it’s just that the price-tag was hard to get out of my head. Once a Leistler…always a Leistler…

Our group of 7 was joined by two British people, an older man and his niece, Eddie and Jennifer, and they would prove excellent company during our stay in the camp. Eddie could tell you a story about anything—he had been a school administrator, racecar driver, and now a philanthropist working in Kenya, but was most notably to me, a marvelous raconteur. His niece worked in radio broadcasting, although Eddie did most of the broadcasting in the camp. During the next week, if anyone said anything particularly interesting or amazing, someone would say, “How do you know that?” And the answer would invariably be, “Oh, Eddie told me…” He was one of those Brits who could mock the colonialist stereotype, but also relished all the British jargon, world views and faded world-conquering status.

We jumped on the van around 6:30 a.m. to go out for the safari. We would be gone each day from the camp for about 8-10 hours, driving scores of miles through the wildlife preserve in search of intriguing animal exploits. We saw predators and scavengers, we saw migrating, feeding, copulating, preening, killing, lazing, and stampeding. We saw what must have been elephant families, we saw the wildebeests returning from Tanzania, heading north in packs by the hundreds, going back to their summer homes in Uganda.

I had imagined most of the animals would be far off, on the horizon, but we saw the animals just…like… there. The zebras had such elegance, the giraffes seemed almost dainty, the cheetahs reminded me of lacrosse players and their bravado, the monkeys rambunctious, the elephants wonderfully dowdy and the wildebeests looked uncommonly ugly.

As I said, we spent the day on the cratered madness they call roads, looking for the moments of “real life” for the animals. Sadly, our guides weren’t really good guides. They were great drivers, they protected us, they got us to where we were going, they navigated the rutted roads, but I really wished for a guide to enrich my understanding of the animals, the plants, the birds, and that was sadly lacking. Hey, how much do you expect for $240 a day??

I need to get back to dorm duty now, but I will leave you with a funny story from a couple days before we left on the trip. I went to the nurse to get my typhoid shot, and after the shot, I commented that it wasn’t that bad a shot. The nurse said, “One of your travel mates, and I won’t say which one, almost cried over the shot!” I offered, “Well, I guess I have some extra skin to pad me.” She looked very matter-of-fact, and said stonily, “Yes, you are obese. Well then, have a good time on the picnic!”

Always interesting being in a different land.

I have since learned that another word for “picnic” in Arabic is journey. Oh, now it makes more sense. Except that obese part.

There are more stories to tell about the picnic, and I will write some more tomorrow.

I missed writing for the blog, last week when I was on safari in Africa—writing the entries for the blog makes me feel wonderfully close to my family and friends, and while it is invigorating to discover new expanses in the world, nothing beats the warm feel of my network of friends and family. I will tell some more tales at the morrow.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fall Break?

The end of the month of Ramadan is swiftly approaching, and there is more celebrating to come. The end of this unique month is known as Eid, and I still don’t know exactly what the holiday marks (besides the obvious, that Ramadan is over) since there is another Eid holiday in December.

Anyway, there is a break from school. There is an entire week off school!

Since I have never been out of the school world (think about it—I have never not been in school either as a student or a teacher lo these years on earth!) I have always enjoyed some kind of Fall Break. In my Public School Life (proudly a product of Cincinnati Public Schools, Grades K-12—I wonder if I would be so proud to say that now if I were a recent graduate, and I wonder if the product, well, I should not disparage that which I do not know first-hand) Fall Break was called Columbus Day.

As I moved to the Private School Life (everything since Grade 12, in terms of my schooling and my teaching) it was generally called “Fall Break.”

I remember vividly the first Fall Break in college—I got to go home and see my family! It had been about six weeks since they dropped me off at Denison, and I loved the long weekend in Cincinnati. I remember vividly the first Fall Break as a teacher, just four years later, at Gaston Day School in Gastonia, North Carolina. My new friend Jim McIntosh invited me for a drive up to the mountains near Asheville, NC for the day off. I remember seeing for the first time an Appalachian autumn—God does good work…

There have been other Fall Breaks to be sure, usually an extended stay in Manhattan, usually crammed with desperately writing college recs (the gift that keeps on giving to steal that famous phrase) and usually grading papers. Once in a while it did involve that quintessential trip for a day/weekend to New England (most notably with the brother-in-law of your dreams Steve and sister Elizabeth to go see Chuck in Vermont). But usually more of the writing/grading scenario.

Last year, in October 2006, I had my splashiest Fall Break. The Enszer family—I think I ordered them from the catalog of “Great Families to Love and Teach”—invited me down to Dallas, Texas to visit them. All three of the children (okay, when the youngest child owns a gorgeous house, has a wife that could organize the State Department, and has a job that requires words I can’t pronounce, it may be time to adjust the wording) had moved to Texas, and long since married. I had had the distinct honor to sing in each of the Texas weddings (and I believe I Texas-Two-Stepped at all the receptions. You know, I am not sure if everyone else was doing the Texas Two-Step, but I was!). They invited me down to celebrate my birthday, show me what temps are like in Texas in October, and spend time honoring my mother’s passing. Spending time with the Enszers (any of them—all of them) is among the greatest gifts on earth. That’s a Fall Break!

Okay, I am doing a different Fall Break this year. But since I don’t want to tarnish the image of Fall Break ’06 I will call this break by its Muslim name: Eid. It begins at sundown tonight. And I have off from teaching until Sunday, October 21 at 7:55 a.m.

And I am going to Africa.

I heard Route 7 going north to Vermont is just too clogged with leaf-peepers.

I did not even know about this break until I arrived here in Jordan. What to do? Do I go home so soon? I went home at this time of year as a freshman in college. Would a group of strangers plan a trip together? Oh, the questions that one can have swirl around and muddle the brain!

The first serious plan was to spend the week with my friend Sharon. Some of you may know Sharon from Denison, or perhaps you have heard my dramatic pronouncement that “Sharon is in my Travel Hall-of-Fame”—she is in that rarified group that makes any trip, any where, exciting, magnificent, memorable. You must get to know her, if you do not. Sharon lives in Budapest, Hungary with her fabulous family, and I visited them in that Magyar Wonderland in the summer of 2006. Sharon thought we would “do” Istanbul this Eid.

Then a group of faculty started talking about going on safari. Is this a word you ever associated with me? Safari? Those safaris take place outdoors, right? Not in an art museum comfortably near a café with elegant meals? With Humidity? And Bugs?

Hey, I moved to the Middle East—why not? It’s just a short flight to Africa from the new digs. I also talked a couple of the younger faculty into going…there are eight of us going.

Sharon was gracious as I begged out of our Turkish plans—“We’ll have lots of chances to roam around in Istanbul!” and I agreed, and plunked down the Jordanian dough for the safari. (Actually, it is just in the last two days that a better understanding of the Humidity and Bugs came to me from a new friend from Africa! That is why I capitalized Humidity and Bugs.). Why not! My family jokes that my mother would famously announce, “I’ll go” to an offer to go a-n-y-w-h-e-r-e!

I was not in charge of the planning, so I have only the vaguest idea what I am doing in a few hours! I know that when I go to bed tonight, I will be in Dubai, a place I have never been (in the United Arab Emirates) leaving tomorrow for Nairobi, Kenya, a place I have never been, embarking on an adventure that I hope I am game for (get it? game? As in Big Game? I slay myself!)

I had to get some shots. I had had a bunch of shots in June to come here but why not endure a couple more shots. In order to enter Kenya, you have to have a certificate in hand that proves you have had a Yellow Fever shot. Since it is Ramadan, the office for the shot in the Ministry of Health is open about 90 seconds a day—I jest—it is open for 90 minutes a day. We all trooped into Amman for the shots (oh, they don’t like to use alcohol here for antiseptic before the shot? Oh, well, it certainly surprised you when the shot is over a little faster!!) and trooped back.

Yesterday I had to make a special trip into Amman with Sam for the anti-malaria pills (see yesterday’s blog for a little more on that). This is like a scene out of a Dickens novel. It is the Malaria Annex of the Ministry of Health (seriously) and it is basically non-descript, and the best I can say is, dingy (or dubious). Even Sam, with whom I have shared many other trips, said, ”Mr. John, this place is miserable.” You make the rounds, get the stamps, get the looks, and finally you buy the six malaria pills.

Dawn is breaking over the campus right now. The safari will be like the trip-on-the-donkey at Petra I imagine—just for six days. But I gotta try it. We start the safari on Saturday, going to Masai Mara—“one of the world's finest wilderness areas - home of the `big five' - elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and, in particular, the black mane lion - and an extension of the Serengeti plains famous for the spectacle of the annual migration of thousands of wildebeest and zebra from the Serengeti,” to quote from the website.

The other day I could tell my father wondered if I was going to ask him to come over and help me put up the tent in Kenya. He would probably bring along the duct tape and a couple hangers in case there were any problems.

I called my friend Anne last night to tell her some details about the trip (she immediately went on-line to tell me things I would see, the colors, the tribes, the animals—Anne would love this trip) and as the call came to a close she said, “Be safe. It’s a jungle out there!” Who could resist that line!!

We leave today to spend the night in Dubai, flying from there to Nairobi tomorrow, and then return on Saturday morning, October 20.

I don’t think Kenya is wired for internet access, so this will be the last blog entry until I return from the safari, inshallah.

Many thanks.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Welcome to “Scratch,” Part III

You knew there had to be a “Part III” in the saga of “Scratch,” didn’t you? I mean, coming out of the Summer of 2007 at the movie multiplex with the six-pack of three-quels (do you need to be reminded of Spiderman 3, Shrek 3, Pirates of the Caribbean, Ocean’s 13, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Rush Hour 3???) I just had to try and compete with those bloated movies of Better Explosions! More Special Effects! More Villains!

The summer of the movie three-quel is behind us, but I couldn’t resist trying my hand at a Part III of my own…(frankly, I had the phrase “six-pack of three-quels” on my mind and couldn’t think of any other way to use it!)

As I have described in great detail in Parts I and II, much of “Scratch” has been goading and engaging and coaxing and limping and smiling and helping and inspiring and pleading and bribing my students across a finish line of a quiz—let’s remember that in Parts III of a saga, one needs to do a little introspection, introduce a new element or two, perhaps see some of ourselves in our students, and as the King always said in The King and I: et ce-te-ra, et ce-te-ra, et ce-te-ra!

Last week in Arabic class I constructed and uttered a 12-word sentence in Arabic!

Cause for celebration? Amazement? Stupor? Lame Humor?

I should disclose what the sentence was, as well, in case you think I am polishing my Arabic for the Op-Ed page in the Jordan Times. Here is my magnificent sentence:

“Omar comes from Cairo, Egypt, and I come from New York, in America.”

Aren’t you all just beaming with pride?!

In a somewhat related story, I had an exchange this morning that is perfect for Part III of Scratch. I went with my friend Sam, a KA driver, to get anti-malarial pills in Amman (I will tell you why in a blog entry on the cyber-stands tomorrow, folks!). I had practiced how to ask for them in Arabic, but in the clutch, I choked and turned to Sam to handle the request for these pills for me. Sam had no problem commanding the transaction. The doctor was polite enough to me, but as we left, he said, “Why aren’t you speaking in Arabic? You’ve been here 10 weeks!” I demurred—feebly offering, “Well, I practiced the request in Arabic, and I am working on it, but I worried that I might ask for “stupid” pills or “toilet” pills or some other ridiculous word, and I wanted precision and accuracy in getting these pills. But next time—In Shallah—all Arabic! Shuk run!”

As I have said many times as I faced my class, watching them struggle, “Welcome to Scratch!”

We all have our version/level of Scratch.

Two months ago I wrote how in my introduction to the Arab world I have so often identified with my adorable nephew, Jack. I said the “adorable” part not that I see myself as so adorable—I meant, to me, he is adorable. At 40+ I am not sure if my struggles are quite so adorable!

Since Jack started Kindergarten in late August he has struggled with remembering that he has milk money every day at school. My sister and I have talked often about the never-ending trauma over but I didn’t know I had milk money, Mommy! I forgot! That is Jack’s battle right now, and well, of course, my sister, trying to outsmart, outplan, out-something her adorable five-year old son, and allow him the revelation that he does indeed have this money (everyday!) with which he can purchase milk.

Oh yes, I relate to my nephew’s trials and tribulations!

On another note—a tangent, you may think, but don’t forget in any strong installment of a Part III, you need a “Special Guest Star” to invigorate the franchise—I had a guest in class yesterday. I got a call about 9:00 from our headmaster asking if a guest could attend my 10:55 class. I told him guests are welcome any time. He said, “The guest is the nanny of the Crown Prince.”

Okay—it is kind of exciting to have that kind of guest in class. His Majesty wanted the Crown Prince’s nanny to get an idea what classes are like here (this son will arrive next year on campus!) and so the headmaster chose his wife’s class and my class for the visit.

This particular class had already hosted two other visitors (none actually royal playpen-related), and they liked showing off their knowledge to whomever joined our class, and they did not know this guest’s workplace, yet they offered a lively class comparing aspects of Sumerian civilization with Egyptian civilization. Later, the headmaster said that she enjoyed the “vibrant” class. Not bad for Part III of Scratch.

(You will notice that I have made an aesthetic decision now in writing the over-used word Scratch—I have removed the quotation marks finally. I think in any on-going franchise one has to make these creative and editorial and progressive changes to maintain interest…)

While some audience members hope that a Part III is the last of an on-going series, the movie exhibitors always look for fresh angles to keep the storyline, and the characters alive (and their cash registers zinging with business).

I have something fresh too!

Last week, while KA took two entire school days to offer an in-depth “Study Skills Seminar” for our young scholars, there was a piece about our school published in the Sunday Times in London. The writer begins the article in a way that is sadly so typical of any article about the Middle East—the palpable tension at trying to cross a border, and the gripping fears that our youth in this region may not live to comb their hair gray.

But after such an opening, the writer says he is on his way “to attend the opening of a new school in Jordan—an initiative that may plant some small shoot of hope in this troubled region.”

Yes, it is a puff piece—he discusses the library with its shelves “rapidly filling with books,” and how economically diverse the student body is.

While I enjoyed the article, the part that makes my palms sweat, and gives me such excitement is the line, “Nobody can predict where these courageous students will attend University. . . .but what could be more important in the Middle East than educating open-minded future leaders?”

It is exciting. It is unpredictable.

This week a writer from Time magazine is coming to write a piece about our Scratch.

Maybe I will be asked to show off with a 15 word Arabic sentence?

Maybe Jack will find that milk money?

Oh, Part III is definitely not the end of this saga…

Saturday, October 6, 2007

A Birthday In a Not-So-Foreign-Anymore Land

Birthdays are almost like you’re getting a report card on your life.

How are you doing with your goals? Who remembers the day? What are your priorities? What do you like doing? How do you feel about your place in the world?

These are weighty things that probably cross many of our minds on our birthdays.

Thursday was my birthday, and I know an important handful of people in the United States worried that so far away I would not have a very happy day. I mean, after all, when you are new somewhere, when do you get the chance to drop in casual conversation exactly when that special day is? It always helps to build relationships, and friends write down your birthday, and make you feel especially feted because they remember year after year your birthday.

I doubt it is just me—but a birthday serves as a chance to leaf through the scrapbooks of our minds, comparing other days when family and friends celebrate you. My favorite birthday party in my childhood was at my Gram Swinney’s house in Cincinnati. She had a great expansive yard just perfect for parties and playing games, and her house boasted a basement that a whole passel of 3rd graders could fill (and not disturb anyone else on the quiet lane). I am pretty sure McDonald’s catered that party (the quintessential suburban birthday grub!) and my mother headed creative games involving costumes and props. But even then, in the 3rd grade, I wondered, are these invitees my best friends for this year? Who are going to be my best friends at the end of 3rd grade? I always imagined it might be better to have had a spring birthday so one could know for sure who had made the cut for that school year. I know—I worry too much.

There was another early October in my childhood when my mother prominently placed in the living room the largest box I had ever seen—tantalizing me about what great present might lie in the elaborately-wrapped-from-McAlpin’s box. It seemed like it was there for weeks. When the cake-and-ice-cream time came, I practically burst with excitement to discover two very big, and oh, two very disappointing-to-me pillows for my bed. So much for whatever gift had been conjured in my mind!

When I turned 16 my mother planned a surprise party for me with all my new friends at high school—many of them actors with me in my first high school play. The party was on the Friday after my Wednesday birthday. It was exciting. But I remember on the actual day I wriggled out of a family dinner so I could go have pizza with those juniors and seniors about whom I thought had hung the moon. Sigh—what I wouldn’t give now to have one more dinner with my mother and bask in her radiance. I am sure my family was disappointed as their teen-age son cast them aside for the glories of high school friendships.

In the mid-1980s, in my junior year of college, I had embarked on a year away from Denison University. I was spending the autumn in Chicago, and the spring in Salzburg, Austria. That meant I had to hope someone found out about my birthday early in the Chicago semester, so I could have some joy come early October. Oh, the angst over these moves and hoping someone would discover that date of October 4th! Someone did find out my birthday, and my new group of friends with the Newberry Library thought it would be funny to spend the day ignoring me—so I had no idea that they knew it was my birthday indeed—and then have a surprise party for me that night. Note to all the readers here—never do that to someone who likes to be celebrated!

As the pages turn in that psychic scrapbook, I remember that beloved Denison clique finding a gelato place in Columbus in 1985 with which to surprise me and indulge my ever-so-sophisticated palate with Italian gelato; I remember my Gastonia, NC friend Cookie surprising me with my first (and probably only) pair of designer trousers; I remember the time my mother and father drove to North Carolina to celebrate with me my quarter-century birthday; I remember a year when my play cast at Charlotte Latin School all made cards and gave me an autographed soccer ball (they got the biggest kick—pun intended—about whether or not I had actually played soccer in my childhood—they contended I was the kid who ran out at halftime with the orange slices. I really did play soccer, just to relieve any doubts in your minds) and my student Chuck sang to me a Broadway song, “You’re Nothin’ Without Me!” In 1994 I spent the whole evening sitting at my desk at my apartment in New York taking calls—a great birthday since I got to talk to a host of friends and family. I remember after I moved to Tarrytown and Hackley, the stalwart friends Mary and Catherine and Liz and Chuck who never failed to call me on the day and send birthday greetings.

In the New York chapter of my life, there were the splashy trips to Broadway plays and restaurants like Stone Barns at Blue Hill, the restaurant on the grounds of the Rockefeller estate. Oh, and there was the year that all my friends assumed someone else had “claimed” me for my birthday, and I was walking around campus at sunset a little dejected because as it turned out, no one had invited me out. A colleague from school, a math teacher named Dianne stopped me and said, “Isn’t it your birthday, John? Who’s taking you out?” Yes, I had to embarrassingly say that, well, there were no plans in the works. Dianne, gracious and supremely kind, offered to take me out. “Do you want to go for Thai food?” What a kind gesture.

Last year my friends Anne and Peter took me out on my birthday to their club, the Ardsley Country Club, for dinner with our friend Joan Fox. It was a divine meal, like many they shared with me at their club. We sat on the terrace of the club, high over the meadows and then the Hudson River, marveling at the sunset. There was a strange feeling in the air—can’t quite call it tension, or excitement, but there was a little something. That week, Peter had read the article in The New Yorker that prompted him to call his old college friend Eric, the man founding a new school in Jordan. We four sat there enjoying the fruits of a decade-long friendship, not even needing to say everything on our minds—friends usually intuit many things in such moments. This opportunity in Jordan seemed awfully exciting, but would we be together on another October 4th birthday? Anne toasted me, and commented that certain friendships last forever, and knew ours resided in that category. It was a sweet birthday evening.

Perhaps my favorite birthday tradition of all is one my mother started somewhere along the way, decades ago. The night before my birthday, as I went to bed, she would me bid me good-night, “Good night little 9 year old,” the night before I became 10. Every year she would ring out the old year with that exclamation. I remember I really started enjoying it when I graduated college, and she called, “Good night little 22 year old,” the night before I became 23—what a way to line up all the birthdays, and report cards of your life.

As my mother became a little less able to command her speech, I remember an October 3rd when I got a call from sister Elizabeth, “Good night little 39 year old,” the night before I became 40. We cried a little about this changing-of-the-guard, but also rejoiced that the tradition would not founder. This last week, she casually said, “Remember to call me on October 3rd.” (It is a little aggravating, but I cannot receive actual calls just yet—just voicemails.) I called, and the tradition continued.

A week or two ago a few students and I were talking, and the subject of birthdays came up. A couple boys were excited that my birthday was nearly upon us. When we went to school meeting on Thursday, October 4, two boys asked to lead the meeting, and invited the whole school to sing to me and wish me a Happy Birthday. Elizabeth, a recent Yale graduate, and one of my best new friends here at KA, asked if I had plans for dinner. She wanted us to go out in Amman. Thursday night there were 15 of us to celebrate my birthday—at Fuddrucker’s, an American chain restaurant with really good hamburgers and shakes.

Since it is Ramadan, there are rules about going out to restaurants: you may arrive at a restaurant before sundown, but orders cannot be placed until the prescribed time of sundown. So our group arrived about 6:00, and the place filled up quickly. We sat down, and soon there were maybe 150 people in the restaurant. Waiters rushed to take orders, but reminded us that they could not be placed until sundown. At that sundown moment, soup and dates were available for fasters to break their fast.

We sat and joked and enjoyed a 3-hour dinner of rich camaraderie—people who had not even met each other 10 weeks ago. It was a lovely reminder how much you can grow to appreciate people and get to know people in a relatively short amount of time. It may not have been as posh as a Broadway show, but it was an enjoyable evening out with new friends.

When I got home, I enjoyed emails and calls from family and friends in other parts of the globe. I know that some of you had sent snail-mail cards—but none had arrived by the birthday. Rasha, the mail person at KA reminded me, “John, people don’t work too hard during Ramadan. The cards will come!”

Perhaps the nicest moment of the birthday was when a 9th grade girl slipped me a note during the day. Her note read:

“Dear Mr. John,

Today is 4/10/2007 and its your birthday. I know that its hard for you to celebrate your birthday far from your family, but I just want you to know that we are also your family and we all love you so much. So I want to wish you a Happy Birthday and just enjoy it because its your birthday Mr. John. Your the best history teacher I’ve ever got; I mean it. God Bless, Farah.”

Kids. They’ll get you every time.

In goes another page of the cosmic scrapbook…

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Welcome to “Scratch,” Part II

A couple weeks ago, Arthur, a young science teacher colleague from Atlanta, stopped me in the Dining Hall after dinner and asked, “How do you re-charge your batteries every day and keep smiling?”

I jokingly told him I had created an afternoon habit of chugging a cold Diet Coke (the taste of America!) after sweating on the stairmaster at the gym (those endorphins really do make you happier!) then checking my email from family and friends in the United States. I told Arthur that that had become my afternoon ritual for re-filling the psychic well after a day of “giveths” and “takeths.” I also told him that there is generally an hour or so in the afternoon where I consciously avoid people simply because I would not have indulged yet in my late afternoon combo of exercise/soda/correspondence that restores my soul.

Like all of my compatriots here, Arthur is trying to make sense of “Scratch.” He saw me smiling at dinner, joking about the adolescent wonders surrounding us—he didn’t see me a couple hours before wondering where I had gone wrong. I had given my first quiz that day—and I was excited to see how well they would do. I had introduced my students to seven different kinds of historical sources, we had discussed them well in class, I had helped open the door to concrete knowledge and abstract knowledge, and I had primed them for that first quiz.

If you read the previous blog, you have already seen some of the stellar answers I received on that first quiz. No, these were not quizzes that would end up on the refrigerators of proud Middle Eastern parents! I did some sighing, I did some moping. Heck, I did a little wallowing. Then I practiced the fine art of my afternoon constitutional.

As I left the gym I pondered the direction I should take with my classes. Should I just move on and give them a speech about “sucking it up”? Should I bribe them? Oh, yes, well, it’s Ramadan, so the candy trick can’t be done right now due to many students’ fasting. Should I plunge into the research paper I had started with them? But they still couldn’t understand what a thesis statement was (“I wrote four questions for my thesis statement, Mr. John. Isn’t that good?”).
As I graded their quizzes, cutting my way through tangled sentences and mangled historical information, my ego took a beating. Whoops. Did I say that out loud??

As you read in their answers, hardly anyone answered a question! They had enjoyed the conversations in class about the sources (many of the sources had lurid or sensational stories, so the vibe was pretty good) but my students had no idea how to embrace the “lessons of history” I had thought were so plain as we traversed through these seven sources! Okay—although one colleague suggested I forge ahead (hmmm…and be oblivious to the “Scratch” I was dealing with???) I wondered…had I taught these historical sources and historical lessons as well as I might have? If we are indeed starting from Intellectual Scratch, we gotta deal with the Scratch, not run ahead and introduce them to more civilizations that will seem more and more like the teachers in all the “Charlie Brown” shows (remember? All the wah wah wah honking that made us laugh as children—and wince as adults?) I needed to go back to the material, I needed to put the quizzes aside, and see if we could make some improvements.

Once I bandaged my little ego (really, I’m a good teacher—well, in the United States, really, honest…) I went back to my roots. As many of you know, I come from a long line of problem solvers. I come from a tribe that can fix everything from broken cars to broken hearts. Let’s look at the problem…

Okay, these students see the study of history as useless. They have only had to define terms and memorize names of rulers and battles. What do they know of the beauty of concrete knowledge? Of the liberation of abstract thought? How can I refine these concepts? How can I clarify my lessons?

Now, granted many of my dearest friends grapple with these issues—passive students, students for whom school has only been an obstacle, students who have not mastered the skills of thinking and writing—all the time. My friends Debbie with her students with special needs, Doris with her WCC students, another Doris with her challenged elementary students, Christy with her underachieving and less-than-responsible graduate students, and many others face this all the time. I salute them. I applaud them even more.

I started the following day with the Latin phrase Per Aspera Ad Astra, across the board, courtesy of my mother’s mother, the Latin teacher. This is my go-to phrase, my mantra: From The Rough Places To The Stars. Even with my bouncy joviality, they sensed they had not done well. I dismissed the quizzes, saying I wanted to re-discover the material, and really work on understanding the concrete and abstract knowledge. I offered them an option to take the quiz again, and would offer 7 times in which to do that. I told them they could not see their original quiz, but that I recommended they take it again. We talked about when we all had been small children, and learned to ride a bicycle—how hard it was to have those training wheels taken off, and how important to get back on that bicycle after we fell down and stunned ourselves and how hard it was to ride that bike without a parent’s gentle touch. We invoked that metaphor a lot in the past couple of weeks!

That night, as I made my rounds in the boy’s dorm, I would sit with each student and ask questions, one-on-one, noticing that they commanded the material a bit more.

This would be the part of the movie when the film score swells, and the boys carry me on their shoulders as they discover their inner-A-student.

Not a movie just yet.

The following night one boy came to me and said he just couldn’t get it. He started to sob, really sob—he was going to fail, he said. He didn’t understand the thesis statement idea, and he certainly didn’t get abstract knowledge. Would he be thrown out of school? We talked a little, then changed the subject and went and cleaned his room. There are times when History just doesn’t need to be done!

In class we discussed the Neolithic Revolution—what did that discovery/invention yield for that society? As I mentioned in the blog, one nice young man offered that it had created “plastic surgery.” Oh, my. Scratch!

I showed up all 7 times for the re-test. About 1/3 of the students came and tried again. The results were a little better. Barely. Each day after school, following the spa treatments of caffeine and vigorous stairmastering, I would re-trench. I re- everythinged! I would work at re-clarifying, work at re-designing. I wouldn’t let go of the “Scratch” problem. I couldn’t.

Each day I would think about a problem-solver I knew and channel that person’s energy.
How would my mother reach these students with exquisite prose? How would my father turn these ills into a normative situation yet change their trajectory? How would Mary Schneider discipline their minds? How would Elizabeth create a calm space, a haven? How would Dawn find a practical solution to this complex web of deficits? How would Anne Siviglia come up with thinking and writing exercises they could handle, and somehow make them more brilliant? How would Sue Skinner find the inner child-like curiosity? How would Aunt Dot hold on to her principles and yet somehow gather them up and pull them out of their Scratch? How would Chuck talk to them in plain language and inspire them to soar? How would Judy remind them of their obligation to be true to their potential? How would Gram Swinney reach for the stars? How would Stephanie stare this situation down and find repose? How would Neal reach into the cultural gap and re-shape it? How would Sarah be firm and gentle? How would Adam turn this defeat into a moment of promise and triumph?

I could go on…I am privileged to know many fine problem-solvers.

On my jag to the gym the other day, I thought of that day’s exemplary problem-solver, my Gram Leistler, and her favorite Bible verse from Psalms jumped into my head: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

Now I had a movie moment—as I looked past the gym, at the hills past King’s Academy, I realized those very hills before me are just a few miles away from the actual hills to which David had looked in Bible times. These hills, or rather, my mountains of strength, all those named examples above, and dozens more unnamed, would provide the help.

I decided to wait on the big writing assignment. If we are starting from Scratch, let’s get the engagement down first, let’s figure out what we do with concrete knowledge, let’s imagine what these abstract lessons might be, and let’s talk about it. We can write later on.

Last week I announced another quiz. The students treated it like it was a mid-term exam, which is not all bad, and while it only covered 5 days of material (with some homework and a little textbook reading) this was a comprehensive test. How far had we come from Scratch? Could they answer questions? Could I stand another defeat???!!!!

As I made my rounds talking with the boys, peppering them with questions, urging them to craft complete sentence answers, with concrete knowledge, a dear boy named Hasan said, “Mr. John, do you mind explaining what concrete and abstract knowledge is again?” This might have been the magic 100th time I had recently launched into that explanation, but a teacher finds the patience to offer analogies, because yes, hope springs eternal.

I reminded Hasan of the photographs we had compared in class—one of an 1890s cart being pulled by horses, and one of a fancy new automobile, circa 1910. I had hoped each student would get to “drive the car” for himself, and not just be dragged by those busybody, horsy adults, and so in my most poetic way, I alluded to the independence of driving that was like abstract thinking. Hasan got this huge smile, and said, “Oh, and the car needs fuel, of course, and the fuel that makes it go are those concrete facts! You can’t be abstract without the concrete!”

If only I had thought of that example of the fuel! Hasan beamed as his neighbor said, “Oh, Hasan! The fuel that drives the car! That’s insight! Mr. John, that’s smart, isn’t it?”

On the test over half of the students earned As and Bs.

Tonight as I walked by Yazan’s room, he started singing the song with which I start every class, a little ditty that goes, “Notebooks open, pen in hand.” (Again—you do what you gotta do—if a song might work, try and become the new Irving Berlin!)


We are digging a little deeper here in Scratch.