Tuesday, November 27, 2007

An Auden Acolyte

Sixty-nine years ago today Mary Martha Griley Leistler leapt upon the world’s stage for the first time. She was born on a snowy Sunday morning, in Cincinnati, just a couple of days after Thanksgiving in 1938. Not surprisingly, the celebrations of my mother’s birthday and the spirit of Thanksgiving have always been intertwined for my family. As an adult I have only been absent from Thanksgiving in Cincinnati a handful of times ever: in 1984, 1989, 1994, and now 2007. Sigh. Thanksgiving, and those days around my mother’s birthday, always marked my first visit home since I had gone off in August to teach somewhere in the world.

Naturally this year a bouquet of memories sweetened the day away from home. It is funny how memories work: they don’t follow chronology necessarily, and they wash over your brain in a haphazard, yet utterly exhilarating way. I recall the year my mother saw in her Frisch’s, her coffee shop away from home, a sign noting, “CLOSED FOR THANKSGIVING.” My mother asked to have the sign after the holiday—for years she put it up at home, declaring that she was closed for the holiday! Ever since I was a child we had a rule in our house—you can’t talk about Christmas until after Mommy’s birthday had passed on November 27. Oh, and I remember the recent Thanksgiving weekend that I took my mother to the dentist, and as I wheeled her in, she announced to all in the waiting room: “Yes, this is my son Johnny. He finally came home after being gone for five years.” As her short-term memory became more of an option, my mother still reveled in being a drama queen!

There was the Thanksgiving in the mid-1970s when my mother invited the entire Griley clan for the feast. I remember the day well—in part because she invited my cousin’s fiancĂ©, a woman named Kathi—I had the biggest crush on this cousin-to-be, and she was coming to my house! I also remember vividly the main course of that Thanksgiving meal—a roasted ham that still tantalizes my memory some 30 years later. As some of you may know, my dad and Uncle Jack are kind of poultry-phobes, so my mother decided to have a ham instead, and she went to a local bakery and asked them to roast the ham, and it came encased in the most fragrant rye-bread coating you could imagine.

As much as I love the food memories of Thanksgiving—what a wonderful way to connect to dear ones through the comfort-foods of our blessings (and I could go on about Aunt Dot’s yams, or Aunt Joy’s succotash, but I will not digress!) I more deeply appreciate collecting all the memories of Thanksgivings and Mary Martha as a chance for me to reflect on the power of my mother’s influence on me, and the thanks I send up at simply knowing her. For those of you who knew her—she had a way of putting her own personal spin on everything. For example, sometime in my childhood she decided that a better way of observing the holiday was to wish everyone a “Happy Thanks-living.” Of course as a child I thought it was just weird. But as an adult, now more cognizant of her 49 year battle with MS, I plainly see how she embodied an appreciation, a thanks, simply for living, and loving.

Her name was a dual name: Mary Martha. She couldn’t stand just being called Mary, although she loved it when my father called her “Mare.” Her name is a combination of the sisters in the New Testament we meet in the book of Luke:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to Bethany where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me! “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
--Luke 10:38-42

Mary and Martha both loved Jesus. These sisters of Lazarus are known for their hospitality, but they go about their goals of serving very differently. Martha wished to please, to serve, to do the right thing, but tried too hard sometimes. She tended to feel sorry for herself when her efforts were not recognized. Martha’s frustration was so intense that she finally asked Jesus to settle the matter. He gently corrected her attitude and showed Martha that her priorities, though good, were misplaced. On the other hand, Mary’s approach to social occasions shows her to be a quiet responder—Mary had learned when to listen, and when to act. Mary had learned from Martha that the busyness of serving God can be a barrier to knowing him personally. Mary understood that one should not be so busy planning and running things that we neglect precious time with loved ones. My mother’s personality and priorities reflected the duality of these sisters—indeed the lesson of the Biblical Mary and Martha continues to challenge us to have a Mary heart in a Martha world.

Of the many legacies I enjoy from my mother, perhaps the greatest gift she leaves me is her desire never to squander a teachable moment. As a young boy, perhaps 7, I recall her coming home from her annual trip downtown to have her diamond rings cleaned. I commented on how beautiful her ring was. She clearly loved them too, and she showed them off to me saying that this diamond ring was more than just a pretty ring—she taught me that it was a symbol of the love Mommy and Daddy shared. She told me that diamonds were chosen since they were such a hard stone, and they could stand up to anything—just like the love Mommy and Daddy enjoyed. She said plainly, life is hard too, but love as strong and brilliant as a diamond would always stand up to that. She then took off her ring, and had me stare at it, and taught me the word, “facets.” She taught me: a radiant diamond has many facets, like our lives, and we must cultivate our many facets, our many gifts. Ever since that tender age, that diamond ring has meant more than just cost or status or bling.

Although I rarely saw her perform on stage, she loved the theater, and in college had starred in two classic plays, Our Town and Death of a Salesman. These plays certainly informed so much of how she embraced life, for her character Linda Loman demanded in Death of a Salesman, “attention must be paid,” to the poor forgotten salesman. I don’t think she ever forgot those words, and she always wanted to pay attention, especially to the ones most forgot. In Our Town you have the story of Emily who comes back to earth and finds that people don’t look at each other enough. “Why don’t they tell each other they loved other,” Emily urged. We have talked for years in our family about the “Our Town” moments we enjoy. Just as MM never squandered a teachable moment, she never missed a chance to remind us what Emily learned in Our Town.

On that May evening when my father called to relay the news that my mother had passed away, I was on the way to one of my plays I had directed. There were scenes in this play from the myths that Ovid wrote in ancient Rome. My favorite was the last scene, wherein a man and wife begged the gods not to outlive their own capacity to love. In the weeks preceding the performance I had enjoyed this scene anyway, for it reminded me of the love between my parents. In the play, this man and wife stood hand in hand begging the gods not to allow them to outlive their own capacity to love. As I drove to school that night, it was such a natural thing to honor her life by watching this play of mine. She was the one who infused my life to enjoy adventure and excitement, instilled in me a love of imagination and wonder, and taught me that love was the mightiest bulwark. As I watched those two beg the gods, “let me not outlive my own capacity to love,” I knew that I had witnessed the best example I will ever know of a man and wife who never outgrew their own capacity to love.

At my mother’s funeral in 2006 we marveled that on earth she had freely lived her life in the service of God, and now she would eternally bask in the presence of God. How fitting that I can celebrate the lessons of her life every year as Thanksgiving rolls around. Just as the pilgrims celebrated their survival, their thanks-living, we can also offer thanks for the miracles around us.

In December, 2004 my mother again entered the hospital, and again doctors offered a grave prognosis for a return home. A couple weeks later one of the doctors confided, “frankly this is a miracle she has done so well.” My father calmly said, “You should know something about us. We expect miracles.”

A woman as charismatic as Mary Martha deserves a major holiday for remembrance. It is almost as if the poet W.H. Auden had her in mind as he once wrote, “All our thinks should be thanks.”

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Enjoying The Bridges In Our Lives

Certainly in Europe and the Middle East, the two places in which I have spent the most time outside of the United States, one cannot help but marinate in the past. When I studied abroad as a junior in college in Salzburg, Austria, I lived that semester in a house that, at one time, had boasted of a mistress of Napoleon as its mistress. The night I moved in, Renate gave me a tour of Linzer Bundestrasse 3, and at the end of a hall, stated plainly, “in former times down that way was the other wing of the house, but the bombs in the war took care of that.” All that history entails—pain, struggle, rebounding, catharsis, monument—is all over the place here, there, and everywhere.

I spent Thanksgiving vacation in Budapest, Hungary—a city that has weathered its share of storied historical episodes, and found myself, once again, enjoying the metaphors of seeing history and life all around me. Oh, I gotta tell you of a poster I saw in the Budapest airport: "After 400 years of the Romans, 150 years of the Ottomans and 45 years of the Soviets, you will be the first who is welcome to stay longer. So enjoy an extra night on Eurotel!"

I went to Budapest with Elizabeth, an indispensable friend I have made in the last four months, to visit my friend Sharon and her family, an indispensable friend for over 20 years. Budapest might not be the first place one thinks of for Thanksgiving! (What? No parade down the grand Andrassy Ut like in New York?? What? No canned pumpkin available to make pies?? What? No family to bore with travelogues??) But if Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, for gastronomic pornography, for escaping the routine of regular life, for reveling in the fellowship of a treasured circle, Budapest fit the bill quite nicely.

Budapest is a spectacular city—actually, as purists will tell you, it is two cities combined in the last 150 years—Buda and Pest, that gleam as jewels on the Danube. There are a number of commanding bridges that provide crossing points over the mighty Danube; my favorite of the many bridges is the SzĂ©cheny Bridge, with these great impressive lions—the kind you used to see at the beginning of an M-G-M film—standing tall and proud.

Within an hour of our arrival in town Elizabeth and I had gobbled our first pastries, and headed off toward the thermal baths, famed since the Turks discovered the ancient burbling hot waters circulating under the earth. In the next few days we took in the opera (Sharon’s husband got us seats in a box—very see and be seen—for Madame Butterfly) and we went on a tour of the Art Museum (on Jazz Night, no less!) and tackled many of the historical museums and monuments in town. I enjoyed seeing the alphabet I know and love in signs everywhere, and felt a pang of homesickness at seeing cleavage and bacon cheeseburgers advertised in billboards (umm…just to be clear: the cleavage and the bacon cheeseburgers were not on the same billboard). I got to ramble around a city that actually had an urban plan, and thrilled to see Greco-Roman architecture again.

Sharon had had plans to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for embassy folks on Saturday. However, Elizabeth and I needed to be back in Jordan by Saturday night to show up for school today, so we had to miss her Turkey feast. Sharon felt so bad that we would miss the actual Thanksgiving dinner that she decided to surprise us with an unexpected treat on Thanksgiving morning. She had hired a masseuse to come to her house and give each of us an hour-long massage! What a great idea—maybe a new tradition born this Thanksgiving morn!! It was heavenly, and not nearly as caloric as a Thanksgiving feast.

Besides the exquisite trip with Anne (I hate to be repetitive, but a truly indispensable friend) in the summer of 2006, I had been to Budapest once before, in 1987. These were still in the dark days of the communist hold on Eastern Europe, and in my memory Budapest shriveled a bit—a city of such wasted potential, drab and shabby. How exhilarating to visit in 2006 and see the vibrant city Budapest has re-discovered. We visited two historical sites that commemorate the shameful and tragic periods in Hungary’s recent past. One is a park about 30 minutes outside of bustling Budapest, a place where local historians gathered the statues that had once stood in city parks and squares touting the benefits of socialism and the chauvinism of the Soviet state. In the early 1990s, instead of junking these lying dinosaurs, city officials moved them here to bear witness to the artistic propaganda of the postwar era. There were maybe 30 statues in this park, and there were examples from the late 1940s to the late 1980s reflecting the values of the Moscow-mandated Hungarian thanks for the Soviet liberation.

Of course, it was seen as liberation by many in 1945. The Soviets did reach Budapest, and freed the Hungarians from the gruesome domination of the Nazis. For the next 5 decades the Soviets tightened that iron ring on the Hungarians. It was eerie to walk around the park and see these hulking reminders of what Hungarians had seen everyday before.

Another new museum is known as “The House of Terror”—one of the most creatively designed museums I have ever experienced. The H of T is a museum now, but it was once the party headquarters for the Nazis and then the Communist secret police. The museum helps us understand and empathize with the victims of such terror, and also reminds us of the shameful acts of terrorist dictatorships. In a stunning piece of education this museum reminds us that we must acknowledge the past.

But of all the things in Budapest, I most enjoyed staring at the bridges. I have a thing for bridges. I absolutely loved giving tours in New York of the Brooklyn Bridge—marveling at the engineering feats, as well as the design of incorporating schemes of old and new in the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In another flashback, I have a beautiful memory of standing with my friend Mary (dare I use the word indispensable again? Have you met her? Then you have to!) in London, savoring a moment on Westminster Bridge.

My mother cultivated in me an appreciation for bridges—for the poetic, metaphorical, emblematic quality of bridges. As she did with so many things, she made even a simple bridge an encounter with Wonder and Serenity. A bridge to her was always more than a means of physical transport, it was a reminder of worlds we hoped to reconcile, problems we needed to cross, sorrows we hoped to leave, and triumphs yet undiscovered. It might be of Sighs, or over Troubled Waters, but my mother always saw the beauty in views from bridges both in spiritual and metaphysical terms.

While in the Terror Museum, I saw a wall-size photograph of Nazi-ravaged Budapest in 1945—all the bridges utterly destroyed and submerged in the Danube. Can you imagine the hopelessness of the citizens that spring? Or can you imagine the hopelessness for the next 5 decades as they limped along as a mere satellite in the Soviet orbit? But of course, bridges can be re-built, lives can be re-vivified, and palpable change can re-invent. A dismal present does not dictate what bridge you next cross, or what bridge you next build.

Thanksgiving should be a time of reflection—and of course this Thanksgiving invites a large helping of that dish on my plate. I had no idea last Thanksgiving at this time I would be here this fall. As many of you know well, the last three years I have trod a somewhat treacherous road, but here I am on a bridge savoring new views, new perspectives. Who knew this bridge was being built for me?!

A couple of weeks ago I taught a lesson (the Arab students actually call them “lessons” and not “classes” as American students do—frankly, I like the more didactic semantics of “lesson,” don’t you?) on Chinese art. The Chinese adored depictions of roads and bridges, especially embracing the ambiguities and mysteries of the roads and the bridges—purposely obscuring the ends of these paths! It is unsettling not seeing the precise end of any road or bridge, but charge ahead we must, confident that we are prepared to meet the other end of the journey.

As Elizabeth and I walked along the Danube (even my company for Thanksgiving is a remarkable bridge—from the fine-wine-Denison-friend Sharon to the not-even-ripe-new-friend Elizabeth), we noticed that one of the major bridges in Budapest is under major reconstruction. They have torn out the guts of the bridge, and are practically re-building it. How interesting to look upon this significant work, seeing how skillful the engineers must be in making this bridge passable and safe.

We marinate in our own tangy history to be sure, but we are not prisoners of one road, one situation, one quagmire. We can take a hop and a skip over a familiar bridge, or re-build an old bridge, or dare to engineer a new bridge, looking back at the genesis, excited by an unknown terminus.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Just a coupla guys…

There has been no shortage of people who have impressed me in my nearly four months here at KA, but there are a coupla guys who stand out as particularly enriching. These two guys couldn’t be more different in background or socioeconomic status, but both have endeared themselves to me in individual, as well as interconnected ways. They have figured into other blog entries in various ways, but in this week leading to Thanksgiving, it is time to offer gratitude for how they have shaped my experience here.

One of these guys is a young man named Hamzah. I met him on that first day when all these children streamed into the dorms, and we adults just hoped to survive orientation week! I had names I could barely pronounce, and I just hoped some of the magic of my previous classrooms would find its way to this to-me-far-flung-corner of the world.

We have sit-down meals at KA a la boarding school-old school: family style meals in which students perform first waiter and second waiter functions, and teachers act as heads of the table, serving the plates and facilitating conversation. I lucked out with that first rotation of students at my table (Table #1 I’ll have you know!)—such fun, curious, talkative, warm students. I was intrigued though by the quietest member of the table—he didn’t share much in the gregarious talking, but boy did he know how to eat! This slight, lean, serious-looking boy couldn’t believe there was as much food as he wanted, and enjoyed the bounty of the table. At the end of that first day of orientation, he came up to me before that first lights-out, and said to me in a soft and serious voice, “My father wants you to know that I will do my best at King’s Academy.” He shook my hand, and, walked, again I use the word seriously, off to his room. This was Hamzah.

Over the course of the next few days, several of the veterans (and by veterans, I mean those who valiantly worked here last year interviewing prospective students, working through financial aid forms, preparing for the opening, etc.) would pass by student activities and say to me, “Have you met Hamzah? He’s something. He almost didn’t make it in here.” I heard variations on this story so many times, and it always prompted sighs and knowing looks from the speakers, almost willing him to succeed here in this environment. You see, Hamzah comes from a town about 90 minutes away and from a less-privileged family than some of our royal scholars. (Yes, I know, probably every single reader of this blog comes from a less-privileged family than some of our royal scholars, but read between the lines.) The admissions committee had met this boy, been smitten by a kind of slow-burn charisma in his serious and purposeful manner, but they worried that any child from such an un-cosmopolitan town could perform to the high levels we expected, and in English to boot. Evidently his English was weak—but they decided to take a chance.

I mentioned Hamzah early on in the blog—if you remember, the first night the King came to school, for the opening convocation, there was that beaming boy who handed His Majesty the KA tie—that was Hamzah. There was something so moving in that simple exchange, a kind of star quality, if you will, on the faces of both of them.

About six weeks ago our Chairman of the Board met with me for a catch-up, and among several topics, he asked, “Tell me about a student that has amazed you here at KA.” Teachers love those questions! Someone wants to know about these little wonders with whom we spend our days?! For those of you out there who are kind and endure the running commentaries about our class-progeny, imagine what it is like when someone really wants to know! Well, I spoke of Hamzah. I spoke about the way in which he comes into class, shakes my hand, opens his notebook, and is ready to go—even without the candy or other forms of bribery. Class isn’t easy for him—he is working hard to make sense of colloquialisms I might use he hasn’t yet encountered, but he is as steady as a surgeon in working to connect the historical dots, his eye contact unfailing.

In the first week our Dean of Students introduced a demerit system called MOPs (an acronym for Missed Obligation Points) and teachers could slap them on you for almost any infraction—tardiness, slovenliness, you name it. The Dean also said that anyone who went MOP-less for the semester would be invited to a special dinner. In those heady first days, wait—heady? Have I forgotten all the comments from the “Scratch” Period (not as far back as the Pleistocene Age!)?? In those days of herding cats, teachers were giddy with the MOP bopping. At dinner in the first week of school Hamzah looked a shade disappointed one night at dinner, and I asked what the problem was. He lowered his head, and I noticed a tear, yes, a lone tear, streaming down his face. He said he had gotten 1 MOP for being 5 minutes late to soccer practice. A second or so later he balled his fist and gently hit the table and uttered, “I wanted to go to that dinner.” Of course you wanna wipe that MOP off the slate for such a kid, but, thems the rules. I spoke to him and said we would go out and have our own dinner sometime.

As the school year has ripened, so has the intellectual prowess of Hamzah. He thrills to learn new words in class (especially as we explored Creation myths, he loved how many of them involve some kind of dismembering—he must have said that word dozens and dozens of times at night) and loves the Latin and German phrases I think any sensible scholar should know (his favorite? Sic Transit Gloria Mundi—“thus passes away the glories of the world”). He will come up to me at breakfast and ask things like, “What kind of breakfast would Homer have had in ancient Greece?” He has never missed an assignment, and if you look at his work, the responses have improved dramatically.

But he is more than just a good boy doing his homework. He is a soccer hero—in a recent game, he scored the only goal for our side. However, many of his teammates were visibly less than thrilled that a “scholarship kid” created such a fuss…ahh, jealousy—it knows no borders!

Our conversations are more than about ancient civilizations too. We talk about our families, and talk about our friends, and our goals. He has not had the exposure to many of the western entertainment things as many others, has never been on an airplane, or gone to a McDonald’s. I make a point of going to his room every evening to chat, and while at first all I saw was this serious side, he also has a silly side, a fun-loving side in which he promises to “dismember” me (and then he whispers in my ear: “Kidding—I love you!"). He has a spritely elfin quality, and never fails to make me smile. Indeed watching a smile pan out across his face is nothing short of magnificent.

Today we welcomed the King back to KA. He comes about once a month, and this afternoon at the visit, Hamzah was on stage to officially greet His Majesty, and read a poem his father had written as an ode to this monarch they adore. Hamzah memorized his welcome greeting, voice projecting to the back of the hall, and recited the poem with such dignity.

Here these two guys were together, again. The coupla guys who come from such divergent backgrounds, and the coupla guys who have compelled me the most in my time here.

In early September I caught a front-page news story (our front page, probably not yours) about the King, and in the photo he was wearing the very KA tie that Hamzah had presented to him on behalf of the school. It caught my eye, and made me smile. But over these weeks and weeks, I have endeavored to follow his schedule, read the stories, and see what this guy does. I gotta say, there is a humility, an earnestness, and a beaming smile about this man that inspires trust, and hope.

A few weeks ago the King announced a state visit to China and took along two of our KA students (you know who I was hoping he would take!) for the week visit to China. I thought it was a wonderful gesture and of course, the students loved traveling in high style with the King!

Today’s visit was different from our other presentations to the King, however. Today he came to make our lecture hall his classroom—he came to teach us! He stood at a podium with some powerpoint maps and briefed the school community on his perspective of the state of Middle Eastern politics, especially leading up to the soon-to-be-convened Annapolis conference in the United States. He never once talked down to his audience, but instead offered a brave analysis as to how the peace process might actually come to fruition. But he certainly explained the trickiness of the diplomatic process as well. It was like watching a master chess player analyze each move, prioritizing the problem spots, and explaining why it all had to be done in a certain order, or this house of cards would tumble as they so often have in the past.

This is not just a talking head! I have watched him this autumn tirelessly meeting with heads of state, congressional delegations, kings, emirs, presidents, trying to lay the groundwork for what might be a turning point in history. This is a man who will go to the peace table and do the negotiating. What a thrilling school day. After his 30 minute explanation, he welcomed questions from our thoroughly engaged students. One teacher leaned over to me and said, “this whole experience gave me such chills.” I will speak more of his points in an entry next week.

I need to close this blog—I am leaving in about 90 minutes for a Thanksgiving holiday with one of the dearest colleagues I have met this fall, Elizabeth, bound for Budapest, Hungary to see Sharon, the goddess from Denison who has been my trusted friend for over 20 years.

So let me conclude this Pre-Thanksgiving entry with a note of wonder about these coupla guys I have encountered in Jordan. One guy is to the manor born, and one guy born to humble Bedouin parents. Last year at this time I didn’t know anything about either of them. One guy envisioned this school, and one is the poster child for all these hopes and ideals embedded in the very stones I tread. And both of these guys have inspired me with such trust and such hope—I know it is so easy to be cynical about a million things, most of all contemporary education and peace in the Middle East! History, unfortunately, has not favored success when it comes to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The road to peace is littered with numerous failed plans that have left in their wake a sea of bitter cynicism, and a resignation that this is a road that will forever stretch beyond the horizon. Our education systems would receive a similar vote of dubious confidence I imagine.

But these coupla guys have given me such a measure of peace in my world, and within these coupla lies the seed of hope for real peace, or perhaps just a seed of hope for hope.

I’ll be thinking of my family and friends this week, and check in with you on Sunday.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Postcard from Riyadh

Last week KA sent me as an emissary of the school to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to meet with prospective families in the capital of this oil-rich, money-rich nation. For these couple of days I relished the privilege of seeing how the business class treats itself, complete with posh hotel room, expense account, and money for tips. It was an enriching trip from start to finish.

When I landed in Riyadh after the two-hour flight, I could not believe the beauty of the Passport Control area and Baggage Claim—wait, have you ever heard anyone say those words before??! But indeed, the entire receiving area boasted marble floors cradling beautiful Islamic floral designs, and gorgeous fountains. This, this was a lovely first impression of Saudi Arabia!

They were very polite as I passed inspection with my visa and passport (although I still did like that on the back of my passport the Saudia Arabian embassy had affixed a sticker bearing the word, “Target.” It might make you uneasy too!). On the passport form it asked you to claim your religion, a query I don’t believe I have ever had before.

By the time I gathered my bag and went out to the hot, desert sun (at least 15 degrees warmer than in Amman) to wait for my colleague Fatina and her husband to pick me up, I had already noticed what would be my overwhelming constant visual in Riyadh—every single woman I saw was dressed all in black, and all the Saudi men were all in white. By the time I had moved out to the pick-up area, this sartorial mandate had become quite obvious to me. Minutes later when Fatina and hubby arrived (as a reminder, Fatina and I are history department colleagues at KA, her husband is an engineer still living and working in Riyadh, and Fatina is a delightful friend, resplendent every day in bright colors—except when she is back in her previous hometown of Riyadh) and they whisked me off to our hotel, the Intercontinental, where we would meet with these families in a few hours.

On the way into the heart of Riyadh, the newness of all the buildings mesmerized me. While not as busy with new construction projects as Dubai, I couldn’t see anything that looked older than 1970. Where were the shabby-chic-cute souks where merchants who looked like Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca hawked their wares of ancient carpets, antique silverware, and, I don’t know, magic potions? Block after block contained the shiny, silvery, sacred mountains to commerce and progress and fiduciary largesse. Fatina pointed to the tallest building in town, maybe 80-90 stories or so, built by the 5th richest person in the world. This metallic rectangle looked like it had an ice cream scoop taken right out of the middle of the building! A couple blocks away sat a building, the august Department of Interior, whose design resembled an alien ship that had landed right on this plot of desert land. It is about a 40 minute drive to the hotel, and one of the things I have noticed in these explorations of the modern Middle East megalopolis—they are trying so hard to show the world how modern they are; nay, not just modern, downright futuristic. Successful cities in contemporary America can hardly claim such architectural audacity! If you know the work of architects Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid—imagine their cool, radical, shape-shifting buildings block after block of each other, interspersed with American fast food franchises and ritzy stores.

A couple of hours later, Fatina and I (accompanied by her husband as chaperone—more on this later) await any prospective families for our info session. I learned from her that KA is not allowed to advertise in any print media to solicit potential families. The Ministry of Virtue and Vice (again, more on that later) has deemed that our school in Jordan will corrupt the youth, especially girls, so the school has to spread the word rather clandestinely. The sign in the hotel lobby lists the travel agency handling our travel affairs so that the name KA does not appear publicly. Fatina will take any women interested in our spiel up to her suite, since we are not allowed to convene men and women together.

A handful of people soon arrive, and I take the men to the meeting room, show the DVD, and begin talking about the school. It seems they are not terribly interested in the curriculum of the school, but very keen to know about the co-educational mores, discipline, and how students are punished. “Girls and boys are forbidden in the opposite gender’s dorms,” I reassured them, and explained that depending on the infraction, there are demerits, suspensions, or expulsions. One father asked me, “Do you beat the children?” and for a moment, I thought he was kidding. I don’t think there is much kidding in Saudi for some reason. No wonder our school seems so radical in this world! I enjoyed talking to the small gathering—who are we kidding? I love talking!

That evening we three went out to dinner, to an Indian restaurant nearby. Simply out of curiosity I asked, “How far away are we by plane from India (not quite sure how far east I had flown today)?” “Oh, about two hours I guess by plane, “said Fatina’s husband. Wow…this is a long way from my Midwestern roots. When we arrived I saw the handiwork of the Ministry of Virtue and Vice. There was a section for single men, and a section for families. Unmarried men and women may not go out to restaurants together. Thank goodness Fatina’s husband was in town, so we comprised a family. You are seated in the family section in a cubicle of your own—everyone is—and then curtains are drawn. No one can see you as you eat, and sadly for the voyeurs amongst us, you cannot see anyone else either. You have a buzzer in your isolation booth and that is how you command the waiter to your table.

By the end of that first evening, I looked back on those first few hours, and I made a mental note—still every single woman I saw, totally all in black, and almost half of them totally covered, eyes included, gloves on hands, protected from the gaze of any man. And again, the men, long white robe (called a thobe) crowned with the towel-like head garb (called a ghudra) topped with the black coil to keep it in place. No individuality expressed in their wardrobe!

It was fun to gather some more information about life in this seemingly contradictory city—a city with such radical, futuristic buildings, conjoined with what seems to me a conservative, repressed, social structure. “Riyadh” means “garden” in Arabic, and long-ago it was an important stop, an “oasis town,” on the fabled desert caravan routes. As we drove around town I was reminded that it is illegal for women to drive a car.

I learned the following day practically nothing was open on Friday in this city of 5 million people until prayers had been completed at 4 P.M. So I worked on my grades for class and went to the fitness center at the hotel. Of course, women do not have a fitness center option, and even in the men’s area it was totally about modesty. The changing rooms and showers were not just private, they were like individual meat lockers, floor to ceiling enclosed and no possible way to intrude on personal space. Almost like you were vacuum-sealed. Anyway, the steam room was great.

We visited the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, and again, I was humbled by my lack of knowledge about the history of the country. It is a shrewdly designed museum, definitely a museum designed to awe the viewer about the history of the Saudis. The museum is divided into areas—pre-Islamic, and then slowly up the escalator, psychologically taking you to the heights of the Islamic presence and grandeur. Let us not forget that the King of Saudi Arabia is the guardian of the two most important mosques in all of the Islamic world (Mecca and Medina for those of you eager to learn). Speaking of the King, according to Fatina, King Abdullah (not the same one as in Jordan) is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having squired the largest royal family currently in power (something like 4 dozen children, borne by oh, well, many wives—who knows how many!! The children range in age from 10 to their 40s). The wives of the King are not as public and busy as Queen Rania in Jordan—no doubt, due to the dictum that women must not be seen, heard, etc. The museum was great—first time in a museum since my farewell visit to the Met in New York in late June—sigh.

How can you go to a contemporary city and not visit a Mall????? A sumptuous commercial palace it was too—and sociologically another stunning opportunity to see Saudi culture in full bloom. Stores close during the time of evening prayers, but one can stroll, heathens all of us, and take in the sights. I could not escape the stark opposites of the men in white, successful hands cupping their generous stomachs, trailed by their black cones of wives and daughters. As stores re-opened, I spied the Food Court—always a welcome sight! At the McDonald’s they followed the rules too—there were two lines for ordering food—one for men and one for “ladies” complete with a partition (laden with ads, natch!) dividing the lines and genders. I was reminded of an editorial I read recently in Time that quoted an old adage: in the West people make love in public and pray in private; in the East, it is the opposite.

I considered it an honor to be asked by the school to represent them as they hoped to spread the word of our brand-new school. I did give up an exciting event however—back in Amman my new friends were all getting decked out at that moment in formal attire to enjoy the Marine Corps ball sponsored by the American Embassy—fancy clothes, communal fellowship, lots of dancing, schmoozing, and who knows…but I got a peek into a very unusual world—obvious money, luxurious hotels, good food, ultra-Jetsons like architectural tableaux, and the medieval social practices of the Saudi Arabians.

That evening I settled onto the hotel bed with all the fancy pillows, grabbed the remote, and after a moment or two of channel surfing, guess what I saw on the TV—Desperate Housewives. Honest! Wow…

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Graduation From Scratch

Yesterday was my 100th day working in Jordan, and yesterday I got to return the graded mid-semester tests to my 9th graders.

They done good.

Not that grades are any kind of be all and end all, but, we all know they are an indication. I had no Ds or Fs. I had more As than Bs, and more Bs than Cs.

I think yesterday was a graduation, of sorts: a Graduation From Scratch.

The test covered the last six weeks of work, from Pre-History up through the four ancient river valleys we have studied carefully (the Tigris and Euphrates, Nile, Indus, and Yellow) with the geography, politics, economics, religion, technology, arts, and ideology of each ancient civilization. That is a fair amount of material, but they acquitted themselves with a bit of finesse.

I knew a graduation was imminent two weeks ago. On October 24 my classes revealed their most brilliant work yet. Okay, I know you are dying to know about it! We were studying the ancient cities of Harappa and Monhenjo-Daro (I know—I hadn’t really heard of them either until I started teaching this course!) found today near the borders of India and Pakistan. These cities were only excavated in the 1920s, and we still have not deciphered their writing. Well, without the words of these ancient Indians to guide us, we must draw conclusions and speculate on our own. I distilled the historical world’s knowledge about these cities down to eight essential factual things we can be pretty sure about. The day after we learned all of the eight “things,” I left the list on the board, and the following day, October 24, I said we needed to spend the class drawing conclusions, and basing our insights on those pieces of evidence we did know. The whole class was spent discussing, refining, and reaching conclusions. Neither are these in the textbook nor did I tell them—and their list kept growing. As someone offered a speculation, they had to back it up with at least one piece of the evidence. And they did it.

At the end of class I told them that this had been their smartest day yet. They had done what the Big Boy and Big Girl Historians do: sift through evidence (okay, I did that part) and think hard—evaluating, connecting and reflecting—the golden verbs I love to employ. I know, I know, you are hearing the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” too in your head, am I right?? I told them that what they had just done was essentially do an essay out loud: each paragraph could be one of their insights, explaining how the evidence buttressed their conclusion and argument. (Soon we will attack that bugaboo of “The Essay,” but okay, yes, I know, baby steps, Johnny, baby steps.)

But we still needed to triumph over that mid-semester test with all that material, and all the maps, and all the art works, oh my…the withering looks as they marched toward the test day.

On test day, two of three classes came in purposefully and worked steadily and quietly—no direction to take out a pen anymore (Do I have to retire my little jazzy ditty of “Notebooks Open, Pen in Hand”?). The other class did think they could guilt me into writing fewer paragraphs. I learn from the best, like Doris Jackson, and I said, like Doris Jackson, “I am a rock—I am immovable!!”

I don’t know what to call this phase into which we are entering? What level is after Scratch? Maybe I should inaugurate an international contest today (M&Ms anyone??) to create a name for the next phase of development. After Scratch, hmmm? Any ideas? Post a comment or send an email if you have an idea!!

I am a bit rushed at the moment—I have a plane to catch in a couple of hours. I am traveling to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia today on behalf of the school to meet prospective families for KA and do a presentation on the school. How exciting to tell them of the kind of wonderful progress I have seen in just the last two months.

Saudi Arabia should be interesting. I didn’t know until yesterday how very hard it is right now for an American even to get into Saudi Arabia. Many of my colleagues were a little in awe (I mean we are in the Middle East for heavens’ sakes!) that I get to go there. The hotel where I am staying and presenting did forbid that women and men meet in the same room, but fortunately, Fatina, a native of Saudi Arabia for over 20 years, and a history colleague will be there. So there will be a girl’s room and a boy’s room to meet the families. However, Fatina and I cannot go out to eat alone together, I have been told. Her husband (still living in Riyadh) will need to chaperone. If I went out alone, I would need to sit in the section for Singles, or just with men. Oh my. This will be different!

This entry is shorter than most (yes, I am sure some of your are thinking, mercifully short,) but I have more to talk about the progress of my students, about Lana, and Ghaida, and Abdullah, and Raja, and Jude, and Karim, and Layla, and all these teen-agers becoming scholars before my eyes. I will get to that, don’t worry.

On the board on Sunday I will have a quotation that I loved from Queen Noor’s memoirs.
In her memoirs she quotes an 11th century Samarkand proverb that has been translated to, "Knowledge: the beginning of it is bitter to taste, but the end is sweeter than honey."

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Tea and Sympathy

While I was on Safari in Africa, (I promise—I need to use this line one last time!) the lovely actress from the movies’ “Golden Age,” Deborah Kerr, died on October 16. She is probably best known for her lusty roll on the beach with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, as well as for her turn as “Mrs. Anna” opposite the histrionic Yul Brynner in The King and I. But when I was back from Kenya, looking up some of the news I had missed, her death reminded me of another of her elegant appearances: Tea and Sympathy. This play and movie were quite steamy in the Eisenhower United States of the 1950s, and her role (not roll!) as headmaster’s wife Laura Reynolds offers an interesting moral dilemma of how she tried to help a suffering, sensitive boy find himself.

I thought of this movie not just in reflection of the beautiful actress, but how both the title and a memorable line proved an interesting challenge to me as I came back from that little thing I did on that continent I went to (see—it is just easier to say, “when I was in Africa…”).

On our last day in Kenya, one of our colleagues at lunch told all of us, “Well, I guess I should tell you now that I am resigning from KA when we get back to school tomorrow.”

And he is in the department I lead.

Frankly, I was not surprised, and in many ways I was grateful for his imminent exit.

Of course as a department head, one has to deal with the mess of such a sudden move.

But let me create some context by which you might understand this little bombshell.

When I landed at the airport in Amman on July 31, this new colleague and I met and shared a car from the school together arriving historian and historian to our new adventure at KA. While I had not hired him, our headmaster shared with me in emails how excited over what this teacher would bring to the department: Harvard education, a law degree, an interesting perspective as an Asian-American, tenure at an inner-city school in Los Angeles, a deep interest in history and philosophy, a sharp-edged wit, and unbelievably impressive skills in all things technological. I had visited his vlog several times in the spring. (No, I had not heard of a v-log before, especially since my computer skills really only reached the cutting edge of say, around 1854. A vlog is like a blog, but with videos and, well, tons of bells and whistles.)

Over the next two weeks he was always snapping pictures at every orientation event piping up, “hey everybody, check all these [hundreds and hundreds of] pictures out on “photo bucket.” He and I are only a few months apart in age, so I welcomed a colleague of a certain age. He helped our department use google.docs (why don’t I know any of these things???) and we shared ideas about how the courses should be managed. When it became clear I needed a person to teach one more section of the 9th grade course, and it turned out time-wise he was the best choice, he agreed to my plea (he was set to teach sections of the 10th grade course).

But by the end of August, a gloomy cloud had darkened his demeanor. He didn’t like many of the Jordanian colleagues, always saying, “they keep complaining about the Americans,” but a little more, hmmm…strange, I guess—he didn’t like our students. Now, if you read some of my blog entries over the last 10 weeks, I have relayed how many (most) of us were alarmed by the academic skill-challenged teen-agers we met in August. I remember my attempts to engage, to get them to open a notebook, find a pen, be quiet for a few minutes et cetera ad infinitum. Yes, I had a trilogy of “Scratch” entries for heaven’s sakes! But there was something more troubling here.

Yet as a department head I try and bring out the best in my department members. I emailed encouraging comments, always greeted him warmly, and suggested ideas that might help his class. I shared some lessons plans that might work…but within a couple weeks, I began to get some calls and complaints about his classes. Another of my jobs is to protect and defend teachers: I wrote earnest pleas about how we are all new, and adjustments are hard, and we all need to experience many approaches and perspectives—I am trying not type the words blah blah blah here…I said, “Look, because of his duty in the first tour of weekend duty in the dorms, he was actually “on-call” with orientation, class, and weekend stuff, a total of 19 days in a row!” Everyone would get tired and snappy, right?

It was around this time that he began to come to me and say, “I may just leave. It may be anytime. I can’t take it here.” I thought he was just suffering from homesickness, nostalgia for the First World way of life, or heaving from a bout of the gastro-intestinal willies that greeted us here in Jordan.

He had announced at the Parent’s Night that he intended to have a “paperless classroom,” to scattered oooohs and ahhhhs. (I am getting a sense of this—his classes have a WIKI page, and everything goes back and forth electronically—and I guess you don’t have either a notebook or a pencil in his class. I guess I am from 1854 then!)

But soon he had a meltdown in the 9th grade classroom. I heard reports, and they were blistering. I won’t go into it, but that afternoon he was removed from the charge of those 9th graders, and the class passed to a vibrant, enthusiastic mid-20s teacher. That evening he and I talked, and he reiterated that he may not make it here to Christmas.

I don’t think it was just the water in Jordan anymore.

Just before our trip to Kenya (not really a sly allusion, it is necessary to the plot of this story!) the headmaster said to me: “I hope [he] recovers his joie de vivre on the trip.”

You know how I mentioned in one of the trip entries how on a trip you often discover someone you just adore (that would be Zeina) and another you can barely stomach anymore (guess who!)? Well, I realized on the safari he was not having trouble adjusting to Jordan—he wanted to go back to California to devote himself to a Silicon Valley company and make tons of money. That’s fine—but why did you move to Jordan?

We were on that van for excruciatingly long periods of time, and driving on the cratered madness they call roads did not allow for one to lose oneself in a book or thought. So we had to endure some interesting community conversations. I learned of his work on the side with this company, and how he wasn’t able to devote the time here that he had hoped. He would miss out, big-time, on a new trend for which he is on the vanguard: Virtual gifts. He talked about this project like a TV evangelist (minus the teary pleas for forgiveness after the fill-in-the-blank scandal) and if you are not hopping on this bandwagon of paying a few dollars to send treasured friends and family PRETEND, INTANGIBLE gifts/pets/alcoholic drinks/real estate, you are doomed to irrelevance.

On the second-to-last day of the trip, I chanted in my head: “It wouldn’t be so bad if he just left now.”

The following day at a lovely lunch, he announced his intention to leave soon after we returned.

Back to the beginning of the entry. So we needed to fill his teaching assignments, advisor responsibilities, dining hall obligations, and dorm duties. Yes, angel in It’s a Wonderful Life—one life affects many others.

I have been straining not to just “gossip” about this colleague. In fact, I have tried to distance myself from the great line “Clairee” says in Steel Magnolias: “Well, you know what they say: if you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!”

So when I heard of Deborah Kerr’s death, I remembered her closing line in Tea and Sympathy, when her character decides to bed the troubled young boy in the dorm to help him “save face” with his classmates: “Years from now when you talk about this—and you will—be kind.”

Yes, I was a little mad about the work involved to fill all the jobs he would vacate, but strangely, I was more moved by the sympathy I felt for this colleague. I remembered how in one of our first department meetings, as we all shared why we had becomes teachers, he said something like, “I don’t know, it just seemed a good thing to do.”

I felt sympathy because he obviously has never known the sheer joy about going to class, watching a student grasp a concept, write a brilliant thesis statement, understand Greek humanism, plow through Freud’s writings, and a million other psychic rewards. He has clearly never enjoyed the sense of commitment and the vision of a role model we are as we navigate our students through the treacherous waters of adolescence. I have wondered what it is like to drive to work and not go to a job that really means something to you. Apparently the teaching world has not done it for this man.

That’s fine—not everyone wants a gradebook hanging out of every bag or brief case or suitcase you ever use! But there is also a sense of honor to completing a school year. Frankly, I have only known a scant few to leave a school during the year voluntarily—and those were due to spousal relocations. But since his pronouncement, this sympathy (mixed with a sidecar of righteous anger) has allowed me to think about my friends in the US who, as teachers, are on the front lines of honor and commitment, even in the face of their own “Scratch-es”: my friend Doris working at St. Aloysius school for orphans, smiling and engaging her students to success with love, and a dollop of her drama skills; my other Doris, a lifetime teacher, and a rock of integrity and high standards; my friend Debbie, coaxing and compelling her learning issues-students, showing resolve that they will graduate from “Scratch”; and Shelley, working through all the tangles of public school bureaucracy to excite her elementary students about the wonders of science; and Mary, who has thrilled to relaying the joy of grammar lo these many, unnamed years (by the way, you can her swooning just saying that it’s almost time to teach gerunds!!); Christy toiling at Lehman College in the Bronx helping these graduate students to realize the potential of intellectual and social-emotional teaching to some of the roughest younger New Yokers; Chuck, a teacher and friend who combines his ebullience for teaching with a patience Job would admire; my grandmother who taught Sunday School for 62 years; my idols of Justice and Schneider and Michaels and Bork and Osborne and Wilson and Greene—probably this bunch taught a combined total of 57,000 years! These teachers, and my colleagues at Gaston Day and Latin and Hackley, who have encouraged and challenged and held me to high standards for these 20 years I have embraced this career.

This departing colleague obviously has not known these people. He has not had the examples I have known of responsibility and honor and commitment.

If you know any of these people send them my love.

On Sunday, we are having a “sorta beginning of the year” party with the history department at KA. We are soon going to begin a book together entitled, The Courage To Teach. I have outstanding “replacements” for the two 10th grade classes of the computer whiz, and I think we will be stronger than ever.

And most importantly—we want to be in our classrooms.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

When October Goes…

About a dozen years ago (maybe more) Barry Manilow—yes, the same singer/entertainer known as “the schlockmeister” to many people—was going through some of the boxes of papers from the famed lyricist Johnny Mercer’s estate. As the story goes, Manilow came upon some words that Mercer (the legendary Oscar-winner from the 1940s and 1950s) had never published. Barry loved the simple, evocative poem, and immediately he asked the Mercer family if he could set those previously buried lyrics to music. They readily agreed and thus an unusual collaboration between a deceased word-spinner, and the composer of more 1970s classic pop classics than anyone else, came to be.

I discovered the Mercer/Manilow song long ago, and have always relished the words. Here are the words that Manilow set to music:

When October Goes…

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smokey roofs
I watch the planes go by

The children running home
Beneath a twilight sky
Oh, for the fun of them
When I was one of them

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go

I should be over it now I know
It doesn't matter much
How old I grow
I hate to see October go

Besides the haunting melody and bittersweet words, I have always loved the song because October has always been my favorite month of the year.

Yes, my birthday is in October, but that is not really why my heart goes out to October.
I remember my friend Shelley (friends since Gamble Junior High!) and I always targeted October 1 as the first day since early spring when we would wear sweaters (interesting how we actually set a date for that inauguration!) It is one of those random memories that just reminds one of the innocence of youth.

October is also when our trees in the mid-west and mid-Atlantic states and New England trot out the finest, most stunning colors imaginable. My best memories of those changing leaves are from the exquisite colors seen on the trees at Denison, my undergraduate alma mater, and then the vivid oranges, reds, and golds seen in walks in Tarrytown and Central Park in Manhattan. As a testament to those autumnal glories, when two of my new friends spent their Eid break returning to the U.S. last month, both asked me what I would like them to bring from America, and offered to bring certain foods or magazines, I sighed, and said, “what I really would like is evidence of Fall—bring me back a couple of the changing leaves.” Both friends did, and it gave me nostalgic blanket for the examples of what October always looks like to me.

Of course, to someone who really likes life at a lower temperature than most, I especially thrill to those first chilly mornings that invigorate me, and allow me to spend a few months not sweating all the time. I remember those cloudless, blue skies in North Carolina in October that now compare to the cloudless, blue skies in Jordan (of course about 25 degrees or so warmer here!)

I have taught for 19 years, and for 16 of those years I have directed a play in the autumn. I know you know, but it has been one of the most rewarding elements in my career that in three schools I have had the privilege of being both a historian and a drama director, and for 16 of the last 19 years the end of October reminds me that it is just about show time! Directing a play has been challenging, exciting, exhausting, and life-changing, and as I am spending the first October since the Fall of 1994 not directing a play, I have cherished those memories, and I look forward to another October when I get to broaden my horizons and re-discover the nervousness and triumph of a satisfying theatrical experience.

By October, classes have always moved into high-energy mode, and both teachers and students are steadily growing and achieving the lofty goals upon which we spent September creating. There is a seriousness, and a momentum that hums by October.

And there are many birthdays to celebrate: family and friends that remind you of tribulations and triumphs and inspiration. On my father’s side there were the birthdays of my dad’s grandparents, people I actually knew as a child, and a dear cousin of my dad’s, and my uncle, a man my father has always respected and admired. I have former students from Charlotte Latin, an especially wonderful friend named Louise, and also the birthday of my sister.

Many of you know my sister Elizabeth, and I cannot articulate well enough how much I treasure Elizabeth. I remember in childhood, when I was Playground Manager (in the 6th grade, this was the most coveted job one could nab) in charge of Grades 1-3. My sister was in 3rd grade, and I recall adoring that time together at recess, and I enjoyed just being with her peers and not just a dumb big brother. Around that time, as I went through phases of what I wanted to do in life, she was my tireless aide-de-camp as I used her in my projects: I wanted to be a photographer, a director, oh, maybe I was a bit of a dumb brother! Over the years, we grew closer, especially after I became a counselor when she was a member of the All-Ohio State Fair Choir—in some ways, much like being a playground manager again. In adulthood it became clear that she was much more than a sister; she became one of my biggest cheerleaders and supporters. This sister is a tower of strength in the direst of crises, one of the best people with whom to laugh, and a paragon of loyalty. Elizabeth claims that she is more of an introvert, but Elizabeth is also a study of the extroverted successes of our parents, and seeks to model herself on the honesty and sensitivity of our father, and the generosity and creativity of our mother. One of my favorite paintings is by Vincent van Gogh, a work entitled First Steps, and in it van Gogh paints a mother, a father, and a child, enthralled with each other, and a poignant tribute to the best job in the world. Elizabeth and husband Steve mirror that loving family, and their values, and her priorities, are rock solid. In the last few years, as telephone charges became giddily affordable, I began to call her nearly every day, just to make sure she knows how much she comforts and encourages all those around her. We laugh very often, and of course, I miss her these thousands of miles away. Elizabeth’s birthday is October 30, and part of my enjoyment of October is anticipating her birthday and celebrating this trusted soul mate.

And of course as November takes wing, we get to celebrate Halloween. Do you have any idea how weird it is to have gone this whole month seeing nary a merchandising campaign about this spooky day? They really don’t know Halloween in this part of the world. I mean, can you imagine how strange to have seen no displays of candy and costumes, no decorations, no mention of trick-or-treat-ing? I am sure I have never gone through October without the media and capitalist blitzing of this holiday!

So the Dean of Student Life decided that we should introduce Halloween to the kids at KA. It took them awhile to get their minds around this concept: when she tried to explain Halloween to our 9th and 10th graders, several kept asking, “So why do you wear costumes?” and one girl said, “But I don’t have any tricks to do for people!” Wendy explained the fun of the holiday, and so last Thursday we celebrated Halloween. You might wonder why a week early—well, the volleyball team had an away game on Halloween in Damascus, Syria (it still makes me laugh that we have an away game in another country!).

We had pumpkin carving, and a costume judging (the costume that won the prize was so clever—the boy costumed himself as a movie theater floor! He wore all black, had footprints on him, and tickets and candy wrappers and soda cups glued to his outfit) and then an all-orange dinner, and then a dance. This was the first school dance, and of course over the years I have chaperoned dozens of school dances. Most of these dances have been drab and dull affairs. This was a really exciting evening! The organizers focused on group dances, and I went for what was going to a little while, and it was so much fun I stayed until the end! We danced to the Hokey Pokey, and the Macarena, Electric Slide, and some others, and all the kids danced all the time. I joined in after the first dances—it just looked like too much fun. I limbo’d, and whatever the dance is called for the “Makes me want to shout” song from the 1960s. On Sunday of this week the Dean awarded some prizes for costumes and dancing. I won a second place award for the “Best John Travolta Moves.” I lost to a 10th grader, but my ego was soothed by the fact that this winner really wants to be a dancer. I do think I should have won the award for “Best Moves By An Over-40 year old.” Well, I will practice more for next year!

So as October goes, I get a little misty-eyed about the wondrous reasons I revel in the month, from silly adolescent memories, to treasures of my teaching career, to the opportunities to think of loved ones…

Take some time today to think about why you might like in October too.

I should be over it now
I know It doesn't matter much
How old I grow
I hate to see October go