Friday, February 29, 2008

My New Friend Freeda

It is no big secret—I am sentimental about many things: those final hugs on Graduation days, the metallic smell of the air before the first snow, any signed note to “King” from niece Emma and/or nephew Jack, the last scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. If you read the blog entry a couple months ago about my comfort foods, you know I revel in sentimentality! But as a general rule, I do not indulge in sentimental naming of inanimate objects. That leaves me cold.

However—I have a new friend, and she has been christened “Freeda.”

Our marvelous, rip-roaring new (as of early January) colleague Tessa has leased a car. She was here only a matter of days before she announced, “Right. To make this work out here we simply must have a car. We simply must have Freedom.” Tessa punctuates all her emphatic statements with a “we must” imperative. Wishy-washy, she ain’t.

A couple of weeks ago this little pug-nosed, white car arrived on campus and Tessa called me up and said, “Come on Jaari (a quick Arabic lesson—jaari means 'my neighbor')—let’s go get John and Suzanne and go for a ride.” The car had just been delivered that afternoon and everything inside was still encased in plastic. We ripped through the plastic covers of seats and belts and levers and wheels as we reminded Tessa that we would be driving on the right side of the road in this country. “Right,” Tessa understood it was not her comfort zone of left-side-of-the-road-driving like her native South Africa.

I will admit—we were giddy. The combined ages of the four of us probably approaches 225 or better, and yet we were giddy getting into the car at the prospect of driving the handful of kilometers to Madaba. I remember a giddiness like this—way back on a sultry June evening in the early 1980s I arrived at a birthday party for life-long friend Doris O, and as the proud recipient several hours before of a driver’s license, I drove to the party! I was the first of our group to command a driver’s license, and unfortunately I stole some of the spotlight of Doris’ party away from her as I drove various groups of people around the block all evening to show off my independence and driving prowess. It was a giddy feeling that night. Heck, I was giddy all through high school driving! When Kevin and I drove around it was that sheer thrill of being young men with a car to drive. As memory serves Kevin loved his car so much he christened his Corvair, “Carly.” I mocked him mercilessly for that sentimental attachment.

Anyway—back to 2008 and this middle-aged giddiness. Here we were—driving into town, helping Tessa stay on the correct side of the road, on our way to meet Mr. Ziad, the merchant in Madaba who owned “Carpet World” (I know—how cheesy can you get to live in a neat, foreign place and actually patronize a store with such a Babbitt-like name!) If you remember, John and Suzanne had recently chastised me for not decorating my home with any of the merchandise readily available here in Jordan. Mr. Ziad was going to open my world, and I was going to open my wallet, as I brought color to my semi-new digs.

We careen through the cluttered, twisty streets of Madaba, and arrive at the temple of carpets. Mr. Ziad is so ebullient to see his old friends (and treasured customers) John and Suzanne, and thrilled at the prospect of ripe, new acquaintances. He looks just like you want him to look—a striking resemblance to the bazaar-owner character Sydney Greenstreet played in Casablanca. He has a smile as wide as the Jordanian sunset, a paunchy stomach upon which his fingers play like an air band, and a devilishly coy business sense: “Ahh, Mr. John, if you are friends with Mr. John and Miss Suzanne and Dr. Eric, I will give you the best price in Jordan!” “Miss Tessa, come over here and sit down. I hope you are comfortable so you may enjoy my carpets.”

Mr. Ziad’s daughter brought us mint tea, and we sipped as he lugged carpet after carpet onto the floor so we could inspect the stitching, the patterns, the colors, the history. As I said in another entry, John and Suzanne have made the proverbial hay whilst the sun has shone—they have acquired maybe 25 carpets in their apartment. I came with money to spend—about $450, and no expertise on how to pick a carpet.

Mr. Ziad was patient though. After about a dozen or so carpets I began to get a feel for what I liked. He had carpets from Iran, Iraq, and Jordanian Bedouins. I liked most the striking patterns and the interplays of color. Suzanne had whispered in my ear that he was a fair merchant and they felt comfortable with his prices. I started to make a list and some notes about which ones seemed the best choices.

After the smiling, the chatting, the tea-sipping, I decided on two rugs. One rug is about 2 feet by 4 feet, with about seven patterns throughout, repeated about three times in succession. I chose it in part because of the dazzling patterns, and striking reds in it, and also, since it was from Iran, it reminded me of the Khosrowshahi family, a proud Iranian family I treasure back in Tarrytown. Somehow to purchase these somewhat costly items, I needed a connection, dare I say, a sentimentality, attached to them. The other rug is about 12 feet by 4 feet and comes from a Bedouin weaver near Madaba. There is something tightly constructed about this rug, strong like the Bedouins I see as I pass them on the roads. Maroon and cream dominate the rug (my high school colors—Go Mustangs!) with navy and hunter green striping the rug. The rugs cost about what I had anticipated, with just enough for dinner out at our favorite Lebanese grill in Madaba.

Haret Jdoudna is everyone’s favorite place in Madaba—ummm, frankly, there is not much competition—someone should wise up and open up some franchises here! HJ in Arabic means, “the courtyard of my ancestors,” and as the four of us sat by the fire in this great restaurant we relished, as Tessa reminded us, our Freedom. “I hereby dub her Freeda,” toasted Tessa. As we drove back to KA with the new carpets, I dug out the old civil rights era song with a slight twist: “I woke up this morning with my mind staying on Freeda…” Giddy we are!

Tessa announced the following day that Freeda was restless and wanted to go out driving that weekend. Who am I to keep her all cooped up here—plans were made, people chosen, and off we went. Some of us had never been to Bethany, so that was our first stop with Freeda on that Friday. Bethany is the site of some of the most important archaeological discoveries in the last 10-15 years in the Middle East. Since the mid-1990s this spot on the eastern bank of the River Jordan has been identified as the place where John the Baptist lived and was active, and where he most likely baptized Jesus Christ.

The area was closed for about 25 years since it is in a sensitive military zone right on the border of Jordan and Israel, but since 1994 it has been open, and archaeologists have been digging and dusting and discovering ever since with great success. The wealth of sites—21 at the last count—are churches and baptismal pools from the Roman and Byzantine periods (the earliest dated at about 330), caves of monks and hermits, and lodges of medieval pilgrims with a trove of medieval travel accounts mark this one little side-valley as perhaps the actual site of that baptism some 2,000 years ago. In March, 2000, Pope John Paul II celebrated an open-air baptism at the site in front of 25,000 worshippers.

All this attention could have turned the place into a tourist circus, but there is a calm dignity to the site. You enter a Visitor’s Center a few kilometers away, they take you by bus, and then in order to maintain a sanctity of the surroundings, you walk the last bit on a simple path. The crowds (there are 10 times daily that the bus arrives at the site) are quiet, respectful, and one can enjoy the chirping of birds, the dry, toughened trees, and the white, chalky marl that seems to deaden the sound on the path.

Once again, as if I needed it again, I am reminded of the historical and biblical resonance of my surroundings. There is a natural austerity and a religious power as I contemplate that within just a short distance of this place such figures as Lot separating from Abraham, Jacob wrestling with God, Moses crossing these plains of Moab, along with Joshua, Elijah, Elisha and of course John the Baptist and Jesus had walked. We were there with German tourists, Russian tourists, Arab Christians, and a few Muslims. One man must have sensed Tessa’s wisdom and asked her, “Do you mind to explain to me the importance of this Baptism to me?” As Tessa, a teacher-always-on-call, explained the symbolism of the new life of these living waters, she pointed and said to the man, “see that mud down there by those reeds? Some of those molecules of mud might have been here some 2000 years ago when this event, which to me is quite powerful, took place.”

As time has changed the Jordan River, the waters have narrowed, and Israel lay a scant 30 or so feet away. Barbed wire and flags reminded us of the continued problems of patriotism and territoriality that plague the region.

But never mind—Freeda takes us down the road, we spend the afternoon at a Dead Sea resort, and Freeda takes us home. Soon, a day or so later, Freeda is restless again and needs a visit to HJ—just because.

So this morning, as I walked to the gym (a subtle reminder to you that I love to go and work the treadmill watching American TV shows on DVDs as I multi-task) I noticed the first wildflowers emerging from the winter grass. I have been told that March will be dazzling as the wildflowers carpet (pun intended) the desert terrain. So here we are on February 29, ready and excited to greet the world, the first wildflowers catch my attention.

Am I so sentimental now that I am going to name the flowers as they greet me day after day? Oh no.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

‘member? ‘member when??

It has been an odd week for memories. (Hum along everyone!) “Scattered pictures—of the smiles we left behind” danced through my mind over and over as if the 1970s icon Barbra Streisand were behind nearly every corner of my mind…

It all started the other day when I got out a blue pin-striped shirt to wear that I had not donned in my nearly seven months in Jordan. Last week I discovered a box with about 4-5 items that I had never unfolded and hung up after the boxes arrived in August (ahhh…the misty water-colored memories of Rita promising me for weeks in that smoky voice, “Don’t worry John—the boxes will come…) and so I decided to debut this nice shirt I hadn’t seen in months and months. As I unfolded the shirt, a once-familiar object fell out of the shirt pocket: a gold-wrapped candy. (Now I know what you are thinking—I am going to relive my late 1970s musical triumph of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”! But no.) Emblazoned on the 1 square-inch piece of gold foil was a monogram—the fancy-schmancy monogram with the prominent ‘A’ flanked by a smaller ‘C’ on each side.

As the piece of chocolate mint tumbled to the ground, Barbra Steisand wailed in my head about the “smiles we gave to one another.” The candy was from Ardsley Country Club, a place I have had the opportunity to visit many times courtesy of the largesse of my dear friends Anne and Peter in Irvington. As I sighed over the beautiful memories from many dinners and lunches at the club, it was such a serendipitous reminder of how fortunate I am to have had friends like Anne and Peter. I scooped the candy off the floor, plunked it on my desk, and finished getting my coat and tie on so I could officially start the day. Happily on that walk to morning meeting, I was flooded with those random memories that an hour before did not even seem in the offing.

There were memories of lazy summer afternoon lunches on the terrace (they like to sit at a certain table, where A&P claim the view of the Hudson is just the most superb) delighting in Anne’s decision that “the table would like a few appetizers I think.” There were the cold, winter evenings where it felt as warm and cozy at the club as life-long friends sharing the comforts of lived-in laughs. I don’t remember how long the rosy glow of the memories lasted—but it was all because a long-forgotten souvenir of a fine meal accidentally plopped out of a shirt pocket.

A day or so later I decided to wear another of the forgotten clothes items—a rather seen-it-all houndstooth jacket I don’t remember wearing since George Bush I left office. I don’t even remember why I included this jacket in my packing, except I thought there might be a day one wants to exude a kind-of Sherlock Holmes-ian charm. There was one of those foggy-sleety days last week when wearing a “jacket emeritus” seemed appropriate. (Yes, there have been a few of those wintry days here, even in Jordan.) As I tried on the jacket, remembering that I had purchased it in the mid-1980s, I felt in the jacket pockets, and discovered several old souvenirs (one may wonder—do I ever have certain articles clothing professionally cleaned?? Hmmm….).

I found two ticket stubs and a program. I am almost embarrassed to state the date on any of these items! I remember in my younger days I liked the idea that my jackets and suits acted as a kind of filing cabinet, or desk drawer, or ersatz scrapbook. Oh my. For those of you who know my father, you are chuckling to yourself right now, “Yes, he certainly is Ken’s son.” My father loves to collect—nay, to embrace—anything that has any age to it. It may be a mint from a favorite restaurant, or an old envelope, an old coupon…do you get the picture? So, I guess I come by this hording thing rather naturally. And you should see my mother’s bibles—a veritable archivist’s delight of old bulletins, sermon notes, Ann Landers clippings, Hallmark cards, grocery lists, snapshots, besides the actual pages of biblical wisdom.

So I look at these tickets and program, and Barbra Steisand busts out again with another verse: “Can it be that it was all so simple again?” Huh? Barbra—shut up, I am reminiscing, and your soprano is a little grating…

One ticket is from the farewell tour of Yul Brunner in The King And I that I saw in Chicago. I just checked on-line to be sure, and the master of the King of Siam died in 1985. Oh my. Actually, I remember almost exactly when I saw it, in the autumn of 1984, when I was studying “abroad” at the Newberry Institute in Chicago. Of course the ticket ignited many memories of that fall studying the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case, living in my first real apartment (the worst dump I will ever inhabit, inshallah), in an amazing city and enjoying intellectual engagement. Sigh.

Then there was the ticket from January, 1985: a concert on Mozart’s birthday (his 229th) in his birthplace-town of Salzburg, Austria. I remember that I had just arrived there that week and will always treasure those first images of the incomparable Salzburg as I adjusted to my first time living away from the United States. Barbra—please—I am trying to be all classical, and I do not need the montage of you and Robert Redford right now!

The program in my pocket was from a concert of a talented, beautiful friend from Denison. Elizabeth offered her junior recital in my last few weeks of college life, and I even wrote margin notes about the opera arias she sang. In college Elizabeth had one of the most glorious voices—effortless, and pure, a voice that would make Cecilia Bartoli a little jealous. Elizabeth’s arias from the Italian and German repertory reminded me of the History of Music course I took while in Salzburg, and how steeped I was in the history of music at the time. Of course, the flights of fancy then took wing as I thought of the Denison clique in general. Instead of Barbra’s voice, I hear us singing songs from “Tears for Fears” on our way to their concert. Later this week I would get an email from the inimitable Sue Skinner saying that she had just thought me as a cook talked of her love for White Castle hamburgers—in case you missed my gastronomic tour, among my favorite foods and memories! The weaving of opera history and White Castles in just a few seconds…the beauty of synchronicity!

Anyway, that was the end of the Houndstooth Scrapbook. Maybe I didn’t wear the jacket much after the spring of 1986.

In the last eight weeks I have been reminded of the jumble of emotions last year during January and February, 2007. In those weeks I first met the headmaster of KA, first met the chairman of the board, first heard of the offer to head the history department at KA, and first flew to Jordan. It was one year ago today that I accepted the job offer, knots in my stomach, excitement coursing through me, wondering if this was the most outlandish thing I had ever done. So, you see, it hasn’t just been the sartorial nostalgia plunging me into the odd memory here and there.

After a few short weeks last winter of meditating, praying, imagining and believing, I accepted the job via e-mail. I called Anne and Peter to tell them that I had indeed accepted the job, and Anne immediately said, “We need to go somewhere special and celebrate. Let’s go out to ‘One.’” I remember that it was the night of the Academy Awards, and as I enjoyed dinner at ‘One,’ an unusual silence fell among us. How many more dinners would we get to enjoy before I left? How many more times would I see snow fall in the Hudson Valley as it did that night? Would I even get to watch the Oscars in that far-off land???

This morning I got up with enough time to read a devotional from the “Daily Bread” booklet my wonderful friend Doris J. sends me. I was a day or two behind, but as I turned to the biblical passage, the oddest feeling of déjà vu embraced me. The passage was from Hebrews 11, and reads, in part: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. . . .By faith, Abraham, when called to go to a place…obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” In the margins of this passage was my handwriting: “February, 2007—I am going to Jordan.”

I had almost forgotten that I had read that last year at this time, and it kinda called out to me that I had some biblical fax suggesting it was time to give up some familiar, secure surroundings to go somewhere new and make some new memories. I had underlined the words, and as I looked at the force of those year-old underlinings, I remembered the force of my conviction to try out this new place. Wow. It all came back to me in a torrent of memories.

So here I am—I am sitting in my Corky’s BBQ t-shirt (Corky’s is a legendary BBQ joint in Memphis where Anne and I have had more than one rib-stickin’, finger-lickin’, sauce-splashin’ meals, most notably at the beginning and end of our gratifying Civil Rights-learnin’ trips to Mississippi in 2000) awaiting the Oscars. I will be watching the telecast tonight, live, albeit in the middle of the night here, with two friends that I cannot believe I might have missed if I had not been so moved by that passage in Hebrews. Hopefully the phones will work tonight so I can call my legendary friend Mary and squawk about the Oscar show as we have done for 20 years).

KA friends Elizabeth and Rehema and I will be watching, talking, eating, and wondering why we stayed up all night to see some show! A care package just arrived the other day from the sister-of-sisters, Elizabeth, and I may make some pudding from her treasure trove for the occasion. Maybe I will even keep the pudding box so I can pull it out of some odd place years from now “whenever we remember.”

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bragging Rights

Spoiler Alert: I do a little bit of bragging in this blog entry, and if that may be eyeroll-inducing for you, I suggest you come back another day. Don’t worry, as a teacher, I am pretty sure a frustrating, or humbling drubbing is due any hour now.

Anyway, this last week there was a special luncheon here at KA to celebrate those students who, in our first six months of operation, had accrued zero MOPs. What is a MOP, you may ask? It is a clever acronym for Missed Obligation Points—a demerit system that is so all-purpose it is awe-inspiring. If you think about it, almost anything in a school setting is an obligation—from dress code, to punctuality, to respectful attitudes on the playing fields to behavior in the dining hall, or attentive work on homework—the mind reels from the many obligations one faces in a school.

In the beginning of the year as our Dean of Student Life announced her canny system, she stated that all the students who earned zero MOPs would enjoy a special dinner at some time. Back in the days of “Scratch,” one seriously wondered if there might be any student who could sustain the clean slate of MOPs. Some teachers handed them out like droll criticisms, hewing closely to those models of drill sergeants.

About a month ago, a student asked the Dean when this special dinner would take place (he obviously had not forgotten her pledge for a special meal!)—and the Dean decided February 18 would be the day to celebrate those students (I could use the military expression, “the few, the proud” as well). About two weeks ago the Dean announced in a school meeting the names of those students who would be so honored, and there were 30 names! So in the first six months of school, truly, 30 students out of 108 managed to attain the status of “Zero MOPs.” The Dean also announced that each student would receive an invitation to bestow upon an adult mentor on campus. The invitation read as follows:

Dear Mentor,
You are cordially invited to attend the ZERO MOPS luncheon with me on February 18 at 12:30 p.m. in the side dining room.

The luncheon is in my honor and I would like to share this moment with you, as you have been a teacher, mentor and guide to me in my first semester. I have chosen you to attend the luncheon with me because you have believed in me, helped me to be a better student and challenged me in many positive ways.

This is a small way for me to acknowledge your impact on my life and to thank you for supporting me as I find my way here at KA. Thank you,

I got invited to the luncheon! In fact, I received seven of these invitations from among the students who had remained MOP-less. It may sound silly, but it was very meaningful over the next couple days, as these students signed his/her name to this invitation and offered it to me in various stages of earnestness and giggles. Let me tell you about these seven students who kindly chose me as their luncheon partner:

Adel—Before the certificates had all been given out, Adel came over and said, “You will probably get a lot of these but I want to be the first one to invite you.” Adel is a special guy—he looks like a mini-businessman at 15, and lives on my floor as well as enlivens my classroom. Adel is among the most courteous young people you will meet—a dozen times a day offering salutations and smiles, and making sure I don’t need any more Pepsi or snacks. On his desk in his dorm room is a great photo of him with His Majesty, taken last year when the King came to a luncheon to greet the newly admitted students. Adel has a proud, honest air about him, and while he would never disobey a rule, if the dorm hall is being communally punished for filth or something, he is always the first to jump in and start cleaning. A team player and a soulful young man.

Rashed—Somewhere in the last month or so he must have seen a movie with an African-American church choir in it, because he has taken to shouting “Amen” every time he is happy. I’ll see him in the dorm hallway and he will bellow, “Class was great today, Mr. John! Amen, Mr. John!” When I read his homework assignments he wants to help my over-40 eyes, and he will capitalize and underline the points or facts he is most proud of. He has a smile and zest for learning that make him utterly delightful.

Farah—If you remember the blog entry just after my birthday, I mentioned a student who worried I might be a little homesick on my first birthday in Jordan, and so she wrote me a comforting and thoughtful card. I don’t think a week has gone by where she hasn’t thanked me for coming to Jordan—she said, “I needed to learn to think. It is hard, but worth it.” She knows all the names of my family members in the US and asks about them often.

Jude—This enthusiastic dynamo is from Cyprus, and has endeared herself to everyone in these first few months. When schedules got shifted around a month or so ago, I almost lost her to another history teacher, and I realized how attached I am to this kind soul.

Ghaida—When I watch her in class, she practically quivers with excitement! Just this morning we were working on an essay, and she wanted to find the right noun to express what she wanted to say. We looked in the dictionary, we tried out several words, and she didn’t rest until she felt satisfied. Then she said, “I’m not sure if that is right yet. I’m going to do what you said the other day—I am going to ruminate about it!”

Thaer—Here is a young man who just a few months ago fretted about every single grade (or mark, as they call them) that graced a quiz, homework, or test. Finally we had a heart-to-heart, and I told him he was “banned” from asking about grades for two months. He could ask me how I thought his learning was going, but no talk about grades allowed. He complied, and his work sharpened, his grades rose, and last week when I showed him his ‘A’ semester grade (in a private meeting) his eyes welled with tears. I guess his learning is going okay!

Hamzah—This is the young man whose skills and virtues I extolled in a blog entry in November. He is more full of wonder about learning that anybody ought to be allowed to be. The joy in his eyes as we discuss a Renaissance painting, or as he understands a document is not to be overstated.

These seven invited me—we had our own table at the luncheon on Monday. Our table enjoyed the status of being one group together as we enjoyed a hearty Lebanese Mixed Grill. I hoped that they did not feel cheated—simply because everyone else was one teacher and one student, and here I was with a grand showcase of wondrous youth.

A week or so ago the Dean came to me and said, “Okay, since the most students asked you to the luncheon, I guess you get to be the one to make a speech!” Maybe she thought it was a pseudo-punishment, but I am Mary Martha’s son after all! I agreed, and hoped to express my appreciation at these stunning students.

One of the things I learned from my mother about giving speeches—work hard on the writing of it, go over it and polish it, and then deliver it from the heart, as if it is extemporaneous. She perfected that skill. I just try to follow in those footsteps.

Here is what I delivered at our luncheon:

I am sure I speak for all of the adults in the room, when I say we are honored to be among you today. We are honored not just because you have accrued zero mops—it is what that “zero mops” means to us that is so striking.

By earning no mops, you made choices. You chose to be punctual, you chose to be respectful and kind, you chose to set the kinds of goals we imagined our students might set.

And that is not an accident—you did not simply happen to earn zero mops—you made the kind of courageous choices that define you as students with integrity.

This week in my history class we are studying what it meant to be regarded a “well-educated man” circa 1300 in China, in Timbuktu, and in France. In each of the schools and academies we looked at, there were rules. Their rules bear an intriguing parallel to our rules at King’s Academy—they had their student handbooks, and we have ours. One of the teachers in China wrote that student rules were designed to develop patterns of behavior that would contribute to students’ future success. A teacher in France developed the word ‘integrity’ in an essay, so that he could explain what he hoped to cultivate in his students. The word integrity, as he explained it meant, “wholeness, soundness, perfection.” Each of these teachers had high hopes for what their students might achieve.

You bought into those same hopes here at King’s Academy. Like those schools in the past, we believe that school is not just a place to pass a test, but to practice making choices.

In my opinion, this integrity, this good character, is even more important than scholastic achievement, in that some of those academic skills and potentials may be innate, but good character represents the kinds of courageous choices you have made, and the kinds of goals you have set for yourselves.

In these historic first six months at King’s Academy, you have set a cornerstone for your future successes and we are honored to know you.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

‘Ripe Potential’ Gets a Holiday

The other night my friends John and Suzanne (this deeply committed and wonderful English-teaching couple on sabbatical from Deerfield Academy) came into my apartment to discuss some boy’s-dorm-behavioral issues, and they looked at the empty walls of my apartment, and said, “You know John, this is your home now. There is such potential here to make it nice.” I agreed. I sighed—the only really homey thing about my apartment is the dozens of refrigerator magnets I had lugged the thousands of miles from the United States. Don’t get me wrong—I love these magnets—my eclectic 3-D scrapbook of the last 12 years of my life with photo-magnets of Emma and Jack, play casts, souvenirs from jet-setting friends, and examples of my treasured friend Anne’s penchant for buying a magnet from every gift shoppe we encounter on our travels. John and Suzanne’s apartment, maybe 200 yards from mine, looks like a potential-photo shoot for “Middle East At Home Digest” (I don’t believe such a periodical exists actually) with their rich rugs and handsome chairs and commanding chests and Bedouin knick-knacks adorning their generic-disguised dorm apartment. They have obviously taken delight and care in outfitting their apartment with the most sumptuous accessories of our region. “We need to take you to see our friend Mr. Ziad and start you buying some carpets,” suggested Suzanne.

But life here, of course, is not all adventure travels and shopping sprees. Perhaps as in any workplace, the road to work is studded with disappointments. In schools, the disappointments tend to revolve around the investments you make in a young person and their inability, or recalcitrance to make what we deem a good return on that investment of hope and energy.

One of the ground rules I laid down for myself when I started the blog last July was that I didn’t intend for this to be a forum in which I would just vent all my frustrations. As Judy Enszer, the doyenne of Frisco, Texas society, said to me, this blog should be about impressions, and trying to get down feelings and perceptions as they happen. I never want to write unflattering things about colleagues or experiences here in this oh-so-public forum, but there is certainly cause to discuss the ups and downs of teaching.

There is a student here who has frustrated adults since the week of orientation in August. Her first comment to me was, “By the way, I know how to get alcohol in Aqaba [a seaside resort on the Red Sea].” On most every day, her rudeness is galling, her irresponsibility stunning, but all fall faculty and administrators kept hoping that she would make that proverbial turn around. If she did, wouldn’t we just feel so validated and wonderful! Well, here it is February, and those hopes are fading. On a recent day, as my class intensely analyzed Crusader-era documents from Muslims about Christians, and Christians about Muslims, this young scholar blurted out, “Hey, Mr. John—do you like pink?” That was a mild distraction compared to others.

In fact in this last week I sat at lunch with colleagues, and one young teacher sat there so defeated by this child’s cunning ability to hi-jack a class right from under her. Another teacher, a veteran of truly inspiring magnitude, fumed all through lunch at the incessant rudeness of this child. I walked the younger teacher outside into the winter sun, and she started to cry. Never let us forget the power these children have over our lives—they can move us to tears of joy, as when Hamzah or Thaer succeed against the odds, or when Farah or Maya show us kindness, or others move us to tears of frustration, or humiliation or rage.

The following morning, as I walked to breakfast, this same young student came up the steps at the same time. She saw the water on the pavement, and asked, “Is this water from the watering of the grass they do? That makes me so mad! I can’t think of a bigger waste than watering this dead grass. It’s the biggest waste,” she fumed. As if a writer from heaven sent me the line, I retorted, “what about the waste of potential???!” She shot me a look. I think she got the point.

So here we are on Valentine’s Day. I feel some compulsion to write something about Valentine’s Day—oh, this morning at the school morning meeting, this Kurdish student stood up and wished everyone a “Happy Commercialized Love Day.” You can imagine his personality, probably, based on that public announcement. While I enjoy some of the day as a chance to send cards to people whose love has most touched me, I certainly feel rather ill-equipped as an unmarried seldom-dater to extol the virtues of this Hallmark-soaked day. I remember once asking my father who his role-models had been for long-term marriage, and long-term love. He remarked that he didn’t actually know many long-term love matches, most of the decades-long marriages he had seen seemed more like survivor matches.

So what do we do about Valentine’s Day—what kind of holiday is it? Of course it is about love—but how do ever pierce what the emotion contains? I looked back at the loves I have most enjoyed, both personal and professional. I looked at my parent’s courtship and marriage (I don’t think the courtship ever really ended if you knew them at all) and realized that it comes down to the concept of potential—that possibility of a long-term commitment, a realization of becoming something. I know, I know—hard to get more abstract than that, huh? Let me work on a couple ideas I have about this.

By the way, in the last few weeks I have discovered the joy of, as a fun place to see what lexicographers say about words. I looked up the words for “potential,” and then “ripe.” Here is a portion of what they provided me with:

possible, as opposed to actual: the potential uses of nuclear energy.

capable of being or becoming: a potential danger to safety.

Grammar. expressing possibility: the potential subjunctive in Latin; the potential use of can in I can go.


possibility; potentiality: an investment that has little growth potential.

a latent excellence or ability that may or may not be developed.

a potential aspect, mood, construction, case, etc.

a form in the potential.

electric potential

Mathematics, Physics. a type of function from which the intensity of a field may be derived, usually by differentiation.

someone or something that is considered a worthwhile possibility: The list of job applications has been narrowed to half a dozen potentials.
1. Capable of being but not yet in existence; latent: a potential problem.
2. Having possibility, capability, or power.
3. Grammar Of, relating to, or being a verbal construction with auxiliaries such as may or can; for example, it may snow.
1. The inherent ability or capacity for growth, development, or coming into being.
2. Something possessing the capacity for growth or development.
3. Grammar A potential verb form.
4. Physics The work required to move a unit of positive charge, a magnetic pole, or an amount of mass from a reference point to a designated point in a static electric, magnetic, or gravitational field; potential energy.

having arrived at such a stage of growth or development as to be ready for reaping, gathering, eating, or use, as grain or fruit; completely matured.

resembling such fruit, as in ruddiness and fullness: ripe, red lips.

advanced to the point of being in the best condition for use, as cheese or beer.

fully grown or developed, as animals when ready to be killed and used for food.

arrived at the highest or a high point of development or excellence; mature.

of mature judgment or knowledge: ripe scholars; a ripe mind.

characterized by full development of body or mind: of ripe years.

(of time) advanced: a ripe old age.

(of ideas, plans, etc.) ready for action, execution, etc.

(of people) fully prepared or ready to do or undergo something: He was ripe for a change in jobs.

fully or sufficiently advanced; ready enough; auspicious: The time is ripe for a new foreign policy

These have some interesting possibilities for better understanding Valentine’s Day…

It looks like a tangent, but…

As I have surveyed world history texts this last year, it is interesting to note how editors sum up (or other verbs might be, reduce or dumb down) what Christianity is about, and what is at the heart of Christian behavior. Since Christianity has permeated my life since birth, it is always intriguing to see how they bring it all together in a scant few pages of prose. In these books, they seek to sum up the ideologies explored throughout world history in under 800 pages. That is a tall order. So they need to be clever as to how they sum up complicated ideas. In many of the books I have perused, the message of Christianity comes down to the stirring call as found in what has been called, the Sermon on the Mount, in the book of Matthew.

As what looks like another tangent, Martin Luther King, Jr. owes much of his reputation to that biblical Sermon on the Mount. On November 17, 1957, in Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King concluded his sermon with this: “So this morning as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all my brothers in Alabama and all over America and all over the world, I say to you: ‘I love you.’ I would rather die than hate you.’”

Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all, radical thing a human being can say. What a Valentine’s Day message! And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all, radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” What a call for love. What an audacious proposal. In this age of seemingly mutually assured destruction, there is indeed ripe potential for reconciliation here, and in my new home in the Middle East, watching my students enjoy a Valentine’s Day Square Dance, it makes a lot of sense. provides one with about 30 languages versions of “potential”—quite a lovely thought that so many societies harbor such hopes for possibilities. Here is the Arabic for this powerful word: مُمْكِن، مُحْتَمَل، كامِن

Go ahead—seize the day. Make a holiday of something ripe.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Essay Has Landed, Part II

I am quite sure that my last blog entry created international suspense—how close to the edges of your collective seats you must be—what were the results of these first major essays by the young historians at KA???

While it is not quite the anticipation that the Academy Awards generates every year—I was very excited to see how my English-as-a-second-language writers would handle the assignment of compare/contrast attitudes toward women over 2000 years. After our intense discussions in class, I hoped their interest, their insight—dare I say it—their enthusiasm, might translate to the written page. Could their bubbling in class amount to more than a page of prose? We had never gone beyond a single page of writing. I had suggested that this essay could not be tackled in under three pages.

Very few whines at that pronouncement!

Would they remember to use the documents? I had sternly said, “If you fail to use the documents, to quote from the documents, it would certainly amount to a failure of an essay, right?” I went around the room and each student nodded in a follow-the-leader agreement.

No frantic calls over the weekend.

No harried emails of the “Mr.-John-what-are-you-talking-about” variety.

Instead—smiles and satisfied looks greeted me as I collected the papers from them on that Sunday a month ago. One student, the lovely Maya, said as she turned in her work: “I know you have high standards and I hope my work is up to the standards you want from us.”

Okay—let’s get the most depressing news out of the way first. Two students did not write the paper. Not that weekend. Not ever. Three students did not heed the warning about the absence of quotations: their papers were easy to grade since I had given my word that a quotation-free essay would earn a failing grade.

Let’s bask in a success. There is a student who had never quite gotten the hang of homework or quizzes or tests or taking notes or journal entries or absorbing material…you see the landscape, don’t you? Well, this young woman, who normally feared most assignments, smiled broadly as she submitted her paper, and revealed, “I really worked on this, and I think it rocks.” I hoped it might rock…and on page 1 I read this sentence she wrote: “Men thought they were superior, but in the eyes of the ancient world, there was not thought at all of women gaining something like rights…not only does the husband have the right to misconduct his wife, but gives her no agency whatsoever.” Did this student use the word agency? In such a sophisticated way?? Later that week I went over that paper with her and we looked at how strong her thoughts were, and she explained how she used “agency” and why she did (!) and yes, while she is test-phobic, sitting at home, mulling over her thoughts, she acquitted herself quite well in this first essay.

Here are some of the sentences that leapt off the page, exciting me as I graded in the next week:
1. “The role of woman was not only lower class but they were thought of as objects to be controlled.”

2. “These gradual changes were not only affected by time, but also by religion, politics, ideology, and mentality.”

3. “The bad treatment of women came from laws, and the laws came from the gods; these were guidelines to treat women as objects. No one would disobey their god.”

4. “The laws didn’t really see marriage as a relationship.”

5. “Women between 1792 BCE and 242 CE got the most unusual, savage treatment—from dolls in men’s hands to guilt on their lands.”

6. One writer used the word odious in describing the laws about the treatment of women.

7. One writer asked, “what then, in a society, does promote change?”

8. One writer characterized the Roman historian Plutarch as a “calm, sincere, a poetic historian.”

9. “We can conclude and know that women faced many ways of oppression and faced many obstacles during their history. But striving for dignity and seeking excellence is what made them an easy goal to achieve from a woman’s eyes.”

Four writers had no dates used at all in the entire essay. So there was no sense of time, or change of time throughout the entire essay. Hmmm…One writer, I guess a little lazy to look at the documents, persisted in referring to anything historical as, “Now back in the day…” ARGH!

In spite of our dramatic Thesis Statement Beauty Pageant, several students still thought these counted as viable thesis statements (a.k.a. arguments):
1. “In my essay I am going to use all the documents to prove my thesis except Document 4.”

2. “There were many changes over the attitudes toward women.”

3. “We were given 5 wonderful documents to read compare and contrast.”

4. “Documents 1-5 help support my thesis, so I will be using them to do so.”

5. “The common thing of the documents is that they discuss attitudes toward women in the past.”

6. “Here is my thesis—women weren’t treated equally!”

Then here were some of the howlers that I encountered:
1. “I just want to end my essay with 3 words: God bless women!”

2. “The female race is supposed to please, satisfy and serve the man.”

3. “In this document they practically have the same rights as today, and that’s what I call an improvement!”

4. “Can you please tell me where is the justice in this document?”

5. “Long ago men were the controllers of any and every civilization except women.”

6. “While reading my essay, please keep women’s mistreatment in mind.”

Here are a few moments that qualify as Lost In Translation moments perhaps:
1. “She wanted to gain the trust of men and world slowly until it was normal for men and women to be equal.”

2. “Each document give say what they mean for a reason.”

3. “It is wrong to divorce a woman for unlikeness, the document didn’t even mention if she is guilty or not.”

4. “Attitudes always play a major role in our life and that’s because attitudes are everything and all documents discuss this indirectly the first document definitely shows the fights and the problems.”

5. “However, now things has changed!”

While I did not make eloquence a graded criterion, I admired these writers, reaching for a sense of poetry:
1. “As times went by, rules fluctuated between harsh terms and not so harsh ones.”

2. “Inequality fills the earth.”

3. “Woman make everyday life beautiful. Their beauty and intelligence has never been changed over the years. They have only made the world a better place. Men, however, have been like directors assigning women to specific roles in their household.”

On one of the days we dissected the documents, a cheeky young man said, “Why are we doing all this talking about women’s rights anyway? All women should be just wives and mothers.” If this were a scene from a Norman Lear-1970s-sitcom, some character would have told that “male chauvinist pig” to shut up. Interestingly, no other boy joined in the carousing that this student expected from his comment. As several female students fumed, I simply commented, “And I guess if I said all Arabs are terrorists—that’s okay to perpetuate that stereotype too, right?” My friend got the point.

All in all—I count their essays a great success. They had labored (well, all but those lazy two!) at all the elements of essay-writing you hope a student will encounter and explore. They had worked to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, connect, and reflect. They had left the point of summary behind, never again settling for a mindless re-hashing of the topic.

I think we are reaching for a new plateau. Any ideas what to call this “brave, new world”??

We started in Scratch. We spent time in Itch. What is this next phase? Stephanie, any bright ideas, my dear?

Next week we will embark on our next essay. There is optimism abounding, and if I may quote former Vice-President Dan Quayle, “The future will be better tomorrow.”

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Essay Has Landed!

When we returned to the land of Itch in January, heading into semester exams, my main goal with my students was to finally attack and conquer a real essay. Last fall, when we dwelt in the land of Scratch, I did assign an essay topic; but after several days, I abandoned that worthy goal and cancelled the essay. I had a hunch they might have turned out to be disastrous.

I adjusted my sights and made my goals clear for the first half of the year: I wanted my young scholars to think well and speak well. I would save the “…and write well,” for later, as soon as we accomplished those first two goals.

Writing an essay is not a simple task, yet I love teaching and nurturing how to craft an effective essay. Oh my—I mean it is never as simple as the lame 8th grade English teacher at Gamble Jr. High who said, “Now boys and girls it is all about form—an essay must be a 5 paragraph theme.” Of course, it should also never be as fear-inducing as a certain Western Hills High School English teacher who warned: “Now boys and girls—later this year we will write a 500-word essay!” As if the apocalyptic specter of that awful prospect should make us quake, or run away and join the circus or something!

One of the reasons I got my job at Charlotte Latin School in 1990—big gulp at the acknowledgement of the swift passage of time—was that I staked my claim at being a commanding History teacher with the phrase in the cover letter, “I make it my business to create effective writers with my historians.” (I was told this was a reason for my hire by the department head, so I am not just tooting my own horn. And for the record, another of the reasons I got my job at Charlotte Latin School in 1990—no grey hair then I assure you—was that I had a degree from an ivy league school. I was told that by the upper school head, so I am not just tooting my own horn.)

When exactly do we learn how to write effective essays? It is fun thinking about that historical journey. When I was in the 2nd grade, home for several months in the body cast after the car accident, my mother made sure I wrote stories often. Do those count? And in Miss Wilson’s class in the 5th grade, she had us write many expository essays. Were the essays in Jeannie Michaels’ AP history classes the gems I thought at the time? I remember that I got a 100 on an essay freshman year at Denison, but then I soon had a professor berating me about my enervating use of the passive voice in my writing. By the time I was at Brown and Columbia—well, I was certainly speedier at writing essays, but it is hard to say when they started being effective.

So—the goal was set. I came up with a good topic. Writing an effective essay is like being an actor in search of a great scene in which you can practice emotion. You need a great topic. I rounded up five documents, and gave the students the documents, and then on the proverbial silver platter, handed them the topic:

Using all of the documents, or all but one of the documents, compare and contrast the attitudes toward women as found in various cultures from about 1800 BCE until about 300 CE. Are there indications of change over time?

I had set aside almost an entire week for us to digest the topic and work through 9 steps until we reached the nirvana of an effective essay. We hashed out, for nearly one whole class the following four questions: What do the directions say? What do the directions mean? Based on the question, what do you know the documents are about? What are you being asked to do?

By that time, everybody had a good sense as to what the assignment was. We stole a quick look at the five documents: an excerpt from the Babylonian law code of Hammurabi, a few verses from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, an excerpt from the Hindu sacred text, Rig Vedas, an advice book by a woman (!) from Han dynasty China, and a passage from Plutarch’s Lives from Rome. We made a timeline of when the documents originated. By the time they went home that day, they had memorized the topic, and knew what they should look for. I told them to come in the following day having worked those documents. Notice I did not say “having read the documents.” Reading is too passive! They needed to summarize and break apart those documents! Could they do what I was asking??

The following day was one of the top 5 days of academic pursuits in my world history classes at KA. These students came to class focused and fired up about these ancient attitudes toward women. “This sounds like they are no more than slaves!” “I think it is worse—women are no more than objects!” Students played with the semantics of the documents in ways I had not seen them do before. In the Law Code document it was mentioned that judges would decide if a woman was guilty or not in a divorce suit, and a student wondered, “Yeah, but are the judges fair to women?” In our 45-minute discussion of the 5 documents one students’ eyes got big, and she said, “You know what—people were afraid not to follow these rules, because three of the five documents are said to come from the gods! You had to follow these rules! They are sacred.” While it was exciting for them to note that the author of the Chinese document was a woman, a student pondered, “But she is saying that for a marriage to work, the woman must recognize her inferiority—do you think she had to say that? Do you think the emperor made her say that?”

On the third day we built a framework:

Similarities in attitudes toward women

Differences in attitudes toward women

We filled up the white board with our similarities and differences.

Now came the hard part. We had to think a little more. We had to move from breaking down the sources to evaluating the sources and pondering: Have there been any changes in attitudes toward women in the 2000 years of the documents? What are the changes? How do we define, or explain the changes?

Before we moved to the hard part of writing up this whole essay, I wanted to isolate that very important and very elusive element of essay writing: crafting a thesis statement. Thesis statements can be a thing of beauty, or they can be the stupidest rehash of the topic. It always made sense to me to explain that a thesis statement is an argument, not an announcement. Case in point: the trumpet sounds and the mediocre writer types: “There were similarities and differences in attitudes toward women over time.” I hopped and skipped around class explaining the difference between an argument and an announcement (an argument boasts a how and/or a why!!!!) so we might avoid such banalities.

In order for us to understand this better, we devoted the next day to a Thesis Statement Beauty Pageant. Each student had to write a thesis statement in 50 words or less, and email it to me that night. The following day I had collated all the t. statements and cut and pasted them on a sheet. We then had a swim suit and an evening gown competition. Yes, I know it sounds silly, but it works! It’s funny, eccentric, and then we read, digest, evaluate and judge the entries. It is anonymous and we all read all the entries so as to get a sense as to what a thesis statement looks like, and which ones are beautiful. When we had narrowed the contestants down to three, we had a final judging, and then I crowned the winner of the Thesis Statement Beauty Pageant!

The pageant went well, and they chose strong thesis statements. Okay…they had the weekend to put our week’s work into an effective essay. Could they do it? I gave them a rubric so as to help them see how I would grade their work. I knew that at this early stage it would be foolish and unwise to put much weight on grammar and eloquence. My young scholars were just learning to write more than a paragraph in English—the poetry part of effectiveness can wait. Here is my rubric:

Grading Rubric—I will grade you one point for each of the following
Did you use all, or all but one of the documents? 1 point
Did you write a thesis? 1 point
Have you supported your thesis with specific quotations? 1 point
Do you understand the documents well? 1 point
Have you analyzed for bias or point of view? 1 point
Have you synthesized the documents in groups? 1 point
Have you compared documents instead of merely listing? 1 point
Have you written a conclusion, reflected, and thought
about change over time? 1 point

Just to add a little suspense…I will write an entry in a day or so with examples from their work and we can then judge how my historians did…

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Stars That Dazzle

Today in my World History class we read a thrilling eyewitness account of an alarming vision that greeted Parisians on a summer’s eve back in August, 1348. As worshippers left evening vespers, Jean de Venette, a young French friar, wrote of the dazzling celestial visitor splashing across the sky: “to our amazement this big star broke into many different rays, and exploded, totally annihilated….Is this a prelude of disaster?” Our French friar (of course, there is a not-so-subtle pun here) spoke of his awe at this sign, and wondered if from now on, every night more stars might not explode and disappear. He fearfully asked if God was out to punish them in some way. The bubonic plague had already become an unwelcome visitor in France, and de Venette spoke of the despair darkening Paris: “He who was well one day was dead the next and being carried to his grave.”

As my classes imagined what it must have felt like to be overpowered by those intense stars and then stupefied by the black sky on that long ago August night, I heaved a sigh and reflected on some news I had received last night.

Mary Ray Massey, that friend on whom I have lavished praise from time to time in the blog, had called from North Carolina to deliver some alarming news: my wonderful friend Patti Bazzell Freeman had died.

I wrote about Patti in a blog entry just a few weeks ago, recalling the delight at receiving her annual Christmas package and expression of friendship. I wrote: “The mail came, and like December clockwork, there was a package from my treasured friend Patti Bazzell Freeman, with another star for my Christmas tree—same old, same old, and it couldn’t have been better.”

In the early 1990s Patti and I worked together at Charlotte Latin School. This was a work friendship deeper and more profound than most one will ever encounter in a work place.
Patti offered loyalty, honesty, warmth, and a radiant smile. I called her Patti Dazzle! In 1995-96, one of the most challenging years in my career, I started almost every day with a Patti Dazzle morning check-in, hug, and smile. Patti offered the kind of support that elevated your spirits and served as a fount of blessings.

One Christmas she gave me several Christmas tree ornaments—all stars—and said, “You John D (she always called me John D—her husband was named John also) turn our students into stars.” And every year since 1993 I would receive a couple of new star Christmas tree ornaments.

So today it is hard to believe that this dear friend is not among us on earth. Mary did not know much about her death, and the obituary I found on-line from the Charlotte paper did not yield much information, but its words certainly summed up this magnanimous, serene friend:

Patti Bazzell Freeman, of Charlotte, died peacefully on January 31, 2008 surrounded by a circle of love—the love she gave and the love she received. While hers was a textured life (aren't all the good ones like that?), she never failed to recognize the bountiful blessings she had received over the course of her 55 years. She would often say, 'If I should be taken today, I've had more than I deserved, and for that, I am eternally grateful.' And, she was. There will be no formal service or memorials, but if you should want to contribute to a cause close to Patti's heart; try a random and anonymous act of kindness. Just give a smile. Get a smile.

Patti Dazzle and I exchanged emails at New Years’ hoping that I would get a chance to come to Charlotte this year and visit again.

Patti Dazzle, one of my wondrous habibis.

I looked up ”dazzle” in the dictionary this evening and discovered several definitions that filled me with joy:


to dim the vision of by intense light

to impress deeply; astonish with delight

to shine or reflect brilliantly

to excite admiration by brilliance

Did the writers of this dictionary have the occasion to know my friend Patti Dazzle??? From the looks of those definitions, surely they must have made her acquaintance!

A student named Eddie Park, not a particularly loquacious young man usually, offered a dazzling insight back in the spring of 1997 in my Modern European history class that I have never forgotten. Our class was analyzing Vincent van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night. We knew Vincent had painted this fantastic scene in his sanitarium room, and we tried to make sense of its fuzzy brilliance. From out of nowhere Eddie said, “Maybe the scene is what Vincent saw as he looked out into the night through his tears.”

The stars—the tears—Patti Dazzle…

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

“The Only School in the Kingdom”

“The Only School in the Kingdom”

Those words sound sort of like they got cut from a sub-par Disney film, don’t, they? But they were actual words uttered the other day by Dana, the head of all things financial at KA. She rushed up to me last Thursday morning, and burbled, “Habibi! I hear we are the Only School in the Kingdom in business today!”

A quick aside for a mini-Arabic lesson: Habibi—now that’s a great Arabic word. It means a little like, “my dear,” or “sweetie” and is used between good friends, chums, mates, both male and female.

She and I call each other Habibi regularly, so the really interesting part of her sentence is that we were (pause for dramatic effect) the Only School in the Kingdom open last Thursday! Why was everyone else closed, and why was KA open, you may ask…

It snowed in Jordan!

Those are words that six months ago I never ever thought I would get to type into the blog!

Last Monday the weather reports revealed something other than, “in the Jordan Valley today there will be a cloudless, blue sky” and reported that a major snow storm was approaching.

The Northeasterner in me just smiled. Oh sure. A Major snow storm? A smug chuckle—yeah…

So last Wednesday when none of the faculty who drive in everyday from Amman showed up (of course, neither did the day students from Amman) I attributed it to the “Gastonia Winter Effect,” as I think of it. Gastonia, North Carolina is where I started my teaching career, at Gaston Day School, making lifelong friends in this wonderful town with native Gastonians like Cookie and Mary Ray. Well, every winter a storm might blow through, and lo and behold, every Gastonian looked heavenward at those bleak skies, the skies they call the, “Uh-oh—bread and milk skies!!” and faster than you can say, “Free BBQ!” every person in the county rushes to Harris-Teeter to get enough bread and milk to tide them over until…I don’t know, from the looks of their carts, until kingdom come!

Anyway, I digress as I look back fondly on winters in Gastonia in the late 1980s.

So the on-campus residents taught classes all day, wondering what was going on in Amman, just a 30 minute drive away. We had had some rain, and some wind, but hardly what anyone would call a “major storm.” Of course the boarders resented those who happened to live off-campus…

Randa, one of the Jordanians who reached out to faculty instantly last August, called me to check on us, and said, “John—the storm! You wouldn’t believe it! There must be 30 centimeters of snow out there!” A quick aside: even though Ohio public schools tried valiantly, albeit briefly, in the 1970s to teach the metric system, I have very little understanding of what that measurement really meant. But Randa claimed there was scads of snow. “It is so dangerous out there driving no one dared to go outside. It is awful!” She said she would send me pictures from her phone so I could see the snow. I assured her that I believed her. “And the storm isn’t finished—there may be another 200 centimeters coming!”

Our stalwart headmaster announced to us that no matter what happened, there would be classes on Thursday, and KA would go about a normal day. Many of us just scratched our heads—it was just some rain and wind—is this a major storm?????

That night Tessa and I decided to make grilled cheese sandwiches for all the boys so there was something fun about staying on campus as day students rollicked away in Amman. About an hour before we planned to start, there were squeals in the hallway. Boys stared outside and saw snow cascading down out of the sky. Snow! Like real snow. Like the people in Boston and New York and Cincinnati know—those fat flakes that happily dance out of the sky. Then the power went out.

After about an hour of no power (ummm…maybe this is when we remind the physical plant staff that it would be wise to install emergency generators!) the lights and heat returned—just in time to make grilled cheese for all the boy boarders! During this whirlwind assembly line process of slapping cheese on a bread, generously slathering the butter on bread, grilling, and piling, there was something I am not sure if I have ever experienced—thunder and lightning claps during the snowflake dance! During one of the mighty thunderous roars, the power zapped off—right in mid-flip for me with a grilled cheese. The power returned with enough time to hand out our magnificent grilled cheese. Then the power left again…

Our power would be out for the next 18 hours, our heat would be off for about 24 hours, internet connection down for about 24 hours, and phone service out for about 5 days.

In the middle of this—no power, no heat, no landline phone service, no internet is when Dana breathlessly informed me that all schools, all businesses, had been shut down in Jordan.
Habibi! I hear we are the Only School in the Kingdom in business today!” I wonder if Dana joined the group in front of the administration pounding together a Snow Bedouin (complete with red and white hatta—you wouldn’t have gotten it confused with, say, a Snow Brahmin in Boston or anything!)!

And while you might find it hard to believe—about two feet of snow did indeed drop onto Amman. I know—I saw it! After Thursday’s classes (with no Amman representation), a van driver took us into town—we were told there might not be food for a day or so. They were cooking on gas grills, and during lunch in the igloo-like dining hall, someone cracked, “this is like being in a refugee camp.” Another colleague wryly retorted, “and that is different from other days…how?”

Driving to Amman we saw why no one had ventured forth to KA: cars sliding off the road right and left, drifts of snow on the sides of roads, and almost everywhere, adult Jordanians having snowball fights. I don’t think I have ever since my Jordanian compatriots so playful.

I asked why they didn’t salt the roads—the driver said they have no machinery for that. I offered, “But with all the salt in the Dead Sea, it’s a shame not to make use of that natural resource!”

People were using planks of wood to shovel out of their little mountains of snow, and people were up on rooftops trying desperately to recover the tops of TV satellite dishes so they might watch television.

As we drove back to KA, we heard a number of sirens, and while we were creeping back on the King’s Highway, we saw a mash of emergency vehicles stop by this one car. As we surveyed the number of important cars we concluded someone must be stuck under the car. Whoa. But then as we saw this story play out, all those emergency professionals merely were digging one very nice BMW out from the snow drifts. Nothing more, nothing less. One of my friends said, whoever that BMW owner is, “now they have some serious wasta.” Lucky you—time for more Arabic class! Wasta is that word that means “connections.” Hmmmm…

Two days later, the roads were still a mess in Amman. I never did get to church on Saturday. What is normally about a 40 minute drive from KA became a snarled mess since the secondary roads were all closed in Amman, and everyone crammed onto the primary roads. After about 90 minutes of trying to get to church, I decided it was better just to have the cab go back to our newly restored internet/power/heat.

Shortly after that I had a text on my cell phone (mobile phone in Brit Speak here in the Arab world) from my good friend, Sam, a KA driver. Sam had texted me a poem he made up:

Snow is cold like a frozen ice cube,
Its crystal like a diamond,
Snow means angels in heaven
Are having a great time in a pillow fight.
Snow is a sweet friend like U

Now that’s a nice habibi.