Saturday, May 31, 2008

“You know you’re gonna be in water…”

If you were to look in my weekly planner, there are only two entries for yesterday, and neither look especially noteworthy at first glance: “Hike”—and “Dinner.”

The other day, the boy who figured prominently in my last blog entry, the boy who joined me for lunch during his weekend of punishment last Saturday, the boy with whom I subsequently bonded, came up to me and said, “I am trying to plan a hike for Friday and Miss Wendy said I need five adults to come along. Would you be willing to come along?”

“What kind of hike?” I asked. “You know, it’ll be cool and I need five adults.”

Even though outdoorsy adventures are not really my thing, I obliged. If this guy was planning something positive and productive I needed to join the group. When I mentioned to another colleague that I had agreed to go on a hike through Wadi Mujib, she kind of smiled and said, “You know you’re gonna be in water the whole time on this hike!” Sigh. Such a warning raises two of my greatest fears in doing outdoor challenges: (1) in rushing water I know I will lose my glasses and (2) in rushing water I know I will slam my head against a boulder and dramatically perish. However, I promised the young repentant that I would accompany him on this trek.

Yesterday morning 32 of us set out on our journey. It is through neighboring Madaba, past Mount Nebo, down down down the hairpin curves that lead to the Dead Sea, past the resorts, and about 15 minutes later we arrive at the entrance to Wadi Mujib.

One of Jordan’s most spectacular natural features is this immense Wadi Mujib (a wadi is Arabic for valley, and what we have here is part of the great Rift Valley, that vast earthquake-crack gash in the earth that extends from Jordan down to Kenya. Jordan is just lousy with wadis!). Wadi Mujib has been dubbed, with a canny eye on tourist dollars no doubt, as “Jordan’s Grand Canyon.” The moniker is well-earned however—it delivers awe-inspiring views like its Arizonan cousin. Of course, there is also that added bonus that many things Jordanian appear in the Bible: I learned that this area was known as the ‘Arnon’ in the Book of Numbers.

So yesterday your very own ‘Jordan Johnny’ tackled this adventure hike down the Mujib river. “Welcome to the Lowest Adventure on Earth!” is the sign that greets you as you park in the lot by the entrance to the Royal Society for the Conservancy of Nature center to begin this challenge from the lip of the Dead Sea—the famed Lowest Point on Earth. As we left the Visitor Center, heading toward the gorge and the river, I read some of the wall texts introducing one to this area. I noticed one of the observations was from Jacob Burckhardt, a famed 19th century German historian I had studied in college. He said of the Wadi Mujib in 1812:
The view which the Mujib presents is very striking; from the bottom where the runs through a narrow strip of verdant level about 40 yards across, the steep barren banks rise to a great height, covered with immense blocks of stone, which have rolled down from the upper strata, so that when viewed from above, the valley looks like a deep chasm formed by some tremendous convulsion of the earth, into which there seems no possibility of descending to the bottom.

So we head down a ladder and immediately one finds oneself in the water. 95% of this hike is in water knee-deep, and at other times, chest-high waters. I think the best way to describe the hike is that you are white-water rafting and you forgot the raft. Cascades and boulders are at every turn. The last 1500 meters of the journey (see how I am trying to convert to that blasted metric system!!) passes through the Mujib Siq, an ominous, narrow cleft through which the river runs over a 20 meter waterfall. This unique canyoning adventure involves swimming and balance and climbing over rocks and waterfalls—you know, standard fare for me on a Friday. This wild and majestic valley probably is at its peak in April when the wildflowers bloom in Jordan—I will have to remember that next year, but the cliffs of limestone with their ancient sharp swirls still intrigue. Since the chasm is often just about 20 feet wide (who am I kidding with the Metric System!) and the 300 foot walls are so steep that they appear to meet, the rushing waters seem to reverberate in this alluvial chamber.

The students are deliriously happy acting like frogmen landing on a fantasy Normandy Beach, and I spy my buddy Hamzah sitting in the middle of a waterfall yelling, “This is amazing.” It is beautiful, there is no denying that, and I enjoy the physicality of the experience. Of course, it is not my first choice for a weekend—I am still the urban prowler, and next week’s weekend trip to Istanbul is still my preference for a great weekend. But as I negotiate these rocks, trying to figure out how to pull myself up over the shelves of rocks, or the tricky clefts of the boulders, or through the water sprays, I like the problem-solving nature of this adventure.

What I try and do in my classroom is just as hard for many of my students as this physical challenge is for me. I am asking them to analyze and evaluate and decide and connect and reflect in ways that are difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, but once they start, they find how exciting it is.

Yesterday as I came down through the Siq back to the entranceway, some of the coming down was harder than going up. I had trouble deciding where to place my feet, worrying about the slickness of the rocks, doubting that I could solve this problem. I needed another adult to hold on to my hand a few times, and once I made this leap, it really was not as treacherous as it had looked. I know! The metaphors of it all!!! What ultimate delight in just gritting ones teeth and doing it one step at a time.

As we came back there was no way around that waterfall and my two biggest fears. I watched everybody else as to how they turned their bodies—no one else slammed into the rocks on the side, and my glasses were held on by those outdoorsy glasses-holders I had bought for a whitewater rafting trip back in 2003 (see how organized I can be—I could locate such a thing yesterday morning!) when my NEH group when on another such outing, however with the rafts.

The 20 foot slide down the rocks through the waterfall was great. If I had not been with 27 other students I might have climbed back up and done the whole thing again!

So like wet dogs we all climb out of the Wadi Mujib and head home—and I had an impressive scrape on my knee to prove the kind of daring I had demonstrated that day!

I had been invited to Friday night dinner at the headmaster’s house earlier in the week and I learned it was to honor the Korean Ambassador to Jordan and his wife. Now, I don’t exactly travel (yet!) in such diplomatic circles where one addresses fellow dinner party guests with “His Excellency,” but their son is coming to KA in the fall. There were two other KA faculty there, and an older couple, a Korean couple that have long been dear friends of the headmaster and his wife.

The conversation was lively, and during the dinner portion of the evening the headmaster asked his longtime friend to share some of his life stories. “As the senior member of the dinner party, I ask that you tell a little about your life,” he said to his friend who had been a noted surgeon for many years. He explained about growing up in what is now North Korea, and how he had left for the United States in the late 1940s, and how after the Korean War, he could not contact his remaining siblings in North Korea. He finally visited with them 40 years later, but their lives had not been as prosperous and happy as his had been. He described what their diet had been like in the 1950s, a kind of pitiful living off the land. At one point he said, “It’s as if they were living underwater, just trying to come up for air.”

He had no idea the kind of metaphors flying around that day!

By the end of the evening, Meera, the headmaster’s wife, had thanked everyone for coming, and said to us, “We are a table of many nationalities tonight. But one of the interesting things about this dinner party is that each of us is far from our original home; each of us has made sacrifices to go somewhere new and start over….Here’s to surfacing above the water.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Strange Things

As teachers look back on any school year towards the end of May, no matter how things went that year, they are tempted to say, as Samuel Johnson said of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, “None ever wished it longer than it is.”

But, I gotta say, we are not just limping toward the finish line here. Yes, I know I get on a plane in 4 weeks back to the United States for the summer, and I am happy about that, but things, strange and wonderful, continue to happen here at KA.

I am enjoying the meteoric rise of student Robert right now. Rob is of Dutch-Arab descent, and has been doing fine all year long. However, in the month of April, homework assignments just didn’t get done from Rob. I tried to cajole the class with brownies (as already noted in a previous blog entry) but Rob's homeworks still remained unfinished. About two weeks ago I spoke to Rob’s advisor, and suggested a parent-teacher-advisor conference. Within 48 hours the conference had happened. It was a delightful meeting. Rob’s mother and I spoke for about an hour, and we discussed grades (Rob had six zeroes on homework assignments—not exactly promising marks) and the pressures of high school, and also how much I valued her son in my class. Before the conference I had asked for a ride after the conference into Amman with her (and Rob too, after sports practice). That could have been awkward, I suppose, if the meeting had gone poorly, but it was a wonderful chance to continue our conversation and let Rob know how much we both cared, and what is at stake, about his work.

That Thursday was a test on the materials we had explored since spring break. It doesn’t only happen in TV Movies—Rob earned one of the highest grades in class, an unqualified A. It was a stupendous test. He improved on his previous test score by about 25 points, but more importantly, he had taken our challenge, and demonstrated what a keen scholar he could be. Later that day, Rob asked me, “How did Farah Hamati do it? How did she go from a C- to an A- in two months?” I said, “she started doing her work. She realized what was at stake. She cared about each assignment. One at a time.” Rob had the A test in his hand, and promised he would pull a ‘Farah Hamati.’

A couple days later Rob knocked on my apartment door—he had been working on a homework assignment due two days later, but he wanted to show me his progress. In particular he wanted to ask about this one question that was tricky. I had asked the students to compare the words of Karl Marx with the actions of Lenin, and see where they didn’t match up. It is not a simple question. Rob had written a very strong paragraph, and nailed the distinction. It had the earmarks of a committed student. When Rob turned the entire assignment in on time, I made a big deal in class about the come-from-behind Rob and his rapid rise. One of those sharp students in my class said, “Rob is just like Japan in the 19th century—rising so fast and so strong!” These guys, what can I tell you? Strange things are happening!

On Friday, since I was not out-of-town in some glamorous locale (I know, another boo-hoo moment for me) I volunteered to interview students applying for a summer enrichment program the school offers. This program was one of the seminal feeders for the school’s inception and by all accounts has been a glorious program for the school and for younger students in Jordan. The public schools in Jordan are asked to identify some noteworthy students, ages 11-13, who might do well in an intensive English-language program. About 30 students come in the summer for a free two-week enrichment program, and then many of these are young people who apply to KA and are offered scholarships. It is designed to help students “come to the table” so they can better compete with more privileged private-school students.

I got to interview 22 students on Friday, and in these speed-interviews we are to ask them some basic questions (“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” “Where do you live?” “How old are you?”) so we can judge their conversational ability. Some families drove several hours so they could take a placement test, meet staff members, and enjoy this interview. The question that was harder for many of the ones I interviewed was, “What do you do after school?” Of course, it involved more than a one-word answer, and required some complex thought and sentences. After our brief conversation the students had a paragraph to read aloud for me so I could judge their reading ability. The word “hug” appeared at the end of the passage, and I was surprised how many ways there are to pronounce the word ‘hug.’ The students I interviewed were so sweet and so eager to come here and learn. There were about 80 applicants for the 30 spots, and it was very exciting to look at the possible future classes of KA.

One more self-indulgent boo-hoo: Saturday I was eating lunch alone (really, it’s okay! I have things to do!) when someone came beside the table and asked if he could join me. This was a student, and not just any student—a student who had recently found himself in a mess of trouble and was serving out a suspension punishment with hard labor on campus and a denial of weekend privileges. This was also a student with whom I have had several run-ins (run-ins of the most pedestrian type! We had a 10-minute discussion/confrontation recently after I asked him to tuck in his shirt!). I was almost finished eating, so I said I would not be there long. He sat down, and said, “I know what you think of me. I’m sure you’ve given up on me too.”

This had not been an easy week for the young man. I had not been privy to the discussions about his situation, but I knew a little. As we talked for the next 30 minutes he explained how Arab parents react to these kinds of accusations, and how people had already tried him before hearing what he had to say. As we talked, his omnipresent tough-guy bravado melted away, and we talked about how one survives public embarrassments. I told him I had not written him off actually, it took a bunch of times before I make that move as an educator. It was a remarkable conversation. He is suffering from such pressures now from parents, peers, faculty, and we talked about how one comes through those fires. I assured him I would be on his side. I swear, if you had told me an hour before that I would have one of those “Afterschool Specials”-moments with that guy, I would have just laughed.

Maybe that was why I needed to be here this weekend on campus.

Not all of our students are the garden-variety “comeback kids.” Some of our students have been strong all along, and I suppose I neglect writing about them because they lack the drama of “His reading scores were so low and now he reads Tolstoy!!!!” appraisals. One guy, Abdullah, has lived on my hall, been in the drama class I taught briefly last fall, and been in one of my classes. He is one of the most joyful students I know. He is one of the most academically minded students I know. He has earned B+, A-, A grades all year, but I haven’t spoken about him much. But one of those great teacher-student moments happened recently that bear repeating.

As we talked in class about the glorious summer of 1914, and the ever-growing excitement about a big war, I discussed the Viennese composer Gustav Mahler. Mahler had composed his 7th symphony with this fervor in mind—the world was on the brink of war, and needed a war, a destructive war to purge society of its evils. But finally, after such a war, the war would be made new, made clean, in order to march onward toward progress. I told the students that the final movement of Mahler’s 7th was this thrilling experience of this promised new world.

In that summer of 1914, as Germany and Austria declared war on the Triple Entente alliance, young men marched excitedly down the streets as ad hoc bands blasted that last movement of Mahler. It must have been made for an exciting afternoon with the hats waving, ladies cheering, trumpets blaring.

It was a nice moment in history class to set the stage for what would be the deadliest war in human history.

That night I was making some rounds in the dorm, and I like to peek my head in during study hours and just make sure the boys are doing okay, maybe even doing some homework. I see Abdullah with head-phones on and ask what is playing. “I found the Mahler symphony online, and I wanted to hear what those guys heard as they marched off to war.” Really? Wow. I hadn’t actually thought someone might seek out the symphony—I used to play the movement in class, in New York, but I didn’t bring all my CDs here. But how great that Abdullah sat there on a lovely spring night in 2008 trying to imagine what it felt like to stand there on that busy strasse and hear those symphonic promises of new life. Strange things indeed.

Today on the treadmill I finished the last episode of the first season of Friday Night Lights. What a fantastic show. It is one of the best dramatic series I have ever watched. You know, it’s making me love football! And I am not just saying that to make my brother-in-law happy. At this one moment the coach said to his wife, “I am living my dream.” I exercised away on the treadmill, captivated by the show and the game, totally enthralled. I suppose stranger things have happened, I just can’t think of any.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Mid-Spring Night’s Reverie

This has been a week of wistfulness.

Back in Miss Wilson’s 5th grade class (one of the best, best learning experiences of my entire life) one of the things she had us do in Language Arts (as they called the study of English in those elementary school days) was choose some of our own vocabulary words we wanted to master, and as we practiced using them in sentences, she had us look up the words in the OED to discover the origins of the particular word. When the time of our vocabulary test came on Friday, we not only knew the definition of the word, but also the first time that the word had been used in the history of the English language. She had us doing that in 5th grade! That was certainly a little destiny in my becoming a historian…

Just for fun I checked out on what the OED origin of wistful is. Its origin can be traced to the early 17th century and meant “a quiet, attentive longing or yearning.” The site also records that it may be ”characterized by a melancholy.”

Yep. It has been a week of wistfulness. I have already recorded some of my thoughts from earlier in the week, but several other scoops of wistfulness have been added to my Wistfulness Sundae. Today is my dad’s birthday and I miss him. Never could I imagine a father so able to hold a family in such a loving grip.

I realized it has been a year since I have seen my friend Chuck. I talk to Chuck regularly, yes, and have no fear about a weakening bond in the fires of friendship, but still, there is a longing to see the great friends of one’s life.

I also had my weekend plans cancelled. I know, boo-hoo. But we have a day off school tomorrow for Jordanian Independence Day, and I had made plans with a KA family to travel to Mt. Sinai (lemme just refresh your memory about the significance of this place: remember a certain burning bush? remember some commandments etched in stone? Yep, that’s the place) to hike up into the mountains to the 1500 year old St. Catherine’s monastery and then relax at a nice Red Sea resort. But the father in the family, an eminent surgeon, has a surgery assignment today. I know, boo-hoo. The poor little international teacher-traveler has no plans! Moreover, everybody else is out and about shopping in Damascus or camping or something. Yes, I will survive. I am writing my final exam this weekend. But I am a little wistful.

And not the least of my shades of wistfulness I owe to my attendance this week to the first full-length production of a play at KA. There were maybe 30 actors, from a 6 year old daughter of a colleague, to the headmaster himself, in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Wistful? I didn’t direct the play. Wistful? Do you know me at all?

The cast performed the play not in our auditorium, but in the biggest courtyard on campus, a place that took advantage of the lovely desert evenings. The audience sat in the playing area ¾ around the cast. Under the night sky with a cool spring breeze, the space created a holistic setting for the play that has love and fantasy at its core. They didn’t create much scenery, but they cleverly used beautiful fabric panels to set the scenes of the fancy homes and woodland fairyland. Director Tristan decided to set the play in the 1920s which allowed for perky music and beautiful costumes that sparkled under the pink-and-blue lighting design he chose.

Early in the play a character commands that we should “awake the spirit of mirth,” and the cast performed the play with a mirthful enthusiasm indeed. While I must say I am not a fan of the play, and I worry that a Shakespeare play was nearly totally lost on the audiences (Jordanians and Americans alike) and so the text was underserved, we got to watch our students put on a play! There was one boy, Mohammad, who in the beginning of the year had not seemed to be a very serious scholar. Faculty worried about his mischievous streak. But as he performed the role of Bottom, and clearly reveled in the comic machinations, it reminded me all over again why I love theater with high school students. It transforms the participants.

There’s the wistfulness: I didn’t direct the play. In the last 20 years I have directed 60 plays, and I miss it. The OED got it right—it is “a quiet, attentive longing or yearning…characterized by melancholy.”

I am not jealous of Tristan’s success—I just miss doing what he gets to do. Of course there is tremendous work in directing a play—the hours, the decisions, the hand-holding, the voids of creativity, the patience, the fretting, the disasters, the frustrations, again, the patience, but it has been one of the most wondrous, and integral parts of my teaching career.

Directing a play is a bit like being a horticulturalist—someone who loves to cultivate, say, orchids. It is painstaking work, in a special place, a hothouse, and with nerves of steel, and the patience of Job, one finally watches that precious blossom burst forth. And, as every horticulturalist knows and rues, that gorgeous, living being is ephemeral. It doesn’t last long, and soon after, as time flies, it is but a memory. But in that whole process, if you love it, it is unfettered joy.

And so as I watched the performance the other night, I coveted those rushes of emotion they were experiencing backstage and onstage. It is nice to be a spectator, but it is certainly not the emotional experience that directing provides. As the characters in the play whirred back into a fairyland, I took a trip of my own, a beautiful trip down memory lane of some of my directing experiences in the last 20 years:

First Stop: Hello, Dolly! I debuted big, with a huge musical and a cast of 60. About a week before the opening in the spring of 1988, I was frustrated over a bit of farcical business that the students couldn’t seem to master. I said to my friend Mary, “I want to sign a proclamation right now that I will never, ever be foolish again to direct a show.” Mary watched me enact my own little quasi-historical event as I signed my name to this promise. On Opening Night Mary was beside me as we peeked into that horrific gym at Gaston Day School, watching the birth of the show, tears coming down our cheeks, and she wondered if I meant to honor my sworn testimony.

Next stop: the spectaculars at Charlotte Latin School! They gave me the most money to spend on theater, and in my five years there I directed 19 shows, some of them huge! Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was the biggest—I think every cast member had about 7 costume changes, and again, about 60 people performing (including that dear friend Mary—we had long since just laughed at my commitment to avoid theater!). When Joseph’s family reunites at the end of the show (and the supernova talent Casey as Joseph will never be topped in my mind) those were not just actor-ly tears on the faces of the brothers—we felt that moment. There was Noises Off, certainly the most ambitious set I have engineered, and the most difficult directing assignment of physical movement, but I had the cast of my dreams, and it made it all seem so easy. That buddy Chuck—it was one of the eight shows we did together during his high school days—he was in that triumph. I remember the night before we opened, and I had the idea that the curtain call should be a speeded up version of the entire plot of the play raced to Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus.

Third stop: the smaller plays at Charlotte Latin were just as miraculous as the big budget splashy shows. It was at Latin that I honed my skills to work at the subtleties of inspiring casts to elicit great moments in acting. Four plays became signature pieces of mine: I Never Saw Another Butterfly, Twelve Angry Jurors, Our Country’s Good, and Our Town. You couldn’t ask for more dedicated, talented actors, and as we noted at the last play before I took a sabbatical in 1994, we treasured each other.

Fourth stop: the unbelievably bad stage and auditorium at Hackley! When I first saw the “theater,” I thought, this will be a challenge! But in those 11 years, in those 30 or so plays, I discovered another pool of talent, another source of life-long friendships. I remember introducing the students to classic American plays, like The Crucible and You Can’t It With You (the first high school play I did, by the way, around the time when John Wilkes Booth was a hot actor) and then moving from the chestnut plays to the experimental plays, directing them in Christopher Durang, Tom Stoppard, The Laramie Project and Oh, What a Lovely War. I worked with gifted students like Harrison, a student who elevated everything he was in. I hoped that the plays like Our Country’s Good would reveal the redemptive power of theater.

Fifth stop: the last play I directed, 18 months ago in November, 2006. I put together an evening I called “Defying Wilder” in which we looked at the work of Thornton Wilder juxtaposed with a play from the 1990s that seemed to call on Wilder-ian tendencies. I had a feeling that that would be my last play for awhile, and I invested it with a kind of elegiac quality. Each of the three works is, to me, a montage of hope and faith, and the three works together formed an expression of our capacity to recover from catastrophe and move hopefully forward again. In Pullman Car Hiawatha, a 28 character one-act set in a Pullman Railroad Car traveling from New York to Chicago, Thorton Wilder uses the microcosm of a train car to explore the pulses of life as they collide physically, metaphysically and cosmically. Beginning with a view of passengers in an overnight sleeper car, Wilder’s vision expands to a macrocosm of American towns through which the train passes and eventually encompasses the entire universe. Wilder’s inspiring message rings clear: the world may be too large to fathom, but the miracle of love guides our way through the night. In this play we also see the creative roots for Wilder’s better-known Our Town. While death was in fact a central theme in all three plays, it did not dominate the elaborate fabric of life that extends from leaky hot-water bottles and dropped suspenders up to, literally, the music of the spheres. Rather, it is the fabric of life, seen in cross-section in these three plays, that is important; but most important is the message that love renders life so much more than meaningless noise.

Wistful yes, but the last stop was a beautiful montage of smiles and tears and hugs and moments from Sarah, Eric, Michael, Kathleen, Elizabeth, Megan, Chuck, Kess, Billy, Ethan, Junko, Catherine, Greg, Will, Mandy, Simon, Elizabeth, Jennie, Erika, Ian, Eric, David, Tanaz, Millie, Adam, Stefan, Liz, Tom, Kieran, Alyssa, Alta, Alex, Katherine, Julia, Kenrick, Harrison, Becky, Dora, Kate, Jonathan, Jake, Soyoung, Michael…

These are the stars I saw in that desert sky.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Captain Update

I have movies and TV shows on my brain today…

Tonight I am going into Amman to see the world-wide premier of Indiana Jones and the Something Something 4th Installment! It is opening in Amman the same night it opens in the United States! There is a group of about 35 of us going tonight to see the film at a new theater in a new mall.

But there are other movies on my mind today too. As I read through today’s copy of The Jordan Times I spied an article about Captain Abu Raed, the first Jordanian feature film exported to the world’s cinemas. I saw this film about two months ago and wrote about it in the blog. The paper stated that the Jordanian embassy in Washington hosted a special screening for diplomatic bigwigs.

Captain Abu Raed presents a universal story of friendship, inspiration and heroism, and as the ambassador to the US commented in the article, “This is a story of intersecting across social boundaries in contemporary Jordan and shows the world the complex beauty of our region.” The embassy statement went on to say, “The film captures breathtaking footage of Amman and especially east Amman where the first settlers gave life to the city.”

I read the headlines and scan the newspaper every morning during my coffee break, which I take in friend Lubna’s office. In every school in which I have taught I have gravitated to the great secretaries I have known. Lubna, a secretary for the faculty, is one of those essential stops of the day. In fact there is a group of regulars who now congregate in Lubna’s office (we have affectionately dubbed her “Lubs” actually) about 9:00 after the first class of the day. Lubs prepares coffee for us, and we have christened the sofa area near her desk “Lubs’ Lizard Lounge,” since we tend to have a little dance party action to start the day. I don’t even remember how it all got started, but one of the young teachers, Chris, she and I started dancing a little and getting everybody all warmed up for the day. As I said, it has become an essential part of our day—laughter, pep talks, and the omnipresent Nescafe.

This morning we were talking about Captain Abu Raed, and how the film crosses over “Jordanian” borders and captured all our hearts, no matter where we are from. Lubna reminisced about a TV show she watched as a child with her family in Kuwait. (For the record I am two weeks to the day older than Lubs.) As she described the show, forgetting the title, I said, “Lubs, that sounds like a show I loved as a child—The Waltons.” She squealed with delight—“That’s it. We loved The Waltons!”

If you have never seen The Waltons it would come across as corny and hokey, I guess. It is the story of a Depression-era family in rural Virginia and how they coped with the trials and tribulations of daily life. This show would certainly resonate in phrases like, ‘it celebrates the human condition.’ It was one of the seminal TV shows of my childhood. It started on television when I was about 9, and we all four watched it together, and in many episodes my mother would start crying about something in the storyline, so my sister and I usually succumbed to the tears as well. My stoic father held us together so we didn’t all dissolve into tears. The oldest son was a guy named John-Boy, and soon thereafter my grandmother started calling me John-Boy. The youngest child in the family was darling Elizabeth, the same name as my darling little sister. The show lasted for 9 years, but as I got into teen-age years such a show did not capture my attention in the same way any longer.

As Lubna and I realized that for many of the same years in the 1970s we both watched this show, we joked about how our childhoods could hardly have been more different: her childhood in Kuwait and mine 10,000 miles away in the American Midwest. I asked her, “what did you like about the show?” Lubna smiled and said, “It really reminds me of Arab values and lifestyles.” What??? How is that possible?

But that Walton family was more like my family! It seemed incredulous to me that a family in the Gulf region would have anything in common with this Baptist family suffering hardships in 1930s America. I said, “Lubs, what in the world in that show is like Arab values?” “It’s simple,” she replied. “That show is about people that believe in their land, and treasure their name, love their God, and build their lives on the strongest bedrock—family.” Hmmmm…

We laughed as we remembered episodes we had enjoyed as children, and we decided that maybe more families around the world should watch The Waltons and possibly it could serve as a some kind of bridge to peace. (!) I told her that I had a DVD set of the first season, and I promised that I would loan her the discs to rekindle her love for this beloved show.

Of course none of the young ones who hang out with us in the Lizard Lounge have seen (or heard of) The Waltons, so we had to turn our attention back to catching them up to speed on the history of Indiana Jones. None of our young peers was born in 1980 when the first movie opened, and they just don’t know the history of Indy, and the greatness of the third installment. So as our Nescafe cooled we had to act out some of the set pieces from The Last Crusade—whew, Nazis do make great villains don’t they??

As most of the day passed by, the John Williams theme song played in my head. Who knows if the newest installment lives up to the third one, but a night at the movies is always a delight.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Rooster’s Crow

A little while ago I got off the phone with my sister, and much of our conversation today involved reminiscences of our mother, the magical Mary Martha. It is not infrequent that we invoke her name, or a story about her, or one of her many aphorisms that regale our family, but today is different. Today is two years since my father called us and told us she had slipped away.

Elizabeth said to me, “The day she died was such a sunny day—there were so many rainy days that month, and she left us on the most beautiful day of all—and on her own terms.”(I wrote about my mother in depth on a November 27th blog entry in case you want to go back in the blog archives and read it.)

At her funeral, several people made a point of telling me, “She was such a fighter.”
I appreciated their sentiment, of course, but I have never really liked that imagery of warfare when people discuss disease. “He lost his battle with cancer,” is an oft-heard phrase when someone dies after enduring a disease such as cancer. For our family my mother’s MS forced us to live in the meantime, and we rarely dabbled in that imagery of warfare when speaking of MS. As I think about it, my mother never construed her multiple sclerosis as an enemy. I try not to judge others who thoughtfully do choose it, for whom “fighting” may be a helpful stance and attitude. On the other hand, I’m critical of the media when, without genuine thought or analysis, it routinely declares in its death notices that so-and-so died after a long battle with cancer. Why does it have to be a battle? Why must it be that the person lost that battle? Are folks with cancer good fighters if they win? Bad fighters, failing falling foot soldiers, if they lose? Can they be heroic only in triumph? It is never an issue of defeat or victory—we are, all of us, going to die. Why not use the imagery that acknowledges how one experiences living, or experiences dying?

As my father composed the death notice for the newspaper he included the words, “Mary Martha was a 49 ½ year survivor with MS.” I thought about his choice of words. He chose the word, ‘survivor,’ yes, but more remarkable to me is that he insisted that it read ’49 ½ .’ If you know how newspapers work, you know they charge for every iota of type, and it ain’t cheap. My father, a man who wears the label ‘frugal’ with great pride, paid for that important ‘1/2.’ He didn’t have to—but as he wrote about his dear Mary Martha, he wanted her to have every bit of credit coming to her: she had incurred this disease as a young woman, and had survived for 49 ½ years. Every moment was a miracle. Whatever that cost, it meant something for my father to convey that.

Suffering a physical sickness is to experience the effects of breakage in the body’s significant relationships. Our family understands that well. But one of the multitudinous things we learned from our Mary Martha is that sickness is not an enemy. Indeed, as we witnessed through her, sickness is a rooster’s crow, calling us to the truth about ourselves, and to the precise condition of our relationships—God, family, society, nature. In a perverse way the MS accomplished a number of blessed things for our family: over the years we realized that the MS provided us with those coveted Our Town moments—the opportunity to reconcile ourselves before time ran out.

That concept of warfare has become for our society so common a means to comprehend so many things: war on poverty, war on terror; we battle for ratings, for grades. We fight, with huge war chests, for victory in elections. Fightin’ words everywhere we look…more and more of our experiences are bounded by battlefields. We haven’t grown much, have we?

Our family grew, had to grow, to accommodate the MS in our midst. While attention spans seem to get shorter and shorter all the while (umm…whatever happened to thoughtful letters? Brief emails suffice; lengthy phone conversations have become instant messages and texts; politicians respond to complex issues with 10-second sound bites. Hmmm…) Mary Martha taught us to patiently look for what is both hidden and present. She loved the bible story about the faith of the mustard seed, that teeeeeeny seed that requires time. As the MS consumed more of her time, she never abdicated that faith. In fact, that faith offered her more clarity and sustained her.

In March, 2006, in what would be my last visit with her, one afternoon she and I looked back together on earlier days spent at the American Baptist Assembly in Green Lake, Wisconsin. We went there every summer until I was in my high school years, and my mother loved the rigorous bible study and provocative challenges in trying to tackle world missions projects. Her speech was not very strong during that rainy March visit, but I reminded her of a study she had enjoyed one summer, maybe back in 1978. It was a simple psalm, and a deceptively simple commandment: Be still, and know that I am God. I reminded her of the minister who led this, and how he led a 60-minute bible study on those few words of the psalmist. Years and years after that study had come and gone, we talked, just mother and son, about those powerful words, and the challenge in those words. How often she and I have not been still! We are talkers, without a doubt, but what a profound challenge to be still—the activeness of that quieting command, and then the profound leap of faith to know God.

Mary Martha had an ability to understand that even after 49 ½ years with MS, she was not beyond the reach of God’s love. In fact, perhaps because of it, she knew even more matter-of-factly the reach and dimension of that summit.

This afternoon I went to visit my friend Randa in the administration building for a little bit. Randa and I are the same age, and almost three weeks ago her mother passed away here in Amman. We sat, this afternoon, 10-month old friends, holding hands and remembering the reach of a mother’s love.

It has occurred to me on more than one occasion of the timing of those events two years ago. It would be just a few months later that word of an exciting new school in Jordan would cross my radar screen. I have wondered if my mother had been alive if I would have given that opportunity more than a passing glance: I had always thought that it would be wrong to leave the United States and be so far away from my mother. Of course, she would have loved to hear all about what I have seen and heard and done these last 10 months. She would have had the biggest smile of all.

Maybe my loss that day was just the rooster’s crow I needed.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Fires of Our Devotion

It is getting hot again. I would say it gets to about 90 degrees in the peak of the afternoon now. Find the lightweight blazers! Don’t let them know you are wearing used-car-salesman-like short sleeve shirts! (Why hide the ‘ss’ you ask? Short stocky man in short sleeves? Need you ask?) Keep the wash cloth handy in case your brow gets a little moist as you explore the 1919 Paris Peace Conference! It is not as hot as it was last August and September. But there are some reminders…and there were beads of perspiration around 8:30 a.m. this morning…

As with the heat, there is another reminder of what life was like way back, way back here in August and September—time goes so fast in class. There is never enough time in class to accomplish all I wish in my headiest of hopes. As Mr. Hall taught me in French class at Gamble Junior High, “Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.” For the Francophobes in the group, that would be, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Ahhh…but it is not the same! Yes, time in class is still a precious commodity, but back in the beginning of the year, the period I dubbed “Scratch,” I had to corral these young scholars simply to open a notebook, hold a pen, restrain their every impulse. I gave out candy if they did the most basic student tasks—showing up on time, raising their hand, showing me a pen! It was candy to cajole. Now the “problem” as I careen through the centuries of world history is that they have so many questions! I may not get to something in class because they are so fired up by their own discoveries they have to ask question after question! And offer epiphany after epiphany!

As perspicacious Adam suggested a couple months ago, here is how he envisioned my students’ progress this spring: “You've reached The Poke. The students are starting to get it, though some need to be nudged a little bit more. In addition, pokes are discrete. An itch is felt continuously, but not as many students are causing you discomfort any more. And once most people have really gotten it, you'll have reached The Tickle, because you'll feel all giddy. And once everybody's gotten it, you'll find The Soothing. And when the year's done, you'll find The Relief.”

Guess what? We have made it to The Tickle. If you could have watched them this last week as we explored the First World War, and the headaches and back-room deals that culminate in the Treaty of Versailles, and heard them studying for a test last night, there is little doubt: they are now giddy about history. Go figure!

It may be hot out, and old Kronos might steal time from class, but it is not the same.

Last week I thought the students were finally ready for one of my favorite phrases in teaching history: the stew of simultaneity. I don’t know when this phrase popped in my head—maybe it goes back to Charlotte Latin, but the idea is that I want them to deal with many things happening at one time, and revel in that stew, and that they are all happening at one time, ahhh…what a great word—simultaneity. Here are my young Arab scholars, smiling as I offer them this tough word, and they start saying, “Hmmm, Mr. John, the stew is so nice. This stew of simultaneity!”

We spent our first week back from spring break dealing with what I called “on the cusp of the 20th century,” and we looked at the rise of Japan as a military power, and the erection of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the paintings The Kiss and The Scream, and the Rudyard Kipling poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” Eugenics, the science of racial superiority, and among other things, the bizarre string of assassinations of government leaders around the world by anarchists. After we learned about each one discretely, I put many of the items, and vocabulary words, on the board, in a random way, so there was a mess of words on the board. In class I asked each student to come up to the board, one at a time, and connect at least two things with a line and explain the connection. Now this is an exercise you can only do if students are prepared and willing to connect the dots. It takes outstanding evaluators, connectors, and reflectors to do this exercise. I tell you, they were giddy. I think it was Rashed who linked ‘Positivism’ and ‘Marxists.’ He believed that this perverse movement of Positivism (akin to “Don’t worry—be happy”) might have developed out of the fear that the Marxist promise of a class struggle would come to pass. This young man who had thought research and knowledge a few months ago was just printing a page off an internet site, offered a wonderful speculation.

In one class I made brownies. Now, I have to explain why this class got some brownies—it was not just a generous spirit. I had made a bet with this class, a class in which several members had had a hard time doing and submitting homework. So in February I promised that when we had 100% participation in submitting homework, they would get brownies. Do you know, it took until April for that 100%??? But—it happened, and so last week I made good on the promise. After I gave out the 17 brownies to the members of the class, there was considerable brownie goo left, so I decided I would offer pieces of brownies for the most stupendous epiphanies that day. One student remembered when I gave out candy for simply holding a pen, now I returned to food distribution but for much more higher-order work!

Here are some of the insights, as I remember them, which earned them gastronomic medals:

(1) “The Russo-Japanese War is a big deal because it is the first time in hundreds of years that a non-European power had beaten a European power.” A moment after she said that, another student realized that that military victory “trashed the theory of eugenics!!”

(2) Qusai was noticing that in Klimt’s painting, The Kiss, “there are rectangles all over the man’s coat, and circles all over the woman’s coat.” Scrappy Jude yelled out, “Oh my, that’s just like the Greeks! The same shapes! Men were always seen like rectangles and women with circles in their architecture!”

(3) Leen said, “Japan wanted to have its own version of European progress. The Japanese had to give up feudalism—even though it allowed for stability, it didn’t transform them. They got a plan.” And a moment after that, Farah yelled out, “and they paid for it with their silver mines! That’s how they paid for all the changes!”

I noticed that all three of those observations started with one person, and another young scholar piggy-backed…oh my gosh…are these guys listening to each other??? Is it possible? And the exclamation points I am using is just my way of trying to relay their giddiness! And mine!!

We have moments reaching poetry as well…Adel looks at all the stew of good and bad and suggested about the new inventions: “These new toys were the keys to the gate of Hell and the lock to the doorway of Heaven.” Raja cynically offered, “That “White Man’s Burden” stuff is just a justification to enslave people.” Reed drew a graph illustrating the development toward progress made by England, a steady climb over 100 years, and the meteoric rise of Japan in under 50 years. She loved her graph. Another Jude offered, “The Kiss reminds me of Leonardo’s drawing of the “Vitruvian Man” with the circles and the squares, that it is the meeting of male and female—the perfect kiss.”

As we debated whether it was a good time in which to live or not—in glamorous new cities like Vienna and Paris, using new inventions like the automobile and the radio, but also enduring terrorist assassinations and the nervous spirit pervading The Scream. Hamzah noted that in Munch’s painting The Scream “there were so many curly, confusing lines and that is like what is happening in the world and you look for the straight lines, the only way you can take to survive from the terror and the unconfidence you are living in.” Abdullah calmly waved his hand, and nonchalantly quoted a source we looked at in early April: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

A boy named Faris reliably comes up with provocative conclusions, and he often goes back to The Mission, a movie from which I showed some scenes back in March. The movie is about the Spanish colonization in South America. Faris stroked his chin (I had told them, it really does help to have good ideas to stroke your chin!) “The Scream reminds me of the moment in the movie The Mission when Robert DeNiro goes through a lot of agony in the river to get to a new moment of truth. The man in the painting is on a path, and he is on a path and we don’t know where he will end up.”

According to Adam, we get to end up in Soothing and Relief.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Heralded and Unheralded May 8

For a long time May 8 has been a very memorable day for me—a day I have relished and even celebrated. Strange, though, it isn’t a birthday or anniversary of anyone in my close knit circle of love (although May is “littered” with birthdays of friends of the highest order—I mean you’ve got Junko, Aunt Dot, Stephanie, Liz, Megan, Dawn, Mary, Rick, Gary, Anne, and my father—whew!—and a very special nephew who is 6 years old this very day!) nor a major “holiday” along the lines of Thanksgiving, Independence Day or Christmas.

But every May 8 I stop and remember how big of an impact May 8, 1985 had on me as a young historian. That particular May 8th was the 40th anniversary of what has become known as “V-E Day,” the victory in Europe at the end of the long Second World War. That spring semester I had had the wonderful good fortune to study in Salzburg, Austria (one of those times that easily ranks as among the best decisions of my life) learning so much about international diplomacy, music history, art history, traveling, and living with a family in gorgeous Salzburg. I was nearing the end of my European adventure, and traveling alone for a few days before meeting friends of my grandfather’s from his war days in England. On that May 8, I was in Aachen, Germany in the morning, and visited a famous cathedral, and happened upon a memorial service. It was a very solemn affair, with black-clad, teary Germans weeping some forty years later at what that crushing loss still meant for them. The pain in their faces haunted me that day as I contemplated how Germans must approach that date every May. That evening I ended up in Brussels, Belgium—not far at all geographically from Aachen, but light years away in terms of how they celebrated May 8. Fireworks lit up the sky in Brussels and I got caught up in a parade, a celebration, a veritable party for the victory of the Allies.

Ever since that day with my good luck to see how commemorations were different on both sides of WWII (or maybe it was good planning, I don’t remember which) I have kept in mind how the very same day can be observed in markedly divergent ways.

Ten years later, in 1995, I was in New York nearing the end of my year with the Klingenstein Fellowship (another time that easily ranks among the best decisions of my life) as May 8 came around for the 50th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in Europe. I celebrated on the naval aircraft carrier the Intrepid, moored in Manhattan, and spent the sunny afternoon with hardy, happy WWII vets and hearing speeches from Big Names in NATO. I remember that many of the speeches harbored the same sentiment: given the 1991-92 implosion of the USSR, the world was entering a period philosophers now dubbed “the end of history.” Hmmmm…Another May 8 to file away for the existential scrapbook.

Here I am, savoring another May 8, in a new locale. I would add that I can easily mark the decision to come here as an important decision, and probably another, among the best decisions of my life. But this May 8 is a wholly different celebration/acknowledgement than I have ever contemplated. May 8, 2008 is the 60th anniversary of the independence of Israel. I will admit—I don’t believe I have ever really stopped and thought about Israel’s joy over independence after roughly two millennia of Jewish exile. But just as I found on that long ago May 8 in Aachen and Brussels—there is more than one side to a story, or truly, more than one way to observe a day of independence.

I knew that this year May 8 would have new meaning for me—last week as the date fast approached there were probably a dozen articles in The Jordan Times reviewing the 60th anniversary and what it meant to Jordanians. So, as any fairly intrepid historian might do, I began to interview my new Jordanian friends about what this anniversary meant to them as Jordanians. It is Aachen and Brussels all over again…

One friend said to me, “While there will be great fanfare in Israel on May 8, for 60 years Israel has been sitting on my heart. It kicked me out of my home, my nation, and deprived me of many things.” Our librarian referred to the fact that when Israel proclaimed independence, the new state also uprooted hundreds of thousands of people. This friend, along with nearly everyone else with whom I spoke, referred to the contrast of the Israeli joy to their naqba—their ‘catastrophe’ and the beginning of 60 years of violence and distrust.

I had an email from a friend recently telling me, “I hate to say it, but I imagine the readers of your blog are tired of hearing about it,” matter-of-factly bringing up conflict in the Middle East. Tell me about it. Imagine what this has been like for the people of this region over the last sixty years. But that is the beauty of a blog—I feel compelled to write about something, and you may or may not choose to read about it! Ha!

Certainly Israel has been one of the biggest success stories of modern times. A nation was reborn out of Holocaust survivors and uprooted Jewish communities who built a booming economy, created an innovative agriculture, and, correct me I am wrong, revived a dead language. They also sustained a democracy (however imperfect and dysfunctional democracies usually are) that is vibrant.

But also, as we look at commemorations of this version of May 8—Israel was born in war, and has lived by the sword ever since. In November, 1947, the United Nations acted to partition Palestine and end the British mandate in the area. According to historical record there were about 1.4 million Arabs who lived in Palestine, and by 1949 more than half of those had been displaced. What verb you choose to use says something about on what side of the fence you fall, for how you celebrate the Middle Eastern May 8. I read one article that said that “Palestinian scholars—and some Israeli scholars, say it was systematic ethnic cleansing ordered by Zionist leaders to clear the way for the Jewish state.”

Whatever “verb” you choose, it is interesting how poignant, how ever-present the stories of the refugees are—it is easy to find someone willing to discuss the effect of this diaspora on their family, the bitterness of dispossession and exile, and how they cling to a “right of return.” One of my dear friends at Hackley, the only Palestinian I had met before moving to Jordan, related to me her family’s story, and, in the most heart-wrenching part, confided that one of her parents continues to wear the family’s house key around the neck in the dear hope that they might return to the family home. Another colleague here reminisced: “We had houses and land and olives and grapes and prickly pears and dates. Now what do we have? Nothing.”

Of course those hundreds of thousands had to go somewhere—some fled to the United States, but many fled to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. From what my friends here say, refugees are treated poorly, especially in Lebanon (laws barring refugees from many professions, subjection to violence and massacre, etc.) Israel firmly opposes letting refugees return to their original homes (of course many were bulldozed decades ago, reminds a colleague). An editorial in the paper quoted Chaim Weizmann, one of the founders of Israel, calling this displacement of Palestinians “the line of less injustice.” I guess this was the belief that the persecuted Jews had to have their state even if it meant depriving Palestinians of their right to self-determination. Maybe the Israelis see this “right of return” as a kind of Palestinian Trojan Horse—believing that Palestinians want to return to their homes, their orchards, their villages, their churches, so that they can undermine the Jewish state from within.

Isn’t it simply about justice? Thousands of families were pushed out in the wars launched after Israel’s establishment. They have a right, a human right, to return to their homes if they desire. Of course, the ever-present violence and suicide bombing has inured us to the pain and struggle; we lose sight of the nearly 5,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis killed since the year 2000 over this issue.

There is violence. There is division. There is hopelessness. If you can imagine the famed painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso, you might say that the catastrophe of Guernica mirrors some of the catastrophe known to the Palestinians. Yet, in the horror of his black-and-white expose, Picasso also paints a tiny hand, almost obscured by the terrible incidences, but a hand, nonetheless, holding a little flower. Could it be the long view of history affording us some hope?

As I scanned the news for reports of such hope during the build-up to this anniversary, I found a tiny article, one of dozens my father clipped for me from The Cincinnati Enquirer (I will never be bored on a plane ride since my father makes sure I have plenty of reading he has clipped so lovingly for me!) that had something that seemed like that tiny flower Picasso placed in his work. The headline from this March 26, 2008 story reads, “Saudi King Calls For Talk Among Religions.” King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has made what the reporter called an “impassioned plea for dialogue among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the first such proposal from a nation with no diplomatic ties to Israel and a ban on non-Muslim religious services and symbols.”

Maybe it is just another conference. The call does not discount the naqba my Jordanian friends suffer as they mark another year away from the heartbeat of their homeland, but finding that flower in the painting always changes Guernica from a resignation of despair to a flicker of hope, and if it took Jews 2000 years to recover a homeland, maybe my Palestinian friends will one day be able to speak of the naqba as a historical phenomenon. The end of such a historical phenomenon.

Wonderful May 8—so much to savor…

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Why is change so hard?

Indeed, I have witnessed many changes in my life in the last year, but my particular query for this blog entry title is actually more quotidian—why is making change so hard here in Jordan???!

This week I brought my friend and colleague Renee some fancy-schmancy hair product she asked me to buy her from the United States during spring break. I happily picked up some biolage blahblah hair care and Renee owed me 12 JD for it. (It may be helpful to remind my readers that Jordanian dinar is our currency, 1 dinar worth about $1.50 and we call them “Jaydee” ) Renee couldn’t find change anywhere, so she gave me a 20 JD note hoping I could find change. Difficult to find change. Harumph.

The next day friend and colleague Tristan ‘spotted’ me for dinner (I try not to ever pull the old “Oh-I-didn’t-bring-my-wallet-tonight” routine having had a friend in New York who regularly perpetrated this dastardly act) when I genuinely thought the school was picking up the tab since we were out to welcome a new colleague. I owed Tristan 15 JD. The restaurant couldn’t make change. However, I couldn’t give Tristan the 20 JD from Renee because I had a cleaning person coming the following day, and needed to get change for the cleaning lady. ARGH!

It’s not as if we cannot get money here. We have ATMs! But the ATMs only spit out bills of 50 JD—which is like running around with $75 bills all the time. And no one seems to be able to make change! When I have gone to the barber, I try to have the 4JD in exact change so that the barber does not have to go across the street and buy some groceries in order to make change for me. One time when I went to the Dead Sea Marriott resort as a day guest they couldn’t break the 50 JD bill to give me change (I think it costs 25JD to be a day guest and enjoy the pool and Dead Sea area with all the mud you can slather). The man suggested I come back later for the change. I thanked him, but decided I would wait until they had had a few more guests and could make change for me. These are businesses for heaven’s sakes! These are places that I expect to be able to make change!! The most reliable way to get change is to go grocery shopping in Amman—the Cosmo where many of us shop reliably takes your money and gives you the proper change. Why is making change so hard here in Jordan???!

So the next day, while the cleaning people were busy mopping and scrubbing my apartment tile floors, I tried to get change so I could pay them the 15 JD for their labor. I made a plan: I would visit all the ‘financial’ places on campus. I visited the bursar, the accounting department and the student store. The accountants could only give me 2 10 bills for the 20 JD note. Each time the people pulled out their wallets, and no one could make the change. Why is this so hard? UGH!

I apologized to the cleaning ladies after they finished, and promised them I would find the change soon. This quest had become a little too maddening.

However light-hearted this recurring encounter with change is, there are certainly difficult changes in people’s lives, and very often we struggle with the question of how will we survive change?

Last weekend, right at the time that everyone returned to KA after spring break, two Jordanian colleagues lost their mothers. You come back from restful, exciting vacations, and boom! immediately try and help colleagues grapple with a change that goes from simple inconveniences to profound loss. One friend’s mother had been suffering for some time, and the other one had just begun to have some trouble. One mother about 80, and the other barely 65. What was interesting is that on this first day back to school, last Sunday, there were the two different funeral services to attend on the same day, one a Christian service and one a Muslim ritual. The most noteworthy similarity about the two scenes of mourning was that both involved gender segregation. As we entered the venerable Orthodox church in Madaba Sunday afternoon, it was obvious that men would sit on the right, and women on the left. The service is a mass requiem, and towards the end friends may go and meet the grieving family in a kind of receiving line. That evening, as we went to some newly erected tents on the edge of the village, the men went to one tent, and the women to another. At least for the men’s tent, you enter, take a seat, and a young family member comes and serves you tea. Eventually family members come to you, you offer condolences, and then wait to be taken to the food tent for mansaf. The most striking thing about these two funerals on the gorgeous spring day is how many people from KA attended both of these services. They provided buses for us, and a strong number of faculty, staff and students made the effort to attend the services and offer their support. Though we are still just in our first year of forging friendships here it was very comforting to me to see this support for colleagues.

The following evening the Dean of Students, my friend and colleague Wendy, announced she and her husband, the Director of IT, would be leaving KA at the end of the year. This came as a surprise I think to everyone and is more change than many believed they wanted to endure. Few people have the impact on our campus as this woman who had commented to me that this was her “dream job.” But as we all know, things change, situations change, expectations change, priorities change, hopes change—suddenly sometimes.

It may be hard to believe, but the following afternoon this same friend Wendy discovered her beloved dog Zeus had died. Zeus was going to turn 10 this Saturday, and some of the girl boarders had promised a birthday party for him. While Wendy and her husband were on vacation in South Africa Zeus had developed congenital heart disease, so they came home to give him medical attention. Zeus just didn’t make it.

For any of you who have been attached to a beloved pet—you know this change in your home can prove pretty devastating. People found out at dinner about Zeus and several of us made our way over to Wendy’s home to offer our support at this sudden change. The most marvelous—really heartwarming—thing is that over the course of the next hour almost every student in the dorm made their way over to offer Wendy a hug and visit Zeus one last time. One of the things that have always made me the most tear-y as a teacher is seeing teen-age boys do sweet things. What a testament to our community that these students, and especially the boys, came over to be sweet and kind and offer them support. Gets me every time.

This accounting for the change in Wendy’s life—so abruptly too—is notable for another reason. I may not have mentioned over the last nine months, but dogs are not common pets in Jordan. Dogs are generally viewed as wild, feral animals—I guess we would liken this Jordanian attitude to our having a raccoon, or a fox, as a pet. Wendy, however, brought Zeus to Jordan, walked him all over campus, using the fears many students harbored toward this golden retriever as a way to help the students encounter their fears in general and confront their fears. Most of the time you went to visit Wendy in her office, one spied Zeus sprawled on the floor, taking those luxurious naps for which dogs are famous. So as these students trooped over to Wendy’s house, offering hugs and their hearts, it was obvious that this floppy-eared doggie had made a difference. Of course, if you know how much I cried at the dof-centric Where The Red Fern Grows as a child, I was a little misty-eyed viewing this whole scene.

Wendy wrote an email the following day expressing her thanks for our touching support:
Sad and tired. Still in disbelief. It happened so fast. I wasn’t “ready.” I guess you’re never ready. He was an incredible dog for me and for others. I will miss his presence in my life at nearly every turn, as he was always under my feet! I got so lucky when he came into my life. He was more than I had ever hoped for when I decided to adopt a puppy. And to work in two schools where he could accompany me to work was a gift I will always treasure.

I think 100 kids strolled thru our apartment last night to say goodbye. And, our friends all came by as well. Even the most fearful came over very brave and tearful. I said when we accepted jobs here that “Zeus will change the Middle East”…and, by God, he did!

I’m sure my emotions will not be understood by some of my colleagues, as the love for an animal is perceived as odd around here by some, but Zeus’ death will remain a profound part of my life. And for that, perhaps I too can “change the Middle East” by educating those around me to the value and complexity of the love for a pet. I challenged the students last night to “take a chance” and some day love a dog. It’s amazing and forever.

Who would have thought a dog could change the Middle East! But of course, change isn’t really so hard—sometimes you just need exposure to new things, an environment of support, a little trust, and room to grow. The change in my classes has been extraordinary. I will tell you more about that in a few days.

Right now, do any of you have that elusive 5 and 5 singles for this 10 JD note I have???

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Trouble With Hope

I arrived back in Jordan late, late Saturday night after a day of uneventful flights and travel, uneventful being the operative word, and the wish my friend Anne always offers. If you have read the blog entries, you know it was a delightful spring break. Long will I remember the joy at reconnecting with Stephanie, Adam K, Marlene, John P, Cristina, and the many others that filled my days and nights with good food and discourse. There is never enough time on these breaks, and the next time I go westward ho I must see Dawn, and Debbie, and Linda, and Flavia, and Meg, and Polly, and the Celentanos—okay, I concede: there must be more time for more food and discourse!!

I realize that in all these months of blogging, I have not always heeded the words of the sage: In mixed company never discuss religion or politics. Of course, living this adventure in the Middle East renders that dictum pretty impossible. Yet up until now I haven’t found it really worthwhile to discuss American domestic politics. I mean—has anyone not been satiated by the endless talking heads and advertisements for a race that is still six months away? But it seems to me that in this week of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries (and continued murky Democratic-nomination politics) I should weigh in with my two dinars worth (by the way, the market value of those two dinars is just under $3).

My friends in Jordan believe that it has been at least a generation since a United States presidential election had more bearing on the Middle East—so many of them are focused on the race. While in America the campaigns may have shifted primarily to domestic issues, whether Americans realize it or not, the Middle East (well, I cannot speak for the whole region—I will qualify it with the people that I know in Jordan) is focused on how a new president will navigate the waters over the conflict in Iraq, the deteriorating situation in Palestine and the growing tension with Iran. Some candidates have openly talked of “Islamo-fascism,” and naturally Jordanians worry about how that sound-bite pollutes political discourse and exacerbates the so-called “clash of civilizations.” One friend marvels at how Hillary Clinton has changed since she became a senator from New York in 2000: “She used to talk of a Palestinian state in the 1990s, but now she has a strident pro-Israel position—I guess it is necessary as a senator from New York.”

Since the beginning of the heated races Barack Obama’s message of unity that transcends race and class has resonated with many here—in point of fact, almost all the people I have met in Jordan have expressed a deep hope that he will win the race to the White House. A colleague said, “If Middle Eastern Arabs wake up the day after the election in November and see Obama as President of the United States, all of them know that this would send a very different message about America. This is the America that they have dreamed of.” As I canvass these new friends of mine, many say things like, ‘Can an African-American son of a Muslim really win in America? Can he really win?’

At a party I attended in New York around New Years’ the crowd gathered around the sliced ham started buzzing about Barack Obama. A guest said he’d heard Obama speak and was blown away; Obama had a spark, he said, a charisma, that he hadn’t seen in a presidential candidate “since the Kennedys.” Yes, several other guests chimed in. Obama really might give Hillary Clinton a run for her money! All of these admirers, as it happens, were white. At another event, another friend, a black man, shook his head when I asked his opinion. “It’ll never happen,” said the older friend who had lived through the civil-rights years. Whites, he said, might admire Obama, but in the privacy of the voting booth, most of them would never pull the lever for a black man—not for President.

Is he right? In the beginning of the primary season it seemed that Obama’s race was inconsequential. In New Hampshire, a state he did not capture, polls still showed Obama with about 36% of the vote in a very white state. Would voters judge him by his ideas, his experience, and yes, by the content of his character? We were especially interested in watching the primary races here at KA after Chip Carter had visited us in December. This son of a former Democratic president said he was going to be working for the Obama campaign. Carter had explained why he felt Obama was the best candidate for the United States and indeed the world. Many of the students got very excited about what the prospect of this election might mean for the United States and also for Middle Eastern Arabs. One student, Jadallah, said he saw this as a “turning point some Americans thought they’d never see.” Jadallah wished that he were American “so I could vote for Obama.” Indeed, as I interview prospective students to KA, if I ask them about American politics, and I often do, these young people are just as captivated by Barack Obama and his campaign banner of hope as many of the American youth.

Of course this historical turning point has indeed come. With the presidential candidacy of Senator Obama putting renewed focus on the legacy of racism, as it is viewed by Americans both black and white, the 2008 campaign serves as a healthy reminder that separate drinking fountains, to cite one shameful practice, are just a generation or two in the past.

But it is not the “race card” that mesmerizes the Jordanians and galvanizes them behind Obama—it has been his solid discussion about the diplomacy on issues they care most about, his rhetoric about Iran, about Syria, and about the thorny Israeli-Palestinian issue. One friend lit up as she talked about Obama’s hopes and plans for “two states” and how Obama pledged to be personally involved to make it happen. She said: “Obama used an interesting expression, saying ‘achieving a two state solution and a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state is important to American Jews, important to Arab Americans, and important to me.’”

However, as we all know, Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright has come out swinging time and time again in the last month, imperiling Obama’s campaign. Obama framed his Rev. Wright problem in the context of America’s unfinished work toward a “more perfect union,” as envisioned by the nation’s founders. As we have all seen, Obama has had a hard couple of weeks, and if Obama sinks, millions of young voters, and people around the world will be heartbroken and bitter.

Does that matter? Let’s look at this America that many Jordanians hope will come to pass—an America with a President Barack Obama. With Obama in power, it would become— at least, initially—more difficult for Europeans, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners, South Americans to denounce America as happens daily in the world press. The best America for the world is a confident America—an America that sheds its culture of fear and rediscovers the roots of its culture of hope. This is Obama’s America. There is an opening line in a Langston Hughes poem that goes, “Oh, let America be America again.”

Obama stirs that hope in many people. People around the world know that the United States is indispensable. Of course the greater your expectations are, the greater the risk of disappointment. Is it a risk worth taking? These people I have met in Jordan hope that Americans will take that risk. That is why many of them follow this election with passionate interest. With such hype of hope, must the audacious bubble burst?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

“Kids These Days”

My father attends the Imperial Restaurant in Westwood every weekday morning for breakfast. I chose the verb “attends” because many of his cronies at the Imperial call their hangout the “Institution of Higher Learning,” so it just seems apt to say he attends instead of the more prosaic verb “patronizes.” Many of the “pupils” have taken to calling themselves ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out). When I am in Cincinnati I try and go a few times so I can soak in the atmosphere and also to visit the extraordinary waitress Pam. Extraordinary coffee is poured, and extraordinary internet epiphanies shared.

The other morning a man who looked very much like the Reverend Jim character in Taxi rushed in to the institution, a man I don’t remember meeting before, saw me, and dashed over—“Hey I gotta ask you. Do they eat camel meat over there where you are? I mean, do they eat their camels?” I was a little surprised at the question—why, I don’t know, but without missing a beat I answered, “Nah, you don’t think they’d eat their transportation, do you?” “Okay, just had to ask you,” he nodded and went to sit down and move on to the next important topic to ponder.

Yesterday I joined my dad again, in part to see his friends Harry and Ruby, a couple who met in Europe in the closing days of World War II—I always love hearing their stories, and another of the “classmates” approached me. “Hey, John. Hey, have you been to any of those harems you hear about over there? I mean if I came to see you, could you take us to a harem?”

Kids these days.

I say that phrase, “kids these days,” not just because of some of the silliness—yet curiosity—from the Imperial, but because that is a favorite phrase of my wonderful student Yazan back at KA. Whenever anyone says anything kind of off kilter, or bizarre, or just funny, Yazan says with a world-weary smile, “Ah, kids these days.”

It is two weeks ago right about now that I got on a plane in Amman bound for Chicago and my two week spring break in the United States. It has been a lovely vacation. If you have kept up with the blog you know I have reveled in the Denison Singers reunion, basked in the spring time perfection of New York, visited great friends like New York Doris and Cincinnati Doris, indulged in great meals with Anne in New York (one day last week we ate on the terrace of her club for both lunch and dinner!) and Shelley in Cincinnati, marveled once again at how perfect my sister and brother-in-law are, and felt the everyday pleasure of taking care of errands and exercising at the YMCA.

But it is time to turn my attention to returning to KA for the last 8 weeks of school. Tomorrow evening I will get on a plane bound for Germany and then switch to a flight for Amman—arriving late Saturday night where I will be met by excellent friend Fatina. It is time to plan for what we will discover as we study the 20th century in my world history class. It is time to think about where my young scholars might go in the last two months of school.

So, in a way, this is “Kaleidoscopes” Part II as I think about my students again, and turn my attention away from just eating and talking (although I do maintain a healthy regimen of both of those too in Jordan!) and remember what they had been up to before our spring break.

About two weeks before the vacation we had a test that covered the era of 1700-1900 focusing on three extraordinary revolutions that overshadowed everything else in the western world—the Scientific Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. These revolutions—one in thought, one in politics, and one in technology—allowed us to move quickly through 200 years of history. My goal has been that even though this course is supposed to cover the entire world’s history in one year (who in the Ministry of Education or school systems around the world think that that is smart???) we must spend at least six weeks on the 20th century.

When it came time for the test the students approached this test with much less of the juvenile trepidation they had shown before. At the study session I offered there was much less of the “I don’t know anything—you must tell me everything” harangue. In the study session we compared the Scientific Revolution with the Industrial Revolution. Raja, a bright young man to be sure, suggested that in the Scientific Revolution thinkers stared and wondered at natural phenomena as opposed to in the Industrial Revolution thinkers applied the scientific discoveries of the earlier age. He gets it. You study “stuff” and then you distill your own answers. Hard working Lana asked less about what “exactly will be on the test” and realized you just have to prepare yourself for whatever question is posed to you.

One of the questions I asked involved a document we had studied very closely, the French Revolution era “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen.” The language in the document states that the French government for generations had exhibited “ignorance, naivete and contempt for the French people.” I asked the students to name a historical moment when the revolutionaries realized such “ignorance, naivete and contempt for the French people.” What was exciting was that I got a variety of solid answers—from the storming of the Bastille, to the Tennis Court Oath, to the angry Women’s March on Versailles, but one very interesting response came from Faris, a young man who had been working his way up the ladder of improvement since January (from D+ work to B+ work). Faris wrote about a painting that we studied, The Swing, and commented that in this “carefree painting of a noblewoman we might see the birth of the contempt of the nobility to the problems of the Third Estate.” I had never thought of the proto-Revolution painting in such a way, and as always, when your students teach you something new, you are re-energized.

Another student, Samiha, looked at the iconic painting by Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People and thought it reminded her of the god Vishnu in Hinduism. Oh my. Never made that connection before, but she saw “Liberty” trouncing ignorance, naivete, and contempt in much the same way she remembered the Vishnu trounced ignorance and folly in Hinduism.

I had given the students an excerpt from Charles Dickens’ French Revolution novel, A Tale of Two Cities—the famous opening: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the season of light. It was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair.” On the test I asked them to take one of the historical moments we had studied and asked them to explain how the Dickens quotation better explains the fullness of their historical moment.

I still need to think about the words I use on tests—I have to explain, or clarify words more than I want to do, words like “intervene,” and “debt” and “true son”—so eventually they do not need me there as But the tests improved on the previous test scores the month before. One student went from an F to a B- on this test. I love that many write at the top of their tests, “God Bless This Test.” One section of class asked if we could start the test early (16 of 17 were in their seats three minutes before the bell rang) so they could have more time for writing their answers.

When I graded the tests I decided to color code them—not put a grade on each of the mini-essays, but color code them in pink and green. Their prose was highlighted in green for a great idea or concept explained, and words in pink meant a great historical fact had been used. I wanted them to see immediately where their work had been most effective. Some students had lots of pink and green, some had some green and no pink, some had a little pink, and some had no highlighting at all. Of course they wanted to wheedle out of me what the actual grade had been, but I hoped they would take the bait to see what had been a strong answer, and what had been more or less drivel. I gave them the option to rewrite their answers, using their book and/or notes for extra credit. But the color coding did allow for some good discussion about what made for effective answers. How many took the bait? Not many—just a few students took advantage of the re-write opportunity. But let’s not be hasty—there have been deep improvements in my young scholars.

During this time I invited a lovely Canadian woman teaching in Kuwait to interview at KA. She teaches there in what is called a “Model School.” But as she explained the level at which she teaches her seniors in high school (a most basic level in my mind—she gives them lists of terms and then she tests them on the terms—she says she has to otherwise they fail whatever test she offers) I realized, yet again, the progress our students have made. I remember when I directed the show Anything Goes in 1994, and that production was beset with more problems than you could imagine, and my inveterate actress Megan noted the old adage, From hell, past earth, and into flight, about the state of our show. My students at KA are living that adage it seems to me.

One of my sweetest students, however, has had a rough couple of months. He and his best friend have loved the boarding school experience too much, and consequently done very little of their work! We sat them down and showed them what had happened to their grades—yadda yadda yadda. As he turned in that April test he enclosed a note to me with the inscription:

“To my dear Mr. John,
I would like to first thank you for your help in these last few months. I will take full responsibility for what I have done poorly this semester. I hope that in the remaining weeks, I would worry less about the past and work for a better future. I will cover my sloppy work with more good quality and on-time homework to improve my grades that are falling down. Therefore, I hope you accept my apology so I could have a second chance to improve. Thank you for your compassionate feelings that you gave me.”

Kids these days.