Monday, June 30, 2008

“Wisdom and Wonder,” Part II

I am one of those teachers who save student papers. Hmmm…’save’ may be too mild a verb here, it would be more accurate to say I horde student papers. You wouldn’t believe the files I have accumulated over the years of student work! It is all stuff I had graded, but I managed to deflect student awareness over 20 years so that I might squirrel away papers for posterity from the hundreds of students I have taught But last year on this day, I finally cleaned out my classroom at Hackley, packing up the treasures and detritus of over a decade in one place. Unfortunately, as I packed up the Penske truck last June 30, I discovered that I could not take all those files I had been saving over the course of three schools’ work. The truck was not the size of a fort. Yes, it was pretty traumatic as I realized I was going to have to part with, simply abandon, papers going back to the late 1980s. But the truck and the car could only hold so much.

So now that you know that odd character trait (flaw? eccentricity?) about me, it won’t surprise you a bit that I stowed away the final papers of my young scholars to bring back to the United States. I may have cast aside dozens of papers last June 30, but I now have the beginnings of a new gold mine.

The other day I showed you some examples from my 9th graders’ final papers on The Giver. Here are a few more examples of the kind of thinking and writing these pioneer KA students offered this last month:

Karim: We read the article this year that stated, “Faith will unsettle politics everywhere.” This phrase talks about how faith will always disagree with the people on control and in this case Jonas and the Chief Elders. How Jonas started to believe and wanting change and that was faith and that unsettled the politics as it broke every rule and created disorder and that was the point….I personally regret all the times that I wasted instead of aiming for my best….Having most of the knowledge and then figuring things out and that’s what’s similar to Mr. John and the Giver. They let us set our own path, not follow the trail.

Jadallah: These memories have joy in them, but it fears me to allow my kids to go through what I felt. But the pain turned out to be a relief at the end of the day. The pain that put me down, and weakened my soul at that moment, has made me the man I am, and has strengthened every positive side of me and allowed me to be in control and has been worth the journey.

Maya: The one thing that Jonas and I share together is the love of learning, and the desire, that eager wanting just like a dictator and his want of power—of an education, of a future, will take you places, and make you someone.

Yasamin: As I read the back cover of the book I thought it was going to be another pointless fiction book with no true meaning, nothing to do with history and certainly nothing to do with my life….[However!] There are many parts of this novel that were like moments in history….When all the memories came out they looked to the Giver for help, like in the Great Depression when the Germans looked to Hitler for help.

Reem: As Martin Luther King wrote, “Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which starts out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion.” This quote made me think about the book that we read in World History class….The thread that keeps the community together is “Sameness” and without this thread or if anyone wants to break that law they have to be “different” and most of the people would feel ashamed and won’t dare to be that way….One of the great historic figures that reminds me of Jonas…is Gandhi…Gandhi decides to take the path of “satyagraha” and it means the force of truth and it is no violence. This figure stood up against all opinions and achieved what he wanted without force.

Robert: [Rob re-writes the first paragraph of the novel amending all the references to Jonas with references about himself, showing a parallel to Jonas’ trajectory. Rob entitles his paper, “A Perpendicularly Parallel Life.”] We learn in the story about the glory of surprises, and that is the fun—they are surprises!

Hamzah: The Giver is a struggle of a boy with his own community, his own parents, and with his elders. Lois Lowry calls the main characters the Giver and the Receiver, but I see him as The Struggler, instead….The book says, “and still he did not understand.” It’s the same that happened to me when I became a student in KA. I was afraid, confused, I barely understood the teacher and what they wanted. Same for Jonas, he didn’t understand everything the Giver told him. However, when I spent more time with the teachers and in the school, I started to get everything right and completely understood what they wanted and how they wanted it….I stepped forward and said: I will take knowledge.

Thaer: Jonas’ discovery that all he used to be told are lies and his struggle to change his community reminds me of when the Soviet president Gorbachev cancelled the history exams in 1989 since all the textbooks were full of lies. Jonas’ discovery represents the historians’ further discoveries when they were allowed to look into the old Soviet files in the 1990s….Even our goal in history class is the same as what Jonas goes through—our goal is to feel what it is like to live in a certain era, and Jonas lived in those eras before Sameness and felt how life is there. My journey as a historian doesn’t differ from Jonas’—Jonas’ journey is crowned by a huge change in his community at the end….The capacity to see beyond is the most important characteristic required for a successful historian. Historians should be able to read between the lines and to speculate about the future. Another characteristic is to handle pain, and who says learning is not painful? However, if I handle the pain and insist on learning, like what Jonas did, I will be a successful historian able to change the world the way Jonas did….Like Jonas’ journey, in mine, I saw different colors in history class, and I have been experiencing beautiful events, such as the beginning of civilizations, the glory of Athens, and great moments of hope….What Jonas does after he knows the truth is what I’m trying to do; not to make people lie to each other and not to let history contain lies. Jonas succeeds in his journey, but will I succeed?

Raja: I look back at before I really became engaged with my history class and I realize that I was very silly, and quite stupid. Although I thought I was smart, and although I thought I was able to make wise decisions about things in my life, I really couldn’t….The equivalent of Jonas’ memories is the information I receive while in history class, the effect it has on me is similar to the effect of the memories on Jonas, astonishment, and then a sense of understanding. As I get information about things I am constantly reviewing it and analyzing it so I can understand….I love to analyze a moment in history. You first stare at it, more likely than not you are astonished by what is in front of you. Then you read through it, break it down, and then you put it all together to be able to make a statement about something. Jonas does all of this and his statement is clear….I think coming to KA in this day and age when there are so many problems, and so many more problems build behind closed gates that it is important for my generation to be able to know, to want and to be ready to make such decisions. If my generation does not look at things and make statements and make changes then it will be my generation and all the others after me that will suffer the consequences….When I understand, I too become a Giver….Looking back at the history of my student life that I never used to care about the knowledge about which I had little interest, however now I recognize the importance of all knowledge, especially the ones I find most boring because it means that I know the least about them.

Abdullah: We began the year in 1993, a year described by historian Howard Zinn as “in the summer of 1993, there is a general mood of despair.” However, I must protest, for in the summer of 1993 a small light of hope was born, and that light of hope was called Abdullah. The year is also the year of the birth of a very interesting book about a boy named Jonas. Throughout the 20th century mankind has made many of the stupidest mistakes it has made, and suffered, and still is, for them. These were made by stupid choices. What if one didn’t have to make these choices? How would the world be like if we didn’t have the curse/gift of making choices?....This Abdullah received a phone call that he had been accepted to attend KA—he would finally escape the usual memorization at school and actually have fun learning. He kept thinking about the courses he would take, and how they would be taught. He didn’t even think about History….The first lesson was longago and the only thing I remember is this: “Our goal in this course is to wonder how it felt like to stand in another historical era.” I didn’t quite understand that. The next week I remember Howard Zinn’s comment that, “I wanted to change the world, so I became a history teacher.” But I still didn’t understand, and I didn’t know it then, but Mr. John knew I didn’t….Jonas now sees the importance of questioning, of memories, of wisdom, of choices, and of history. He sees the reason the Chinese loved knowledge, and why Stalin only let people know what he wanted them to learn. He discovered that knowledge is the most powerful weapon, as I did this year.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

“Wisdom begins in wonder”

My student Lana thus began her paper on Lois Lowry’s fable, The Giver, with that choice quotation by Confucius. There are many wonderful things about Lana’s paper, not least of which is that she had struggled with the notion of ‘wondering’ throughout much of the year. I urged Lana to become a historian who “gives in” to a sense of wonder, but she had trouble seeing the purpose of that in a course that seemed (to her) to require only memorization.

I assigned this Newberry Award-winning novel as a summative achievement in our World History course, and asked my 9th graders to write a paper unlike any assignment they had had in a history course. The novel traces the journey of a young man named Jonas as he comes of age and uncovers certain truths about his society (I am going to be purposefully vague about the synopsis of this book in the hopes that you might read this absorbing tale if you have not already discovered its beauties!). I asked my students to compare what Jonas had learned to what they had learned in their first year at KA. I reminded them of the elements I prize in an A paper: evaluation, connection and reflection. Just so you know how to get an A from me, that means, I want you to evaluate the most pungent passages in the book (based on criteria you create and explain), connect to something we have studied in history, and offer reflection that reveals your own voice and insight. We had practiced these skills all year, and I looked forward to how this open-ended question would come off in my scholars’ hands.

During my 12-hour flight home to the United States on Tuesday I re-read their papers (due on June 11) and enjoyed, again, the wondering and wisdom they demonstrated. I thought you might enjoy some of the moments I most enjoyed.

Leen: Just like Jonas, I was living in a normal life country that I called home. [Oman] I thought I knew what my life would like look like for the next four years….However, there was an unexpected change and I had to pack up to a new country and new friends and a new life….In the start of my experience, I was trying to be someone I am not, I was trying to impress others and be someone that I never could be. However, as my experience began to show me who I really was, I knew that I should show everyone around me the truth of myself and show them the truth of my world and my life. Just like Jonas, I needed to show everyone the truth.

Omar M: Jonas and I are alike because both of us are daydreamers, we have many passages where Jonas talks to himself wandering about a recent event that happened to him. I do the same thing in class and when I read a book, I spend half my time thinking about a key word or phrase. This habit is good because you can think about something deeply and bad because you might miss another important thing….Jonas is isolated in his world just like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi in jail because they had the truth, after Jonas was assigned as a receiver, he was forced to get insulated from the world because he knows a lot that can make people revolt on the government just like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. Therefore knowledge is not always easy.

Farah: Just like Jonas, at school here, we can never learn enough new material….At KA we learn equality, we learn that no matter how different our backgrounds were, we are all working together in the hope of achieving something great for our own community over the upcoming years….”Frightened was the way we had felt a year ago [page 1]” and walking into classes the first day of school this year is just like becoming a 12. You get this strange feeling of apprehension as many doors open up in front of us expecting us to enter, welcoming us to acknowledge what awaits at the other side. Jonas experienced things he had never known, and I myself experienced boarding for the first time....Mostly, Jonas felt love, one of the deep memories he experienced, where a family was seated joyfully together. At KA’s “family unit” not a day passes by without people feeling this love and this sensation of one family….Jonas leaves his community with the knowledge given him by the Giver’s memories in order to make a change. We leave KA this year with the knowledge no other might have, receiving wisdom from our own givers, knowing we will make a difference, holding the key to our future, and hungry for even more experiences.

Omar D: I would like to compare The Giver to the “anatomy of a revolution,” an anatomy of change, as Crane Brinton talked about….People read about philosophers Montesquieu and Condorcet in the coffeehouses which is in the book the place where like Jonas receives his memories….The image of Jonas going out from the community and giving all the memories to the people is like the image of Newton coming to the world and enlightening it, “Let Newton be, and all was light….”Reading this book changed my point of view to the world. I now see myself as Jonas….At my ceremony of 14 I was selected to go to the world’s version of the Annex (the place where the Giver and Jonas meet to share the memories—KA) and there I learned the memories of the world.

Karim H: Jonas and the Giver were the ones to awaken the community, exactly like how America had awakened Japan in 1853….I began to look at colors like something that can be lost, and not be taken for granted, there was some pain in some memories, there was a phrase that Mr. John told us of his friend who said, “real learning keeps the pain awake.” There were memories of love and during the year I learned to love other people and make new friends….[Karim compared the Five Guiding Principles of KA with the traits that Jonas needed in the book.] We need courage for many things at KA. Especially to stand up in front of other people and say something. This helps in learning, we need courage to achieve love of learning, because it needs courage to give a speech and deal with exams and assignments.

Yazan: The story of The Giver was written in 1993, the year I came to life. In this community, the writer tells us that “rules were very hard to change,” just like Gandhi when he wanted colored people in South Africa to be equal to white people in South Africa. He reached his goal after a long period of suffering by using satyagraha which is a resistance of civil disobedience….In the book there is a line: “there will be changes.” This reminds me of August 5, 2007 when my parents told me I should go to KA. I didn’t want to be separated from my friends, but my parents told me I had to think of my own benefit and my own future. My father said, “You might be lucky enough to be accepted and it is your birthday, remember?” [Yazan remembers the line that Howard Zinn insists on hope, and in his paper Yazan compares hope to Jonas’ younger brother Gabe. Yazan writes that Howard “Zinn would insist on Gabe.”] Jonas wanted change, he believed in himself, he had great expectations and a desire for change which pulled him more to have a major change, what is called a revolution. His Majesty King Abdullah II is hoping to succeed in the peace process of Palestine, but he is trying to make sure that everyone is pleased and no one is offended, having preternatural expectations for the strive of peace.

Lana: “Wisdom begins in wonder.” By Confucius. Wisdom is not an easy thing to gain. Wonder is not an easy thing to do. But you can never gain knowledge is you don’t wonder. The whole time I was reading The Giver¸ I was wondering. At first I did not understand what was going on. I was wondering, wondering, wondering. Again this magic word WONDER that wisdom spins around kept repeating in my head until I understood the whole thing. If you are not thinking about your world, about the fact that it might need changes, you won’t get what wisdom means….I am reminded about the first day at KA when I kept repeating the same phrase to all the teachers which is I CAN’T! I never knew what I could do until I tried this great experience here at KA. I think the word that best describes Jonas and I is persistence.

Qusai: This year we wanted to be better historians and be able to analyze facts and determine in what way we can use them. In addition, we concentrated on standing in different historical eras to see, feel, experience what it would be to be a witness on very important historical events….Jonas’ “capacity to see beyond” is similar to The Treason of Images that was made by Rene Magritte in 1928 that showed how people should be able to see beyond the reality, beyond the limits of the human imagination, to have a clearer vision of the hidden goal in a journey, or to avoid the art of illusions that our eyes deliver to our minds to feel the satisfaction.

Mohammad: Jonas was confused. He was confused the same way I was on the beginning of the school year when Dr. Eric and Dr. Meera started talking about the principles of the school and when Mr. John started talking about the artworks from 20,000 years ago. I was confused because it is a new thing that I not used to so it is the same feeling that Jonas felt.

Rashed: This is the first book I have ever read in my entire life. And I actually liked it. It is a story about a boy named Jonas who was like me in the beginning of the year, a small flower, but as he grew older and his wisdom grew with him, he blossomed. [Rashed describes Jonas in several ways.] Jonas was enlightened by these memories and he began to question authority, just like Martin Luther who started a whole new aspect of religion because he questioned the authority of the Pope.

Faris: Jonas and I both love our bicycles. We can’t wait to get to them.

I will share another dozen students’ work with you in a day or two…

Monday, June 23, 2008

Waiting To Exhale

537 days ago I first met Eric, the head of this nascent school, KA in Jordan. We had dinner in New York, guests of my dear friends Anne and Peter. I held my breath as he relayed the vision of this school, and mused about how exciting it would be to work amongst the founding faculty of such a daring project. I held my breath as I dared think whether he would ask me to join in this venture. For so many reasons, I have been holding my breath for 537 days.

I held my breath as I wondered whether it was safe to go to live in the Middle East. I held my breath as I mulled over the offer to head the History Department at KA. I held my breath as I pondered whether I should leave the confines of my comfortable Westchester and Manhattan life. I held my breath as I worried how I would approach the subject with my family. I held my breath as I flew for a weekend trial visit to Jordan. I held my breath as I prayed for discernment about the direction of my life. I held my breath as I questioned my fears and insecurities. I held my breath as I resolved to start afresh, from scratch, at KA. I held my breath as I told my beloved students at Hackley that I would be leaving at the end of the school year. I held my breath as I braced myself to tell everyone I would become an ex-patriate and live between Iraq and Israel. I held my breath as I designed new courses for a student body I had never met. I held my breath as I introduced myself, via the cyber-waves of email, to soon-to-be colleagues. I held my breath as I anticipated the “last” of everything at Hackley. I held my breath as I welcomed invitations for dinners and lunches from soon-to-be former students. I held my breath as I concluded the final days of my courses. I held my breath as I cried through my last graduation at Hackley. I held my breath as I packed up the boxes—85 in all—of books I had around me in New York. I held my breath as I planned the minutiae of moving and shipping a life. I held my breath as I faced the panic attacks of starting over. I held my breath as my dad and brother-in-law arrived to spearhead the cross-country (well, from the east coast to the Midwest) drive. I held my breath as I bid adieu to friends whose hearts we had mutually touched. I held my breath as I typed up the first of what is so-far 90 blog entries. I held my breath as I got on that plane.

This is my fourth school in my teaching career, and whenever you are new, no matter how seasoned you may be, you hold your breath that entire first year. Up until that last meeting of the year, you are not quite sure what might be around the next corner. In effect, I have been holding my breath for 537 days.

Yesterday I completed the cycle of meetings. It was a long day—from several hours of faculty discussions to manic jags trying to secure financial reimbursements (like for relocating 11 months ago!) to a splashy meeting with new parents for fall course registration to a wedding party for a colleague, to packing and cleaning for the summer. But it is finished, and now in about an hour I will grab a ride from my great friend Sam, and he will whisk me to the airport in Amman and I will be home in hometown Cincinnati before midnight tonight.

To call this year eventful is quite an understatement. Everything was a first. Everything had to be named. Everything required a discussion, or at least a snap decision. We had a contest to name the school mascot, a contest to name the school newspaper, the new traffic circle, and the literary magazine, et cetera. We had the first sports defeat, the first sports win, the first expulsion, the first play, the first music concert, the first Ramadan, the first exam period—every single thing was new to somebody, either from an Arab perspective or an American perspective, or both.

The literary magazine was christened, Al-Majnoonah, and in the preface, our Dean of Faculty wrote:

“Al-Majnoonah—literally “the crazy woman”—refers to the flowering vine of the bougainvillea, remarkable for its ability to flower prolifically in vivid shades of orange, vermillion, magenta, and lavender. Its hardiness allows it to withstand difficult climactic conditions, and its numerous sharp thorns protect it from external depredations.

Blooming wildly, resilient, beautiful, eccentric, and occasionally prickly—these are the contours of our literary and arts journal…where we hope knowledge will always flower….”

This afternoon as I rushed to my classroom to hide the valuables (as was suggested) and take down the posters, I took from my desk drawer one of my so-called valuables to hide in my apartment for the summer. It was a gift from my sister from Staples, and it is the device, the magic button, that when you press the big red “EASY” disk, it calls out, “That was easy.” I had used it during the year on test days if a student was so inclined to push the easy button upon his/her departure from the test.

Last night, after the evening of Arab dancing and American karaoke (it was an American teacher and a Jordanian buildings-and-grounds man who married) I walked home, and of course, waxed a little philosophical. What had we accomplished this year? We implemented a plan for a school that was utterly progressive, utterly optimistic, utterly idealistic, and utterly necessary.

We coaxed this plan to come alive. We crafted decisions, often making it all up as we went along, that may shape the school for decades. We made history. We trusted that we would all show up and be consumed by the pioneering spirit. We defined what we are supposed to be doing in life.

In the last three days we met as a faculty about 8 hours a day, trying to refine the decisions of this first year, trying to steer this ship even more on course. These were long days—I had never had so many meetings, and yeah, of course you don’t like them, but they asked us for input, and after 20 years I had never seen meetings where faculty actually contributed and discussed and debated.

I arrived here on July 31, 2007. Today was the last day of faculty business. Essentially, it has been a 47-week school year. I’m sure there will be more reflection, but for right now, it is time to breathe.

Sigh. Whoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooosh…

That was easy.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

“sauntering to the holy land”

We are in the throes of good-byes here at KA. On Friday our Gap Year fellows left on planes taking them to Greece, Spain, or the United States—in a couple months they will matriculate at their new colleges and universities. On Thursday we bade adieu to our students for the summer after a slide show (how professional do these things look nowadays with digital photography and music!) about our pioneering year at KA. As my dear friend Elizabeth and I walked our student Hamzah to the car, we all three cried. I laughed a little too, saying, “Hamzah—we are just saying good-bye for 10 weeks!” Still, it is a parting, and they are rarely simple and easy. Two days from now the faculty will take flight—to points in England, France, Spain, Thailand, Italy, South Africa, Croatia, Turkey, China, and the United States. Some will come back in two months and others will start new chapters in their lives. Like all of you, I am no stranger to good-byes. My tear ducts get a good work-out every June.

A school calendar is so helpful at putting a chunk of time in perspective. There is such an emphatic beginning to a school year, when, of course, hopes are never higher, and the contours of a school year are fairly predictable, and finally, there is that all-important modern phenomenon we call “closure.” There are hugs, gifts, promises and parties.

I have taught in four schools over the course of a so-far 20-year career, and I remember my good-bye parties with vivid relish. When I left Gaston Day School there was a great fried chicken party at the Walker house with smiles and memories to send me off to graduate school. BFF Mary and I had been touring diners in the county that summer of 1989 as a “summer project,” and in one diner we had laughed and laughed at the saw-blade art available for purchase at this one diner in Dallas, North Carolina. At my party, as I opened my fancy William and Mary box, nestled in the tissue paper was a prime example of this high art. Mary had inscribed on the back of the magnificent saw-blade art: “Memories of 1989.” In 1999 this treasure hung proudly on my set of Steel Magnolias, a tribute to those memories in the late 1980s in North Carolina.

At a good-bye party in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1996, a large group of my former actors sent me off with lines from their favorite plays we had done in our five years together. They presented me with a plaque that sits in the other room here in Jordan and always comforts with the words: Thank you for giving us the courage to believe, and ‘we are with you wherever you are.’ Another chapter finished.

Last year at this time I enjoyed many lunches and dinners with treasured friends from the Hackley years. The Khosrowshahi and Polcari families had a dynamite party for me with catered Jordanian food and Jordanian flags and scores of the people that had enriched me over my 11 years at Hackley. One former student and dear friend, Adam, flew all the way from California to join in the chorus of good-byes. These are moments to savor when the day-to-day stresses of teaching can wear on you.

Colleagues John and Suzanne came from Deerfield to KA for just this one year, this opening year of the school, as visiting scholars. It was always the plan and contract that it would be just one year and then back to their New England farmhouse and the 200+ year school in Massachusetts. I met John and Suzanne my first night in Jordan—we had a mutual acquaintance, and hit it off immediately. They are the kind of teachers we all hope to have and know—brilliant in scholarship, measured and patient in their crafting of curricula, demanding in their insistence on accuracy and precision, understanding and inspiring, and life-long educators. Suzanne gave the keynote address at the convocation of the school year, way back, 300 nights ago in August, to ring in the school year, and she exhorted us to remember the joys of this year, urging us to note our places as pioneers in this endeavor. It was our first night to meet His Majesty, and it was one of those glorious Jordanian dusky evenings, and the school year lay before us, unknown and untested.

Throughout the year, John and Suzanne led the way for exploring the region, leaving no rug store untouched in the kingdom! They created the finest faculty apartment I will ever know, with treasures and furniture and silks and rugs worthy of a spread in Architectural Digest. But more important than their “stuff”—they set a tone for the boarding faculty, to be involved in our students’ lives, to lift them up beyond a kind of wild dog-dom and create a dorm family. I am forever in their debt for their leadership and love of school life.

John and Suzanne decided to throw their own good-bye party! They invited all the faculty dorm residents to a weekend at Dana, a beautiful, unique nature reserve a couple hours away. They reserved for us the entire Guest House, perched on the cliff of the breathtaking Wadi Dana. We trooped down in seven cars and spent the afternoon and evening hiking through the reserve, enjoyed an Arab BBQ dinner, and then feasted on the I-have-said-it-before-and-I-will-say-it-again glorious Jordanian sunset.

This was not the entire faculty of KA, but John and Suzanne had wanted to say a special thank-you to those of us in the dorms who had lived with our students. It was an interesting contrast to our usual noisy accommodations in the dorm! The Guest House, wonderfully cozy and comfortable, is incredibly silent. It is not near any roads and your view is the still Wadi Dana, another slice of the Jordanian Grand Canyon. You see the lights twinkling on the Dead Sea at night, and the call of nightjars echoing eerily up the valley make for an unforgettably serene experience. Queen Noor once called the experience at Dana a “10-star” experience.

Dana is a unique experience as a visionary program combining scientific research, social reconstruction and sustainable tourism. In the 1990s a government agency reconstructed an ancient village, and revitalized a traditional farming/grazing community, while allowing low-impact tourism so not to exploit or ruin the vast reserves of flowers, fauna, animals in the area. As I walked along the trails, I wished for my friend Anne (okay, that would be a daily wish, anyway) to help me out with the names of trees and flowers.

This past Thursday at morning meeting, when it came time for the school to officially say good-bye to our departing John and Suzanne, Suzanne was a little too moved to speak, but John read one of his favorite passages. Teachers rarely will let a chance slide by to teach you something new! As a New Englander, it is not surprising that John likes Henry David Thoreau, and so John read to the school a passage from a Thoreau essay called, “Walking.” He shared:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks--who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.

It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return-- prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.

It was a beautiful moment—students and faculty listened intently (a skill we worried they would never acquire!) as each of us processed why Mr. John had read us this piece. I had never read the essay before, but here was this esteemed colleague, even after exams, urging his students—all of us—to be “saunterers”—walkers, explorers with purpose. Of course Thoreau did not mean the literal Holy Land, modern-day Israel, Palestine and Jordan, but whatever we have deemed “holy.” But what an added bonus for us as we realized we lived indeed, in that holy area famed from the stories of the Bible. I know John well enough to know that for all the teachers in the audience too, he was reminding us that the space in our classrooms is Holy Land. From around the world many of us came, ready to “go forth” in this educational adventure.

We are seeking the Holy Land, God’s kingdom on earth, not geographically but in justice and beauty. We are actively seeking to join in the process of our own sanctification. We must never sit back and let life happen to us. Even though sometimes we will feel like a meandering river we must remember that that river is, and must be “sedulously seeking the shortest course” to its destination or else it will dry up. Sometimes the shortest course is not an obvious straight line. And let’s also encourage ourselves by remembering Tolkien’s quote in the prophecy about Aragorn, “All who wander are not lost.” While we choose to trust God in where He will take us we must still saunter on. And when we feel lost in our sauntering we must turn our faces East, trust our guide even if we cannot see Him, and take another step toward the Holy Land.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Postcard from Istanbul

I have wanted to go to Istanbul, Turkey since June of 1990. I remember exactly when this desire was born, this mad need to check it off of one of those mental “1001 Places You Must See Before You Die” lists. I was on the tour with the Brown University Chorus in June 1990 traipsing through the USSR, Baltic States, Scandinavia, and ending in Amsterdam. It was the last stop on our tour (our posters in Russia screamed, “Brown Bears in Red Square!") and a kind of funky choir hosted us in Amsterdam. The couple with whom I stayed (can’t remember their names at all, but the woman’s look screamed 1980s Punk with her flaming, crip-cropped hair) had just returned from a six-week tour of Turkey. They regaled my roomie Scott and me with tales of their Turkish adventures, great photos, and a trip to a Turkish restaurant. While I left Amsterdam very excited from our 3-week adventure in Northern Europe, I couldn’t wait to go to Turkey.

It took me 18 years!

Over the years I tried to get a trip to Turkey off the ground, but it always fizzled. I came close in 2005 when I hoped to have several days included in Turkey in our Greece trip from Hackley. But the State Department had a mild warning about possible terrorist threats at that time and it did not seem prudent to escort 40 students into any kind of potential near-danger. So I have waited patiently for 18 years to go to Turkey.

Earlier this year I started to plan this trip since one of my young colleagues, the inimitable and thrilling Chris, had a boyfriend working in Ankara (Turkey’s capital) and they often met for romantic getaways in Istanbul. Istanbul is only a 2 hour flight from Amman, so it is certainly ripe for a 48 hour in-between the school weeks destination.

Chris and I set it up with her boyfriend Erik, and I recruited my first great friend at KA Elizabeth to join us for our adventure. Elizabeth, as the faithful blog-readers will remember, is the friend who encouraged me up the 800 steps on the donkey at Petra last August on the infamous donkey ride, and flew with me to Budapest to visit the divine Sharon for Thanksgiving.

But back to Istanbul! I guess Istanbul has long fascinated me since it literally is the crossroads of civilization, where Europe meets Asia—where West meets East. Of course for over 1000 years it was the glorious Constantinople, capital of two grand empires. In 1453 the Ottomans took over and ruled through the end of World War I. (By the way, you may notice the verb I used in the last sentence—I said “took over” which relieves me of having to choose one of the dicier nouns in explaining the monumental event that took place in 1453. You see, as a western historian I have always considered 1453 to be the “fall” of Constantinople, but my wonderful Jordanian colleague Fatina grew up considering it as the “conquest” of Constantinople. Hmmm…the lovely theme of point of view raises its head again in semantics…) Even though Ankara is the capital of the newly created entity called Turkey, Istanbul remains the historic and cultural center of this country.

We leave Amman on the nasty 3:30 a.m. flight, but the beauty of that is we arrive at the airport, whiz through customs and land on our hotel’s doorstep by 7:15 a.m. and I am ready to attack the city (I suppose in a city that has seen so much warfare over the centuries, I should have used another verb…). Our rooms are ready for us, but who needs to rest when Istanbul is at your feet!

This city is huge! They say it is between 15-17 million, sprawls over an enormous area on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait, splitting the city in half and causing it to literally straddle two continents. (I just can’t get over how fun that is to ponder!) You can drive over this one bridge and in seconds travel from Europe to Asia! Love it! But in spite of how big all this sounds, much of grand old Istanbul is nestled into a cozy Old Town area (Sultanahmet), a compact and welcoming district where our hotel is and most of the historic sights.

Since it is a Friday, a day of prayer for Muslims, we decide to visit the Blue Mosque first, just in case it is closed later for prayer. A sultan named Ahmet succeeded to the throne in 1604 at the age of 14, and decided to build one of the most gorgeous mosques in the world. It is called the Blue Mosque because of the cool, rich hues dominating the interior of the mosque. It is flanked by six prayer towers (minarets) instead of the usual four so Ahmet could flaunt his wealth. I learned that the clerics in Mecca were so jealous of this mosque that they soon built seven minarets around the mosque in their holy city just so Ahmed’s new mosque would not upstage theirs. The dome is enormous, and with the painted floral and geometric patterns, low-hanging haunting chandeliers, and rich, artful Arabic calligraphy, a moving experience. Interestingly, this mosque represents the pinnacle of Ottoman architecture—and marks the beginning of the empire’s decline. The construction exhausted the treasury, and soon the Ottoman empire would endure the joke-y appellation of “sick man of Europe” for the next 375 years (you know how those wacky historians are…once they designate you a sick man…well…I don’t have to tell you…)

Next we made our way down below Istanbul to the fairly recently-opened cistern of Constantinople. This 6th century underground rain forest of pillars in this vast, subterranean reservoir once stored water for the fast-growing capital city. Cool and unusual…

But our next stop is really the grand-daddy of sights in Istanbul: the Hagia Sophia. For centuries it was known simply as “The Great Church” since for a millennium it was the biggest church in Christendom. Built in the 6th century by the Bill-and-Hillary Power Couple of the Ancient World, Justinian and Theodora, it is impressive—but much more. Yes, walking through the centuries-old church-then mosque-now museum is awe-inspiring, but since it is a major icon in the canon of Art History, I couldn’t help but feel I was traveling with a roster of the best and brightest from days of AP Art History at Hackley. I reveled in the engineering of the 1450 year-old dome, treasured the centuries -old mosaics, marveled in the sheer size of the place (there was a scaffold there inside the building that is the height of a 20-story building!) but I walked around with my cosmic gradebook, enjoying the spiritual presence of Nicki and Alyssa and Harrison and Jonathan and Taraneh and Kate and Sean and Kenrick and Katharine and Stefan and Gillian and Zoi and Anna and James and—pretty much all 240 students who took AP Art History from me at Hackley…Sigh…

After lunch we sauntered through Topkapi Palace, for centuries the palace where the great sultans hung their turbans and corralled their harems. Room after room of stunning tiled walls and ceilings, Chinese porcelain and tulip gardens (sometime I will have to have a lesson on how the Dutch took their first tulip bulbs from Constantinople and created their own tulip bonanza after the sultans…whoops, I think we just had that lesson) gave way to the Imperial Treasury, you know just several roomfuls of fist-sized diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Then we went to the Holy Relics room where the names of the exhibits send chills down your spines. We don’t need to have a debate about the veracity of relics here and now, but just to let you know what they claim to possess: Joseph’s turban, John the Baptist’s skull, David’s sword, a cooking pot from Abraham, a walking stick of Moses, and a footprint from Mohammad. An imam reads from the Quran 24 hours a day—and has been doing that 24/7, they say, since the 16th century.

As we strolled back out through the palace you just marvel at the summertime beauty of Istanbul—the lovely Bosphorus waters, the roses in the gardens, the wonderful air, and the lanes of grass.

The next morning we tackled the Grand Bazaar—4,000 shops and traders bursting with everything you can imagine. Istanbul claims it was the first mall created in World History. Chris was on the look-out for a rug, a souvenir of this last trip with her boyfriend (and oh yeah, us too) in Istanbul. They say the Bazaar has lost some of its “Oriental” ambience, but it still had that great character that makes for a great morning of shopping as prowling. I also walked out with a new rug too—one with a motif of the Tree of Life.

As the sands sift through our hourglass of time, Elizabeth and I race over to (race? As I think about it we had a leisurely lunch at a place with the immortal name of Chocolate World!) Dolmabahce Palace, the last hurrah of the wheezing Ottoman Empire. In a final attempt to rejuvenate the declining image of the empire, a 19th century Sultan built this ostentatious and modern palace to replace the old Topkapi palace. Thankfully for the hundreds of daily tourists, the Turkish government has maintained the rococo grandeur of this jewel on the Bosphorus. It was used as a juicy photo-op during the 2004 NATO summit so they say. The Imperial Hall can accommodate 2,500 people and the world’s largest crystal chandelier hangs from the dome that is soaring some 118 into air.

We ended up going to a bohemian district that has a Times-Square feel to walk through, grab a couple of Turkish White Castle-style hamburgers, and sit in a café 8 stories up called 360 Degrees. There we ended our exploration of the city.

The trip was wonderful. My last international trip of the school year, with two of my greatest friends of the year to whom I must bid adieu in the next week, visiting some grand sights, breakfasting in my hotel in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia…just a charming weekend.

I leave eager to study more about Turkey—how did they make that successful transition from run-down Ottoman doormat to a sleek, important, secular Islamic state (although I read an article in the paper there about the laws banning one from speaking anything against Turkey or Turkish-ness) and the impresario, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who almost singlehandedly created modern-day Turkey. Books will be bought, ideas imbibed…

Am I going back? You betcha! My visa is good for 90 days, just in time for a visit in early September right at the beginning of a new school year. This time I won’t wait 18 years to get there.

A great trip. As we took off in the plane at midnight from Istanbul, little did we know that that quick little piece of cheesecake purchased in the Food Court at the airport would virtually shut us down for the next few days!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

“If brevity is the soul of Wit, then I’ll be brief”.

This will be the briefest of blog entries, but I wanted my readership (who knows how vast it is!) to know that I will be back on keyboard tomorrow.

This week I have been battling a little salmonella, yeah, a little food poisoning.

Last weekend I went to Istanbul for the weekend, and on the way back to Amman, in the Istanbul airport, friend Chris and I pooled our Turkish Lira together and shared a piece of cheesecake from Gloria Jean's Coffees in the Food Court.

Within a half dozen hours we knew...we knew...

So this week while my stomach churned through the poison, I made it to class (sometimes barely) and otherwise tried to sleep. I visited our doctor twice, faithfully took the antibiotics, and ate very little for four days. Moreover, I wanted nothing to do with food! Boy do you get tired as your body works its survival methods to right itself!

The trip to Istanbul, lest not we forget, was great!

I hope to be back in top form tomorrow so I can send you a postcard from Istanbul...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Snap, Crackle, Pop

I learned early on when I went to college not to tell my parents everything happening. No, no—I’m not really referring to a lack of disclosure about bacchanalian activities as you might be imagining. I remember one afternoon in the first week or so I called my mother to pour out my sad little heart—some tale of woe, I can’t recall. I called again a few days later to share some wonderful little bit of news—again, the mind is foggy about the details—and my mother was so concerned about what had been my state of mind in the earlier call. That previous gloomy mood had lingered and then passed. As I remember about college there were roller-coasters of emotions, regularly, and I learned that things shifted gears almost hourly. So why share every bad mood?

When I was in the United States over spring break a dear friend, and a regular blog-reader, asked me if I ever had a bad day. From the blog entries she concluded that it is always sunny here (it is) and that I never suffer from grouchiness. Au contraire! But I did make a mini-self-pact when I started the blog (almost 11 months ago!) that I would not use this forum as a means to vent in an unproductive way, speak tooooooo candidly (anyone can access this at any moment!) or grouse in too catty a tone. After all, just as I learned in college, I may have a difficult morning, and by the setting of the sun over Madaba and imbibing a Coke Zero, I might be calm and serene once again.

But Tuesday I was in a bad mood. It was a goodie. And as the day progressed it got worse! So I reveled in my Ebeneezer-Scrooge-Bah-humbug-frame of mind. The morning got off to a rocky start as I finished grading some tests from my 9th graders. Granted, about a third of them were stellar, a third were fuzzy and sloppy, and a third were several steps waaaaaaay back from our most recent test performances. One was so bad it was actually funny—trying to see a student attempt to pull some information out of the inner recesses of the memory bank—hoping against hope that one of those scrawled words might actually match the thoughtful answers I had hoped to provoke from my young scholars.

(It helps if you read the next paragraph super-fast)

About 9:00 a.m. I checked email for the first time of the day and discovered an email with one of the red exclamation points—Danger, Will Robinson! goes my 1960s-TV addled brain—from a recent hire to our department. I had written the new colleague with the proposed course assignments for next year. Well, it turns out that during interviews with other administrators promises were made about such things, and I had not been told. As it turns out, I don’t think I can keep the promises of course assignments as they were tendered. And the slate of big-wig administrators are all in London this week for a meeting of the Board of Trustees. So what to do? Not an easy dilemma—either I come off as uninformed (which of course I was about the promises!) or unkind (you’ll do what I say newbie!!) and, hey, that brings up another point. I can’t even assign all the courses anyway because we haven’t done course selection yet! How can I possibly assign faculty if we don’t know what juniors will elect to take! I can’t guess what the juniors will wish to take! Following on the heels of this rise in blood pressure I get a call about book orders for next year—there are problems with the book orders for junior courses—what are the numbers?? Well, I can’t say since we haven’t surveyed the students—we can’t really guess among five courses, and 75 students, now can we? No, I don’t wish to hold up the book orders, but how can we get an authentic order? I could just pick numbers out of a hat!

During lunch two faculty in my department approached me with that look—we teachers all know that look—that look of sheepish You-won’t-believe-this-but-I-don’t-know-why-I-didn’t-get-all-my-work-done devastation. That evening we are supposed to meet as a department and edit each other’s exams. We had picked the date a month ago to make sure we proofread exams and could get them in on the due date to the Dean of Faculty on June 5. The exams were not complete—maybe started. I didn’t respond with a well of sympathy—I had created my exam two days earlier since several colleagues had wanted to see a model of a final exam. We all had the same assignment.

Exams are not easy to write. I would bet a teacher might easily spend more hours architecting a good exam than some above average students spend studying for them. None of us had an exam in a file to fall back on, and it takes time and planning.

Synapses are snapping. Nerves are crackling. Are heads gonna pop?

The fires of frustration are nicely stoked by now—the day can yield nothing good I decide. I sit with a colleague who did indeed have her exam finished, and we sit far away from other tables. As a few colleagues join us at the table, I warn them: “I am in a bad mood today—just so you know!” One woman looked a little scared and said, “But you don’t have bad moods. You’re Pollyanna.” I didn’t spend much time processing whether I liked being a parallel to the saccharine children’s story heroine who was always happy. I said, “You know that reminds me of one of my favorite monologues in a play. Do any of you know the “Tinkerbell is dead” monologue?

I’m not gonna lie to you—my tablemates looked a little scared as I described this Christopher Durang monologue of an unstable character named Jane. I thought I would re-print the monologue for you. Enjoy!

Jane: When I was eight years old, someone brought me to this theatre. Full of lots of other children. We were supposed to be watching a production of Peter Pan. And I remember that something seemed terribly wrong with the whole production. Odd things kept happening.

For instance, when the children would fly, the ropes they were on would just keep breaking ... and the actors would come thumping to the ground and they had to be carried off by stagehands. And there seemed to be an unlimited supply of understudies, to take their places, and then they'd just fall to the ground. And then the crocodile that chases Captain Hook, seemed to be a real crocodile, it wasn't an actor. And at one point it fell off the stage and crushed a couple of kids in the front row. And then some of the understudies came and took their places in the audience. And from scene to scene, Wendy just seemed to get fatter and fatter until finally by the end of act one she was completely immobile and they had to move her off stage with a cart.

You remember how in the second act Tinkerbell drinks some poison that Peter is about to drink in order to save him? And then Peter turns to the audience and he says, “Tinkerbell is going to die because not enough people believe in fairies. But if all of you clap your hands real hard to show that you do believe in fairies, maybe she won't die.”

So, we all started to clap. I clapped so long and so hard that my palms hurt and they even started to bleed I clapped so hard. Then suddenly the actress playing Peter Pan turned to the audience and she said, “That wasn't enough. You did not clap hard enough. Tinkerbell is dead.” And then we all started to cry. The actress stomped off stage and refused to continue with the production. They finally had to lower the curtain. The ushers had to come help us out of the aisles and into the street.

I don't think that any of us were ever the same after that experience. It certainly turned me against theatre. And even more damagingly, I think it's warped my total sense of life. I mean nothing seems worth trying if Tinkerbell is just going to die.

I finished the description of the monologue and then paused—why did I tell this story? They are looking at me—their fright hardly abated by my silence—also wondering the same thing. “Oh, yeah, as soon as I was called Pollyanna, my mind raced and shouted in an interior monologue, “Pollyanna is dead!” Somehow it seemed funny to me!

Later that day, as several other things sputtered and became detritus on this miasmic day, I went to the gym to treadmill my grumps away. John, a very nice young Gap year fellow asked me, “Hey, how are you?” “Do you really want to know?” Poor guy—he meant no harm!

An hour later I had a text from one of the delinquent exam-writers asking that we meet the next night and he would make up for the problem by cooking a meal for everyone. Wow. I am really shallow. I felt so much better with the promise of a proffered meal!

Later that night, watching my diligent students hungrily tackle some documents on women’s rights issues of the mid-20th century, I remembered other long-ago emotional roller coaster rides—you huff and puff a little, you stomp your foot, and then look around, things will be okay soon.

This afternoon—right on time all of my history department colleagues submitted exams. Excellent exams. We had a good time last night checking grammar, spelling, punctuation, cultural issues, laughing over some questions, enjoying the realization that we had brought these first year KA students to the culmination of our courses. The hamburgers were great, the mood was light, and all traces of grouchy Tuesday gone. Pollyanna isn’t dead, just a little strangled. See—what’s the point of sharing everything!