Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Year From A-Z

When I was a little boy, I loved to hang out by my mother’s desk in the kitchen. She was always planning something big—a party, or a mission festival at church, or an article she was writing—and I loved seeing what was strewn over her desk, seeing her thoughts and works in progress. On one side of her desk she had two framed “sayings,” the kind you might get in a Hallmark card store. One of them read, “Man cannot discover new oceans until he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Although my mother never did leave the shores of these United States, she cultivated a remarkable wanderlust, always yearned to discover new things, and instilled in me the desire to, as Mark Twain would say, “light out for the territories.” The other quotation on her desk was the John Donne saying, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” As much as my mother loved to be in charge of projects, she certainly understood that we are a part of a larger landscape of people, and most of what we do cannot be done alone. Like her curiosity with new places, she cultivated human connections. What lessons in those two little sayings...

As I look back on this last year—exactly one year ago today my father, brother-in-law, and I left my home in Tarrytown, New York, to unpack and store the gazillion boxes of my possessions in Cincinnati. Within a month I would be off for the adventure in Jordan; little did I know how much those sayings on my mother’s desk would bolster me, and reward me, as I navigated this change in life and career path. I discovered new places, new people, new smiles. And I reinforced the John Donne dictum that we need connections, that we must bridge the spaces between us. Indeed, relationships lie at the heart of who we are as humans. Though our jobs may make us wealthy, our relationships give us lasting value and enduring worth.

After today’s blog I will take a summer vacation—I will return in August, but it has been about 345 days since I started the blog last July, and it will be restorative to take a summer break. But before I begin the blog-sabbatical, I thought I would try and sum up this last year, with snapshots from A-Z. Here goes…

A As I learned Arabic words and phrases this year, it was very telling to me how many words in Arabic actually call on Allah, God. There are blessings for a fresh haircut, oaths, and cautions to get going fast, and of course, the wish that we will meet again, God willing, in the ubiquitous in’shallah.

B Oh, all right, I will show off my Arabic phraseology again with my favorite Arabic quip I learned this year: Bukra fil mish mish. This phrase is akin to our “when pigs fly!” declaration, or a more slacker version: yeah, right. It literally means, “Tomorrow, everyone will have apricots.” The phrase is also a good metaphor for some of the frustrations with bureaucracy in Jordan. It’ll get done, sir, bukra fil mish mish.

C C is for my extraordinary colleagues I worked with this year. The great Mr. Rogers once said, “The thing I remember about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing…and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.”

D D is for Damascus—which is a strange choice, I suppose, since I did not visit the ancient Syrian city this year. I had promised my father that I would not go anywhere he deemed ‘dangerous,’ and we got out the map to look at what that might mean. Syria was certainly on his hot-spot list to avoid, so I dutifully avoided Syria. But since many of my colleagues do go shopping in Damascus, I look forward to a trip there in Year 2, and so Damascus represents my future trips I will take this next year (along with Aleppo, Palmyra, Sinai, and Lebanon).

E If you are a regular blog-reader, you have heard of my BFF, Elizabeth. I delight in knowing her. She is a self-propelled wonder and a natural leader. Although she was a novice math teacher, she operated as if she had been doing this for years. She was always looking for new ways to approach math and present her material. She leaves us to start medical school, but the footprints that she leaves are golden.

F Last July 28, just before I left the US, my Aunt Dot had a party for our entire side of our Griley family. As if I needed reminding (!) this day was rich with family lore and connections, and offered me support and love to go out and discover some new oceans. How marvelous to have a family that imbues you with the courage to lose sight of the shore.

G Ahhh…the excitement of weekend get-away-trips from Jordan! From Petra to Kenya, Riyadh, Budapest, and Istanbul, it was a kick-in-the-pants to recruit, plan and revel in these trips.

H Haret Jdoudna is the default choice for a restaurant when living on the KA compound. It is just a 10-minute trip into Madaba, and the hot poofy bread, excellent dips, spreads and roasted meats in the stellar outdoor garden make it the go-to spot for guests or just an evening off-campus.

I This year I attended the Amman International Church whenever I was in town, and my trips there on Saturday represented one of those things we all crave in a new home setting: a routine, a hang-out, the regular thing we do. The laid-back protestant service was a wonderful way to spend the evening before the new school week the following day.

J Jabal Amman is the area in the old, old section of Amman that is fun to walk around with cobblestone streets, Turkish baths, good brunch spots, a view of the Roman section of Amman, and also the setting for the movie I loved, Captain Abu Raed.

My student Rob offered one of my favorite comments of the year on his final exam. After his last essay his wrote, “Thanks Mr. John for giving me the key of knowledge this year. But you know, what you really did was show me that I had the key, and it was right there in the door all along.” Very gratifying.

L “Lubna’s Lounge” was the place-to-be at 9:15 every morning! After our first class, several of my fun rockin’ friends would meet in our faculty assistant Lubna’s office, have coffee, sing and dance and make sure our moneymakers were hangin’ in there. Chris and I would text each other as we walked over, trying to maximize our time together in our self-appointed lizard lounge.

M Mukawir is about a 30-minute drive from KA—and it is spectacular. On the wind-swept hill stand the remains of Herod’s summer palace, the supposed place where nearly 2000 years ago John the Baptist had his head lopped off after His Honor promised his wife and step-daughter. In one fell swoop you enjoy biblical history and a natural wonder of the world as the view screams down to the Dead Sea valley.

N You are thinking you have ‘P’ all pegged, don’t you? It has to be Petra, right?? Ahhh…I am a crazy minx, and I am shakin’ it up a little. Instead of celebrating Petra under the ‘P,’ I want to honor the architects of this wonder-of-the-world, the Nabateans. The Nabateans are the ancient civilization that created this city in stone, and a civilization we in the west have hardly discovered.

O O is for Onion. Hmmm…while roasted onions appear in many of the celebrated Arabic roasted fantasias, it is more the metaphor of the onion to which I allude. There are layers to an onion, and for the last year I have been peeling back the layers of Jordan, enjoying the discoveries in the successive layers.

P This spring I murdered Philip II with my 9th graders. I concocted this whole murder scenario and set these young scholars off to ferret out the suspects and the clues left at my constructed murder scene. They rose to the challenge and made it very exciting to be historical detectives.

Q Hamzah al Quda is one of the finest young men I have ever met. I have mentioned him often in blog entries, and must include him in my whirlwind tour of the year A-Z. Hamzah never aimed too high and missed. He made me love teaching every day.

R One of those friends of the heart is the marvelous Rehema. We went to church together, we laughed together—I know, it sounds like the makings of a “Lifetime” movie. Well yeah, so what! This woman from Africa who finished prep school in the U.S., took Harvard by storm, now adds a special re-re-radiance to our KA world.

S Remember last October? I, the camping-phobe went on safari in Kenya!

T One of the best mentors I have ever enjoyed is my neighbor in the dorm, Tessa. This remarkable woman has headed a celebrated school in Capetown, founded world-renowned organizations, and now is working with us in the trenches at KA. Her humor and her warmth are legendary. She embodies the John Bunyan quotation: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

U On one of the first nights in Jordan the entire KA staff went out for dinner and Arabic dancing. It was on this night I was introduced to the phenomenon of uulation, the exotic tongue-dancing. Maybe some time I will offer you my own little performance f this tricky exercise!

One of my favorite books this year is called Vermeer’s Hat, a book in which the writer uses familiar Vermeer paintings as a portal to understanding 17th century global history. I had never before taught a real world history before, and it was exciting connecting the dots, historically, in new ways. This book, from the KA library is as exciting as trying to grasp the enormity and connectedness of the world itself.

W One of the most beautiful elements of the Jordanian landscape is the ruggedly striking, valleys, known as Wadis. They look just like mini-Grand Canyons and are utterly breathtaking.

This one was easy—Jordan, especially in August is: Xtremely Hot.

Yasamin is a student I would not have pegged as a scholar-in-the-making. When our schedules all switched around in January, Yasamin was transferred out of my class. But Yasamin went to the Dean of Academic Affairs, and supposedly said, “I want Mr. John. He makes me work hard, and I need that. I must be in his class.” As the months flew by, this actual model became a model for how some hard work can transform you intellectually.

Z Karim al Zein is a wily boy. He is my advisee and in my class, and for awhile last fall I thought he was just a cut-up, a goof-off—you get the picture. While he remained notorious for not doing much of his homework (his grade never rose to what it might have had he done the assignments) on the last day of school, this devil-may-care rapscallion took me aside, and asked, “what do you think I accomplished this year?” We talked about the growing pains in academic transformation, but his query revealed how very much he is working at becoming an effective scholar.

From A-Z…

I am reminded of the old story about two guys doing masonry work on a building. The first one, when asked what he was doing, says, “Laying bricks.” The second replies, “Building a cathedral.” Some people see teachers as merely attendance-takers, paper-graders, naggers of homework, and setters of traps for young people, or worse, just baby-sitters. Not me. I have the best job in the world, and my first year at KA reminded me of the exhilaration in creating a classroom.

Last July, in my maiden blog voyage I wrote of the American named John Ledyard who set out for the Arab world in 1776 “on a passage to glory.”

It has been a glorious year, and as that 18th century American John L. wrote, “My heart is on fire,” I can concur.

Remember the website address, and come back and visit me in about six weeks. I will be gearing up for Year 2.

Thanks for reading.