Sunday, August 31, 2008

Building Cathedrals


We are nearing the end of the death march that is Student Orientation! The pace of activity is a bit frenzied, so that it makes a regular school day, which begins tomorrow, seem like a relaxed cakewalk (I never have really gotten that whole “cakewalk” thing—I have never done a cakewalk, seen anyone else do a cakewalk, but it is such a nice archaic expression to bring back…anyhoo…)

Our Dean of Student Life created a wonderful student orientation. Her most brilliant stroke involved bringing back our 110 returning students on Friday, enjoying a day unto themselves before welcoming the new students. I have never run a student orientation, but if I had been charged with the task, I imagine I would have just had the new people come first, and then squeeze the veterans in at the end. Instead, Wendy had the foresight to understand that it is actually a little hard for our pioneering students to relinquish the campus to more people. All morning on Friday the old students returned—there was such a cacophony of “I missed you Habibi!” and hugs and kisses to beat the band (somehow tonight I am excited to resurrect many archaic phrases). You remember that in Jordan men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek—to be more accurate it is a “single double.” There is one kiss on the left cheek as you face your friend, and then a double kiss on the right. But, there are exceptions—when you have not seen a mate for some time, there can be extended kisses on the right cheek. So with the swells of the 110 students returning, such happiness to be back at school the kisses and the wishes continued all morning. Indeed these remarkable students many of whom truly transformed deserved a day to bask in the friendships forged in our opening year before embracing the new students.

We met as a school one last time in the Lecture Hall, a place that holds about 125 people. We will never be able to meet there again since the number of students increases so much this year. We will meet in the large auditorium from now on. Our headmaster recounted some of the triumphs of the year. The faculty acted as waiters and table heads at lunch, serving our students, and enjoying the reversals of roles. The old students got their marching orders for the following day, so that they understood their significant role in preparing the school for Year #2.

I was tempted to re-read the blog entries from last August and early September, those days of semi-horror as we ventured into Scratch. No need. It was just a joy to welcome them back, eager to see how they would handle the next day and carry on the mission of the school.

Saturday dawned—wait, it is Jordan, we don’t need the weather report. It is sunny and hot and blue skies. The old students all had t-shirts to wear with “King’s Academy Moving Company” on them to help greet and move in the new students. Around 8:30 a.m. the new students began arriving—looking nervous and unsure about what a boarding experience really means. Our students grabbed hands to shake, and bags to carry, and led them to dorm rooms, took them on tours, waited on them in the dining hall, and served as exemplary role models. Wow. Even though we had loved our small intimate school of last year, they were ready to pass on the meaning of what KA meant to them.

After the parents departed about 7:00 everyone rushed in line for a BBQ dinner. All of a sudden we saw how much the school had grown overnight. There were now 267 students, and sadly, there was only one line for all these people. Somehow I must have had a little sign on me that said, “Why not cut in line here??” because I had a group of returning guys that cut in front of me—I suggested they go to the end of the line. A minute or two later, I saw them with plates in hand. So effective in my discipline! Then a group of returning girls cut in front of me. This time I played the heavy and walked them back in line. As soon as I was back in my place, would you believe it, the crown prince and his posse cuts right in front of me. I looked to my colleague and whispered, “We should say something, shouldn’t we? We’re supposed to treat him like everyone else.” She just smiled at me, so I put my arm around the prince and a buddy of his and said, “You know this is a pretty bold move on your first day at your new school to cut in front of a teacher. I mean we never forget things like this. Are you sure you really want to do this?” It didn’t seem to cultivate the kind of guilt I hoped, but they did offer to let me cut in front of them! I declined, and said, “all right just know I will be watching you, and if this happens again, we’ll be spending some time together at the back of lines.” I know I caved a little—but in my brain I thought, I didn’t make the first boys go back, I did make the group of girls, so it seemed sort of fair. Well, fair-ish.

This morning at breakfast I came up to a small group of the posse and I told them I appreciated that they were now waiting in line, doing the decent thing. The prince (he has a name I just want to protect him a little here—and we definitely don’t call him prince, we just call him by his name) turned and said, “Mr. John, it wasn’t this guy, just us two from last night. We’ll wait in line. Sorry about last night.”

So there.

Last night we continued a tradition from last year (does doing something twice make it a tradition?? My sister would vigorously agree!!) where the school comes together and each person takes a few seconds to introduce him/herself. Where you are from, your grade, your name, first/second year at the school. All 267 students. All 47 full-time faculty. All 15 Teaching Interns. All 18 Junior Fellows. It did take a little time.

Most of them are not terribly memorable introductions, of course, but you do get everyone speaking in front of people right off the bat. But there was one interesting—for lack of a better word—moment when a student introduced himself: “I am from a country that has been destroyed by that monkey named George Bush.” Oh. Little Awkward. A colleague and I turned to each other—we both had been on the Admissions Committee—and wondered, “is that a guy from Iraq or Afghanistan??” We have some students from both. Well, personal expression is a good thing, but there are better places of more appropriate discourse.

All the while during Orientation I have been preparing my opening packet for class tomorrow. I am teaching AP World History, and since it is a totally new course for me I started from that proverbial s-c-r-a-t-c-h. I always want to open an AP course dealing with a mixture of emotions, aiming to scare/intrigue/excite/caution/support/inspire them since it is such an undertaking. I wrote a little about the importance of trust in this course. Here is a little quotation from my opening packet:

Trust calms the fear that uncertainty breeds. In times of high uncertainty, we need to pay more attention to the source of trust—human connections and how we do what we do. Trust becomes, more vitally than ever, the currency of human exchange. And of course, trust begats trust. Trust brings groups together. I once read in a book about successful businesses a great acronym: TRIP.

Trust is a heady concept. When I trust you, I am giving you the power to let me down or do right by me. I am taking a risk with this trust. But more importantly, trust is empowering to both parties. Trust is the engine that powers this TRIP. When trust is there, it enables risk, to leap higher. In a trusting environment everyone feels emboldened to take more risks, to venture into new territory, to solve problems. Innovation flows from this creative spirit. And of course, innovation leads to progress.

I had no idea last year at this time what to expect of the school year, let alone the first day of class. I have a pretty good idea that tomorrow we will begin pretty smoothly, and over the course of the year, I have an expectation of what these students can achieve. Last year their learning curve was steep. This weekend they proved that their transformation last year was not a fluke, but the beginning of a lifetime commitment to excellence. Our old students were punctual, dressed appropriately, and calm in the dorm. Last year we built this trust—one interaction at a time. It has changed us all.

Of course it is difficult to sum up what this experience has meant over the last 13 months. I mean there are almost 100 blog entries chronicling the ups and downs! But this whole experience reminds me of that old story of two guys doing masonry work on a building. The first one, when asked what he was doing, says, “Laying bricks.” The second one replies, “Building a Cathedral.” Some people see themselves merely as bricklayers, but we need to define ourselves less narrowly. Why not always aim higher and higher—to the sky even, concerning ourselves not just with what we are doing, but how we make it happen. We came here—to start a school from Scratch, and look at what we’ve got. We have the makings of a cathedral. I can see the skeletal structure. I wonder how high it will soar this year.

That image of a cathedral summons up visions of light and beauty, and also a Russian proverb: Education is light—lack of it darkness.

Almost midnight here, and time to rest before the first classes tomorrow.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Can you hear me now?

Can you hear me now? I have been waiting to use that line as a blog entry title for months! And the really funny thing (well, funny to me, at the very least) is that I have no real through-line for that title. I mean, I have no philosophical-metaphorical plan for that title. Sometimes I will get an idea for a title of an entry, and then magically or poetically it is linked or wrapped or connected to something else. I just think it’s funny to ape the funny cellular phone tagline as I come back to Jordan, resume the writing of the blog, and shout back to my friends and family in the United States: Can you hear me now?

Anyway, I am back in Jordan having arrived exactly 100 hours ago as I write this. I enjoyed the smoothest flight/transition yet on this partiular return to Jordan. By this time, I have finally learned what can and cannot be packed in carry-on luggage (Campbell’s Bean Soup is certainly not allowed according to FAA rules, and btw, the TSA agents do not like discussing the reasons why not) and how to judge the 50 lb. rule on checked luggages. My father now always brings “emergency bags” to take home anything that tips a bag over 50 lbs. since we are not a family prone to pay fees for excess baggage! Just so you know (he says with smugness...) I guessed well—all three of the checked suitcases weighed 48 lbs. each. Now the supreme smugness would have surely been if I had been sharp enough to know I could have stowed away a few more pepperoni sticks. But those “emergency bags” went home with my father empty.

I have also gotten savvy to the security process at the airports in Cincinnati and Chicago. When I fly USAirways or American Airways to connect to Royal Jordanian, I have a big, bold “SSSS” emblazoned on my ticket. The first couple flights it was little rattling how invasive the security measures were for this designation. I mean they take every single, little thing out of the carry-on bags and wipe their mysterious cloths over everything. I have to stand in a certain place, and I have always been told that if I touch anything—at all—the whole process would start all over again. Last year, in 2007 on that maiden flight to Jordan I had no idea how long this process took and I really almost missed the flight to Chicago due to the laborious process to secure my magazines, DVDs, and sundry carry-on stuff. This year I allowed enough time, kinda sauntered in, and said, “Okay, everybody. I have one of the SSSS marks. I figured out what it stands for. I’ll bet it means, "Super Secret Security Shuffle.” Those sweet TSA agents chuckled, and somehow the process seemed to be over in only about 10 minutes. We’re all old friends now…

I had my flight plans arranged so I could fly from Cincinnati to Chicago (rather than JFK in New York) so that I could enjoy the lay-over with my remarkable friend Elizabeth who has forsaken KA to start medical school in Chicago. We met, screamed hellos, and got in the car to go have pizza—with pork products before the “embargo” began once in J-country. It was a great reunion, and I loved her attitude: she loves her new school, roommate, apartment and everything, but she kept saying, “Don’t forget to send my love to Sam!” followed by “Don’t forget to send my love to Tessa!” followed by “Don’t forget to send my love to Lana!” followed by “Don’t forget to send my love to Hamzah!” followed by “Don’t forget to send my love to Arthur!”—you get the point. She had such fondness for the people that crowded their way into our hearts, and I was getting to go back and see them shortly, and she was getting to begin that journey of medical training that is so important to her. For those who are faithful blog-readers, this Elizabeth was that instant friend who followed my donkey on her donkey during that infamous donkey kerfluffle up the gazillions of steps in Petra last August!

I got on the flight, and actually slept for half the flight.

I returned around sunset to KA and spent the few hours left of the day greeting friends, hugging, and checking out new apartments and suntans. I went in search of Greg, someone who will probably figure prominently in this year’s installment of my blog. Greg is a former student of mine, a member of the fabled class of 2004 at Hackley, and a sharp historian. I taught Greg in his junior and senior year (in different courses—he didn’t fail the course and have to take it over again!) and as I remember, our History department awarded him the prize as best historian at the end of his junior year. Ahhh…I loved being department head and getting to arm-wrestle my colleagues as to who should win awards). Last spring I pestered Greg as his senior in college came to and end, hoping he would join us at KA as a teaching intern. He agreed! I think he was just interested in becoming a connoisseur of hummus!

I found Greg—welcomed him to Jordan and beamed as I pulled him around to introduce him to my friends.

So here it is 100 hours later. Last year at this time I had written 4 blog entries already, I think. But of course everything was so new, so strange, so foreign, so full of the unknown. I miss somewhat that marvelous-unnerving-unfolding feeling of it all, but I also welcome the familiarity of returning and seeing dear friends and sitting back during faculty orientation feeling quite pleased that I know the ropes here.

Our first day back, on Monday, we enjoyed a dinner, just like last year, under the stars in a beautiful courtyard. Where to sit??? When you know 75% of the group it is much more fun and aggravating deciding with whom you want to break pita. And last night was the gala dinner in Amman with the entire employee staff at KA. It is in the same place as last year, and I was told there aren’t many places that can accommodate a party of 300! From the headmaster to our faithful landscaping team to the kitchen staff and the registrar, KA faculty everywhere. The drive to Amman was familiar, and while there isn’t that new “luster” anymore, there is that beauty of comfortable surroundings.

We have four new members of the History department, and it has been fun to meet, finally in person (you can’t fly out candidates as easily here) Nancy, Lucy, and Anna. We worked collectively on the 9th grade world history course, ironed out details and plans for the 10th grade Middle Eastern history course, discussed where to begin the U.S. History course for juniors, and I worked solo on the AP World History course. It is a good few days of tweaking syllabi, mulling over introductory statements and hauling books over to our rooms.

Today was the last day to get things in place because—tomorrow—they come back! The “old” students arrive and spend the day getting moved in and back together before welcoming the many new students on Saturday. So today was that day-before-Christmas rush of getting everything organized, finished…in the middle of the day as I walking from one building to another all of a sudden a Broadway showtune popped into my head. (Doesn’t that happen to you???) I had the lyric buzzing:

Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse
Three weeks, and it couldn't be worse
One week, will it ever be right?
Then out of the hat it's that big first night!!

That lyric is from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate! and I spent the afternoon humming this bridge of the tune, smiling as we prepared for the Return tomorrow. This evening I enjoyed a relaxing dinner on the patio of newlywed friends Tiffany and Hassan, and I shared this musical stream-of-consciousness with my five friends. Rehema just turned to me and said, “Are you sure you don’t have ADD???”

Well, in any event—I never have been tested for it. I am bound for bed now, for in but a few hours it will all begin again. I will see Abdullah and Maya and Jude and Karim—and the fabulous lot of them all. Interestingly, there is only one student not returning from last year. Otherwise, they are all on board for the launching of the Second Year in the Life of KA. I’ll be reporting as best I can.

As I type save and then jog on over to the website to deliver the posting, I will leave you with the rest of the Cole Porter lyrics that danced through my head today…

Another op'nin, another show
In Philly, Boston, or Baltimo'
A chance for stage folks to say hello!
Another op'nin of another show.

Another job that you hope will last
Will make your future forget your past
Antoher pain where the ulcers grow
Another op'nin of another show.

The overture is about to start
You cross your fingers and hold your heart
It's curtain time and away we go -
Another op'nin
Just another op'nin of another show!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What It’s All About

In a few hours I will get on a plane from my hometown in Cincinnati and make the trek back to Jordan.

I have had a 54 day sabbatical from the blog, and while, yes, I have taken a vacation from the tap-tap-tapping on the laptop, I have been steeped in the luxury and abundance of summer.

About two weeks ago I was in a beautiful 19th century house in Cambria, California, a bed-and-breakfast that Anne and I secured during our drive up the coast of California, and I looked over at the breakfast table and spied a coaster with the curious query: What if the Hokey Pokey really is what it’s all about?

I laughed and wondered what IT really must be all about. I looked back at my summer—a period of eight weeks of modest trips (Wisconsin, New York, and California) and memorable meals and meaningful conversations. Indeed, I decided to linger once more on what the luxury and abundance of the summer of 2008 held for me. I did no splashy foreign trips (I live in a foreign country now!) no intensive “National Endowment for the Humanities” seminars, neither labored over a major move, nor excavated stones or built walls. I ate and talked with people I hold dear to my heart and soul.

It was a quite a summer.

There was the dinner with Dawn, a friend since the Bicentennial of the United States, and we went to see our iconic high school AP history teacher, the irrepressible Mrs. Michaels. We three hadn’t been together in 20 years, and it was glorious reminiscing.

There was the night that Sylvia made her mouthwatering pulled pork for my family at her house, when summer was young and we had plans for movies and concerts and walks. There was a lunch at Sylvia’s just last week when summer began to fade, although I don’t think our friendship will. She invited her dear mother and our delightful high school English teacher, Mr. Justice. Lunch that day was about a four hour event. Dare I say we are Olympic lunchers?

There was the day deep in July when I decided to do a “Central Ohio Victory Tour” and drove nearly 500 miles in one day and got to enjoy three meals with three exquisite people. I met the divine Devane, my dear Sharon, at a Cracker Barrel to which we both drove hours just to catch up and re-connect. I then visited my 5th grade teacher, Miss Wilson, the woman to whom I owe the most in my educational career. Then I drove to Heath, Ohio, to see Tracey, the earth mother of the Denison Singers in my freshman year. I only got to spend 2 ½ hours with each friend, but what a day of sweet meals and conversation.

There was the bi-annual visit of old friend Tony to Cincinnati. He drives 100 miles to see me, and we go out for Indian food. This August was especially nice since we commemorated the 25th anniversary of our friendship. I can’t ascribe enough adjectives about his greatness.

There was breakfast with Debbie at First Watch—our regular breakfast meeting point and opportunity to revel in our 28 years of friendship since the 1980 All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir. It is a smile-fest as our gratitude beams.

There were meals and conversations in museums—with stellar Aunt Dot and Jim at the Cincinnati Art Museum cafĂ©, and with wondrous Kate and luminous Fareeda at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a fancy-schmancy dinner with Christy at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

There was a picnic outside on the deck of the Polcari house with the Khosrowshahis—two families that have been kinder and more generous than I might have imagined.

There was an indoor picnic at Doris’ house—with her famed potato salad and roast chicken. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried that potato salad. This was a meeting of an old friend and a new friend as I brought KA friend Rehema in tow as we smiled and talked and heaped on the potato salad.

There was the rib and corn roast last week with my father and brother-in-law. For 50 years my father has gathered with this Police Masonic organization of grumpy old men as they try and outdo each other in consuming great brats, metts, corn and ribs. Many ask how my dad has stayed so thin…like I know?

There was the visit from the ever-lovin’ Sue, from northern Ohio—more of a “drive-by” visit since neither of us could fit in a “proper visit”—we stole some time away while she was shopping in Cincinnati. No matter—all good no matter what the time.

There was the late-night dessert festival with the amazing Unger family. If most of the family did not have to get up for work the following morning we might have just talked all night. A recipe for success—great dessert + great friends=great satisfaction.

There was the Italian meal with my Italian friends, the Canterinos. I haven’t taught a child of theirs in 8 years, yet every visit is fresh and alive and upbeat.

There was the evening with high school friends Doris and Sylvia at Shelley’s house, enjoying the low humidity that was the hallmark of this summer of 2008. Memories and the luxury and abundance of summer…enjoying the renaissance of friendship.

There were the California meals—with Anne and cousin Susan at Tom Ham’s Lighthouse in San Diego. Susan is one of those family members you wish lived so much closer so you could always call up and just start checking things out. Then there was the dinner with Anne on the beach at the “Del,” the Hotel Del Coronado, the beach resort of Some Like It Hot fame; or maybe the view was even more stunning up in the reaches of Big Sur, at the famed bohemian Nepenthe.

There was the family meal at Green Lake, Wisconsin, the place of annual retreat for my family, in days long gone by, and where my mother networked and learned with such passion on church missions ideas. We could feel the warmth of her her laugh and smile all over this oasis of beauty.

There was the steak dinner night before last with the Flowers—friends of my parents for 50 years, and as I have been told, I upstaged the bride a bit at their wedding, since this handsome infant was passed around with delight at their reception. They have stood by us and loved us since they forged their friendship a million years ago.

There was the spaghetti dinner with the Griley cousins—almost three hours of eating and talking and catching up. Eight of us sharing memories of the past, describing 2008 summer trips, and looking to the future for gatherings. Have I ever enjoyed them more?

There was the breakfast in the diner with Nancy, a mother of a dear student, but also a friend who offers loyalty and kindness at every turn. There was a breezy and beautiful lunch on the terrace at “the club” (always courtesy of the phenom Anne!) with Flavia, Meg and Diane. There was lunch with ebullient Diana, the math goddess, and another friend for the ages. Every time we part there is that ache again—how I wish we could teach together again.

So what did I do this summer? I ate. I talked. And with the conclusion of each meal, as the hugs ended and I sighed back to my car, every time, I felt blessed at the people I have in my life. It was the summer of the Great Meal and the Great Conversation. Of course I didn’t get to see everyone I love. I wish there had been two more weeks of summer so I could have enjoyed the Great Meal and the Great Conversation in the south: in Texas to see Judy and her clan, or Stephanie in Atlanta, or the Gastonia gang and the Charlotte clatch. But hopefully, there will be more Great Meals and Great Conversations.

I come by all this Olympian eating and talking quite naturally. For years my mother would whisk us off to school so that she could jet over to Frisch’s for her crucial morning coffee and visiting time. Now my father goes to the Imperial Diner 5 days a week (the “Institution of Higher Learning” as he affectionately calls it) where Pam presides over the daily meals and conversations of the ROMEO clique. (ROMEO as you might recall stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out). They revel in their self-proclaimed parallels to the fictional Boston bar in Cheers.

But I digress…the other morning I was talking with my dad’s friend Chris, a 93 year old man who has filled life’s bucket of joys and sorrows to the brim, and still smiles and cracks wise. I mentioned to him that my father had enjoyed the birthday breakfast party Chris had thrown for himself a few weeks earlier. He had taken about 30 friends out for breakfast, treating them himself. Chris leaned over to me, smiled, and said, “Well, you know John—friendship really is what it’s all about, now isn’t it?”

An exclamation point for the summer of 2008!