Tuesday, September 30, 2008


This summer I attended an AP World History conference—in sunny California, no less. The heavens did not shake (nor Wall Street) at my appearance in the classroom at the University of San Diego as I crossed the threshold for the week-long seminar on how to navigate the mighty waters of this brutal advanced placement course. The heavens might have shaken because five years ago, at another conference in cool and breezy Vermont, I made a vow I would never teach this course! Oh, it wasn’t quite the post-Civil War Scarlett O’Hara moment with the root vegetable in hand shaking my fist intoning “As Gaaw-awwd is my witness…” but it was mighty close. I saw what the course must cover (umm…the entire history of the world) in one year, and I saw the frustration and fear in those teachers’ eyes. Teaching is hard enough—we don’t need to create any more obstacles.

Now here I am—an AP World History teacher, and that is my entire teaching assignment this year! There were so many students who signed up for this course that it is the only course I must tackle this year. So my little dramatic vow from years ago is folded away neatly in that drawer of other-vows-that-don’t-necessarily-last.

I haven’t mentioned much about the class yet this year in the blog—I wanted us to get a bit more into the school year so I could relay how things are going.

Just so we are all properly in awe of the scope of the course and the AP test—let me just refresh your memory: the course covers all of world history, and the test on May 14, 2009, can ask any question about anywhere anytime in all of world history. You know, it’s just so crazy you kinda have to give it a whirl!

So I have 8 sophomores (hostages from last year’s more pedestrian introduction to World History) and 40 juniors. I did lose a couple in the first few weeks—I did my level best to scare out the students, but only four gave up the ghost! So of these mighty 48, 14 are new students to KA, and the rest are the pioneers of the school. This is the first advanced placement course for all of them—so in a way, it is a sort-of “Scratch Redux” environment—training, training, training them to be prepared for the marathon of tests on May 14.

I have been teaching advanced placement courses for 20 years (geez, is it really that long?) and I have a fondness for these arduous courses. Indeed, if you remember the Story of My Life, I became a teacher because of Jean Michaels’ sensational two AP history courses at West High eons ago (I am almost of the age when I think students don’t know it’s a joke to say I graduated with Gandhi!). I have taught AP Modern European History, AP United States History, AP Government, and AP Art History (loved ‘em all—though the Government one is the dullest…) so this year I added the Big-Daddy to my repertoire. In a quirky way, I have loved the tyranny of coverage, and the license to push students to higher levels. In a way, the scores have never mattered much because it was the transformation of the students that really made this an important life’s work. And if I look back, of the hundreds I have guided in AP courses, only a very few have not passed.

But there is a different demand in the AP courses here at KA that adds a new twist to my 20 years experience in the game. In Jordan there is a national exam that matters deeply. The way I understand this national exam, the choices a Jordanian college graduate has available in the white-collar world are based on the score of this national exam in the senior year of high school. I am serious!! It seems that if your score is below a 90, well, you won’t be allowed to grow up to be a doctor. Hmmm… Well KA is not cozying up to the exam, per se, but the government agency in education does want an equivalency for this exam, and they have decided that our students must pass 5 AP exams (or 7 SAT II exams) to receive this equivalency (in a cynic’s mind, it could sound like salvation). So now the scores do matter! And of course my students’ answers and writing abilities will be judged against native English speakers/writers with no exception for being a “foreign” kid. Oh, now this is an interesting challenge! Can we successfully train our students to compete on the same playing field? This raises the bar! I have often compared taking an AP course to being on a ropes course and coming to that 10 foot wall that e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e in the group must scale. We have the wall again, it’s just a few feet taller (I should talk in meters since I have been in the metric world for 14 months, but, yeah, I haven’t made that transition yet!) and we must get everyone over!

I knew for this AP course I must test the students more often. In Art History I would give mini-quizzes once a week or so, especially since the structure of that test includes 5-minute, 7-minute, and 10-minute mini-essays. But this test is different, and so much of the course is about longer essays that require comparison of societies and observations about change over time. So I decided I must assess the students once a week.

In their training I stressed the need to absorb, process, cover, complete one chapter of the textbook a week. Everything was fair game for a test. Don’t bother asking—will it be on the test? Do we have to know this?—for the answer will always come with an affirmative smile. But I needed to earn their trust as to how help them out on these tests. So I decided for the first test—at the end of week two of the course—I would give them the test beforehand. I would actually hand them the test on Sunday, and say, this is the exact test you will sit for on Thursday. It doesn’t get better than this! I had never done that before. But hey, let’s see what this group of 52 has in them (the now-absent four had not retreated from the class yet).

They should all get As, right? Well, there was only one real, true A. One! The A test would have had to score well on the multiple choice and writte an effective essay (I gave them choices). I love the irony of who earned the one A—it is a student named Thaer. Thaer was in my class last year and he is one of the most amazing improvement stories I have ever known. He came from a fairly weak school, as he said, and while he was clearly bright, his English needed much work. He was in our EES program (English Enhancement Seminar—it eases you into sharper English skills) but by mid-year he had willed himself to improve astronomically in his English. This was the boy who had the one A.

Can you believe I had a majority of the grades below a C??? I had given them the test beforehand! No matter—you start work from where you are, and remind them, guide them, coax them, bribe them, inspire them, scare them, encourage them, teach them how to reach the higher standards. That’s the name of the game.

For the next week, we discussed reading and study skills. We had another chapter to conquer. I reminded them that if they earned the same grade on that week’s test it would still be an improvement since they would not have received the test beforehand. So as we explored ancient Egypt and ancient India I divided up the chapter into three distinct sections. I encouraged them to study each section a different way (flashcards for one, outlining for another, and just pure reading for a third) and I would give them three mini-tests on the material—on which section would they score the highest? The experiment was designed to see which method of study yielded the highest grade. On whichever section they scored the highest, I would give them that grade for the whole test. Hmmm…intriguing. A couple students read between the lines of my deal, and decided to put all their eggs in one basket. Officially, one could leave two sections blank, and put all your efforts into one section—in effect, just studying one third of the text. I didn’t argue—it also doesn’t help them much for the Day of Reckoning on May 14!

I designed this course to have virtually no other homework for them—just this reading and studying. Not everybody uses good time management skills however! The night before this weekly test (over a mere 21 pages I hasten to add) a group of distraught students pleaded that I should move the test so they could really study. (!!) I warned them that I am a Rock (thank you Doris Jackson for teaching me to emulate you. She is a true rock—next to Doris, I am just a rock-ette!) and not to whine and whine. One dear scholar said, “So you would let us fail then?” In a voice I likened to a cross between Glinda the Good and the Joker, I said, “No, but you may have failed yourself.”

The grades were better. There was just one F, and most rose up in the ranks. There were 4 As, many Bs, a paunch of Cs, and a couple straggler Ds. Progress in just one week!

For the next test I decided to add a little Vegas-style excitement. Thursday would be test day, same as usual. But in the moment before each section’s test began I would roll a die, and whatever number came up on the die would determine what kind of test they would take. Here is how I did the numbers: roll a 1 and the students would take a 15-question multiple choice test on ancient China, ancient MesoAmerica, and ancient SubSaharan Africa; roll a 2 and the students would work with a friend on the 15-question multiple choice test on ancient China, ancient MesoAmerica, and ancient SubSaharan Africa; roll a 3 and the students would each write an essay based on documents about ancient creation stories; roll a 4 and the students would work with a partner outlining an essay based on documents about ancient creation stories; roll a 5 and the class would vote on which assessment they desired; and if I roll a 6there would be no test at all.

So—there is potential for no assessment at all, and in the other numbers just one kind of testing. Sounds easier than a regular test. Do you study? Do you gamble it all on the potential of a 6??? But they had to be prepared for any of the choices.

They studied feverishly! And in that moment of rolling the die at the top of the class, there was palpable excitement. In the first class I rolled a 4. They worked diligently together, discussing the documents skillfully, working like seasoned historians. In the next class, I rolled a 2. They worked well. In the third class, a 2 came up again.

The real test of course is in the grading. Were they more effective? What do you think? What has the trajectory of this school been? How is the tone of this blog?

What do you think?

How would you have studied? Which number on the die would you have wanted?

In a part II of this topic, coming in a day or two, I will tell you how I have been tested in the first week of having a car in Jordan.

Another big test is coming up: in a few hours my dad gets on a plane in Cincinnati to come see me for two weeks in Jordan. Think of all the tests coming up. I wonder how the metaphorical die will roll…

Friday, September 26, 2008

"Wheels of a Dream"

I remember seeing Les Miserables in 1988 for the first time and proclaiming, “this is the best musical I will see in my whole lifetime!” Never let be said I lack drama in my perspectives on things! So if Les Miz is indeed the best I have seen (and I saw it a subsequent 17 times over the next 15 years—by the way, the last time I saw it, just into the 21st century, the Broadway production had become so tired—oh well…) in my Top 10 musicals would also be the 1998 show Ragtime. Ragtime is based on the grand E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name, a sweeping historical epic about the trials and tribulations at the turn of the 20th century—politically, socially, culturally, and musically. I taught the novel six times in a Hackley course on the 20th century and it just got richer and richer with each autumn reading. The score of the Broadway show is one of the best I know, and it would be with me on a desert island (or just in the desert—it is in the other room right here in the Jordanian desert!) For a number of years I took my students to see the Broadway show, and more often than not, while they thrilled to the theatrical presentation, they confessed they enjoyed the book even more. Warms a teacher’s heart…

While many a number in the show features dozens of singing actors swelling the stage, there is a beautiful moment between just two of the most compelling characters, Coalhouse and Sarah, alone on stage. They have their little baby boy out for a picnic, and these two characters celebrate their love, their son—and their brand-new car. The excitement is palpable as these two confess how nervous and excited they are for their future, their dreams, and it is all embodied in the intoxicating splendor of that new car. Coalhouse and Sarah are black, and in the world following the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, times are not easy for a black couple. But Coalhouse and Sarah think otherwise, and they sing about their future in the stirring anthem, “Wheels of a Dream”:

Yes, the wheels are turning for us, girl.
And the times are starting to roll.
Any man can get where he wants to
If he's got some fire in his soul.
We'll see justice, Sarah,
And plenty of men
Who will stand up
And give us our due.
Oh, Sarah, it's more that promises.
Sarah, it must be true.
A country that let's a man like me
Own a car, raise a child, build a life with you...

Beyond that road,
Beyond this lifetime
That car full of hope
Will always gleam!
With the promise of happiness
And the freedom he'll live to know.
He'll travel with head held high,
Just as far as his heart can go.
And he will ride—
Our son will ride—
On the wheels of a dream.

If you have never heard the song, seen the show, read the book—add that to your list of important things to accomplish this autumn. Seriously.

Well, it may not be as momentous as Coalhouse and Sarah felt, but this week, I had my own wheels of a dream moment: I got a car.

I got a car! In Jordan! I have a car now!

KA is leasing some cars for faculty, and I was on the list, and my car came in. Last year I might have gotten a car, but I just didn’t know—what about the maintenance (my father really cannot come here just for tune-ups and check-ups) and the language and the roads, and how long am I gonna stay? So last year I did just fine dealing with the KA shuttle service or taxis or bumming rides, almost proud of my semi-monastic life here on campus. But then you stop and think—why not get a car? So I put my name on the list.

So the car came on Wednesday evening—a silver Ford Focus (I had no say in either the make or the color—I had only pleaded that I needed an automatic car—I haven’t tried to drive a stick shift since France in 1992 and let’s just say—I am inept about certain things in this world. I can face that fact.) Here is the car—looking strangely like my first car as an adult—the white Ford Escort my parents gave me at college graduation. Ha! I had a lot more hair then in the mid-to-late 1980s, but in a not-so-bad way I weigh about the same. I digress…

Where should be the first place I drive? I mean—this is momentous—I am humming about the wheels and the dream—gotta go somewhere exciting. I drove to Amman to join a singing group and attend my first rehearsal. This was prefect. One of the things I missed most last year was not singing in a group, but I never managed to get there. Now I could go and take care of another thing I wanted in securing an even higher quality of life. The group is conducted by Shireen, a gifted musician who also teaches at KA. They are preparing for a Christmas concert. It was a beautiful night of freedom and excitement. It brought back that night way back in 1980 (big gulp!) at Doris’ “Sweet 16” party when I just gotten my license a few hours before. I drove people around the block all evening, and then couldn’t help just driving friends around, swimming in a friend’s pool, and feeling just like Coalhouse with all the promises of what that car, and driving, would hold.

Wednesday I asked some students for help in naming my car. I said to a group, “Well, you know Miss Tessa named her car ‘Freeda’ because the car gives her freedom to come and go. What should I name my car?” One of the boys, one of those great boys named Hashem smiled and said, “Why not Ishtar??!” The group laughed—Hashem had been paying attention in class, and suggested the name of a Babylonian goddess—the goddess of sexual desire. Oh my. They do listen sometimes, don’t they?

In Doctorow’s story of Coalhouse and Sarah, life does not end up as spectacularly as they envisioned on that picnic with the new car, and life shredded their dreams. It not only makes for good drama, but is the stuff of life too.

Yesterday we got word at school about a new teaching couple, Miss Mary and Mr. Clayton who will be getting on a plane tomorrow bound for the United States. In the last two weeks it seems cancer has taken firm hold in Miss Mary’s body, and they must return immediately home to oncologists in Connecticut. Mr. Clayton wanted to explain to the whole school about the situation and thank the students for what they have meant in the last month to them.

Mary and Clayton are old, old friends of the headmaster and his wife (indeed Clayton and Eric were classmates at Deerfield in the 1950s) and had looked forward with such a spirit of adventure about moving to KA and joining our teaching ranks this year. They came last March and enjoyed every second of their visit. They visited my colleague Fatina’s class and told me, “Hey—she is blanking amazing!” [Mary actually said those words—I didn’t censor or bleep anything.] They couldn’t wait to come and join our teaching Heaven here. Mary had vanquished breast cancer and her stateside doctors insured her all was good to go in moving to Jordan. In fact—when I returned five weeks ago, the first people I saw on campus were Mary and Clayton—waving to me, welcoming me, excited about the promises of KA.

So it was with a deep sadness that Clayton announced their immediate exodus from what they hoped was a Promised Land. I’m not sure if I have ever felt such silence in our auditorium as our students listened to Clayton explain this sudden change. What a shock and sadness as the pins dropped. On the way out a particular student asked me if he could go and visit her. I didn’t know—but I said he could send an email. He said an email wasn’t enough—he needed to tell her what it had meant to know her this month. Now this is a young man who had hitherto in the 13 months I have known him exhibited little emotion, no tenderness, and scant interest in things around him (or so I perceived). But he needed to tell Miss Mary how she had touched his spirit.

Yesterday I went a couple times to their apartment, with people who felt a little nervous to go alone. I went with one dear colleague who had gotten students, faculty and staff to sign cards and t-shirts for them to read. I stole a peek at the card and read with great interest a young man’s profound comment about adversity and challenges in life. Again, twice in the same day, this was from another adolescent from whom I would never have expected such sentiment. I’ll tell you—those kids will get you every time! As my colleague and I left she said, “it’s so hard for me to deal with sickness and death.” I sighed and said, “You know, I can handle the sickness and possible death part—I’ve had training for that. But the part that gets me is a teacher being stopped before his or her time. That just gets me.”

Mary and Clayton are indeed that wonderful breed of life-long teachers—it is their passion, it is their life’s work. Clayton had a copy of The New York Times one day, and he was pointing out by-lines, casually name-dropping, “That’s one of mine, and that’s one of mine, and there’s another.” What pride and what devotion.

As the wheels of their airplane pull up tomorrow, I will be thinking of that exquisite poignance in those “wheels of a dream”—such battered promises and happinesses for Mary and Clayton, as it was for Coalhouse and Sarah.

As good as Ragtime is, I turn to the psalmist for the best comfort. As he writes in Psalm 33:

We wait in hope for the Lord.
He is our help and our shield.
In Him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust His holy name.
May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord,
even as we put our hope in you.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tie One On, Part II—sorta

The contents of this blog entry bears no resemblance to the contents of the previous blog entry. There is only the slightest tangential relationship…

When I saw this statistic the other day in a magazine, I was so startled that I could have spilled my proverbial soup on my tie. The Wall Street Journal reported that as of 2008 only 6% of men now wear ties to work every day (according to a Gallup poll). The ripple effect of casual Fridays, it seems, has taken its toll: in the United States, sales of ties plunged to $677 million last year, down from a high of $1.3 billion in 1995. (My information is courtesy of said Journal article.)

I admit this saddens me. I love ties. As a youth I purloined many a tie from my father’s collection (“they’re really our ties, aren’t they?” I said to my father) whenever necessary. There are few things more father-son bonding than that rite of passage of instructing a son in the tying of the Windsor knot. Okay, if you don’t know this about me, I will tell you when I really learned to tie a tie. My father had tried to settle me down to do the tie thing, around the time he tried to teach me how to change a tire. However, in those pubescent days I was just so busy (you know, putting on a show twice a day on the picnic table in the backyard! Jeez!) and never really learned either crucial skill. My father continued to tie my ties for me, and when I went to college, one of the requirements to be my roommate was to tie my ties. When I really learned how to do this step, independent of father or roomies, was when my father moved me into my first apartment as an adult, a young teacher in North Carolina. We had hauled in the books, the kitchen stuff, the clothes, whatever else one has at age 22, and I looked at my father, and said, “I think it’s time. It’s finally time I clinched this.” Right there in the Gastonia, NC apartment I learned—in all of about five minutes. As I read that story about ties in The Wall Street Journal, I can’t help feeling that something important is being lost. Somehow, the act of facing yourself in the mirror and wrapping a length of silk (if you’re lucky) around your throat signaled that you were a grown-up, ready to do battle in the world.

When I moved from New York last year I went through my collection of ties. I had maybe 300 ties 18 months ago. I ended up giving away to the Goodwill about 80 ties (none of which had any sentimental value). Then when I was packing and moving to Jordan I knew I couldn’t take all of them, so I chose the top 75. Seriously—I had separation anxiety. The rest are in storage in Cincinnati—except for a few my brother-in-law copped to wear to work. I call it our inter-tie-brary loan system. What wit.

Of course, the very fact that ties are now so infrequently seen makes them that much more special. Once in awhile if I have some time on my hands, I—dare I reveal this tidbit of obsessive-compulsiveness??—I color-code my ties just to make the job of matching easier in the morning. But I digress—when I read this story, it made me think how important my ties are to me. They are such marvelous souvenirs and reminders of people I have connected with over the years. Of all the things I brought to Jordan, there are two collections of things—pretty ordinary in many ways—that have given me the most comfort and provided me with links to friends and families: the dozens of magnets I brought for my refrigerator and the dozens of ties I brought. Each time I cruise by the fridge and see the magnets from trips, the photos turned into magnets of my niece and nephew, of former students, I am culling those rivulets of close comforts. As I choose my ties in the morning, it is more than just the matching involved—it is like paging through a wonderful scrapbook. There’s the slate blue and yellow tie my sister matched with a monogrammed pinstripe yellow shirt that always signals summer to me. There’s the tie from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Christy gave me that looks like a sun-drenched medieval stained glass window—it brings back the memories of The Gates project in Central Park. There’s the striking blue variants tie from Mike Barry that reminds me of his wonderful family and the joy I had in knowing the guys in the class of 2006. And the bold mustard-khaki-silver tie I wore to my first prom at Hackley in 1998. There’s the tie with the purple and navy and black flecks from Jennie Nolon—how many plays and classes did we enjoy before she graduated in 1999? I have ties with the same design—both the Michelangelo work, The Creation of Adam—I brought them both so I would remember both Kieran Nulty and Steve DelMoro, the givers of these ties. There’s the spectacularly haute mode tie from Jen Lee (she loves her Chinese BBQ) and even with that bit of a stain on it now, I can’t imagine not wearing it with my Regis Philbin brand shirt. There’s the tie from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Taraneh gave me of the doodlings of Leonardo’s Codex—that class of 2004 made my cup runneth over with blessings. There’s a tie—a little old now, from 1990, but Picasso-influenced purple and ivory squares and worn on the first day of school every year since 1991! There’s the tie from Florence, Italy that every time I wear it Anne says, “that tie is beautiful.” She forgets every time that she actually purchased the tie for me on our marvelous trip in 2001. Nearby are ties from other trips with Anne—one from Seville, one from Vietnam. And I can’t forget the tie influenced by a Paul Klee artwork that came from the Anne Myers family. I haven’t seen the Myers’ in some time, but every time that tie goes on I remember them fondly. There’s the tie I wore out to a birthday dinner in 2004 with Anne and Doris and the waiter dropped a tray of food on me—food from necktie to pants! Yeah, the restaurant wouldn’t even pay for the dry cleaning bill. I put a hex on them and they closed about six months later. There’s the shocking pink and blue tie I bought on a day I was a little depressed back in 2005 and thought a beacon of light-tie would change my mood. There’s a tie I got from Megan Winter—a dear Charlotte Latin student—the last time I saw her in 1996. Ha! There’s the pumpkin and crimson floral tie I used to wear in 1996 at Charlotte Latin simply because it matched a shirt that the headmaster told me once he hated! There’s the tie I bought last year in front of the Met for $2! And not far from that is my only fancy-schmancy designer tie—an Armani tie from the Ahmed family in New York. Armani suits me. There’s the sunny beach tie—I used to wear it whenever I needed to feel I should be escaping somewhere else. Funny, I don’t wear it much here. Then there are some new ties I have added since I moved to Jordan—the emerald tie I bought with my first proper Jordanian suit, dark and regal. There are the gifts of ties from students who traveled, Abdullah to France, Robert to Holland, and Adel to England. Leen gave me a smart lavender and black tie—interesting how her tie is like the one Jennie Nolon gave me 10 years earlier, and both have been friendly, beautiful types who have made great progress. There are the two ties from my friend Sameer, one of my favorite people in Jordan, a reminder of the friendships I have forged in the last year.

My tie rack is like a great charm bracelet—all these wonderful moments of dear ones who have added to whatever sartorial splendor I muster.

Does any of this blather about ties matter? You betcha! Tomorrow the King is coming for dinner! What tie am I going to wear?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Tie One On

Many of our students are sporting yellow ribbons on their smart, navy KA blazers this week. Our community service leaders inaugurated a coin drive, hoping to raise many, many piasters to add to the coffers of the King Hussein Cancer Fund. (For those who need a brush-up on Jordanian history, King Hussein was king of Jordan for 46 years, from 1953 to 1999, father of the current king, and the husband of Arab-American co-ed, Queen Noor. King Hussein’s name still causes people to weep for all he did for Jordan—what a beloved man in Jordan, and a man who struggled with cancer.) We have heard several people offer personal testimonies about the plague of cancer and a plea for monies to help eradicate the disease. On Monday afternoon, King Hussein’s sister, Princess Dima, will come to the school and we will gather at the Spiritual Center to lay out the coins in long lines, seeing which class’s (freshman, sophomore, and junior) collection of change will create the longest, snakiest line. The students fastened the yellow ribbons next to the school’s logo on the blazer to remind each and everyone of KA’s commitment to community service.

Those of us old enough to remember 1980 will always associate that year with yellow ribbons. (Well, that, and of course, the year I dated three young women named Lori). Iranian students had taken 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November, 1979, and for the next 444 days, the country was riveted by the hostages’ ordeal. Each night, venerable newscaster Walter Cronkite ended his CBS News broadcast by telling us how many days the American hostages had been held. Seemingly everyone wore yellow ribbons pinned on their clothes. I don’t know the derivation of the “yellow ribbon” but maybe it had something to do with the 1970s Tony Orlando & Dawn hit song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree.” I was too young in the 1970s—and there were no Loris in my life yet—to know much about that yellow ribbon then.

Earlier this week I was thinking about our yellow ribbons at KA, and the yellow ribbons from 1980, and the national watching-and-waiting, and I was reminded of a story I read about this past July, and an absence of yellow ribbons.

This past July, in fact, right in the week of our Independence Day holiday merry-making, a group of hostages were liberated after five years in captivity. I read the story, and it struck me as odd then, but then it came back to me this week with my fixation on the yellow ribbons. Where were the yellow ribbons for the American hostages of the 21st century? Three Americans—Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell—were held by the Colombian rebel group FARC for more than five years. The three, civilian defense contractors, were on a routine surveillance flight over Colombia in 2003, looking for cocaine labs, when their plane went down and they were taken hostage. Their captivity was among the longest in American history, yet most of us have never heard of them. When I read the story of their release, I wondered why were these names so unknown to me?

There are, of course, enormous differences between the two dramas. The Iranian attack on the U.S. Embassy was an act of war, a national humiliation for the country and for President Carter, and an unprecedented international crisis. The capture of the defense contractors, by contrast, can be seen as a simple act of thuggery by a drug gang. But why was there not outrage over this? Are we just so fixated on Britney Spears’ parenting skills and who is dancing with the stars? (By the way, that is not a dig at my beloved sister who loves the show.) I just wondered a little more.

President Bush has listed the FARC as a terrorist group, and he has famously declared the United States to be at war with terrorists. So why was this not a more high-profile story in line with this intense 21st century battle against terror? Why wasn’t Bush’s inability for five years to rescue the hostages just as damaging as Carter’s was to him? I am jumping on a soapbox for a second—isn’t that what blogs are for??? But, if we are truly at war with all terrorists, then Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell are innocent victims of that war who deserve to be remembered. If not, then the “war on terror” slogan is just empty propaganda.

My wondering is not partisan-based. I’ll lambaste the other side too. I remember vividly in the fall of 1997 when an article in The New York Times announced that President Clinton was “opening a year-long conversation on race,” and the editorialists praised this important step, and perhaps painful step, in race relations. I remember all this because I brought the articles into my 20th Century History class and said, “All right, let’s watch what happens. Let’s see how this conversation goes.” The fanfare was exciting, but even with our eyes and ears on the media, we never heard from this “conversation” again. It had somehow gone mute! Or, dumb.

So I guess I am just musing about presidential hopes and promises and hype and neglect. I am disappointed when such noble pursuits, or noble words are merely hollow, and bravery turns yellow.

But as we display our yellow ribbons here at KA, I am putting on my metaphorical yellow ribbon, late to be sure, on behalf of Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell. Here is an excerpt of an article from the United States Army upon the release of the hostages in July:

Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes), freed July 2 after more than five years of captivity in Colombia, [offer these words:] "First, we want to assure everyone that we're all doing fine. Words alone can never possibly express the thrill and excitement we feel to be back home in the United States of America with our families at our side.

Next, we want to offer our heartfelt thanks to the Government and the Armed Forces of Colombia. The operation they conducted to rescue us was one for the history books-something we will never forget for the rest of our lives. Colombia is a great nation with a great people, and the struggle they have endured with the FARC for more than 40 years is a shining testament to their great spirit: like the loved ones here with us now, they never gave up in the belief that human kindness and decency would ultimately prevail. To all those still held in captivity, our prayers and our thoughts are with you and your loved ones. We haven't forgotten you, and we never will.

Finally, we want to recognize our own United States Government who never forgot us, as evidenced by the tireless efforts of the superb team of men and women in the United States Embassy, Bogotá, Colombia. We understand that a lot of people are eager to see and hear from us, and they will. But right now, more than anything, we just want to be with our loved ones. We ask that the media respect our privacy as we reunite with our families. Rest assured, we will respond to your questions in the near future.

Today, in the United States of America, it is the Fourth of July: the day when Americans everywhere celebrate our independence. We can't think of a better time to thank our fellow citizens for never giving up on us, for never forgetting us, for always believing that we would, one day, return home to the country we love.

From the three of us and from our families, Happy Fourth of July."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Postcard from Aqaba

Last weekend, I jumped in a coupla cars with six other KA colleagues, and we headed to Aqaba, the seaport on the southern tip of Jordan.

Think “The Hamptons” on the Red Sea and you’ll be close…

But how we decided on this adventure is almost more interesting than the lazy, relaxed weekend by the balmy Red Sea…

You have to know the story of “Fatcat” to see why this weekend junket happened at all.

Fatcat has been around KA’s campus for quite awhile—longer than any of the current faculty actually. Fatcat, aside from its corpulent moniker, is a singularly annoying member of the feline race. (I know cats aren’t a race—I am purposely engaging in a bit of racial profiling…it’s a “bit,” okay?) For any of my cat-loving friends, you probably know that I am not one to fall under the spell of the charming tabbies or calicos or siamese—indeed, we had dogs in my childhood, so I am particularly fond of the needy, touchy-feely canines. Back to Fatcat.

Fatcat is loud. Fatcat has a pulsating mew that may be similar to Chinese water torture. Fatcat wanders around wherever he/she so desires. I think it’s a he. But, no matter. Fatcat got adopted by Alena, an intriguing hotbox of crazy that worked at KA for two years, and left in June for a summer in China prior to assuming a new job in Aqaba. Alena left Fatcat in the charge of some colleagues who did not spend the summer in Jordan. So Fatcat made the entire campus his abode. As new people moved onto campus, and into his former home, Fatcat tried to insinuate his darling self onto the newbies. Fatcat got into some trouble with other cats, presumably cats with more charming names! Anyway, I saw Alena on campus a few times in the last month, and everytime I spied her, I asked someone—“is Fatcat leaving?? Could it be happening??” Alas, Fatcat remained on campus, not going with her mommy down to Aqaba.

One night Tessa grabbed my arm, and said in her Judi-Dench-ish tone, “John-O—something must be done with Fatcat.” There was an interesting gleam in her eye! For a woman with a seemingly endless supply of grace and calm, I knew she couldn’t mean anything approaching harm to our adorable campus mascot. “John-O, if Alena does not come back quickly, I am afraid we are going to have to take that Fatcat down to Aqaba. It really must happen.” Whenever Tessa says “really” it has the authority and command of a naval officer. There must be a roadtrip to liberate the KA campus from Fatcat.

It seems Alena did not have a cat carrying case—that’s okay, we would purchase one if necessary. Fatcat must be returned to her mother! Must happen soon. Must.

Tessa decided that we would make a weekend beach trip out of the return of Fatcat to her mother. We secured rooms in a hotel with the name “Ocean View,” and made 4:00 p.m. on Thursday our goal to get Fatcat into the car. As a funny aside, late last week Fatcat decided to make one last enemy before departing. Fatcat got into a tussle with Toto, one of the headmaster’s cats.

It was a funny scene as we left the parking lot—a fair number of people had come to bid adieu to Fatcat—not with tears, mind you, but such elation at a Fatcat-less campus! However, however, I must also say that my dear friend Renee came to have a semi-tearful moment with Fatcat, and she also made me promise I would not release Fatcat at any point during the four hour long journey.

Four hours with Fatcat in the car. I haven’t had my patience tried like this, since, shoot, I can’t come up with a funny parallel. There must be a moment when I have been forced to be in a long distance car ride with a seeming innocent—most of the school trips I have chaperoned probably.

There were two cars headed south on the Desert Highway. Very interesting that the other car made it clear that they would not be hosting Fatcat. So the four in my car grab some CDs hoping that music, like the Buena Vista Social Club, might drown out the constant mewling of the precious one.

We get a little bored on the drive down, and while I text the other car, I start to have a little fun with Rehema’s car. I pretend that Fatcat has stolen my phone, has ditched the adults, and is in charge of the car on the drive down to Aqaba. It’s Renegade Fatcat. I suppose I was inspired by the Saturday Night Live sketches of “Toonces” the cat of the 1980s, and the text messages became more and more bizarre as I sketched out what I, Fatcat, had done with those humans—especially the handsome man who kept talking the whole time. Rehema texted back at one point: “Fatcat, what have you done with my friends??!” I don’t know if any of that is funny now, but after a few hours on a desert highway with the droning meows of Fatcat, it was a riot then.

So we arrive in Aqaba (I had only been there before once for a quick lunch, so I didn’t count that as a visit) and meet up with Alena. We promptly hand over Fatcat to Mommy. Reunions are beautiful things! We head over to our hotel. By the way—Ocean View is such a deceptive name. One might have thought one could have a view of the sea from the hotel. Picky, picky. There are views of the sea to be had—just not from our hotel. Okay, I lie. The following morning I went up to the rooftop pool area and from there one could spy the Red Sea.

We spend most of our time at the fancy-schmancy Swiss hotel Movenpick in Aqaba. We three guys share the “Ocean View” hotel room and it costs us $53 a person total for our two nights in Aqaba. So we save money on the hotel room, and then spend 99% of our time strolling through the Movenpick as if we had booked suites.

We have a late dinner at the Red Sea Grill, overlooking the water, and aside from the intense heat, it is a gorgeous evening. We walk on the beach, and it is a marvel—just about 5 miles away is the border with Israel and the Eilat resort area. Not far to the west is the border and beach area of Saudi Arabia, and just across the sea a bit, is the Red Sea beach area of Egypt. Staring back at the venerable mountains that rise up from the Wadi Rum desert, it was an impressive sight.

The following morning we return to spend the day relaxing in the Movenpick. The sunseekers go outside, but since it is about 110 degrees, I opted for the opulent lobby of the M-pick. Several of us get massages, and in the evening we take a sunset cruise on the Red Sea. As the burning sun dipped below the mountains by Egypt, we sighed at the beauty of the Red Sea. Oh, have I mentioned that we went to the Red Sea? The Red Sea where I believe Moses and Cecil B. DeMille once spent time???

There is an exciting buzz in the air in Aqaba—maybe because of Alena’s recent move, and the return of Fatcat—and it is interesting that with the proximity to Saudi Arabia it didn’t feel more socially conservative. The contradictions between deep tradition, big business, and mass tourism should give Aqaba an interesting spin in the next few years. Oh, and His Majesty maintains a winter residence there—wouldn’t it be cool if I got invited again to go sometime and warm the chill of Amman from my bones some January weekend!

I didn’t get to indulge on this weekend trip (I was trying to steal time away from the meals and massage to grade my first of tests from my AP class too) but I want to go back since Aqaba is known for its fabulous coral reefs that hug the coast.

But even at the beach I maintain my status as a historian, and I discovered that one of the earliest references to Aqaba comes in the Old Testament. King Solomon built a large port on the site of the future Aqaba both for trade and his new navy. During the time of the Nabateans two thousand years ago, Aqaba was a key stop on the caravan route for merchants arriving in Arabia, with roads leading to Petra and Syria. Recent excavations beneath the beach have revealed the remains of a church dating back to 300. The fabled Lawrence of Arabia surprised the small Ottoman garrison in Aqaba in 1917 and it quickly fell into Lawrence and Faysal’s hands. A funny story I learned—when film director David Lean arrived in Aqaba to stage that sequence for the film Lawrence of Arabia he thought Aqaba looked wrong, and so departed and filmed the sequence in Spain.

Saturday we had the breakfast buffet—where else—at the Movenpick, and then headed back up the Desert Highway for a return to the work week. We hugged Alena goodbye, wished her well in her new job, and put Joan Baez on the CD player. It was so quiet in the car I nodded off for a bit until Tessa awoke me to see the dust storm all around us.

Nice weekend, and I guess I have Fatcat to thank for the decision to relax by the sea for the weekend. Fatcat is intrepid, and if he escapes and returns to KA, we will have another weekend by the Red Sea.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Happy Birthday to Danny and to Rehema!

It is now somewhat of a conscious decision process for many of us, isn’t it?

Do we commemorate the day or not? It is September 11th, fully seven years since that plate-shifting day in the American consciousness, and many of us probably wake up deciding—will I mark this day consciously in some somber way, or will I go about my life in a consciously blissfully complacent manner?

As with many of those iconic historic days seared into the collective consciousness, we remember where we were on such a day. I had driven to Hackley on that supremely beautiful September morn, a bit uneasy about teaching the art of ancient Sumer in AP Art History. That art just didn’t sit well in my head yet. Of course, I never got to try that lesson out that day—we were called to the auditorium so that the headmaster could relate the news of what had transpired in the previous half hour.

As New Yorkers it wasn’t out of our minds for months and months. I remember that at Christmas parties in December, 2001, it was very common to have the festive guests start talking, and comparing notes, about the World Trade Center tragedies. In December, 2002 I wrote about the lingering effects in the New York area about that day at the towers. I had one friend from Charlotte who wrote me after that letter asking me when I would “get over it.” The historian in me relished all of this—when do we ever get over something???

There was another tragedy in New York—nearly a century ago now—when a pleasure boat exploded in flames on the East River. I forget exactly, but around 1300 perished that beautiful afternoon. Editorial writers seized on this tragedy to bemoan the changes in 20th century sensibilities, how technology would doom us, and asked, would we ever recover? Politicians took advantage of the many memorial services to use the grief as a fear-mongering bully pulpit. People knew the pain of this tragedy would be seared into the souls of New Yorkers and Americans forever more.

By the time I moved to New York in the 1990s there still was an annual memorial service of the doomed Gowanus pleasure boat. As a curious New Yorker, and history devotee, I attended the memorial service once, and of course found it interesting how people need to remember, or need to do something to process the emotions of events and tragedies. I noticed sometime after 9/11 that the observations of the Gowanus faded away into the dusty pages of history.

Recently, I saw on the on-line version of The Wall Street Journal an interesting comment: “We have arrived at the seventh year after the events of September 11, 2001. This summer the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey issued a stunning document to explain why ground zero has remained nothing but a hole for some seven years. It is arguable the greatest political and bureaucratic fiasco in the history of the world. Remember the line about how if we don’t rebuild the towers ‘terrorists will win’? The terrorists will be dead of old age before this project is finished.” Thank you for the sobering reminder Daniel Henninger.

In 2002 I sang in a concert of Brahms’ Requiem on September 11th. It was at Columbia University, and working our way through this monumental piece about death and the power of resurrection seemed a fitting way to observe this historic day. Many people go to the recitations of the names of loved ones lost, many stare upwards at the “pillars of light” that New York City provides from “Ground Zero.”

But I also have two friends whose birthdays are on September 11. Danny, an affable and marvelous French teacher at Hackley, hosts a birthday party for himself every year on this day, not in the hopes of distracting everyone from the horror of the historic event, but as a reminder that we can still choose to love dearly in the midst of such pain. Rehema, one of the best blessings I have at KA, turns another year older today. Yesterday someone casually said, “Oh, don’t forget Rehema’s birthday tomorrow” (rest assured, I would not forget this great friend’s day!) and another colleague sighed, “Oh, gosh, her birthday is September 11th? What a horrible day for a birthday.” As if we have a choice! I am choosing to celebrate the good humor, the intelligence, and the kindnesses these two friends have shown me as my way of commemorating the day.

In the stew that is the marking of September 11th, I heard on CNN that both candidates for the U.S. presidency will be making appearances at the scorched site. I use that phrase “making appearances” because it does seem a little much like the grandstanding politicians always do for the photo ops. And as I thought about that, and of course, neither really had a choice but to appear at the Lower Manhattan site, it did give me pause to think about the upcoming election.

I am not going to become a political blog ranter (not much anyway) but it is interesting soaking in all the impressions, opinions, and hopes of the people around me. Not that Americans probably know, but people around the world are watching the U.S. presidential race more closely than usual. The foreign adventurism of President George W. Bush has left the world in no doubt that America’s president is in a sense the president of all of the globe’s citizens. And as I have talked with my friends and colleagues in the Middle East—they are fascinated by Senator Barack Obama. And here is why: the fact that a black man has come this close to being elected the president of the United States has already given pause to those who had always dismissed the USA as a nation of illiterate, gun-toting racists. (Seriously, when traveling abroad, that conclusion is as common as coca-cola.) The roiling story of racial bitterness in the USA is so well-known outside of the USA. My friends and colleagues feel that if Obama were actually to win the White House, it would transform and electrify America’s image worldwide, instantly and for the better.

Much has been written about what an Obama presidency could do for race relations in the United States, but I have come to see what a win by Obama in November could even improve race relations outside of the United States. Obama’s spectacular rise from a single-parent home and a mixed-race background is a story whose horizons extend beyond national borders. As I spoke with a French-North African living in Amman, she said that Obama’s story inspires hope in disaffected youth in other places, and as she believes, the angry, hopeless, immigrant youths in France find something “to smile about” in the Obama candidacy.

I asked a German man who goes to my church in Amman what he thought, if he even thought about, an Obama win. He said that Germans pride themselves on “social tolerance and progressive thinking, and if Obama wins, it would put a crack in the smugness of Europe’s self-image.”

I asked another woman about race and Obama and America and the world. She sighed, and said, “Does it have to be Obama? Why not Colin Powell or Condi Rice? They would make for better reliable military allies, and far better trading partners.” As I have conducted my very un-professional poll, there is keen interest in this election, because there seems to be something very crucial at stake. Obama’s skin color may have made him a hero to many immigrants and ethnic minorities, but my Arab friends are watching how he has become less interested in raising, and pushing issues dear to their hearts on the issue of Palestine. Senator Obama has recently turned down all invitations to speak to Arab-American groups.

All of this stew of emotions brings us back to September 11th—how do “they” see us around the world? What is the state of our union? What is the state of our global image? How has the tragedy of 9/11 transmogrified some events, changed politics, and created new dynamics? What does this mean for the future? How would a President McCain or a President Obama affect the world? Can they avoid being like Governor Jack Stanton in Joe Klein’s astute novel Primary Colors? (I mean we should all re-read this novel and come to that point when the Stanton character explains to an aide why it’s necessary to betray all the principles he once held dear. Stanton had gone into politics to help “the folks…and to change the whole country.” But to help the folks, you first have to appeal to their basest instincts, so you can win the election. Barack Obama and John McCain would have thought of themselves as incapable of such slippery rationalizations, but the idealist and the maverick are now but one more electoral victory away from realizing their greatest ambition. With a place in history beckoning, and a tarnished worldwide image waiting to be rehabilitated, will they succumb to these necessary hypocrisies? Oh come on! I get CNN and the evening news—a day later—come on, all this is good for the country, and for “the folks.”)


Happy Birthday to Danny and to Rehema!!!

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Toast to 10,000 Years!

Last week I began teaching another new course in my career. New courses are, well, I guess like new friends. There are those moments of utter joy and strangeness in the new discoveries, then the wonder at how you ever might have lived before that friend came into your life; there is real work to create a groove where there had not been one before; there are ups and downs, and hopefully, exhilaration. As easy as it might seem to teach a history course (Hey! All you do is start at the beginning and keep going until the year ends!!) I obsess about how to properly introduce the students to a course. What do I do that first week that will create the kind of thoughtful, curious, reflective, challenged student I enjoy?? I wade through many ideas and sources, trying to plot and plan how best to engage them in a subject.

My challenge in AP World History is that in about 120 school days I must empower my 50-some students so that they could answer any question about anything that has ever happened in the history of humankind on the AP test. Oh my…new friends can be so taxing and consuming!!

I decided that in the first week I need to do some kind of overview that somehow provided a snapshot of 10,000 years of history. I have never done this before, but I enjoyed the thought process…hmmm…how to give them the sweep, the breadth, the drama, the purposefulness, the thrill of 10,000 years? I remembered a play I had directed back in Charlotte in the Fall of 1995, a play with the audacious title of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspear, in which my cast offered an overview of all of the bard’s plays.

I had recently read a book in which the author argued that many of the developments of world history could be traced to the primacy of six drinks. Hmmm…so I thought I would use that as my lens and do my overview of 10,000 years as

World History As Seen Through Six Drinks

The drinks are: beer, wine, distilled alcohol, coffee, tea, and coca-cola. In these six drinks we would travel 10,000 years and cover all the continents of the world. I thought I would give you a little taste of that two-day lesson in class.

Around 10,000 years ago there was a phenomenon not far from here, in Jordan, historians call the Neolithic Revolution: when humans domesticated cereal grains. At this same time was the first appearance of beer. Beer was discovered—not invented. These grains that had been made into food sat around for a while, and went through the scientific transformation of fermentation. People drank this (on a dare probably at first!) and found it pleasantly intoxicating. At first people didn’t know what to make of this process, and so thought beer was a gift from the gods. In Egypt, for example, they believed that beer was discovered by Osiris, one of the most powerful gods. Naturally, then, beer was used in religious ceremonies. Some of the very first documents in the history of writing talk about who had access to beer, and that societies paid wages in bread and beer! Beer appears in prayers, poems, and plays. In minimum wages, in government documents, it records that every person is allowed a payment of a liter of beer every day. The workers who built the pyramids were paid in beer! The payment was about 3-4 loaves of bread and 8 American pints of beer. People were buried with jars of beer. Another thing left from these ancient days is toasting: one toasted someone’s health before a drink of beer since they thought beer came from the gods and it held magical properties.

We don’t know when wine is invented, but there is a great story of a huge party by a king that reveals something about a new importance of wine. King Ashurnasirpal of Assyria, in modern Iraq, had a 10-day party in 870 BCE for himself and he wrote that he would serve wine and not beer. Beer was for poor people, and wine is for the rich! The wine came from the islands of Greece, and cost so much to transport it to Assyria. Serving wine from a distant region made his power seem even more impressive.

Of course much of the western world looks back to the ancient Greek and Roman world to explain theories of government, literature, and science, and almost anything else. It is legendarily the cornerstone of western thought. The Greeks pursued all of this thought through “adversarial discussion,” and drinking. Hmmm…The Greeks did not like the beer of the Middle East, and developed wine. Soon they were trading wine all over the Mediterranean and that helped make the Greeks rich, and also spread their ideas far and wide. Politics, poetry and drama were discussed at formal drinking parties, or symposia, in which the participants drank from a shared bowl of wine and discussed philosophy. The Romans, who came along after the Greeks, saw themselves and wanted to be like the Greeks, so much so that I call them “Greek wannabes.” And so wine became associated with wealth and civilization. Moreover, two of the world’s major religions issued opposing verdicts on wine, as well: the Christian ritual of the Mass has wine at its center, but with the rise of Islam, Muslims banned wine. Is there more to it than just alcohol? Could this be about political tension as well? According to the Bible, the first miracle Jesus Christ performed was the transformation of six jars water into wine. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” At the Last Supper, Jesus offered his followers wine, saying this was a symbol for his blood. Now jump ahead 600 years when the Muhammad received the visions from God that became the Koran. Among the duties of a Muslim is to abstain from alcohol. Tradition has it that this rule was made after a drunken fight between two of his followers and Muhammad sought divine guidance and received an uncompromising reply. In many ways it is meant as a rejection of many things Roman, like Christianity and their love of wine. This signal reveals one of the tensions between these competing religions.

Let’s jump to 1000 and the city of Cordoba in Arab Spain. One of the things the Arabs invented around 1000 was distilled alcohol—boiling it and making alcohol so much stronger. It was seen as medicine in the Arab world. Now—let’s skip about 500 years and it has moved from a medicinal drink to a recreational drink. In the European world, this distilled drink emerged as an important supply on explorers’ ships as the European kings wanted to get away from Arabs who kept them from doing business, so explorers began to sail west, to the Americas, hoping to come to India and China. The Europeans also wanted the sugar that the Arabs denied them. As Columbus and others discovered the New World, they saw that this was a great place to grow sugar. And people wanted sugar, and they would pay mucho money for it!!! Europeans picked up on this method and began to make rum and whiskey. Interestingly, this rum and whiskey proved more than just popular with sailors. It became the method of exchange to buy slaves in Africa and sell the slaves in the Americas. Slaves???? Yes, starting around 1500 Europeans began to create a slave trade to make more money off of the sugar plantations. They had an argument from the Bible about enslavement: since the Pope had decreed that black people were not fully human it was okay to enslave them. It became more and more acceptable, especially since slavery was out of sight to the Europeans. It was all in the New World. Now as the Europeans went to Africa to get the human cargo, the slaves, the African slavers most wanted these strong alcoholic drinks. Soooo the Europeans perfected their drinks and used the brandy, rum, and whiskey to make a huge amount of money. They took the rum to Africa for the slaves; took the slaves to the Caribbean, where they got the sugar; took the sugar to the New England ports where they made the rum. Then the process began again…These people became the richest people, non-kings, in the world! The interesting things is that rum is cheap to make!!! It is made from the leftovers of making sugar! So cheap and profitable. Here is also something interesting: the British became the best navy in the world—how? They had the most sailors, the fewest who died. Why? They discovered that if you added lemon or lime juice to the rum, fewer sailors got sick and died, and they were healthier because of the cocktails. That is also how Britain became the most powerful empire on earth!

Coffee is a drink that is totally from the Arab world, and they loved it. It was sometimes called the “wine of Islam.” In the Arab world, beginning around 1500 it became even more popular to meet and talk about politics and science in a coffeehouse. Oh, and we know how those Europeans love to copy people: merchants from Italy found out about these Arab coffeehouses, and took the idea back to Europe. First the Europeans went mad for coffee, then the rage and fashion of the coffeehouse. By 1650 these coffeehouses had spread through the rich, trading centers of Europe. These were not like taverns where you just got drunk. People went to coffeehouses to discuss the latest ideas and theories. They had bookshelves and fancy discussions and debates. If you wanted the latest news, you went to a coffeehouse. It was like the internet of its day. And everyone could come there—not just rich people. It was seen that coffee promoted clear thinking so it became the ideal drink for scientists, poets, learned people, and people interested in changing society. Coffeehouse discussions led to the establishment of scientific societies, the founding of newspapers, financial institutions and provided fertile ground for revolutionary thought. I would argue that there would not have been an American Revolution or a French Revolution without that coffeehouse hothouse environment.

In 1773 a British navy man declared that “the sun never set on the British empire,” meaning it encompassed more land and people under it than any empire in history. How did it accomplish this? The trade in distilled alcohol, and then the trade in tea led to this pre-eminence in the world. Indeed, the desire for tea in Britain changed how they went about their trade routes and foreign policy. Britain wanted more tea, and so wanted to control India and China, from where the tea came. Westerners wanted so much to be like the civilized, stable Chinese and so they did what the Chinese did—they wanted tea.
And, well…the profit on a ton of tea was several years’ wages! So the money from the rum trade allowed them to go after India and China. And so they did…the British went after the French, got them out of their way, went after the Dutch, got them out of the way, and finally by the mid-19th century, after plying the Chinese and Indians with opium, controlled the world’s tea trade. The British made tea available to everyone, making even the poor love the government for providing them with cheap tea. Owners of factories offered free tea breaks, making workers very happy as well. The story of tea is the story of power and world domination.

The story of a certain carbonated drink from Atlanta, Georgia in 1885 almost tells itself. Is there anyone alive who does not know of this brand? This American drink is a world-wide phenomenon and has become a leading symbol of globalization and the power of the USA. How did it get there? In War World II, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Eisenhower, ordered the military to purchase at least 10 million bottles of the stuff every month and send it to wherever American soldiers were stationed around the world. As he told the executives at C-C, he wanted our soldiers to know what they were fighting for. That was how Coca-cola created a world-wide market—they went where those soldiers were. During the days of the Cold War the Soviet Union secretly bought Coca-cola and colored it white and put it in different bottles so the Soviets would not know it was a product from the devil capitalist west.

But the story that I think best illustrates the reach and power of Coca-cola comes from a story I read in a magazine a few years ago. African leaders met in a summit to address the tragic situation of the spread of AIDS in Africa. They wondered how to get the necessary drugs to people in far-flung areas. Someone suggested, “why don’t we follow the Coca-cola trucks? Use their routes, and we will reach the most people.” Ahhhh…the power of the real thing.

So there—our overview of 10,000 years!!

Friday, September 5, 2008

“They Carry Themselves Differently”

One of the most moving short stories I know is a work by Tim O’Brien called, “The Things They Carried.” I discovered it about a decade ago and taught the story a couple of times in a U.S. History course. It is about the Vietnam War, but instead of resurrecting the old debate concerning whether the United States should have gone/should not have gone to war, it is a deceptively simple story about what our American soldiers in Vietnam carried with them. It began with a laundry list of the physical things they carried in the packs on their backs, and the weight that they produced. Then the story moved into the social and emotional baggage that also weighed them down as they lived and fought in the Southeast Asian jungle. As a historian always wondering what a particular moment in time must have felt like, this story helped me better understand what all humans carry with them. As I travel back and forth from Jordan to the United States now (three trips in all last year) I am interested in what people carry, and also, since I am a sociological voyeur at heart, how they carry themselves.

Last night at a “TGITh” dinner (remember—our workweek ends on Thursday, with the weekend as Friday and Saturday) my wonderful KA friends Tessa, Rehema and Linda and I enjoyed a calm dinner out at our old standby restaurant, Haret Jdoudna, in nearby Madaba. Naturally we talked about the very long orientation and first week of classes experiences (a substantial 11 day stretch with nary a break) and among the witty, sage, catty, frank, reflective comments, Rehema marveled about our “old” students, the pioneers of KA: “they just carry themselves differently now.”

There are many exciting things about a first week of school. Certainly you can’t help reliving your own childhood experiences—for me dashing off to Westwood Elementary School, Gamble Jr. High, and then Western Hills High School. I always wore a blue shirt from K-12 grade on the first day. I learned from my new colleague Nancy that she has enjoyed blueberry muffins every first day of school for her entire life—student and teacher life—and that is quite a record since Nancy is entering her 41st year of teaching. On those fabled first days there are hopes that you will finally get it right this time (!). There are the butterflies in your stomach about the new, unknown students, whether as peer, or classroom charges. But there is that serendipitous experience of seeing familiar faces. I went through K-12 grade with two friends over that long haul—David Thornton and Kathy Gardner. Every Wednesday after Labor Day we greeted each other from the clamor of kindergarten days to the sophistication and authority of senior year at West High. I’m sure someone noticed how we changed over time and how we carried ourselves, but we were far too interested in other more meaningful pop cultural or friendship concerns.

Rehema is right. The marvel of the week has been the maturation of our students from last year. They do carry themselves differently. I jotted down just a few examples of how in this first week they have come back to KA—so different from the beginning of last year’s experiment in the Middle East.

There is one young woman, the daughter of a great history colleague, who just came back from an August conference to Boston, an international conference called “Woman to Woman” and she announced to her family that her mission in life is to be a bridge between the Middle East and the West. My colleague said, “That’s not the same daughter who started here last year! She said she had a mission in life! Who knew it could happen?!”

Another prickly and often exasperating student, very close to that same colleague, went to see her the other day and said, “Have you gotten any complaints about me yet this year?” My friend thought about it and realized that no, she had not. He responded, “No, of course not. I’ve changed.”

Yesterday in morning meeting before the whole school a student who last year was such a shy student, gave a solo presentation about the meaning of Ramadan to him, with powerpoint (of course), but more importantly, a winning smile and smooth confidence.

I met with a student the other morning to whom it had been suggested she could not handle my AP History class. She asked if I would give her a week to prove that she could do the work. I did not hesitate to give her a chance. The encounter reminded me of another such request back in 1992 from a kinda shy student named Karen. Karen went on to succeed in that class and prove her mettle as an excellent scholar. At the conclusion of the next day’s class this young woman stayed after to ask questions—not things she had not gotten through or understood in the fast pace of class, but questions that revealed her curiosity and need to continue along our discussions of the 17th century Dutch and Chinese. I told her then there was no need for a “waiting period.” She is going to be golden. My “Karen” of the 21st century!

After the third day of class, another shy young man stopped me and said, “I really like that you are trying to get us to understand what’s going on. I have to work on that. I think that’s what’s really important—we have to understand things.”

I spied one of our juniors, now a proctor in the freshman dorm, walking side-by-side with a new 9th grader. Our veteran student is at least a head taller than the young guy, but from their body language, the older guy was happily explaining something and the freshman looked so relieved to have a kind junior to look up to.

It has made the first week of school even more exciting than usual to see and hear these examples. In my first day of real class (after the introductory day where I try and explain what AP means and scare/intrigue/excite/support/inspire them) I hoped to spend the whole class on one Vermeer artwork, a painting I had never taught before. I wanted to see if they could keep their attention for so long on just one thing, and also to keep digging just on one source. A great day. That night I gave them a tricky assignment. I gave them some excerpts from the great novel by Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, and asked them to read the passages and extract from them some lessons they may learn about what it takes to be a great historian. Not easy at all. I reminded them not to write a summary. I know what happens in the passages.

I had 13 boys come one-by-one to visit me—very little whining—mostly seeing if their thought process was going okay. I had a 30-minute discussion with a boy that any teacher would probably sigh and go, “oh yes, he’s a bad boy.” He had found a terrific quotation and was working on how to transform that concrete quotation into a strong abstract insight.

I have a handful of sophomores who had me last year and requested to take the AP course this year. They sit in class smiling away, knowing that this work just transforms you. One of them had an interesting approach to the assignment. He decided to brainstorm on what the hallmarks of a great historian might be, and then seek out in the passages for examples of his thoughts. Another told me he fixated on the title alone for awhile, and especially the word, “bible.” He said, “A bible, or a Koran, is a sacred text—you don’t mess with that. But we have to be careful not to think of a history textbook as a Bible. We need to challenge that text.” All I can say is wow. I wish I had had that insight!

Indeed they do carry themselves differently now—but the year is not just about our old students. And not everything is perfect! We are talking about a school—with adolescents and lots of idealistic adults. On the very first day of school someone pulled two fire alarms during the third class, sending the campus into a tailspin. Everyone assumes it must be a new student. After all it never happened once last year, and as we know, our old students “just carry themselves differently now.” Maybe.

And on the first day in my one AP section, as I am enjoying the beauty of my own spoken words, a new girl offers very loudly: “I don’t know what all this worry about college is. Everyone I know just sleeps through high school and then they go to the college they want to. What’s the big deal???” Oh—how delicious! How charming! What an interesting choice in how to make your first impression! I remembered the all-mighty words of the wise philosopher Barney Fife, who uttered to his boss Andy Taylor, “Andy, you’ve got to nip it in the bud!” Kinda fun to have a smack-down on the first day.

And on the third day a different new girl, about 10 minutes into our lesson, closed her notebook, put her pen and then her head down on her desk. I waited a little bit, and went and said quietly enough, “You may want to re-think staying in this class if you’re tired. We don’t have time to be tired in an AP class—we have 10,000 years to learn! And if you’re tired on the third day, I wonder what it will be like for you after 30 weeks.” The next day she came and apologized. I told her what got me the most was that she closed her book—she ended her engagement and involvement in class. “Be careful about what that statement looks like to a teacher,” I said. We had a nice chat. I think I noticed that she was carrying herself a little differently after that.

Oh—it’s great. It was an exhilarating week. But I am reminded of a comment made once by university professor and biographer Fawn Brodie: “Housework is a chore. Climbing a mountain is difficult. But teaching school—now that’s real work.”

And so on the 12th day they rested…