Saturday, May 30, 2009


I guess it took me a week to recover from lolling around a 19-bedroom beach house last weekend in the exclusive Tala Bay section of Aqaba in southern Jordan! It was a scorching weekend at the beach, so some of us spent a good deal of the afternoons enjoying the beach house, noting that the blue skies continued unabated outside but enjoying the LCD-Big Screen TVs inside (by the way, how many of those do you need? They were everywhere in the house!) and the bank of computers with super-high speed internet access.

Of course a weekend dominated by TV and computers could have been anywhere on earth, so it was a strange kind of generic, universal, resort weekend.

Last Saturday I heard a familiar, “Hellooooooo,” at the poolside door. There, with her usual grand smile was Alena, a former colleague at KA. One of the chaperones had called Alena and let her know that a band of KA boarders would be descending on Aqaba and she came to visit—and also swan by the gorgeous Las Vegas-y lit pool.

We sat and talked a bit, and I asked, “Alena, how is Fatcat?” I learned that since my visit to Aqaba last September, Fatcat had indeed bit the dust. For any of you who don’t remember the story of Fatcat, you could scroll back to the September entries, September 15, 2008, to be exact, and read the epic tale of Fatcat. It is in the entry marked, “Postcard from Aqaba,” and here is an excerpt, to catch you up to speed:

“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. [a former colleague who had moved to China briefly and then she bounced back to Jordan in the Red Sea beach town of 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-Densch-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.

So now I learn on this sultry May Saturday that Fatcat had recently expired. I also realized I hadn’t seen Alena since that wacky roadtrip way last Fall, when the corn was green into the school year. I hadn’t been back to Aqaba since then, and rather than go inside and watch Harold and Kumar Do Something at Guantanamo Bay or check Facebook yet again, I found a shaded part of the beach on the bay and thought about how things had changed since that last visit in the Fall.

Teachers have such a luxury of viewing time in very discrete chunks. Each school year is like the perfect scrapbook for a set amount of time—180 or so school days with added weekends and breaks—with a definite beginning and a definite ending. I wonder what it is like in the business world (you notice I did not say real world as many teachers often do—the school world is real enough for me!) when there is not an exciting school opening to a year that heralds such promise, or when there is not a day when your face is stained with the tears of good-byes at the end. I have never not been in the school world—I have been a student or teacher all of my life, so I view each year of my life since that day I enthusiastically marched into Kindergarten at Westwood School in my grey and yellow striped shirt as a year with bookends of the beginning and end.

Since the Tala Bay beach is rather isolated, I put my hands behind my head on the wicker beach chair and thought about the changes since last I visited Aqaba at the beginning of the year. I suppose the thought could have been an obituary for Fatcat, but it turned out to be just ruminations on the year, marking a kind of bookend for the end of the year.

When those carloads of madcap teachers descended on Aqaba last September to deliver Fatcat to her mother, we pledged that this was the first of many happy trips together this year. We had a great weekend—we stayed cheap in a nearby Motel 6-ish place, but lounged around and ate all day at the swanky Moevenpick hotel. We were going to travel often, and together! As we toasted Sondra and Rehema’s birthdays at a late-night supper right on the edge of the Red Sea, there was conviviality and warmth.

But life never goes quite as easily as that. We never traveled as a group after that trip—too many duty schedules to manage, and many colleagues scattered to the winds every weekend anyway since many have cars. We lost some of the solidarity we treasured and exalted on that trip. Maybe it was inevitable. People start looking at how long their tenure may be here in Jordan, and act and plan accordingly. But seeing Alena and learning of the death of Fatcat allowed for an interesting day of reflecting on this year.

That afternoon, I stretched and thought about what had changed in the world since that trip to the beach last September. I mean, more than just that Fatcat had died.

Think of some of the headlines since last September:

• A $50 billion dollar bilk! A financial scandal of unprecedented scale and scope from that Bernie Madoff con-man

• Allegations of a pay for play governor

• Giants of America’s great industrial revolution—Chrysler and GM—humiliated, hat in hand begging for billions

• A vanishing middle class

• Vanishing city newspapers

• Punishing ice storms and walloping blizzards

• The deaths of beloved icons like Paul Newman, playwright Horton Foote and Bea Arthur

• The return of a hard-right Israeli government

• Terrorists resume killing in Northern Ireland after a dozen years of progress

• A shoe thrown at a head of state in disgust…and carrying with it in its brief flight across a room, the distance, difference, and wariness that exists between two peoples, two nations, two cultures, and two religions

And the list could go on…I am not trying to achieve an exhaustive list of events in the last nine months. I am not even trying to prove that ours is a faulty, fragile, dangerous, brutish world. I am simply working on the metaphorical scrapbook of the 2008-2009 school year, both internally and externally.

One can re-cruise through the blog entries to learn of all the other stated ups and downs of the year. But for all of the frightening news stories and rifts with adults and unexpected twists in the road, it comes back to the children.

I think of two sets of children—my niece and nephew, and my students.

In this school year Jack, a winsome 1st grader, learned to love school. He adores his teacher, and the adoration is reciprocated. Emma, a clever 4th grader, improved her work in gymnastics and piano, making way for the kind of achievements she will enjoy in the next few years.

It doesn’t surprise me that on such a calm day at the beach I think of Jack and Emma. Most of the time I am at a beach is at Walt Disney World, where Emma and Jack and I have spent 5 trips in the last six years. But it is more than sun and sand reflections. They are blissfully unaware of those headlines that can torture adults. They are full of the excitement, the joy, the hope, the future, and spending time with them would soothe the most troubled soul.

Last Fall when I went to Aqaba the school year was so new—I wondered if those 50 AP students could become the mighty academic warriors they needed to be. As the year proved, they indeed became such students. I could bask in their improvement and success on that piece of beach a few kilometers from the Saudi Arabian border.

I can’t really put a bookend on the 2008-09 school year though. Not everything is known and primed for the scrapbook yet! At the end of this week, our play opens…I will be in touch to apprise you of that progress.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Postcard from Uh-Oh

Monday is Jordanian Independence Day (I have to resist saying things like, “Oh, you mean, July 4th??”) and obviously a national holiday. In the planning of the play schedule I was going to take full advantage of this weekend by having an extra rehearsal on Saturday, and then one like normally after-school on Sunday, and then a long, leisurely rehearsal on our day off on Monday.

But as things happen here, things change even after a schedule has been set in stone!

It turns out that a week or so ago the Kingdom approved a longer weekend, a Sunday and a Monday off, and KA decided all the students would go home for a long weekend.

Everyone was excited about an unexpected long weekend—where should we go? What should we do?—buzzed about the campus.

Everyone except me! I lost three rehearsals, and in an already tight schedule, I knew we couldn’t open the play on June 1 as expected.

Well, there wasn’t much one could do except cancel those pre-ordained rehearsals, move the play a few days further into June, and look for a weekend getaway…

But you know the German in me doesn’t like to move schedules and change things like that…but the Jordanians around me love doing things like that. It is the norm rather than the exception.

I’m letting it go…

So, where should we go? From where will a blog postcard be sent???

Lucy, a new faculty member this year, asked if we could travel together somewhere. We decided on Beirut, Lebanon. Neither of us had been there, and many people here in Jordan love Beirut. Yasser, one of my colorful colleagues, grew up in Beirut, and a handful of faculty went to AUB (American University of Beirut) for college, and one lovely junior girl flies to Beirut every weekend.

Beirut it is!

Like many Americans, I have only a fuzzy understanding of Beirut. It had been known as the “Paris of the Middle East,” for decades, but then it got socked with a civil war that went on for ages, so became known as “Bombshell Beirut.” But people kept saying—you have to go to Beirut, it’s wonderful with rich contrasts and contradictions. The U.S. State Department did not issue warnings against it, so I did not worry. From all indications Beirut has shaken the cement dust off after the brutal civil war and has resumed work on perfecting the art of living the good life.

Beirut hugs the Mediterranean coastline and supposedly boasts beautiful French Mandate-era buildings…ahhhhhh…

I checked a guidebook out of the library and went on-line to book the tickets! Lucy and I would take a 7:00 a.m. flight on Friday morning and then return about 11:00 p.m. on Sunday night. The play cast had decided to still have a rehearsal on Monday evening, so the weekend would accommodate everything perfectly!

I clicked the buttons to buy the tickets, and presto! Two tickets to Beirut on Royal Jordanian! Next let’s look at hotels…I did a little research on-line but decided to wait and run the hotel ideas by Lubna the following day—she often has great advice about the location and quality of hotels. But I think the Crowne Plaza looked like the best deal…

The next morning I woke up with a sobering realization—wait a minute! I don’t think I can get into Lebanon! Uh-oh…

I go for my morning coffee in Lubna’s “Lizard Lounge” (as affectionately titled last year when Chris and I would do a morning dance number, you know, to get the day started) I asked, “Lubna, am I allowed in Beirut if I have a stamp from Israel in my passport?” Lubna started, “John I told you about that! I warned you!”

When I went to Israel in March Lubna warned me that it was not prudent to allow the Israeli border guards to stamp my passport. It was okay for them to stamp a separate piece of paper and so that way I would not be impeded in the future by the Israeli stamp. Few Arab countries allow you admission to their country if you have a stamp from Israel (Jordan and Egypt excepted from this). If you have the Israeli stamp, well, you just aren’t allowed in. I had a sinking feeling that morning that Lebanon was on that list.

But when I went through the Israel border I felt kinda tacky asking them to stamp a piece of paper. I felt it dishonorable almost to Israel not to proudly accept their stamp if I accept every other nation’s stamp. My plan was that I would get a second passport (everybody gets one in the region—one passport for use to/from Israel, and the other one for everywhere else) but I had forgotten that plan in the two months since I went to Israel. I decided I was either thoughtfully thoughtless about all of this, or perhaps just thoughtlessly thoughtful.

Either way the trip to Beirut was in jeopardy.

No one on campus is sure, so I call the American Embassy, finally get a human voice, and asked if I could get this second passport in 48 hours. I explained my thoughtfully thoughtlessness to the consul, but learned that it takes two weeks to get this second passport. I even say, “I probably know the answer, but would it be okay if I just tore that page out of my passport?” She discouraged the defacement of my passport, and surmised that the border guards would probably guess why and deny me admission anyway.

It was a strange feeling that I couldn’t just go on my trip to Beirut. On top of this Lucy did not have this stamp in her passport, and was I going to cause her to forfeit her plane ticket?? And ruin her weekend plans???

Lucy said it was okay, she just hoped we could travel together, but didn’t care about the plane tickets. I just kept counting my lucky stars that I hadn’t bought the hotel room, flown out of Amman, and found out in the Beirut airport that I couldn’t enter Lebanon! That would have been more of a disaster.

Lubna discovered that I could change the date of the tickets for another time and not lose the airfare…that was helpful…but then where should we go now???

I decided we should try Cyprus, that great island in the Mediterranean with tons of ancient ruins and gorgeous mountains and seascapes. I had been meaning to go there anyway sometime during this odyssey.

Well, there is only one flight in and out to Cyprus and that is on Friday and Monday.
Perfect! Returning Monday late night. Not perfect. There is Play Rehearsal.

Okay, I figure I can talk my cast into swapping a rehearsal at the end of a long weekend (Monday as planned) for one at the end of the week when they would have had an off day (Thursday next week). I try and sell them on that extra day to work on memorizing lines, and we can end the week with a bang!

Guess what? The cast (who does not know a trip to Cyprus hangs in the balance!) earnestly decides to use the time on Monday to work on the play, and they want to show me how responsible they are. Now they decide to be responsible!! I give them one more shot, and quicker than the fading of a sunset, the Mediterranean weekend in Cyprus is nixed.

I decide—why not get the Mediterranean beach scene like in Beirut or Cyprus but in Tel Aviv, in Israel?? I mean I have the stamp—might as well go again! The flights are just okay priced, but it looks exciting and promising.

The next bump in the road is that Lucy does not want to travel to Israel. Oh. I check the websites, trying all kinds of resorts across Northern Africa, Istanbul, Athens, Egypt—everything is already taken. It is getting pricier thinking about this weekend trip…

If only! Nope, I didn’t get the second passport, so let’s not go there…

I hear about a trip that about a dozen of the boarders are going on, but it is just the male boarders, so Lucy couldn’t go. But it does sound interesting.

Lucy politely decides that this weekend trip just wasn’t meant to be. I mention that the boarders who did not go home are going to Tala Bay on the Red Sea, to His Majesty’s beach house. She decides I should go on that trip…

The price is right…free!

I leave in a couple hours with a few chaperones, a dozen boarders, and the excitement of staying at the King’s beach house in a swanky beach resort near Aqaba.

I know, I know, I am lucky just to be mulling and stressing over such things. Which beach? Where? Why not there?

So we’ll see what this postcard will say…

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Peace 2 O

Yesterday I suffered a few pangs of guilt over my water-gun battle waged last Wednesday night amongst my AP World History scholars.

You see, yesterday we had three guests come and speak to the school about the scarcity of water in the Middle East. Oh. Whoops.

One of the many things I have learned since moving to teach in Jordan is really the importance of that resource water, and indeed the scarcity of it. In the United States we rarely talk about the threat of running out of water, and maybe a couple days a summer we learn on the news that citizens have been asked to stop watering lawns for a few days because of talk of water shortage. I don’t remember seeing many homes actually pursuing the water stoppage however.

I do remember one of my favorite TV shows in the last 10 years, a clever show entitled, Jack and Bobby, raising the significance and high stakes of water supply and rights. In case you missed this show, or just thought it was about the Kennedys, it was a show set in the future about 40 years, with a History Channel-like TV network producing a documentary about the early 20th century youth of the current future president. So it was a TV show about teen-age angst, not far removed from the Dawson’s Creek variety, but with an eye on the future and how the president of this in-the-future United States had honed his leadership skills, or just simply what had shaped him in his youth. We learned from the show that a major war would happen someday, between the United States and Mexico, and the origins of the war lay in disputed water rights. Hmmmmm…

Anyway, back to the real world (although when the DVD of that show comes out, it would make a lovely present for yours truly!)…our speakers are heavy-hitters. These three men (names I didn’t get) had been named by Time magazine in 2008 as “Heroes of the Earth.” They came to us by way of a World Economic Forum hosted by Jordan last weekend at the Dead Sea. But what made the presentation so interesting and transcended the regular furtive cries of “make your showers shorter,” is that these three are combining water and politics. Well, actually, they would say they are trying to transcend politics.

The three gentlemen represent three groups of people: one man is from Jordan, one is from Israel, and one from Palestine. They formed a group a couple of years ago called “Friends of the Earth,” and their goal is to create new discussions about water, and perhaps even nudge the region toward peace.

The reality is simple—Israel and Jordan and Syria all vie for water sources. Palestinians have no jurisdiction since they are not a recognized state. Could discussions about water lead to greater co-operation??

Another reality is simple—the Jordan River is running dry. It has been tapped as a source, and few have sought new ideas to replenish this source. This team showed photographs of the Jordan River Valley in 1900—it was a massive river, with (as they reported) 1.3 billion cubic meters of water circa 1900. They estimate the Jordan River now has about 70 million cubic meters. The numbers of course are all so large that it is hard to fathom it, but it is not hard to understand that diminished number. They said that 95% of the Jordan River has been removed. Moreover, that has been a “diversion” of humans and not of Nature. In 1900 the Jordan River was mighty enough to create hydroelectric power. Today it is a sad, polluted remnant of its power a century ago.

They explained the ongoing catastrophe of the Dead Sea—it loses about 1 meter of depth every year. They showed photographs of buildings/resorts built in the early 1990s and how far away from the Dead Sea those buildings are today.

These three guys—politically diverse from their three separate groups—emphasized that water can be a meeting point. There are discussions and brain stormings going on all the time. One of the possibilities is the Red-Dead Canal, a massive public works project that could potentially throw the same amount of water currently in the Jordan River (look above—70 million cubic somethings) through the canal every second! (The canal would stretch from the Red Sea a few hours to the South to the Dead Sea—wow.)

But they reminded us that this canal, this energy factory, could have dire consequences—it could thrown into jeopardy two ecosystems just to save a third. Could scientists and geographers from all three regions agree to work together and form a partnership? Can something be above partisan land-grabbing and resentment?

Each man explained how his group often uses water—who gets the most, who gets the least, but that all three groups must co-exist because each water source affects at least two peoples. All the water in this region crosses at least one political boundary! Their work involves getting mayors together from towns of all three peoples and working collectively on managing ground water, cleaning up water, and envisioning new sources. Maybe it does boil down to that “Good water makes good neighbors.”

These three men are working with governments, but also helping organizations foster youth groups to understand the harvesting of rain water and the water realities of the region. They had a great presentation of some of the organizations begun in the last few years. They reminded our students that many of their ideas all came during what could be fertile years in college.

Later in the presentation one of the men confessed that he wasn’t pleased to see the lovely lawns here at KA—he wondered about the source of the water to support our lovely emerald carpets. It surprised a number of us to learn that it is actually well-water. We had been told since the beginning of the school that the school used recycled water, some call it “grey” water that has been saved from showers on campus. Whoops! These men found out it is not, and there was a little stab of guilt and a little popping of the balloon that we were being environmentally responsible. Whoops.

The men explained how illogical it is that about 35% of all the water is flushed down the drain. C’est vrai as the French would say. That’s true. The men implored the youth to begin thinking of other ways to flush toilets and not waste so much water just down a drain. They spoke of water-less toilets in Vancouver. Of course, that is not as imperative for Vancouver since it rains frequently there!

But the presentation was fascinating—I don’t remember when I last cared that much about water and the realities of it, the potentials of it. The men did not harangue too much about politics, but they posed the question, “Will killing generate a new source for water??” No, but peace probably would.

It may have been prescient of Jack and Bobby to pose that in the future there very well might be a war about water.

This morning I did my bit. I made my shower shorter than usual.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

It’s Today!

As one of the party-goers enters into Mame Dennis’ lavish New York apartment, he asks, “Mame, what is the occasion for the party?” and she shrugs and crows, “It’s today!”

And as any musical theater-loving person knows, that announcement allows the eccentric and gregarious extrovert Mame to launch into an anthem:

“Light the candles,
Get the ice out,
Roll the rug up,
It’s today!

Though it may not be anyone’s birthday
And though it’s far from the first of the year,
I know that this very minute has history in it:
We’re here!”

Well, in the world of High School History, today is the Superbowl Sunday of days.

It is the AP World History test. It is going on right now.

It’s today.

This has been a whirlwind week of trying to project calm assurance and help students review and provide private little pep talks in my apartment. Raja would buttonhole a few times a day and say, “Let’s talk history for a few minutes.” OR “I think I have a new take on Asian gender history.” I find it exhilarating and exhausting preparing students for these massive exams, and this exam, my 24th AP test group to send off to the races, is the Grand-daddy of them all.

In 2003 and 2004 I explored the AP World History exam as a possible AP test for Hackley, and decided it was just too much for high school scholars to manage. I mean, it covers everything from anywhere and everywhere, and it just seemed ridiculous. I mean, Modern European History, and United States History and Art History seemed daunting enough, but to tackle the entire world?

Here there really wasn’t a choice—so one just plunges in. It has been exciting all year, but this last week has been the real test of the year’s work.

In teaching an advanced placement course I am happy to be the rudder all year in guiding them through the murky waters of history. But in the last week, I need to see if they can take over the steerage of the ship. Can they be independent scholars and thinkers?

And my students rose to the challenge beautifully.

I ended the course last week—meaning that the teaching of new material came to an end last Tuesday when we studied how religious fundamentalism had crept back in to the world’s consciousness in the last 10 years. It was an unsettling end to the course—well, much like how the world is often unsettling to us as we live it day by day and week by week. We looked at a conference at the United Nations in August, 2000 and how it tried to outlaw violence in the name of religion as 1000 attendees signed a pledge to disavow such religious tensions. (Hmmmm…how’s that workin’ out??) And then we looked at the last decade to see how militant piety had managed a ‘comeback’ in Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. How does that square with other achievements of the late 20th century and early 21st century?

So with that we settled in on the task to review.

I mentioned in the last blog that a posse of sophomore boys and I enjoyed a lunch out last Friday to have a little study time. But that was only the beginning. About 75% of the students spent this week in earnest study, poring over their notes, figuring out holes in their knowledge, enthusiastically seeking out a better understanding of the world’s history.

Each night I would meet with a group who wanted to practice discussion on random topics and discuss documents from history. We talked about the rubrics from the College Board on how to construct a prize-winning essay, looking at the ‘architecture’ of an effective essay, acting engineer-like about how to accrue the coveted points from an essay reader. Many of them made up flashcards. A group of them took maps and created study guide blurbs on the maps about each region at various points in history. Then those who had made that contribution gave those maps to others who added in more of the minutiae of each region and each era.

They were acting a little obsessed about history!

And for most of the week, I just sat back and watched. Watched with delight as Norah looked at a past essay, and realized she hadn’t adequately explained a document’s point of view; watched with delight as Mousa spouted off data and information that was so fine-tuned and accurate; watched with delight as Raja helped students better understand how one creates relevant direct comparisons in light of the trends of a particular era; watched with delight as Rob kept trying to find areas of history we did not cover so he could cover the world with his knowledge; watched with delight as Mohammad tried out new writing techniques, seeing if his plan would make a nearly perfect essay even stronger; watched with delight as Zack explained to a friend a survey of Chinese history; watched with delight as a group created a mnemonic device of the Chinese dynasties with the song “Frere Jacques”; watched with delight as Leen cried, “Mr. John—I took a practice test and scored well!”; watched with delight as students critiqued each other’s essays and talked with them about the clarity of their writing and the pungency of their evidence.

Watched with delight—and I should add awe—they were doing this in a language other than their native language.

Last Saturday I used a practice exam from the College Board to offer a mock exam—everything would feel like the Big Dance. The questions were tough. The document-based essay asked students to explore how the Cuban Revolution in 1959 had changed gender relations over the last 50 years. The comparative essay asked students to compare the diffusion of Buddhism to the diffusion of Christianity (from its origins to 600) and the change over time essay asked students to analyze how trading patterns in West Africa changed from 600 to 1450 (they could also choose East Africa from 1450 to 1750). This was a challenging test!

What a great week though!

In 1992 when I bought my house on Graburn Road in Charlotte, I started doing a fun outdoor activity the night before the AP test. That was in the days of AP Modern European History. I often used the analogy that we were preparing for battle all year anyway in preparing for the AP test. But on the night before the actual “battle,” I wanted the students to relax and rest and call a cease-fire to the cramming and learning and kvetching. I loved the 1989 Kenneth Branagh film of Henry V, and the St. Crispin’s Day speech is among the most rousing speech in all of English literature. So I would show that clip, reminding the students of how the English felt before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415—very inferior to the French, but then King Harry comes in and galvanizes the forces and he reminds them that years from now they will remember the triumphs of this day. He whips “the few, the happy few, the band of brothers” into a frenzy and off they go and defeat the French.

It makes for a great moment to show the clip to apprehensive test-takers.

The year I bought my house I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to then go outside and have a real battle? A water-gun fight and release some of the tension?” So every year since that year I have kept that part secret, and pledged the test-takers to secrecy so that I could surprise each year’s group with the outdoor play.

I wondered if I could continue my ritual in Jordan. Would I be able to find 40+ water guns? Would handing water-guns to my Arab students be bashing, or fulfilling, the stereotype of Arabs with guns? Would this just seem ridiculous?

I decided to go ahead with the plan anyway. I asked my dear friend Fatina if she thought it would work, or was it culturally insensitive? Her daughter is in this class, so she is a good barometer. She replied that she would drive me into Amman and help me find the water-guns at toy stores!

We cleaned out two stores of their water-guns so that each of the 40+ AP World History warriors could have a water-gun. Fatina asked the sales people about a discount since we were buying their whole stock, but I guess the store-owners smelled the desperation in me that we wouldn’t have enough, so they refused a discount. So I spent $100 to get enough water-guns.

Last night we all gathered in my classroom to fill out the blasted bubble sheets of names and address and other sundry information for the College Board. I plied them with brownies to calm them down. Then I trotted out the speech from Henry V—since the volume in the laptop was a little too quiet, it wasn’t as effective as when one can crank the volume as Kenneth Branagh exclaims about their triumphs being known “to the end of the world!”

But then I brought out the filled water-guns and ushered them to go and enjoy a real battle. We ran outside, and in the grass we ran around and played. All the dates, all the documents, all the fears, all put aside to just laugh and shoot each other with water.

As an aside—I had warned the headmaster and the Dean of Student Life not to worry if they got a call from Security that a bunch of kids had guns by the classrooms!

$100 of water-guns did the trick. After the child-like fun, the students went back to the dorms, eager for a good night’s sleep, mentally prepared and calmed for today’s battle.

They will be emerging from the test in about an hour.

Let’s celebrate today!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pope’s in town!

On Friday, four of my sophomore wunderkind historians talked me into taking them out to lunch in Amman so we could study together for the upcoming AP World History test. I agreed—what’s not to love—food and talking about history! Around noontime Lubna, our ‘Gal Friday’ in the Faculty office, called just to tell me if I planned to go out that day that I better beware of the traffic—“the Pope is landing at the airport soon and there will be big traffic problems!”. We worked our lunch-study session at Tony Roma’s Ribs around the Pontiff’s imminent landing in Jordan. We did not land in the snarl of traffic that probably hit the afternoon pleasure seekers.

On Saturday I had hoped to go join a parade in nearby Madaba welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Jordan. After all, how often do you get to say, “Yeah, the man who is known to Roman Catholics as the Vicar of Christ on Earth is driving by my house today and will spend the afternoon just down the street.” Of course, that is what happened.

However—and there is a big sigh there—I didn’t get to join the Madaba parade Saturday. I had to finish those blasted curriculum maps! Yeah, those ones I mentioned in Friday’s blog. I felt left out of the party of well-wishers—not unlike when I was a graduate student at Brown and I turned down the chance to be with my great Denison friends and I missed the inauguration of the new President at Denison. I stayed behind to finish some work. Anyway, I got the low-down from Tessa about the Pope’s visit to Madaba and his parade through the streets.

I am not Catholic, but hey, Benedict is a world figure, and how often does Madaba get to be on CNN? As you probably know, Pope Benedict is on a major trip to the Holy Land this week, and he spent four days in Jordan. In Madaba he dedicated the opening of a new university that the Italian government is co-sponsoring. The Italian government has been spending some big bucks in Madaba—very helpful in restoring ancient mosaics, creating a mosaic school, so I guess the wasta connections landed the Big Guy to lay the cornerstone.

Madaba is known as a “Christian town” in Jordan, although Christians are out-numbered now over 2-1, but historically it has been an important enclave of Christians in a country that is about 95% Muslim. Tessa and a few colleagues waited in Madaba for the parade and reported that Benedict looked calm and peaceful riding through our dusty Madaba streets in his Popemobile. Benedict then continued down the road to Mt. Nebo where he visited the 4th century church commemorating the place where Moses died. That spot is one of my favorites in Jordan anyway with its commanding views of the Dead Sea Valley.

I decided I couldn’t let the Pope’s visit be a total waste for me, so I signed up to join a busload of KA students to attend the Pope’s mass at a stadium in Amman on Sunday. I have been spending a bunch of time outside of class helping prep those young historians for the AP test that I didn’t feel much guilt at all about joining tens of thousands of Christians for the Pope’s service in Amman.

I got up about 5:00 a.m. on Sunday—we needed to leave school at 6:00 and be in the stadium by 7:30 a.m. for the 10:00 a.m. mass. The whole way into town the roadway was bedecked with intertwined flags of the Vatican and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. We get to the stadium, flash our tickets, and find our way into Gate 9 of the soccer stadium in northern Amman. I forgot a hat and sunblock—don’t tell my good friend Anne who will be disappointed I forgot about sun protection—and there would be hours in the sun!

In the couple of hours of waiting I appreciated the amount of work that goes into a Papal visit: the security forces, the creation of a red carpet and altar, the flowers, the battalions of faithful who swarmed into the stadium. The flowers up the steps to the proscenium and altar were all variations on the colors in the Vatican flag (which is a daffodil yellow and Cape Cod-y blue), and there were photographs from the day before—maybe 5-6 stories tall—of the Pope and the King—around the stadium.

I guess I wasn’t prepared for the soccer game ambience of the stadium (hmmm…if something is held in a soccer stadium, how could it not be that ambience?) what with the waving of national flags (Lebanese, Syrian, Cambodian, Japanese, German, Czech, Italian, Australian, besides Jordanian) and the selling of popcorn, cigarettes, Pope T-shirts, Pope hats, Pope banners, Vatican flags, and Pope umbrellas! Someone near me had a huge banner waving that cried out, “Lebanon Loves the Pope More!” I guess I also didn’t think about people coming from far away (like Cambodia! Lebanon is like someone from Massachusetts visiting New York).

For a voyeur like myself, Sunday was a field day! I could see how people reacted, spent their time waiting, see how they clamored when the bishops and archbishops marched in to take their place amongst the pageantry. I could look at wonder at the waves of four hundred little children, all dressed in white, preparing for their first communion. Imagine the joy of a first communion—ever—with their Holy Father! I watched the rows of dutiful nuns take their place in the sun (the bishops often had young volunteers shielding them with the papal seal umbrella as they mounted the dais) and the army officers forming a ring inside their stadium protecting everyone from everyone.

In a way, the service itself could seem a bit disappointing. It was warm and the sun is draining, and the hoopla then fades away. But several things struck me deeply about this visit.

First of all, I have a little clout in that I already have seen a Pope. I was in Rome in the 1980s on for Easter with my dear Denison friends Jill and Steve, and we attended Easter mass with Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. While that was incredibly exciting, this had a vibrance and rare quality about the service. I spent a good deal of the morning with two of my great students, both Christians, and they marveled that this gathering of 50,000-60,000 was all for a Christian purpose. I am a little jaded that in the United States—as a white, male, Protestant—I am such the majority, but for these young men, it was rare for them to see a sea of Christians in Jordan. It is perfectly safe to practice Christianity in Jordan—but I have learned what it feels like to be a minority, and that empathy for other minorities is very instructive. Here I was seeing something rather historic—not normal at all, of a gathering of Christians in a Muslim land. These two juniors in high school felt so giddy as the Pope entered the stadium in the Popemobile—they joined in the thousands cheering, dancing, singing and swaying.

They joked at the Pope’s Arabic—“Your Arabic is so much better,” said one of my students. Well, good. But the crowd had learned a song especially written for this mass (when one arrives several hours early, one can learn production numbers!) with the words: “With a new heart and spirit we welcome Pope Benedict! Madaba and Amman and the Baptism Site renew their faith and loyalty for the love of God and the Kingdom! We are all for peace and co-existence and the uplifting of humanity!”

I gotta say it is a thrill to go on-line and read about something on the New York Times website that you have just done—or to turn on the CBS Evening News (about 12 hours later) and see a story of what you have just done. The news stories spoke of Benedict’s 13-minute sermon promoting a good relationship between Muslims and Christians. They cited his words: “Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history, so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God, faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and uplift peace and love.” I loved the phrase that we must be “artisans of peace.” Benedict urged the Christians of the Middle East to “have the courage” to stay faithful to their Christian roots in order to “build new bridges” to fight extremism and “enrich society.”

Later that day Rehema and Tessa joined a group that went to the Baptism Site for a mass with the Pope. We compared our Protestant notes at the end of the day about the services with the Pope. The Pope blessed the Baptism site (also claiming it is the true site, so a little dig at Israel across the Jordan claiming their spot as the true site…oy…) and spoke about the Christian contribution to promoting dialogue and understanding in the region.

Pope Benedict’s visit reminded me of the presence and role of Christian Arabs in the region—it is not just monolithic Muslims and Jews. Christian Arabs are certainly dwarfed by a Muslim population in the Arab states, and by a Jewish population in Israel, but they are still a key component of the Palestinian and Arab peoples in this neck of the woods. The New York Times did discuss the dwindling numbers of the Christian Palestinians to North America, and certainly in the U.S. we look at the Arab-Israeli conflict as usually a Jewish-Islamic point of view, maybe we need to look at the Arab Christians a little better.

These Arab Christians are an interesting lot—they have the national aspirations of the Palestinians, coupled with the dear hope that spiritual needs will be met, and they speak overwhelmingly of transcending the “real estate” tensions of the area, insisting on the need for justice as an integral part of a peaceful resolution.

Yes, some of the magic of a papal visit is lost on me—I am a Protestant after all, and we aren’t supposed to accord him that “infallible status.” But Benedict is not just on a trip—he is on a pilgrimage, and he has come to the Holy Lands of Jordan and Israel. His mass at Mt. Nebo is where Moses died, near where John the Baptist died, and then at the site where the faithful believe John baptized Jesus.

Benedict’s message of peace and co-existence are critical messages, but more than mere concepts—they are actions. Peace cannot come about because we wish for it. Peace must be sought and worked for. Without peace, there is no co-existence, and justice cannot be exclusive nor avoided.

Benedict has arrived in Israel now. This message will be repeated.

Maybe the visit will focus minds that justice demands action, consistency, and the ability to transcend political obstacles. Co-existence is the prize at the end of the long road.

Friday, May 8, 2009


This week the Khamsini winds blew through Jordan. For those of you not up on your meterological, or maybe it is climatological, or it could be just an Arabic word—but a khamsini is a kind of spring wind depression which sweeps through Jordan every spring, presumably for about 50 days.

On Monday I awoke to see a slate-y gray sky, very unusual, especially for Spring in Jordan. But it was more than just an eerie gray sky (the kind of sky one expects in the United States on the how-long-will-winter-last days in February); there was sand wisping through the air. The sky looked like the kind of canvas Brueghel or Monet would conjure up, just because of the challenge of capturing the weather in paint.

When I went outside it was different than usual, and not just the lack of blue sky and sunshine. There really were grains of sand being whipped through the air.

Now, before I moved to Jordan, I did envision that I would live in the Lawrence of Arabia desert, but as I have relayed to the blog readers, the topography is not sandy in this area of Jordan, but rather like the scrabby land out in Nevada. I learned that this sand-dust cocktail was coming over from as far away as Egypt and even Morocco. It’s just exciting thinking about the weather patterns coming from such exotic locales!

Monday’s sandy-dusty storm is supposedly the last of this year’s khamsini winds, but there is much folklore celebrated about the annual windstorms. People attribute good luck to it, and naturally, these winds become the scapegoat for anything bad that happens too. When I studied abroad in Salzburg, Austria in college, I discovered such a spectacular wind phenomenon there as well (not the sand and dust part—just mythic spring winds) and the Austrians called it “Der Fohn” (I don’t have an umlaut to go over the ‘o’ on my keyboard, so make sure you say the umlauted-o and when you say “Der Fohn” in Austria it has a chilling ring to it—almost like when in Mel Brooks’ movie Young Frankenstein, you say the name “Frau Brucher” and the horses whinny in panic). This “Der Fohn” (again, cue the shivering sound) would be blamed for flat tires, bad grades, burned apple strudels—you name it, the Austrians would shake their fists at the winds and wonder what “Der Fohn” would cause next.

Our windstorms did not produce quite the same frenzy; however, the following day in The Jordan Times newspaper they reported how Khamsini had covered the Kingdom in a blanket of sand and dust, closing some major roads across the kingdom, especially in the south and east (I am in neither of those areas in Jordan), with “visibility nil” on some roads. The paper did a nice job of explaining some of this annual phenomenon as a “dusty, sandy, cyclonic-type wind that originates in the Atlas Mountains which stretch from Morocco to Tunisia and Egypt.” I found it a little funny that the paper, and Jordanians as well, report that it is limited to only 50 days. I like that these phenomena are that well-planned and well-executed that we can count on the duration of these “cyclonic-type winds” at 50 days from start to finish!

The paper also reported that “no major weather-related accidents occurred.”

This was a week where besides the khamsini winds raging outside, there were mini-khamsini winds everywhere, it seemed, at KA.

The AP test season began this past Monday with two students taking AP French, and then several other tests occurred. My AP test is next Thursday when my 41 scholars will answer questions across 10,000 years of time and space. Some are studying quite well, and then there are the few who may find that textbook and open it yet! But it takes a certain tenacity to weather these AP tests. Last year at this time, when we began to plan for this year and the introduction of such AP tests, I was the only person on campus who had taught an AP course before. This year we offered French, Psychology, English Literature, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and World History. Of course we won’t know what the scores are until July, but as the students are beginning this barrage of tests and college-appropriate material, no major accidents have occurred yet.

And then there were the windstorms that careened through dorm life this week. Spring is often the time when a few more bad things happen, and you just have to deal with it. The messiest storm this week involved a half-dozen young men caught in a nearly empty dorm smoking. We have some empty dorms on campus because when the school was built, the Board of Trustees decided to go all the way and build the entire campus for the 600-student school they envisioned. They planned that it would take four years to achieve that 600-student school, but they created the whole campus anyway. I live in a dorm with many, many people (the reason why I will never be really bored or lonely!) but a few faculty live in dorms with no students. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where to go to do some bad things. And yes, the dorm rooms in those unused dorms are supposed to be locked, but, well, they are not always.

So imagine my friend’s thoughts as she comes out of her apartment and hears the kind of scuffling that rarely reveals secret studying of academics! Oh, she probably sighed, and thought, “well, I better deal with this.” She marched down the hallway toward the noise, and then opened the door. Imagine their surprise at being caught! What would you do? This gang proceeded to run away.

The next four hours were our own little khamsini with these young men, cajoling the story out of them, explaining the disciplinary process that would follow, and just like the khamsini outside the other day, for some of them, the visibility into the future was nil.

Few adults actually enjoy that process of interrogation, but obviously it is imperative to act swiftly, fairly, kindly, and firmly. From the get-go three of the young men were forthright and earnest in their honesty. We spent a good deal of time talking about the offenses, the danger of smoking in buildings, and the cowardliness of running away. (What else do you do in a khamsini??). We would be calling parents, but suggested they may want to call and inform them themselves. Some of the talk was devoted to how important in Jordan (anywhere maybe?) it is to for young men to be seen as manly and smoking is one of those definitive ways of achieving the veneer of manliness. Oh—so many issues in this windy, sandy storm—health issues, safety issues, adolescent issues, manliness issues, family and shame issues…quite a lot of sand kicked up.

One of the three young men not as interested in honesty made a point of asking me if I thought he looked like a smoker…and like a liar. He had a clever ‘MO’ of trying to make me feel guilty for even accusing him of something unseemly. Of course, I have been at this school game for quite some time, and I am less shocked than in the callow days in Gastonia. His story was quite interesting though—why he was there—although it was full of plausibility holes. The following morning he did confess that he had lied.

It was a difficult night—but I think about those three young men, the ones quick to honesty, but also how they looked quite pained and tortured by what this storm could cause. Would colleges have to know? Would the fathers have to be told? Suspension? What damage would it do? But one of the most tender moments of the evening came when a sensitive colleague (with me during these interrogations) told this one boy whose emotions had become their own storm—“This is a manly thing you are doing. Acknowledging your guilt and responsibility is a manly thing, and far more manly than smoking.”

As I said, it was a long, grueling evening fighting the storms, and the disciplinary committee will meet tomorrow night, but I believe I can report, no major accidents occurred.

Okay, I am in the middle of my own little khamsini right now. Department heads have been working on “curriculum maps,” devilish little strategies that must be devised for each course so the school can offer them to a coming-soon Accreditation team, and the kind of thing you love to discuss but do not want to sit down and type them out. These are more than lesson plans—it is like your whole raison d’etre for a course. In this map one is to include the aims, the essential questions, the pedagogical skills, and the assessments for the course. We are to submit a year-long one and a month-to-month one. (I think/hope/pray that I am spared the weekly map—I saw that once in a memo but I squeezed my eyes shut imagining it was a mirage—see how the desert gets to you!)

Well, these maps were due yesterday. My To-Do List was all set for Wednesday when I would devote two hours in the afternoon and, if needed, another three hours in the evening. As Steinbeck said, “the best-laid plans…”. Wednesday turned out to be a double whammy of a Student Life day with two mini-storms in the afternoon, and then the big storm in the evening. I e-mailed the boss in the late evening and said, sadly, those maps will not be submitted tomorrow. Too much going on!

So those curriculum maps are due, like now. Guess what? I can’t seem to work the template out to type in the information. Ahhh—the little jabs of fear are tingly! The sand and dust is kicking up. No more khamsini! The 50 days are now up! So this blog entry was really a wonderful delusionary tangent for my procrastination this morning. I gotta end this entry, and I gotta go and type those curriculum maps. And I gotta get this storm finished! Let’s hope there are no accidents to be reported!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Late 2 Bs

Last week at this time I was sitting enjoying the supremely beautiful wedding of my friend, and former student, Elizabeth, at Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River in New York. It was a glowing sunset and then I noticed a plane coming in for a landing, I guess over at Newark International Airport. All of a sudden through my mind ran the familiar theme song:

Thank you for being a friend
Traveled down the road and back again
Your heart is true, you’re a pal and a confidant.

As I sat enjoying the Mozart and Beethoven before the wedding ceremony I quietly hummed the theme song from The Golden Girls.

Just an hour or so before I had left for the wedding I had checked in on Facebook and seen a ‘status report’ from a friend that read, “RIP ‘Pussycat’—we loved you ‘Dorothy.’”

As a TV junkie I knew immediately to whom he referred, but I hadn’t heard that news yet. I clicked over to the website for the New York Times and it had been posted just 9 minutes earlier that actress Bea Arthur had died that morning in Los Angeles. I thought it amazing how quickly word can spread now. Reaching back to my childhood days I had loved that actress in Maude and I will admit I can’t get enough of those golden-oldie Girls.

After the wedding and reception last Saturday, a group of us went over to this dynamic piano bar in the Village where everyone is a broadway diva and the whole crowd sings show tunes all night. In honor of Bea Arthur there was a rousing chorus of “Bosom Buddies,” the show-stopper Arthur and Angela Lansbury had performed in Mame in the 1960s.

I noticed the following day that of my “friends” in my friend list on Facebook, thirteen of them included something about Bea Arthur in their status report! Guess I know a lot of fans of this acidic, formidable actress.

One of the reasons I had always liked Bea Arthur is that her style and her powerful bearing reminded me of one of my favorite high school teachers. And then there was the time in the 1998-99 school year when this one colleague and I had to have a tonic of a Golden Girls episode before dinner in the Dining Room every night.

As a theater connoisseur I marveled at Bea Arthur’s ingenious comic timing. As I thought of her last weekend, and remembered happy TV moments, I realized she didn’t even need a great comic line to get a laugh—she had a slow burn with eyes throwing daggers that yielded thunderbolt comic power. As an actress, and as a singer, she delivered the goods.

As I was packing up and going to the airport on Monday—remember it is a long 90 minute subway ride out to JFK airport, I remembered some of my favorite Bea Arthur lines. Oh, there is the iconic braying, “God’ll getcha for that, Walter!” from Maude and the shivering warning “Shady Pines, Ma…” from The Golden Girls. But on the subway ride I remembered a few snatches of dialogue that always made me laugh:

Rose: Can I ask a dumb question?
Dorothy: Better than anyone I know.

Or there is this exchange when it turns out a woman friend believes she is in love with Rose:
Sophia: Jean is a lesbian.
Blanche: What's so bad about that?
Sophia: You're not surprised?
Blanche: Well I haven't known any personally but isn’t Danny Thomas one?
Dorothy: Not Lebanese, Blanche. Lesbian.

I saw her one-woman show on Broadway around 2002, and I recall her explaining the derivation of her stage name. Familiarly known as Bea, Arthur was billed in the theater and on television as Beatrice, but the name was one she made up. She was born Bernice Frankel but she preferred to be called B — “I changed the Bernice almost as soon as I heard it,” she said — and later expanded it to Beatrice because, she said, she imagined it would look lovely on a theater marquee.”

As authoritative as Bea Arthur’s characters were, no one seemed to resent her power. As I thought about it on the subway, no woman ever made so many people so happy by being so imperious, so decisive, so just plain bossy. Arthur’s innate gravitas was her greatest comic weapon: she was fearless about being unlikable, and we liked her all the more for exactly that quality.

Whether playing a character or being herself—Bea Arthur was a delightfully clever, articulate, self-deprecating guest on talk and variety shows—Arthur allowed you to both identify with her and to admire her. There was a lot to admire.

On the plane, I sighed that the world had just lost a great actress in her 80s named B, but I thought about another dear person, another woman in her 80s as well, with a “B” name that we have lost in the last few weeks.

And this was a person I actually knew!

Again, Facebook was the means by which I learned that my treasured Gastonia friend Mary had lost her dear Momma in March. I called Mare and we reminisced about her wonderful mother, Blanche.

Maybe it was the 30,000 feet in the air, or the 11 hours in flight, but I mused about what an interesting parallel to Bea Arthur my late friend Blanche was.
If you had ever met the elegant and genteel Blanche Wetzell you probably think I am out of my mind, but let me explain.

My friend Blanche (by the way I never called her Blanche although she asked me to, I could never be so familiar with a woman so…again…elegant and genteel) was the ultimate Southern lady. But I don’t mean that kind of Dolly Parton “Backwoods Barbie” caricature of deep-fried womanhood. I mean a woman of breeding, a refined woman who had an innate gravitas and commanded a kind of imperious adulation like Bea Arthur—except for being understated, restrained, and deeply kind! No one seemed to resent Blanche’s power, but she made everybody happy with her delightfully clever, articulate, self-deprecating manner.

I spent a great deal of time around the Wetzell family in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She came from a richly musical family, and had a creamy alto voice with a wonderful texture. She was a devoted wife (like Maude, she had a go-to line when speaking about her gregarious, exasperating husband “Chahhhhlie”: Give me strength!) and mother and grandmother.

Blanche Wetzell was a one-woman ode to The Golden Girls—she made aging refined and beautiful, much like her wardrobe and beaming smile.

On the plane ride across Greenland, and down the coast of Europe, back to Jordan, I remembered how much I loved this Blanche Wetzell. When I lost my own grandmothers in 1988 and 1991, she became my surrogate grandmother. She was multi-faceted, serious, but quick with a hearty laugh. In her 70s she and her husband decided to help start a new church, and she worked tirelessly to build a church family from scratch. Every visit with her was a lesson in how to embrace life and love the world around you.

As I came to the end of the flight I remembered an episode of The Golden Girls in which Bea Arthur beautifully sang an Irving Berlin song. When that episode first aired, it was the first time I had ever heard this old standard. As I think about these two great “B’s”—one an actress unknown to me except on that familiar small box, and one a real-live beacon of love, those Irving Berlin words feel even more poignant:

What'll I do
When you are far away
And I am blue
What'll I do?