Monday, August 31, 2009

“Well, you know I am kind of a sports nut…”

Yes, you read that off-handed remark correctly. You are at the right blog, just a characterization few, if any, in the world would make about me. I made that statement two days ago when I met with the newly-arrived senior class at KA and delivered a warm-up speech for the year.

I can’t remember if I announced this on the blog, but among my tasks this year at school is to be the Class Dean for the Seniors. I thought long and hard about it last spring—I know seniors can be tough and exhausting—but as usual, I lost my head about school and students and embraced this new responsibility.

The returning students came back on Friday, and then on Saturday, the newbies descended upon our campus, swelling our numbers of students past 400. Can you believe this is a school just in its third year?? The number of faculty doubled as well, so there is just a torrent of people everywhere on our campus.

As a Class Dean, Orientation was especially maddening, since we have to process all these students, so it was exciting, yes, to greet them all, and wonderful when Orientation came to an end and regular classes started in full yesterday.

Each class had a venue in which to meet and greet their new dean. I thought the younger students (and the classes with the most new ones, of course) ought to meet in the most comfortable places, like the Lecture Hall and the Auditorium. I forget where the third class met, but I chose the Gym. You know, cuz, I am a bit of a sports nut. Well, it fit with the message of my speech.

I wanted to eschew the usual list of rules and reminders since most are returning students, and after all, a senior year needs to have that excitement and challenge rolled out in the first few days.

I prepare for public speaking in much the same way my mother did. If you ever heard Mary Martha speak in public (or really on the phone even!) she was captivating beyond belief. I try and channel her as best as I can. She did not prefer extemporaneous speaking. She would prepare assiduously and then deliver her speech in the manner of an extemporaneous speech. She rarely used notes, she loved the eye contact of an engaging speech, but that speech had been carefully crafted and edited and honed in advance.

I decided to base my speech on a note from history—how typical of a historian, but employ a sports metaphor, to kind of surprise them since I am not known for any sports ability.

We met in the stands of the Gym and I taught them about this historical personage named Krazy George Henderson:

“Good afternoon, Class of 2010—you are finally seniors in this first-ever Senior Class at KA! As a historian I felt the weight of this moment and felt certain you would love to enjoy a history lesson on this hot, late August day.

I want to tell you about a man and his invention.

On October 15, 1981, in the stands of Oakland Coliseum, in California in the USA, a guy affectionately known as Krazy George Henderson had a vision. It was the third game of the American League Play-off game between the Oakland As and the New York Yankees, and the As had lost the first two games. Krazy George was a professional cheerleader, paid by the As to galvanize the crowd and support the team. His shouts were manic and loud. On this day, however, Krazy George imagined a gesture that would start in his section and sweep successively through the crowd in a giant, continuous wave of connected enthusiasm, a transformative event that later proved historical. On October 15, 1981, in the stands of Oakland Coliseum, Krazy George Henderson invented The Wave.

You have probably never heard of Krazy George, but if you have watched any professional sports, or been in a stadium of most games, you have been engulfed by The Wave. I want us to study the phenomenon of Krazy George’s wave.

You know, the Wave is an extraordinary act. All those people, spread out over a vast stadium, with limited ability to connect or communicate, somehow came together in a giant cooperative act inspired by a common goal: to help the home team win. It defies language and culture. It transverses gender, income and societal status. It is a pure expression of collective passion released!

Is there some way to capture in a school the enthusiastic spirit of the Wave—that rich, cacophonous tapestry of human beings coming together creating that home court advantage? Is there some way to foment that kind of creative energy focused on the Five Guiding Principles of our school? What does it take to start a wave?

I think His Majesty understands this important risk of starting a Wave. This school is a Wave, of sorts. This kind of school did not exist in the whole of this region, and this leader knew this area needed it. He had a vision and communicated the vision, and by coming to this school to learn, to work, and to teach, we have all joined in the Wave King Abdullah started.

Anyone can start a wave. How do you do it? Let’s break down the Wave. Say, for instance, you are in the stands, and your team is down by a touchdown. You are disappointed that your fellow fans are lethargic and complacent. Suddenly you have a vision—a vision that might buoy your team to a win; you imagine a certain esprit de corps—a massive wave of energy. But you know you don’t own the stadium. The people here don’t owe you anything. They are munching popcorn, eating hot dogs, slurping drinks. They are highly inconvenienced by your vision. The guy next to you might even be cheering for the opposing team. So what will it take?

First, you need people’s attention. Starting a Wave requires an act of leadership, so you must be willing to stand up and lead. You have to stand up, communicate your idea, and inspire others to help achieve it. But how? You could turn to the guy next to you and offer him twenty bucks to stand up and join you. He might accept that, but how do you get all 60,000 fans. You will soon exhaust any loyalty you might have bought. Even money as a motivator has its limits.

You could be a bruiser and display the kind of force that might induce some people to follow you. Nah, coercion by fear is limited in its reach, too. Yeah, and if they comply, with what gusto will they stand up? To create a great and powerful Wave, one that can make a difference for your team, you need enthusiastic participation. How do you get a glorious Wave?

Even Krazy George probably wondered about this. Krazy George had been working at the stadium for three years, had this gigantic drum that got people excited, and maybe he had built up enough personal capital to pull this off. Is he going to communicate with every fan to explain his vision? How will he communicate his vision?

It is interesting to wonder why people followed him. Did they follow because it was Krazy George? The fans followed because he got everyone enlisted, and of course, no one knew where it started. They followed because they liked what the Wave stood for.

To start a Wave—metaphorical or otherwise, you need to reach out to those around you, to share your vision with them, enlist them in a common purpose. You must be earnest and transparent, you must hold nothing back, and you must earn their trust. In some pre-historic, pre-writing way you have to communicate that, “hey this might make us win if we all stand up and wave our arms and yell!!!!!!!” Who doesn’t want to win?

Is it that easy? Of course not! People can so easily lose their sense of connection, or strike out on their own. They may view your Wave with suspicion, derision, with a wait-and-see attitude. They may get up slowly and without passion. Or they may leave the stadium entirely.

I like this thing Krazy George invented. I like the Wave as metaphor because it is about what a diverse group of people can accomplish when united by a common vision. There is a power that moves through people when they are compelled to perform at their best, their most unbridled and passionate. Individuals start Waves by acting powerfully and effectively on those around them. And of course, studying how this phenomenon came to be forces us to think not only on what Krazy George did, but how he did it. There was a concern and a passion with Krazy George.

What kind of Wave will you start this year? How will you emulate Krazy George and King Abdullah with an exciting, bold way to approach the year?”

It was hot in the gym, but the place created the right mood as I let loose with a giant “Whoooo” and enjoyed seeing who followed me. Let’s see how this bunch of seniors do in creating their own Waves!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

an exciting stew, part deux

At the beginning of the 21st century (doesn’t that just sound momentous and historical??) I was asked by a new department head colleague what my secret was in hiring good teachers for the history department. I must admit—I had done a pret-ty good job of collecting effective history educators in my few years in the post as head. I said that many people seemed to hire a resume and not look for the more important element of signs of success with adults and adolescents. Sure, the resume matters, but the first lesson I learned was how a fabulous resume did not guarantee a successful classroom. I had inherited a teacher with degrees from Harvard and Princeton, and this teacher ranks perhaps as the least successful classroom teacher I have ever seen. This teacher moved on, and I had the wonderful opportunity to fill that position with a former student of mine who is a top-drawer educator.

But I told this newly minted head that when I create a department I look for two things: people that I want to see every day, whom I think are dynamic and interesting, and people who are going to teach me something. Yes, I know, it shouldn’t be about me (Who decreed that anyway? They sound mean!) but my feeling is that if I am excited by the educator’s presence, so will our students. So that has been my guide, and I gotta say, these criteria have served me well in surrounding myself with successful educators.

Our History Department at KA has been meeting every day now, going on two weeks, as I said in yesterday’s blog entry, and this is an exciting group to manage. While their resumes are just fine, it remains those other qualities which I feel certain will yield a great year for our students. I enjoy being around our new colleagues. I look forward to seeing them, sharing an article I liked or an assignment that has worked for me, and I welcome all that they have to teach me about where they have been and how life has shaped them.

Each year, as I prepare for the opening of the school year, I love thinking about how I might motivate my department toward more expansive thinking focused on that goal of Great Teaching. Earlier this month I attended an AP Art History conference in Dallas (by the way, I still pat myself on the back for this clever move—I enjoyed an engrossing conference led by an excellent teacher and had the good fortune of spending a week with one of my favorite families in the world, the Enszers. I chose the conference in Dallas as a sure way to get to visit these friends.) On the plane back to Cincinnati I started a book that fueled my thoughts about what our job is as educators.

The book is Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers, and I looked forward to this newish book since I had enjoyed Gladwell’s other books, Blink and The Tipping Point so much. Gladwell begins the book touting very ambiguous definitions of the word “outlier,” and stresses that he wants us to “look out from” the individual that has succeeded and challenge our understanding of how success happens. On pg. 17 Gladwell says, “This is a book about outliers, about men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary.”

Chapter 2 is entitled, “The 10,000 Hour Rule,” and in it Gladwell concludes, “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness….Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Gladwell looks at hockey players and computer nerds and musical protégés and even the Beatles (offering a great story of their early years when they would practice and perform hours upon hours a day) and declares that it seems to be that 10,000 hours of practice vaults you into a category of greatness.

A day or so later I was back in Cincinnati for that wistful last week of the summer, “the last of” everything from visiting friends to BLT sandwiches. My last movie of the summer was with our dear friend Sylvia and we took in Julie and Julia. Besides the lively audience that clearly enjoyed the escapades of a younger Julia Child, and the performance of Meryl Streep, I have been obsessed in the last couple weeks by one scene in the movie. Forty-something Julia Child, wife of an impressive Foreign Service representative, is a tad bored with her life in post-war Paris. She loves to eat, so husband Paul encourages her to take cooking lessons to stem her ennui. Julia joins the top-of-the-line Cordon Bleu Cooking School, and everyone from the woman registrar to her cooking class colleagues mock her presence in the class. They chop onions one day, and snicker at her awkward clumsiness. The next scene in the movie witnesses Paul coming home late that night finding Julia at the butcher-block in the kitchen with a mountain of chopped onions. She had practiced all evening! The following day in class she had a take-no-prisoners-attitude as the chefs-to-be sliced onions and she, Julia Child, finished first with a decidedly gorgeous heap of onions.

It’s the practice that makes the greatness! That is hardly new to anyone who has tried to improve at something, but it hit me about our job as teachers. We need them to write mountains of essays to improve—they need the “mountain of onions” lesson.

Back to Gladwell: in another chapter he investigates the career of one of the top tech geniuses of the modern age, Bill Joy. Gladwell calmly says, before Joy “could become an expert, someone had to give him the opportunity to learn how to be an expert.”

Aha! Another great thought to savor in our role as educators, in fact, in our call to be great educators. We need to create enough opportunities—we need to create work that makes our students feel autonomous, that is complex enough to intrigue them, and rewarding enough so they continue seeking those opportunities.

Oh, Mr. Gladwell and I are so on the same page! He uncovers how success arises more out of the steady accumulation of opportunities, “but not really about ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try. . . .Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard.” At the end Gladwell writes simply that success follows a predictable course: “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

How are we going to help facilitate these opportunities as educators? That is our challenge. We create the opportunities, and we give them the arena for practice, and we model persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard. That is our job.

I am remembering another interesting scene in Julie and Julia, a strangely riveting scene. It is about 10 years later and a publisher has offered to handle Julia’s cookbook she has written for the “servant-less American cook who wants to make fine French food.” In the scene Julia and her editor are poring over many possible verbs and nouns that might engage a buyer in a bookstore. There are maybe two dozen possible phrases or leads for the title of the book, and finally, the editor sees the light and says that this book is about Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A well-filmed scene in that most of the audience probably knew the title, but how they arrived at it was fascinating.

Back to my little sermonizing to my new department—I loved that scene because the editor and Julia felt confident that the goal of the book was to master something…think about it…in our 21st century world we often sell things by reducing it to the lowest common denominator. Think of the fabulously successful string of books for dummies. We want everything made easy. No, this book, this project was about mastering something and the satisfaction and reward one gleans from the steady practice to master something!

That is what I want for my students! I tackle AP courses year after year not because I love the tick-tock of the year’s calendar but I love urging and goading and cajoling my students to master a body of knowledge and the art of writing. Julia Child put a beautiful cherry on top of that sundae for me with her practice and efforts.

Of course I also enjoyed the “Julie” sections of the film. Julie is a woman who, in 2001, found herself feeling quite unfulfilled, and ended up creating a project in which she tackled every recipe in Julia Child’s seminal cookbook in one year’s time and blogged about it.

Might this be the first big movie about bloggers? Those blabbers and self-indulgent types who natter on and on and feel so self-absorbed that they should self-publish on the internet for all to read?

Again, she started out doing it to fill some time and make sense of it all.

In 2007, when I moved to Jordan, I started this blog for the very same reasons. I had left everything I knew, and writing on the blog filled some time and helped me make sense of it all. Maybe this Julie is the Bloggers first movie heroine!

So I offered my Malcolm Gladwell and Julia Child stew of ideas to my 9-member department this week, and looked at their excited faces; then I felt the goosebumps that hail the beginning of a new school year.

Tomorrow the invasion begins! Our 280 students from last year return, and then on Saturday we welcome a new crop of 125 students who will fill four grades, finally, for our first complete year of our upper school of 9th through 12th grade.

Ahhhhh…time to embrace the struggle!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

an exciting stew

On Friday the returning students, the 280 veterans of KA, return to campus for the beginning of the teaching year. On Saturday all of the new students descend upon our grassy campus here in the middle of the Moabite desert. Last week I worked with all of the new faculty, six in my department, and this week, we welcomed back the veteran faculty. It is always exciting greeting old friends and forging new relationships.

Since inevitably I will talk about the progress, and the trials and the tribulations of the school year, let me introduce you to my all-star line-up in the History and Social Studies Department:

Barry is the most senior of the new teachers, hailing from Canada, and having worked abroad for the last 11 years in both Costa Rica and then Damascus, Syria. He obviously loves talking about teaching, and has that great twinkle in his eye as we discuss the challenges and excitements about working with our students.

On the other end of the seniority spectrum, I have two recent college graduates joining the team. Gabi is also Canadian and comes to us to teach AP Psychology. She had been in the Math Department briefly last week, but Barry talked to her and urged her to move over to our nest since we have four brand-new teachers, and I do love the mentoring of young teachers. Gabi is interested in learning about the Middle East, and has the naivete most of us remember from our first year in Jordan. Eager to learn, and eager to work, she is gonna be fine! Charlie, our other recent college grad, is exceptionally knowledgeable in the history of the region—he majored in Middle Eastern Studies (and speaks Arabic!) and helped out at KA in the two summers before the school even opened. His excitement and verve remind me of other newbies Andy and Chuck, teachers who quickly became outstanding teachers.

Emily and I had several great phone interviews last spring—a strange way to hire faculty, surely, but with the distance of her California job at Berkeley and KA in Jordan, we cannot always meet candidates in person. She is just as exciting in person, however, and she and her husband have moved here so she can teach World History. In just 10 days it is obvious how much she likes to plan and organize—important qualities for tackling that massive course!

Steve is a newbie to Jordan, but not to me. I had hired him at Hackley in 2002 to teach Middle School history, and he ably joined that great team of historians. Steve is part of a wave from Hackley this year (three new ones plus me, the old guy, and two more part-timers coming later in the year!) designed to oust the Deerfield monopoly! No, but when Julianne went to assemble her team here in Jordan, she wanted Steve on board since she found him to be a dynamite worker and colleague in the Middle School at Hackley.

The last of our new hires, Anabel, kind of fell into our lap. In June I learned that a colleague was not going to return—ouch—how do we fill the vacancy quickly and effectively??? Well, a letter turned up in Headmaster Eric’s box from an American ex-pat working in the Public Health field in Amman who fancied teaching (I loved the part in her cover letter about how since her parents had been teachers, “naturally, after college, I had no desire in entering the family business”!). We met Anabel, instantly enjoyed her personality, and thought she would round out our department nicely. She is as enthusiastic and curious as one hopes a new teacher can be, and she has already been in Amman for a year and adjusted to life in our neck of the woods.

These six join my veteran co-founders of the department, Jordanian born Fatina, and Lebanese-born Yasser, and mid-western Johnny in creating an exciting stew of collegiality. Like any good stew, it improves with age, as it melds the flavors and strengths of the ingredients. One easy thing to note, we laugh a great deal in the department office, and as old-time comedian Milton Berle once noted, “Laughter is an instant vacation.”

We have been working together in these last 10 days discussing the contours of our courses and where each ought to begin. One of the exercises we did was brainstorming about what we want our students to be like at the end of the school year. I asked them to privately make a list of 5-10 abilities they hope our student-historians will have as the year winds down 10 months from now. I then asked them to privately make a list of 5-10 attitudes they hope our student-historians will display at the close of our enterprise next spring.

Maybe every department faces this same dilemma, but we so often spend so much time on the content of our department with all the history—don’t get me wrong, I adore the content of a history course—but we don’t spend nearly enough time and energy on what particular skills we wish to hone, and what personal qualities we wish to cultivate in these classes day after day.

After 10 days together, our department has already cohered in a blissful way. We range in experience from teaching for nearly 35 years to 0 years! Sometimes when you do these exercises, someone just rolls his or her eyes since this exercise hardly counts like setting up your room or finding all the cords and remotes for the wireless machinery tech gadgetry one needs for the dog and pony power-point shows of contemporary education. Collaborative exercises are always an interesting test to see how a department’s momentum and readiness to explore new territories will be. But this exciting stew of our department engaged in a lively discussion. We shared our findings, and these are some of the answers offered by the department:

What are the abilities and attitudes we hope our students possess by the end of the year?


• To know what a thesis statement is
• Collect information
• To organize and write a persuasive essay/research paper
• To have original responses to class material and homework
• To speak in front of a group
• To read a document critically and understand “point of view”
• To present material in front of a class
• To analyze information
• To understand and succeed at group work/collaboration
• To be able to connect between different periods of time
• To be able to compare civilizations
• To be able to listen
• To be able to ask questions
• To be able to see the past in the present issues of today’s world
• To communicate findings
• To be able to walk in the shoes of someone from a different time
• To attain a confidence in the classroom enough to speak, argue, and debate
• To be able to read more effectively, and power-skim
• To be able to detect change over time
• To be able to relate the history to their lives

• Love of learning (actually enjoy history!)
• Trust the teacher
• Devil’s advocacy
• A sense of wonder about what another age “felt” like
• Empathy!
• Be open to living with, and studying new cultures
• Creativity
• Understand and accept constructive criticism
• Curiosity to fill in the gaps we didn’t cover
• Motivation
• Non-judgmental work with peers
• Inquisitiveness
• Hunger for more knowledge
• Enthusiasm about peers’ insights
• Deference to class cohesiveness and community
• Desire to further discussion of historical issues outside of class
• To think of history not as something only in the past but a discipline that allows us to reflect on our present—not just dry facts/figures only
• Confidence
• Kindness to each other
• Willing to take risks
• Self-respect
• Not afraid of change!

Of course, the challenge…now comes the part that makes this education biz a never-ending fascinating, never-boring venture—how do we get our students to this point?? How do we get them to be these people?!?!

These 400+ students who arrive in the next few days will fill our classes, and how do we train them to produce these desired results? How do we create the assignments and the projects and the questions that nudge them toward these abilities and attitudes? How do we model the behaviors and the mindsets that might inspire our adolescent charges to become such fine, interesting, thoughtful social scientists?

That is the key! That is the beauty of figuring out this puzzle of education…

I then offered some insights to the department I gleaned this summer from a book and movie I enjoyed earlier in the month, and tomorrow, we will see what is in store for “an exciting stew, part deux” blog entry (catch the little rhyme? I wonder if the French has anything to do with the sequel to today’s blog entry? I wonder if I am as mysterious and suspenseful as I think I am???)

Tune in tomorrow…

Saturday, August 22, 2009

“You’ve gotta laugh about it, right??”

It has been a full week back at the desert ranch here at KA—a seven-day work week indeed getting to know the new faculty, working on our upcoming student orientation, mentoring the brand-new teachers, and preparing for the new courses. I landed last Saturday evening about 8:00 p.m. following my day of flights from Cincinnati to Paris and Paris to Amman, and in the morning at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday it was the beginning of the new work year. You will hear all about the new faculty and new work in due time, and it has been an exciting week, but one event of the week really overshadowed everything else—the word came to me that I was getting a car.

I know this sounds like a re-tread of a blog entry from last August and September—remember that excitement, the promise of the car, the naming of the car as the ancient goddess, ‘Ishtar,’ and the arrival of my father coinciding with the arrival of Ishtar—it was heady stuff, and reminiscent of turning 16 and hearing you might get a car of your own to drive.

Not to spend too much time on the ancient history of the fall of 2008, but if you do not remember how that narrative played out, someone wrecked my car in the third week of my transformative experience of having a car, and that was the end of that. It was never replaced last year.

When I arrived back on campus last weekend several friends had heard the buzz that I was on the shortlist for a car…maybe, really, of course, it could happen.

So on Monday I was told, “John, anytime you like, pass by and we will work out the details for getting the car.” I was there within the hour with my passport, driver’s license, residency card, worker’s permit and the $175 necessary to procure a driver’s license. I was ready. I didn’t want that moment to pass!

Into Rita’s office I ambled—one part deferential so that she sees I understand her power as the “car bestower” and part ecstatic that I can be able to drive hither and yon upon my whims (at my whims?). I sign the documents and then we walk outside so she can show me the car parked in front of the administration building. There it is! A silver metaphor of freedom! Rita shows me the car, and tosses me the keys.

Well, in the rush to get the work accomplished for new faculty orientation, I don’t even get inside the car then or during the next day. I couldn’t believe two days had gone by without a single celebratory jaunt somewhere, but as always, the days fly by in trying to re-establish a household, meet and greet, and plan and plan. On Wednesday night I told Julianne I wanted to drive her around Madaba and show her the sights of her new environs.

Okay, I must digress for a moment—Julianne is one of the new Hackley tribe that has invaded KA. Three full-time Hackley faculty have made the move this week, and another retired Hackley guru is coming for part-time work in college counseling this September. By the end of the year we hope to outnumber the dons from Deerfield who have monopolized the KA faculty since the dawn of our time. Julianne recently made a point that she had never merited a mention in my blog—she has been a faithful reader of the blog, and she said her mother has certainly noted that she, Julianne, had never even had a shout-out. What a pity. I believe that will change—well, it did just change, since she got her own paragraph. But I mean, I am quite sure you will read more about Julianne since she has taken on the major role at the school as Dean of Student Life. There are few jobs more all-encompassing, more omni-everything than that job. She oversees the sports programs, dances, rules against gum-chewing, and rebelliously untucked shirts, clocks in the dorms, to health classes, to weekend activities to Orientation, to advisors—the sweep is breathtaking, and if you know Julianne, you know she is excited for this task, and up to this challenge. She is a worker and a thinker and is thoroughly in love with school life. She is a wildly successful coach with an armload of state championships to her credit, and I am sure she will treat us all as members of her work-in-progress team.

Anyhoo, there is at least now a substantial paragraph on Julianne, and more to come…

So I decide Julianne needs to go and visit Chili Ways in Madaba, the greasy spoon whose success should be more than partly laid at the feet of the boy boarders at KA. Many of our boys love the delivery service of Chili Ways, and I am sure the owners are checking into summer homes to buy due to the funding from these boy boarders. Few top-dogs at KA have ever been to Chili Ways, and some persist in calling it vile, which might actually spur our teenage boys into ordering more and more from this font of grease and carbohydrates. I mentioned to Jules that it would give her some “street cred” if she could causally mention that she had dined at Chili Ways. Besides, I liked it and wanted some cheese conies to remind me of the Cincinnati Chili that is mother’s milk to west-siders in my hometown!

So I plan to take Jules in my new car, and head over for sunset at Mt. Nebo, and tool around Madaba a bit and indulge at Chili Ways.

We get in the car, and I decide I should make my father proud, and look at the manual for the car first. We notice something strange about the gear shift too. It doesn’t have the conventional PRNDL, but instead has four directions, like the four corners of the world, marked as +, -, A, and R. Okay, no problem, we will look in the manual for the explanation…we look, and discover that this particular manual in our glove compartment is not for this car. It explains the gear shift for PRNDL for some other model of the car. Okay, no matter, let’s just start the car and see whether we go forward or backward! Come on, between us, we have been driving for nearly 50 years!

As I put the key in the ignition a helpful graphic pops up over the radio announcing how much gas is left. It reads: “Range: O Kilometers.” That sounds strange—does that really mean there is no gas at all? The gas gauge is either extraordinarily lazy or insolent, or truthfully registering no gas. No gas? The range is 0 kilometers? It is at least 5 kilometers to a gas station…and actually, 0 is rather strange. Zero kilometers? Maybe it is meant to just scare you into going and getting gas—NOW!

So I turn the key to start the motor just to get a feel for my new car. There is a big nothing that happens…not a whisper or whimper of energy from this car. For a moment I think of calling my father (after all, that is my impulse and he has saved me from car problems for the last 28 years anyway—his words have always been, “All right, I’ll be there in a little bit.”) but Jules and I are incredulous.

We race through the manual for this other make of the car, we look at the gas gauge, we wonder how the car got to campus with no gas—and Julianne turns and smiles, and says, “You’ve gotta laugh about it, right??” She knows my history with cars and freedom at KA, and here we are—right on the cusp of freedom with this car, and it won’t start. Ha!

Julianne is not to be deterred, and called the duty driver and asked one of the men to drive us to Chili Ways—this is one of the perks of knowing the Dean of Student Life, since this request would not be considered by regular faculty.

We ended up having the Chili Ways that night, and the driver waited for us outside in the school van, eager to take us back to campus.

The following day I go visit Rita, gently inquiring why the car had no gas, how it starts, why the manual is different, when I might be able to take a spin in my new escape hatch.

A couple of hours later I went back to Rita’s office—she said the car is much like her car, part automatic and part manual. She walked me out and showed me how to start the car. The key is, as Rita explained, you put your foot on the brake.


She quickly explained how the gears worked—I hope I remember—and that the car starts when the brake is pressed. Okay, I am not a car guy, but I don’t see the logic there. She also showed me in the manual how the gears worked. She had to show me in the Arabic manual, since the one in English was not the correct manual for that car! She offered for someone to go and get gas for me too so I could relieve myself of that worry…

So, yes, as Julianne suggested, you just have to laugh. And you have to have patience and forbearance. This too shall pass, this mini-crisis might end up just a cute story on the blog and not a permanent side-lining like the car was last year.

I have not had the opportunity to try the car out yet—I wanted a little mystery and suspense to the end of this entry, you know, to coax you to wonder how the first trip will go. In just a few minutes I plan take out some new faculty and help them get groceries.

Press the brake, start the car, and put the car into A—and it should GO.

Let’s have a laugh and see how it goes!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rarely does this happen…

I had an email from a friend on Sunday inquiring about my blog posting that morning and my rapture about Facebook, asking, “So are you addicted to ‘Twitter’ yet?” I replied that I have not gone onto Twitter yet, nor did I expect to be “tweeting” anytime soon…

Why not?

Each ‘tweet’ can only be 140 characters! Have you read any of my blog postings??? Brevity is not my forte! I try and contain my thoughts and musings and ramblings and reflections and observations and sermons to three pages!! I don’t think I could endure the challenge that is the haiku style that works for Twitter…if you have read any of the blog postings in the last 25 months you definitely know I am rarely at a loss for words.

But yesterday morning I woke up bright and early and checked email, received some tragic news, and words failed me.

By now, if you are part of the Hackley community you have received news of the unexpected death of Ron DelMoro, head of the Lower School at Hackley, and one of the great lions of education.

I remember interviewing Ron for the Lower School position sometime in 2001 or 2002 and immediately I was struck by his love of children, and his absolute faith and commitment to education. Over the years I taught his sons, one in AP Art History and the younger in my class in a 9th grade course at Hackley. Ron and his family were remarkable pillars of the community, participating in everything, never ruffling feathers, simply a fine tribute to learning and kindness and hard work.

I got this email at the start of the day, and naturally the news dogged me all day. I wanted to email the family and extend my sympathies, and like anyone else, who knew what to say? I have lost a parent so I have understanding of that loss. But words just didn’t come immediately.

As the day went on, I thought back to a figure in history that I had encountered once, a man named John Chrysotom who lived in 4th century Rome, a time of tumult and change. His name ‘Chrysotom’ was actually a nickname by admirers, and it means “golden-mouthed” because of his eloquent sermons.

This guy popped into my head as I reflected on this wonderful educator which the world lost far too soon. Ron was not a sermonizer actually, like John Chrysotom, although he was a fine speaker. But Ron was “golden-mouthed” in how he spoke to people. He had that marvelous gift of being able to speak to many constituencies: parents, administrators, board members, and yes, children. People felt safer in the world because they knew Ron DelMoro. He did not condescend and he did not sugarcoat. He was a leader, a man of empathy and patience, and always a sharp educator.

John Chrysotom was not simply an orator—his writings are still powerful. Here is one Chrysotom’s insights on the value of friends: “Such is friendship, that through it we love places and seasons; for as flowers drop their sweet leaves on the ground around them, so friends impart favor even to the places where they dwell. With friends even poverty is pleasant….It would be better for us that the sun were exhausted than that we should be without friends.”

Surely I could not imagine a time in Ron’s life that he would have ever been without friends. The manner in which he dealt with people at school made you feel you were his great friend. I never saw Ron ‘socially,’ i.e. we never went out to dinner or a ballgame, but I felt the power of his support as a teacher, and his enveloping spirit and warmth made you feel you were his friend. As I watched Ron over the years, not only was he an uncommon administrator, but each relationship I witnessed of Ron’s was characterized by trust, understanding and encouragement. How difficult school life would have been without the nourishment of Ron’s friendship and advice at Hackley.

The ancient voice of Chrysotom and the witness of Ron’s life are reminders of the need to nurture the friendships God has given us.

Here is another petition from that ancient Chrysotom:

Since I have no gold to give,
And love alone must make amends,
My daily prayer is while I live—
“God make me worthy of my friends.”

Amen. God make me worthy of being Ron’s friend. Thank you, Ron, for your example.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

“Have a Facebook-ful summer!”

Summer 2009 is officially over. Last night my plane landed at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, and I disembarked after a 7 ½ hour flight to Paris, a 3 hour layover in Paris, and a 4 ½ hour flight to Amman. New teacher orientation commenced this morning and I spent the afternoon in meetings. Summer 2009 is indeed officially over.

This was a great summer. I visited friends in New York, North Carolina, Nantucket, and Dallas. I spent half of my time in Cincinnati. It was a summer with a great amount of ease. Nothing seemed forced, every plan executed smoothly, and frankly, it was a summer of self-indulgence: talking to treasured people and eating wonderful meals.

I could easily call this my “comfort-food” summer—it was all about resting and recharging and restoring. But there was also a new component to this summer—something that made it totally unique and unlike any summer in my cavalcade of summers—Facebook was a regular part of my summer.

I joined Facebook last December and I have loved it.

Yes, Facebook has been around for five years, and began as a way for college kids to hook up and swap party pictures. I ignored it for awhile (well, truthfully, I probably was oblivious to it for awhile) and then only joined when Anne said, “You really will love it. It is perfect for you to collect all your friends.” It took all of 30 seconds to join up (I thought it must take hours or cost a lot) and within a couple days old friends had found me and we got caught up.

People in my age range—you know what that is, the over-40 crowd—have taken to Facebook in the last year like wild fire. I found a statistic that said people ages 35-54 are the fastest-growing group on Facebook, up nearly 300% in the last year.

Why does the world need Facebook exactly? It’s not as if I was sitting around scratching my head and saying, “If only there was a technology that would allow me to send a message to all my friends alerting them about my choice of breakfast, or that I dread laundry, or TGIF.”

But since my “conversion” last December Facebook has changed the way that I go home and visit with people—there are more people to see! And for a “chat and chew” junkie—this is a great way to spend a summer.

And in an odd way, reading the status reports from members of my extended social network, I get a strangely satisfying glimpse into friends’ daily routines. I mean, come on, we don’t think it is moronic to start a phone call with a friend by asking how her day is going. Now those status reports on Facebook give me that same information without my having to ask!

It seems that as long as we have had the Internet in our homes, critics have bemoaned the demise of shared human experiences, like moon landings and “Who Shot J.R.” cliff-hangers. With that rise in Internet use some people have lamented the loss of that communal front-porch chat, or the folkloric living room, Americans signing off in unison for the day with Walter Cronkite, shattering into a million isolation booths.

But you know what, as I have found with Facebook, those guys are wrong! We still have shared events, but now when we have them, we’re actually having a genuine, public conversation with a group that extends far beyond our nuclear family and next-door neighbors. Some of that conversation is juvenile, of course, but some of the reports and comments are witty, moving, observant, subversive.

Facebook has acted as a magnet that finds people you have lost track of, LaRita, the neighbor girl up the street and a co-worker at The Chili Company in the 1980s, or Julia, a crush from my Newberry Library program in Chicago in 1984. Facebook is perfect for my demographic—a chance to mist up over old summer camp and high school photos, a chance to find out what my first students are like now (and by the way, those students are ages 36-40…gulp…they are real adults certainly!).

Oh, you naysayers out there (and there are a few of you, like my dear sister and a few other close friends) say it is just a time-waster, and a straitjacket that reduces even the most likable people into teenage girls who obsessively do nothing more than talk about themselves. (Um, hello!! I write a blog—I talk about myself—this is what I do for fun!) Is it anti-social not to join Facebook? Is the steady stream of status reports a Chinese-water-torture-like drip? Is it like the worst high school reunion?

I spent a fair amount of time as a child and youth alone—not an inordinate amount of time mind you, just the usual time for someone of my generation, cell phone-less, and Internet-less. I relished in much of that time alone, licking my latest social wound, brooding over the meaning of life, mooning over Lori, or Doris, or Jill (at one point, I recall, I was besotted by all three, and caught—I will have to tell you that story sometime!). For a time each day, I deliberately cut myself off from both adults and my fellow teens: there was much to process and figure out, and I reveled in these ruminations while walking home from school, or bicycling up to the YMCA, or driving around the west side of town. This kind of extended alone time is as outdated as a rotary telephone; in a world with the constant inputs of Facebook and texting and Tweeting and IMing, no teen need be—can be—alone for more than a few minutes.

We live in a blab-o-sphere, and while I am all for solace and introspection, I have welcomed these new Facebook encounters. In fact, a week did not go by all summer where I did not have some personal time, or at least small group time, with a long-lost friend, all due to Facebook. Let me tell you about some of these reunions from the last 8 weeks:

David is a friend going way back. We went to school together from Kindergarten through Senior year at West High. We had exchanged a letter or two in the 80s, but very little contact in the last 25 years. In June he drove 100 miles to meet me for lunch in Cincinnati (where else? Skyline Chili!) and tell me about his wife and daughter. He is a teacher, and has enjoyed an exciting adult life. It was wonderful to re-connect with him again, thanks to Facebook.

Will was one of my first Facebook connections, finding me within days of my joining. We had lost track of each other about a decade ago, and through the ease of Facebook had a quick coffee and catch-up in New York. This July we met again, and we got to talk about the movie he had made, business prospects, and just feel in the know about each other again.

Bobbie may be the first one to find me on Facebook—I think within minutes of my sign-up! I taught her children in Charlotte (now living in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles) and while it had only been a few years, it was great to visit and laugh and remember her children as adolescents.

I had a great morning coffee with Kathy in Gastonia, North Carolina, after nearly 20 years of wondering what ever became of my first great actress. At my first school I taught this intelligent delight three years and directed her in my first plays. Now we got to see each other and see where our paths had taken us since Gaston Day School in 1989.

I had a dinner out with Wes in Gastonia, the evening after my Facebook reunion with Kathy. Wes was among a group of exciting 9th grade guys I taught my last year at Gaston Day, and I nearly didn’t leave because I didn’t want to miss teaching them. He is a successful executive, and how great to see what he is like after 19 years.

Somehow I had lost track of Marsha, one of my first great friends in my adult life in teaching at Gaston Day. Life takes you all over the place, and Christmas cards stop sometimes, and you lose someone meaningful to you. We spent an evening laughing and whooping it up at Mary’s house, again thanks to a Facebook re-connection.

Audra drove almost five hours to see me in Charlotte. Lord, I hope it was worth it for her! I loved loved loved seeing this charming, warm veterinarian and hearing about her children and her travels. We had done pretty well up until about 2001 staying in touch, but Facebook led us back again.

On my last day in North Carolina I found someone I had been looking for—a wonderful student named Philip with whom I lost touch in the 90s. I found him that morning, and if I had found him one day earlier we would have had a get-together. But I will make it back to North Carolina, and Philip and I will reunite.:

When I was in 7th grade I had a crush on 9th grader Janet—she was tall and cool and played in the orchestra. I took her to a sweetheart dance at Gamble Jr. High. When I was in 10th grade I saw Janet again at West High, and we enjoyed chatting and a lively friendship. I am pretty sure I have not seen her since the end of 10th grade. But Janet found me on Facebook and when she was in Cincinnati over the summer we met for ice cream and reminiscences. What a great chance to see that old friend.

Last year my sister found an old tape of us interviewing each other, and my sister asked me what I wanted for Christmas in 1979. I replied, “Karen.” Karen was a great church friend and object of junior high crushes and, again, like many others, we lost track after she got married in the 80s. You know what happened. Facebook! And Karen organized a picnic at another old church friend’s house, and we spent a memorable evening with Amy and her family, marveling that we have known each other since toddler-hood, and so glad Facebook gave us the chance to find each other.

When I left my friend Chuck’s house this summer—oh, by the way, he had avoided Facebook and then finally “drank the kool-aid”—he sent me a Facebook message, and I could hear the sincerity and laughter in his writing as he said, “Hey John-O, thanks for coming to see us and have a Facebook-ful summer!”

As our world digs its way out of a global economic collapse, I have found how addictive the micro-events of our status reports are. Bash it if you will, but my summer of 2009, and the reunion with old friends, was even more spectacular thanks to Facebook (I almost said the phrase, the miracle of Facebook, but I said that once to my sister, and she said, “Facebook is not a miracle—the Virgin birth is a miracle.”)

Oh, and by the way, I had a Special K Powerbar this morning for breakfast.