Saturday, October 31, 2009

Postcard from Athens—the Museum Edition

Say “Athens,” and people will say, “The Acropolis.”

So during my stay in Athens last week at the conference, there must be a visit to the famed high point of the city of Athens. I have been there before, in 2005, but it was especially exciting to re-visit the dramatic site since the brand-new Acropolis Museum opened just a few months ago in June.

One of the locals explained how the design of this new museum had created such tension throughout the city of Athens: Who wants a modern design of a museum sticking out of our famous walk up the hill to the Acropolis? It looked positively ugly in design! What about the ruins underneath the site? Indeed, it was another example of the visual shock that museums and monuments often cultivate in the angry debates of how art should look in our modern world.

I was very interested to see how the museum looked and felt—I have become fascinated in the last 10 years or so with how the design of a museum can transform the learning experience (and dare I even sound so pretentious as to say the “spiritual” experience???) of a museum-goer. I remember in 2000 in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis being blown away by the sheer design of how they shaped your reaction to the history of the civil rights movement. And I have watched how my beloved Metropolitan Museum in NYC has transformed wings of the museum to heighten and deepen the experience. And, of course, controversy is always fun if you are not one of the screamers on the sidelines!

Some of our contingent from KA decided not to go on the guided tour of the Acropolis. Seriously? You are in Athens, you have never been up to the Acropolis, and shoe shopping wins out? As one of my colleagues sniffed, “It’s just not my style.” Okay…

Julianne was the most excited—I can’t believe I get to go to the Parthenon with you!!—she squealed. As she said, if you have ever taught history, read about history, or just have been aware of history, you need to go to the Parthenon. It’s like the Great Wall in China, and the Pyramids (all places I have visited in the last few years) it is important just to be there.

Okay, so we start the walk up to the Acropolis. We pass by the theater—the theater where Greeks say Drama was born. We pass by the spot where Pericles delivered one of the most famous speeches in world history, his “Funeral Oration.” You know it started out as an angry mob of mothers deriding the elected leader Pericles for the disastrous results in a war, and he scooped them up Ronald-Reagan style (or perhaps Ronnie just simply channeled Pericles all the time) and offered this speech about how their sons had not died in vain, but for the cause of Athens, and the women left quite aware and moved by the heroic sacrifice their sons had made.

So we come to the museum—a stunningly jagged design with reflective glass on the outside. What does it reflect? Ahhhh….what is behind us, the Parthenon! And we realize we are now walking on a clear sidewalk so that we can see the ruins of ancient Athens below us as we walk into the super-modern museum. So as you approach this new structure you are aware of the past both under you and behind you, and quite struck by the modern and beautiful need to preserve that past and reflect ancient glories.

I remember the old Acropolis Museum. It sat up near the Parthenon—great view outside, but positively shabby inside. It looked like a warehouse in New Jersey—apologies to anyone from the Garden State—not really like the reliquary of the statuary though from a Golden Age.

Truth be told, there are not many pieces on the Varsity Team of Classical Greek art in this museum—most of the A-list is somewhere else in the world, like Rome, Paris, London, or New York—but what Athens has, is showcased in the most beautiful fashion. There are some stars here—the Archaic Calf-Bearer, some lovely Kore statues, and the Kritios Boy, and the gorgeous carytids from the Erechteion—but you want to drink it all in because of the showcasing. The wall text is compelling and they make each pottery fragment significant in the telling of the story of Greek life and art.

This is certainly a teaching museum. Unlike the stuffy, cramped Cairo Museum (although that place looks like Indiana Jones is about to run around a corner in that place!) with the stacks of Egyptian art, this museum has sought the best place and light for each piece. Each pediment has been explained in a marvelous teacherly fashion. Our guide is obviously caught up in the new museum (by the way, they want to make sure the tourists get the idea that it is new, and they officially call themselves, “The New Acropolis Museum”) and she promises to let us go wander, but she just can’t help herself to point out one more stele or statue.

Julianne and I walk around by ourselves for awhile, and then we ascend to the 3rd floor. This floor is an especially important floor. They recreate the Parthenon on this floor, bringing down almost to our level the beauties of the sculptural program designed by Phidias. As you walk around the gargantuan floor, seeing how the stories of Athena’s birth or Athena’s contest with Poseidon play out, it is an obvious plea to the British Museum for the return the “real” statuary.

About two hundred years ago the British removed most of the statuary from the Parthenon and took it back to London for safe-keeping. It is on display in an exceptionally beautiful wing of the British Museum. At times over the years the debate has become quite heated about whether or not Athens could have back its own Parthenon sculptures. The British always said that more people would see them in London than Athens, and that they take better care of art.

The New Acropolis Museum has created a whole reproduction of the Parthenon, and where possible, they put original fragments, and then for most of it, they have made plaster reproductions. The place is ready for the original sculptures should the British decide to return the sculptures.

It was a sumptuous museum and prepared us for the thrill of surmounting the Acropolis, seeing the harbor of Athens (site of a crucial naval battle, and the heart of the maritime trade bonanza for the Athenians) seeing the rocks where Paul declared the message of Christianity when he came to the home of great educators, seeing the 1896 Olympic Stadium, and the rest of Athens. A glorious afternoon.

Julianne and I hoped to steal a little time to visit an Islamic Art museum in Athens as well. We decided we could skip a speaker on the last day to find the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art. Mr. Benaki was an uber-wealthy cotton merchant a century ago, and he left money and his art collection to the Greek government. There are now 3 Benaki museums and we weren’t sure which one was which. We headed toward the one we had past the other night going out for dinner. It was about a 20 minute walk from the hotel, and that museum is housed in the old Benaki family mansion. The clock is ticking on our trip to Athens and we had about 90 minutes before we had to head back to pack and leave.

Curses! That wasn’t the Benaki museum of Islamic Art—okay, the woman shows us a map and we jump in a taxi. The taxi ride is long and going through a couple of sketchy neighborhoods. He lets us out in a very industrial part of town. Hmmmmm…we walk around the block and every sign is in Greek (insert it’s all Greek to me! Joke here). We peek inside the as-not-yet-open museum and decide this is the Benaki Modern. We look for a cab and some help…remember the clock is ticking…I should add that Julianne picks up the cab fare since she knows I like paying for cabs about as much as I like lobotomies.

He speeds us to the great 19th century townhouse that contains the Islamic art treasures. We have one hour—perfect. The museum covers 13 centuries but is the kind of museum that can be enjoyed in one hour and you feel as if you just had a great tutorial. The museum focuses on the role of Islam in the Mediterranean world and its links with Greco-Roman traditions. There are lustrous ceramics, inscribed textiles from Egypt, and superb inlaid metalware. The showstopper is an inlaid marble floor from a 17th century Cairo mansion.

We were rewarded at the café on the rooftop terrace with a spectacular view of the Acropolis above us and the ancient agora below.

Mad dash back to the hotel to pack and check out and head back to the work that awaits us at KA.

First-time visitors to Athens seem torn between the remnants of the ancient world and the innovations of the new, between the gods and the shops of Plaka, between ruins of buildings and the green-covered terraces of Kolanaki. Ah, but returning visitors know to enjoy all of both worlds, as do the Athenians themselves.

Friday, October 30, 2009

ringing in my ears

I will write the sequel to the Postcard from Athens in a little bit. First off I want to salute my sister, my wonderful sibling, whose birthday is today. She is among my greatest treasures.

I have had a song buzzing in my head, ringing in my ears, for the last two days. This is a song whose lyrics were written by the same team that wrote The Way We Were:

Where do you start
How do you separate the present from the past
How do you deal with all the thing you thought would last
That didn't last
With bits of memories scattered here and there
I look around and don't know where to start

Which books are yours
Which tapes & dreams belong to you & which are mine
Our lives are tangled like the branches of a vine
That intertwine
So many habits that we'll have to break
And yesterdays we'll have to take apart

One day there'll be a song or something in the air again
To catch me by surprise & you'll be there again
a moment in
what might have been

Where do you start
Do you allow yourself a little time to cry
Or do you close your eyes & kiss it all goodbye
I guess you try
And though I don't know where & don't know when
I'll find myself in love again
I promise there will always be
A little place no one will see
A tiny part within my heart
That stays in love
With you

Just wanted to move onto the next tune in my head...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Postcard from Athens

I guess Athens has always been a complicated place.

I mean, when you study that famed era known rhapsodically as “The Golden Age,” there was always a tension between the idealism of the young male athlete and the reality of the Athenian foreign policy that might announce the order to slaughter the men and enslave the women of a conquered “barbarian” polis.

And there is the complicated role that freedom and free will play in that nasty trial of Socrates. Whew—an unexamined life might leave you breathing still, I guess. And what do we make of the humanism of the Greek philosophy and the embarrassing misogyny of Aristotle and his posse? Oh, my head hurts.

In the last fifty years there have been furious exchanges over who should act as guardian to the revered statues once-found in the Parthenon—the British Museum continues to hedge its bets that more people the world over see them in comfy London rather than trek all the way to oh-it-is-a-different-alphabet Greece.

Then it was nail-bitingly worrisome as our 21st century Greeks crept toward that deadline in the summer of 2004 with half-finished venues and projects for the Olympics. It was fun to have the Olympics back in Greece for the first time since 1896, but would they be ready?

Oh, and let’s not forget the classic My Big Fat Greek Wedding (okay, one quick criticism of the movie: did they really want to give away the ending in the title of the movie???) with its complicated understanding of vegetarianism! Priceless Aunt Voula played by the estimable Andrea Martin, exclaims: “What do you mean he don't eat no meat?” The entire room stops, in shock. She solves the complicated mess, “Oh, that's okay. I make lamb.”

And of course, I have my own history of complicated-ness with Greece. Many of you know about the infamous 2005 trip with students that had many glorious moments and a few plate-shifting episodes.

So what better venue could there be for a conference on the un-complicated-ness of teaching and learning (!!!!!) than Athens…

Last week I went with a contingent of nine other colleagues from KA for a five-day conference in Athens.

In many ways I had been waiting for a chance to re-visit Athens, even though one dear person in my life thought I would never want to return to the scene of what became a rather difficult chapter in my life. But you know, that’s the thing about complicated affairs—you want to go back, take another look at something, and maybe even redeem a torturous period.

So off I went to walk in the footsteps of the great educators Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle!

The conference was hosted/organized by an organization that watches over international schools in the “Near East/South Asia” region of the world. So I had the chance to mingle with school leaders from Doha and Delhi, Islamabad and Bangkok. This was not the first time I have done a school leadership conference, but this was a bit more glamorous. In the old days of Hackley my marvelous friend Diana and I would take the train into Manhattan for a day-long conference and maybe get a mediocre box lunch outta the deal. You know, jetting off two hours away to Athens has an exotic feel to it!

The first impression about the 300 or so school leaders was how American this group is. All the speakers were from the USA and it felt like almost everyone was an ex-pat. Many of them talked of making their way around the world on the international school circuit, almost like high school jocks talking of the notches on their belt. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but I went to parties at glamorous Cristina’s house with her UN chums that were much more diverse and really international.

Anyway, the conference was right up my alley. The focus of the leadership conference emphasized how we as school leaders must put learning back in the center of the school enterprise. The keynote speakers all touched on this, helping us uncover our own assumptions about learning, articulating principles of learning, sharing the latest research on learning, helping us identify what our 21st century students need to learn, and inspiring us to recommit ourselves to life-long learning. The very first presentation was a dialogue—oh how very Socratic!—about what learning is not. Hmmmm….

Right across the street from our great hotel was a city park with the ruins of the Temple of Zeus from the 5th century of classical Athens. Yep, right there—just outside the hotel, across the street, and in that park.

Conferences, of course, are always a little complicated. Some of the speakers seemed heaven-sent, and some seemed redundant. But I always treat a conference like this with the mindset that if a good one-third of it is great and useful, then it has been a successful expense of time. And when a speaker is not moving me to nods and sighs, then I plan other things. Sooooo, when one Harvard professor kind of mumbled around for awhile, I made lists of things, working on everything from To Do Lists for my apartment, my department, my advisees, my Dean job, and Art History. I planned most of the upcoming term exam during a keynote address that just didn’t work it for me!

But much of the work of the conference was exhilarating—discussions about how to move faculty toward a greater understanding and articulation about the learning process—I guess you would have guessed that, given the theme. And there were some provocative discussions about how difficult it is to move the lumbering-elephant-of-a-school-as-a-bureaucratic-behemoth. What are our resistances to change? What are our visible and invisible commitments and competitions to change?

Several times I found myself walking around the Temple of Zeus—the park was gorgeous on the sunny afternoons—wondering about how a school can become healthier place, and how to get more faculty on board. I wondered if Plato had these same musings about his Academy back in the 4th century BCE??? Again, the complicated-ness that Athens fosters kept tugging at me about the dialectical tensions of schools.

But then in the evening—wheeeeeeee—let’s enjoy dinner and a little dancing and a little Opa!!!!! I’ll tell you, I remember when Anne and I were on the 2005 trip and we noted that almost every dinner was the same menu, but it didn’t seem to matter since the ingredients were so fresh, and each tomato was a revelation and each block of feta cheese velvety smooth! Every night I ordered the tzatziki, that seductive garlic-cucumber-yogurt spread—you know in honor of my friendship with Anne!

The last two weeks have been very busy—hence the lack of blogisodes. The comments of the last blog entry were followed by Parent’s Weekend, and then I had 24 college recommendations to write. Now, it isn’t October for me without a ton of college recs, but since these were the first ever for KA students, I felt a special burden to produce something that would stand as a testament to what these first two years have been like at the school, and how I envision that particular scholar in the continuum of scholars I have known and taught.

Since the recs were due officially the day I got back from Athens, I knew they had to be completed when I left for the trip, since I didn’t really want to be composing while sneaking trips to cute Plaka or hiking up the Acropolis to ponder the genius of the Parthenon. So I had a strict schedule to get those recs done.

Yes it was hard work to compose so many, but it was also a joy. Here was a chance to look back over the last 26 months since I joined this venture and to see how these students have progressed and transformed. Some of these scholars lean a bit more to the abstractions of Plato, and some a bit more to the concrete-ness of Aristotle, but none has simply been an example of stasis. Each has worked and moved and struggled and achieved.

Actually I guess it was appropriate to steep myself in their learning before going to the conference urging us to risk even greater degrees of learning.

Wait—I am remembering that heavenly-honey-sticky bite of baklava that first night—it is hard not to be transported if it is just right.

I will be back in a day with another postcard on my trip to the Acropolis and a trip to the Benaki Museum.

Just wait—I promise in a day I will be back!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


This is about the worst time I might try and write a blog entry. For the past 36 hours I have been writing comments for my 60 (actually, just 59, but that even five dozen number sounds even more impressive and heroic) young art historians, and I am, well, hmm…about out of words. Out of adjectives and sunny ways to spin my comments and offer hope and encouragement.

But I thought—no, with all this writing, let’s write just a quickie blog entry because several things are so good, and I have to share them.

First of all, on Thursday I met with my department to discuss how to write these comments for our students. I gave them about 10 examples, real examples from last year’s classes and comment pile. Naturally, I changed all the names (although colleague Fatina is so astute—she guessed all the real students behind the pseudonyms) and I thought I would have a little fun. I changed all the names to friends of mine from the Denison Singers. As we discussed the different comments and what a teacher might say about the trajectory of the young scholars, one of the younger teachers laughed and said, “You gave all the students names of people in their 50s!”

Well, no actually, just in their 40s, but they may be feeling a little more middle-aged than usual at the moment! Harumph! Don’t age us any faster than cruel Kronos does!

Anyway, as I was writing my comments today, I looked back on four students from last year and the progress that they have made. Over half of these art historians I teach now are students I have taught previously at King’s Academy. But these are four students who were in last year’s AP World History, and for whom life was especially tough in that course. Three of those four exited the course in November, and one fell into deeper trouble as the year progressed. When I noticed that these four individuals had signed up for AP Art History for this year, I was concerned about their ability to succeed. We had baggage.

Let me share comments from last fall, and then offer an update on these four scholars. Yes, I have changed the names, and yes, they are people in their 40s who are still quite vital!

Heidi is a bit of a mystery to me. While in class, she usually does not pay close attention, choosing to draw on her notebook cover (or a neighbor’s notebook cover) or tuning out of class discussions, but then she will sometimes have very sharp comments to offer. It is clear to me Heidi has not always taken responsibility for her actions either—she wants to blame something/someone for why she has not done work, or not prepared for work. All of the assignments are on an assignment sheet, as well as the board in class. Heidi needs to take greater ownership of her work and in her responsibilities. Heidi has some excellent skills, but far too often she is more interested in just talking or wanting to rest (I refer to an infamous moment in class when Heidi yawned, stretched, and proceeded to rest her head on the table.) I encourage Heidi to take better advantage of the Journal Sheets (she doesn’t do them at all, resulting in her earning a zero each time) so she can practice finding sterling examples and spinning out her ideas to better explain her thoughts. She needs to ask herself whether or not she is willing to do the work involved in an AP course.

As of this writing, “Heidi” has submitted every single assignment in AP Art History, takes notes carefully in class, actually has insights, and has so far earned a B+ this year. A far cry from the D- of last year at this time. Go Heidi!

Todd earned a C- on his term exam, which is not bad considering that Todd submitted virtually no homework assignments this term. That is the point I wish to emphasize: in the gradebook I see zero after zero for the homework assignments. Todd said he did the homework. That may be, but if he does not submit the work to me, I cannot give him credit. I must see the work. I fear that Todd got in over his head with his AP subjects and was not able to manage his time properly. I urge Todd to carve out some time to do some of the work so that his grade will not suffer so dramatically. I would also urge Todd to take advantage of the weekly opportunities for extra credit. He only did it one time in the first term! He is throwing away chances at free extra credit simply by coming and practicing multiple choice. Two of the things to improve are simple: submit work, show up for extra credit. After Todd solves those two easy things we can work on the other areas of honing writing skills.

As of this writing, “Todd” is riding pretty high: he has earned an A-. He has submitted every homework assignment and they are excellently crafted insights and responses. Word on the street is that Todd’s father has promised him a car if he earns As. Hey, whatever it takes. This is not the same passive, careless Todd of last year. This is a thinker and a doer.

One of the joys I have in teaching is attempting to create a community environment where students feel comfortable exploring new ideas and seeking new ways of understanding the legacies of our past. At first, I did not think Rick wanted to vigorously participate in this kind of environment. Every day he would interrupt me, talk over me, steamroll over other students’ comments, and distract us in class. However, after he and I had a stern talk, Rick has decided to be a serious student. Rick turned over the proverbial leaf, and he is finding success as a real scholar. His work has improved, he is proud of his achievements, and I believe he wants to sustain this stretch of enthusiasm. This is not easy—an AP course is hard and non-stop, but Rick seems willing to go the distance and I am proud of this new Rick I see. Rick needs to be make the leap now from good student to great student—not only responding to my questions and demands, but a student who anticipates them and begins to create his own set of questions and demands of history. He needs to work on his critical reading skills, and work on essays that offer arguments and precise details. I urge Rick to wonder more about how things happen and what more he needs to know for something to make more sense. In only seven weeks I have seen a wonderful transformation in him, and the demands he makes on himself. There is nothing better that a teacher enjoys!Okay, here is the next term comment of this “Rick”:
As I write this comment in late November, Rick has dropped the AP World History course. It is a wise decision for Rick to drop the course—he was simply unwilling to come to class prepared with reading and homework. Out of a total of 8 opportunities for extra credit, Rick only seized one time to earn extra credit. He earned an F on the term exam (he decided staying up all night studying was beneficial in writing effective essays instead of studying gradually over the course of a week) and his essays revealed a weak and superficial understanding of the material. As Rick continues his schooling, I hope he comes to see how important strong reading and writing skills are to his successes as a scholar.

As of this writing, “Rick” has had a shaky week. The grade I submitted for the midterm was a B and he had, as of last week, submitted every assignment. However, in the last few days, that old issue of sustaining excellence has come up. He has cut class twice and not turned in an assignment. We have a test tomorrow. The jury is still out if Rick can cut it.

Recently our academic support specialist informed me that Ken has told his parents he is spending all of his time on studying AP World History. I see no evidence of his having spent time working on this course. He earned an F on the mid-term exam—I looked for something in his essay about which to pass him, and there was no understanding of the material to be found. He also has not submitted homework assignments—earning him a zero each time. Ken is the only student currently failing this course. He has never sought help from me, and while he is a pleasant young man, an ineffective history student. He needs to ask himself whether or not he is willing to do the work involved in an AP course.

It was surprising to me that Ken would want to have anything to do with another history course. The going is still rough—Ken failed the first major test of the year so far, but in the last two weeks, there have been glimmers of improvement. Ken has taken better notes in class and I see eye contact in class! The last homework assignments have been turned in. And once last week, Ken’s hand shot up and out came a correct answer. Let’s cross our fingers for Ken…

On another hopeful and positive note, I want to look back to last October when the first King’s Academy AP mid-term grades came out. No one had ever taken an AP subject before and there were no peer role models for our fledgling scholars. I had only 1 student out of 53 earn above a 90% grade. If you are a faithful reader of the blog, you will know that that changed dramatically over the year as many more of them rose to the necessary standards and acquitted themselves as committed historians (no, not all, but an admirable group!). This October as I submitted my grades I noted that a full 21 of the 59 students had earned a 90% or better grade. Of those 21, I have taught 20 of them before. Now Heidi,Rick, and Ken are not in that group—yet, but teaching at King’s Academy has given me spectacular proof of what hard work and diligence can do.

Let’s see what happens…

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Blues-ish Birthday

Oh, I am glad October 4th and 5th are over.

My birthday is October 4th, and frankly, I’m just glad the pressure that something might happen is over, and then the questions about my birthday are over. It was just a non-event, that’s all.

Don’t worry about me—I am not some sad clown crying in the corner acting any more needy than usual. It’s just an interesting thing, the birthday thing, to figure out and reflect upon, but rest assured I am not one of those middle-aged (gasp! did that happen??) Bah, humbug haters-of-birthdays. Actually I love the whole birthday thing. It’s just that this year, it was a non-starter.

The day began with a royal court decree that each student must arrive early to morning meeting for swine flu testing. I was busy monitoring attendance of my senior class outside of the auditorium while someone (I never learned who!) announced inside the auditorium that it was my birthday. Evidently they sang. But I wasn’t there. And if you have ever heard the KA student body sing Happy Birthday, well, it is a sad dirge indeed. And that pretty much sums up the birthday!

Anyway, after school I was sitting and visiting with some of the juniors I enjoy so much, and somehow the conversation turned to food. Zack, this great Jordanian-American who grew up in Knoxville, and I started swooning over southern BBQ. I told them of my great trip to Mississippi in 2000 and that one of my goals on that trip was to have BBQ every day of the trip, and when the sauce was dripping down my hands and arms, I had reached BBQ Nirvana. Ahhhh, Zack and I competed over which of us loves BBQ the most.

I smacked my lips in the memory of the great Mi’sippi BBQ meals and when I came in my apartment I went to the CD file and looked up a CD I had bought on that trip at the Blues Museum in Greenwood, Mississippi. Somehow the moment seemed appropriate to play the blues. Again, this is not some clichéd scene where I drew the curtains and moaned a little “I’ve gotta right to sing the blues.” I just wanted to kill some time until I could make some calls to the USA and enjoy some birthday greetings from friends and family.

A few weeks ago a friend emailed me that she would be passing through Jordan on October 4, and why not get together. Since no one else had made any plans, I thought it was fine, and I did say how good it would be to see her again, and that, hey, it was even my birthday! Good, good, plans set. I like that.

Well, during my impromptu blues session and trip down Mississippi memory lane, I got a text wondering if I wanted to meet her later that night since she had other plans now. Oh, I guess she forgot our plans. She wondered if maybe later I would want to join her with another friend. Well, that didn’t quite sound like a birthday celebration, and I had loaned out my car, so it just seemed like the history of the blues might be my vehicle of choice. And actually, on another birthday I had a Blues-ish day. My 21st birthday, celebrated when I was doing a program in Chicago, was spent in a Blues Club in Chicago. That’s right. I saw Koko Taylor, the so-called, “Queen of the Blues” playing in a club somewhere in Chi-town. That’s right, I had a little history with the Blues on my birthday…

I went over to the Dining Hall, but saw the normal chicken and rice offering (it’s fine, it’s just, you know, soooooooo normal!) and sighed. Let’s just go back and spend some time on the phone.

Okay, this is the thing about birthdays: it is a narcissistic day, and you need someone really important and special in your life, especially for those of us unmarried, to seize that opportunity and make those plans for you!

I thought about my birthdays in Jordan, since this is birthday #3 here. In the first year, when we had been here only about 10 weeks, it was a warm surprise when a student of mine gave me a note hoping I had a good birthday. I keep this note in my bedside drawer, and she said she knew I was likely to be sad that day since I was far from my family, and she hoped that our KA family would be a new family. It was a kind and thoughtful gesture. And my new friend Elizabeth organized a birthday dinner out to Amman for burgers at Fuddrucker’s. This was still when getting off campus was a rare and marvelous treat, and about 14 of us piled into a large booth at the restaurant, all new friends in this new country.

Last year my birthday fell during the Eid holiday so school was not in session, but my father was here, and since we had not spent my birthday together in 20 years, that birthday last year was also a rare and marvelous treat.

But the birthday is also when I miss, you know, the other life, the most.

So Sunday was a perfectly fine and normal day. But there is a little pressure for a grand celebration, and what do you say when people ask, “So what are you doing exciting for your birthday?” Oh, I plan to write an incredibly exciting lecture about the Golden Age of Athens. That is what I did, but you kinda want a little more.

I spent a couple hours calling friends and family. Usually one waits for the birthday calls, but hey, the Vonage line was open, and our phone lines are not the most reliable anyway. So if a line is open—make a call! I chatted with my family while they were at lunch at LaRosa’s after church, just like 90% of the Sunday noontime meals in our family. I laughed with Emma and Jack, spoke with our 92-year old friend Edna, and asked my father what the first conversation was like when he and my mother held me on that longago October 4th. I called a few more dear friends—all of them saying, “I planned to call you later!”

I went back to the lectures on Classical Athens and I remembered the Birthday of the Incredibly Mysterious Present.

Sometime around my 11th birthday a sumptuously wrapped present appeared in our living room, maybe a week before October 4th. It was the largest box I had ever seen. And it was for me! On October 4th! What a great build-up to see this wrapped box every day as I practiced the piano, went out to play, passed by on the way to school. What enormous present was I going to get???? What incredible change in my life was I about to enjoy?? The anticipation was unbelievable and exciting.

October 4th came (my mother liked to wake me up in those days exactly at the time of my birth, something around 5:00 A.M., to christen the new year!) and finally I got to open the present.

It was a pillow.

A pillow? It was a huge pillow, but that was it. A perfectly fine, ordinary pillow. Nothing else! Nothing more extraordinary. It was difficult to mask my disappointment. I’m sure I got other gifts that year, but I couldn’t tell you what they were. I just remember the deflation over the pillow.

So, yeah, Birthday 2009 was just a pillow.

In the evening the vonage line was busy, so no more calls. As bedtime approached I looked back on some of the non-pillow birthdays. I remembered senior year at Denison when college friend Steve found a gelato place about 25 miles away, and we went with our magnificent clique and enjoyed the Italian gelato I had learned about while studying abroad. I remembered the birthday nights in the last 12 years spent at a Broadway show, or hearing the divine Barbara Cook at the swanky Café Carlyle, or dinners at “the club” enjoying the intimacy of treasured friends. I remembered surprise parties for birthdays #16 and #18, I remembered the swim birthday parties at the YMCA and the McDonald-land birthday cakes. I remembered birthdays with play casts after a long rehearsal.

So as I checked on-line for my first-ever Birthday-on-Facebook I enjoyed the greetings of about 50 friends—people ranging from nearly long-lost childhood friends to my newest colleagues here at KA. I floated off to sleep, glad that the day was ending, but comforted by such great memories.

Again, it wasn’t a day for pining, just wanting a little more of something…and then the following day when some people asked, “So, what did you do??” and I tried to change the subject to a less vulnerable topic. So October 4th and 5th ended. Regular life could resume without the pressure and potential letdown of a New-Year’s-Eve-like day.

This morning, freed of the birthday manacles, I noticed a card in my box. Most people have given up trying to outguess the snail mail from the USA to Jordan (since in Jordan the mail may literally be carried by snails, or at least apathetic camels) so mail is rare. But there was a card from a family that is among my most treasured. The card read:

To live with purpose,
To say the courageous thing,
To celebrate the simple gift,
to follow your dreams,
This is a happy life.
--Wayland Henry

October 4th wasn’t unhappy, just a little, you know, too regular. But I celebrated this card today, this simple gift, which has come with a deep and marvelous friendship, and I thought about where I am, who I know, what I get to do, and a little birthday reconciliation filled my soul.

Friday, October 2, 2009

“You could sell an Eskimo a refrigerator, honey!”

Back in the days when I was in Grades 5-9 I dreamed of being a successful entrepreneur. I signed up to sell almost anything. Sure, there were the candy sales at school, but I combed through magazines looking for offers to sell seed packets for the American Seed Company, and various other products from sundry companies. But I hit the mother-lode hawking stationary, greetings cards and Christmas cards for the Olympic Sales Company. I made really good money for a young ‘un—you could win prizes for the number of boxes you sold, or plain cold cash. I worked neighborhoods around town, church groups, and my teachers at Westwood Elementary School. Miss McGhee, the legendary 5th and 6th grade math and science teacher who would have made a great stock character on the TV show, The Wonder Years, always bought four boxes of engraved cards (engraved cards meant more kick-back for the young salesman). Miss Wilson, my amazing and iconic humanities teacher in the 5th grade, always bought stationary. But she did not have her name and address imprinted on the floral stationery—she had the phrase “Bloom where you are planted” emblazoned on her stationery. One of the older women who lived behind Gram Leistler was a Mrs. Metz, a soft sell, and one of the people on my Go-To list whenever I started a new sales project. One day I was selling plants and Mrs. Metz cheerily put her name down for several plants and offered me this assesment, “You could sell an Eskimo a refrigerator, honey!”

Well, as we all know, sales and entrepreneurial chutzpah were not in the cards. Once I had an AP history class in high school with another legendary teacher, Jean Michaels, that was it. The route to igloo sales was changed. I was to become a historian.

I often think of Miss Wilson for many reasons. I have mentioned her before in the blog as on the very short list of best teachers I have known. I have mentioned how in 2004 I found her again after 25 years of not knowing where she had moved after she left Westwood. I have mentioned her because she stoked my love of both history and drama.

But in the last few months I have thought of her more often with that phrase she had printed every year on her stationery (I visited her after I had her in class, with the sample book in hand, to hear about new books she liked and to solicit her order for my annual Olympic sales)—Bloom where you are planted.

All summer long of 2009 I kept moving around where I was, visiting groups of friends (already blog-chronicled) and sad every time those few days were up with that particular group of friends, never too despondent since I kept seeing more people that make my world blessed. And each trip I would realize how happy I was there—be it Cincinnati, Nantucket, Westchester County, Manhattan, North Carolina, Dallas—how with these great friends I just bloomed!

In the last two weeks, as you know, I journeyed to North Carolina, spent a long weekend with magnificent friends, left sad, drove home to Cincinnati, bloomed in Cincinnati, and then set out, sad again, back to Jordan.

I landed back in Jordan, happy to be back at work here, again, doing what Miss Wilson mandated, blooming where I am planted.

I come from a long line of bloomers: my mother and father both have demonstrated an uncanny ability to make the most of any situation. Pity and petulance were too easy in extreme situations (if you have ever heard my father’s advice for enduring a bad patch of road in life, he shrugs, and reminds you, “You can stand on your head for six months.”) so why not make the most of something, and just bloom. My grandmothers were both incessant bloomers. The three sibling sisters in my mother’s family were bloomers, but such different flowers: Aunt Helen a delicate morning glory, my mother the showy and pleasant anemone, and my Aunt Dot the adjustable, long-lasting, beautiful iris flower. Anyway, I could do a whole blog entry on those women and their floral/blooming qualities.

As I said, school is back in session, and as we hunker down, get past the holy month of Ramadan (which does have a fair amount of interruptions and changes from a regular schedule) and really get the school year underway, I think again how wonderful and important those words are from Miss Wilson. No matter where we are, no matter what conditions, situations, surprises and expectations we encounter, we need to bloom. We need to put down some roots, weed around ourselves, and bloom. It is a little interesting how I think of that more here, in the desert, where for month after month there is very little blooming. Then again, maybe that isn’t so surprising after all.

But while I did not continue with that zeal for sales in the normal way, I guess I have continued that earlier love for selling by trying to “sell” the study of history. I have that unflagging love that both Miss Wilson and Mrs. Michaels had about “selling” how to be a great student, crafting good sentences and reaching imaginative, purposeful conclusions about how understanding the past matters.

In this desert garden we are selling a way of life like crazy. The mission statement of the school has lofty goals about critical thinking, interdisciplinary work, and solving problems in our complicated world. We hope we do those things. But we are still selling our students on some basic things: get up on time in the morning, be in dress code with your shirts tucked in, ties confidently knotted and splendidly raised, show up for morning meeting, attend classes…

It is not exhausting in the same way it was two years ago—witness how strong and ready and willing most of my AP students are. But those basic things above, starting out the day dressed and punctual, those goals are still beyond some of our students. There is still training to be done, selling to be done about how this kind of education can impact their lives and transform them.

Yesterday, in the span of an hour, I had two encounters with two different students that made me laugh, and also remind me we need to keep on selling. It was my first lunch with my new group of students assigned to my lunch table. The students rotate every few weeks to new randomly chosen groups with faculty members. The students act as waiters at the table, the faculty serve the students, and we practice how to eat and discuss like professionals.

A senior raised the topic of “senior privileges” at the table, so we discussed why they might exist, and what kinds of things were reasonable to expect as senior “privileges.” One new student asked why chewing gum wasn’t a privilege for everyone. Most of us laughed at the table when I reminded her, “Most students chew gum against the rules every day anyway.” “Oh, yeah,” she said. Then her face darkened a bit, and she said, rather testily, “I just don’t see why we can’t text during class. I mean—seriously!” I turned to her and offered, “You know down the road here is a McDonald’s. You could stop in after school today and get an application.” That same girl said in her valley girl accent (Is it the Jordan Valley Girl here? Why does it sound just like the California Valley Girl???) “That was harsh.” I volleyed: “If you just want to sit in class and text your friends on your phone, you probably won’t be able to handle really any complex skills or knowledge. But I would stop at the McDonald’s and buy a McFlurry from you.” She never did see why she had to do anything in class, but the rest of the table seemed to get that thumbing your cell phone all day would probably not fully prepare you to be a leader of the world.

Then I went over to the Lecture Hall to show a DVD while a colleague made an emergency trip to Saudi Arabia to renew her residency. I settled them down, started the DVD, and sat by a guy named Omar. As I sat, and the movie about early civilizations started, Omar took out his IPhone and started to play a game. He was right beside me! Naturally I snatched the IPhone—quite intrigued by the gorgeous product, and hoped he might glean a little something out of watching that film.

Earlier that day I had a 1 JD bill in my hand during morning meeting. That bill is worth about $1.50 and I had it in my hand because I had promised it to a student if he only showed up for morning meeting (all 400 students are required to come to morning meeting at 7:55). He almost never comes to the meeting, and as the dean of the Senior class, I am supposed to find ways—deterrents, consequences, penalties, incentives—to get them there. I told him I would give him 1 JD if he showed up. I thought he would show up just for the novelty that I offered him money. He was a no-show again.

We are working on selling this more rigorous, intensive school life to our students. Some of them do everything and a whole bunch try and get out of nearly everything. It’s a part of adolescence too. I know it works because I look at 75% of the students in my AP class and they are the students who bought this ticket to student superstardom. These guys have bloomed at this place.

Yesterday (Thursday is our Friday) there was something new on campus. The sports teams tried having practice on the last day of the school week. When the Office of Student Life suggested this, oh my, the hue and cry against how this went counter to everything they knew in Jordan—no one would stay, everyone would quit teams. But Julianne, the Dean of SL, persisted.

Yesterday we heard the sounds of whistles and movements and cheering as the varsity teams practiced. They sold it, and most of those students bought it.

It may be a tiny flower, but it is blooming.