Monday, November 30, 2009

Unexpected Song

Time was certainly of the essence the other day as Sylvia and I rushed back from the Cincinnati airport to surprise my family.

The ruse was simple--you need it simple so it does not seem illogical. Sylvia had invited my family, from patriarch Plop to 2nd grader Jack, over for dinner on Wednesday night. This does not strain credulity since gracious Sylvia often invites us/them over for dinner. But given my sister's schedule with the children--they RSVP'ed affirmatively--they had to arrive at 4:00 PM for dinner to accomodate karate, cub scouts, and gymnastics. My plane was due to land at 2:35 from Paris, so that is a lot to accomplish in under 90 miuntes!

I called Sylvia once I cleared immigration and passport control, got the bags, and was in her car about 3:10. Sylvia chose the ferry route over the highway thinking it would be faster. Well, we pull onto her street at 3:55. Uh-oh! My family is usually early for things so I crouch on the floor of her car as she pulls down her little street. We spy my father's car and then up pulls up my sister. Sylvia pulls in her driveway, I sneak out of the car, in through the basement, and head upstairs. At 4:00 on the dot Steve is there. As they come up to the door I savor the impending surprise. I throw open the door, and yell out, "Gobble, Gobble!" They look stunned. Obviously none of them had been expecting me. There is that look of stunned shock giving way to joyous smiles. Only Jack remained relatively nonchalant. He grabbed me and hugged me and said, "Hey, King--good to see you!" I had a "prop" to make my presence seem even more real and necessary. Two days before I flew my sister asked me on the phone to provide for her again the name of a book I had requested for Christmas. I had asked for this cultural history of the 1930s about which I had read a review in my favorite magazine, The Week. As Elizabeth looked at me with that look--but this visit wasn't on the schedule????--I thrust the clipped review at her and said, "You said you wanted the name of the book, so I brought it to you in person." We headed out to Skyline Chili to relax and enjoy the Thanksgiving surprise of my homecoming.

Thanksgiving Day included watching Emma and Jack and Steve participate in our ragtag west-side Thanksgiving Day parade, one turkey-and-ham dinner with Steve's family, and an evening turkey-and-ham dinner at Uncle Jack's house. All welcomed this unexpected guest with open arms. One of my brother-in-law's brothers-in-law (check out that correct punctuation!)couldn't get over that I had foregone the trip down the Nile to come back to Cincinnati. "But you could have gone anywhere," he reminded me. "Like Europe, or...or..." And with each of his suggestions I calmly said, "Been there. It's great. Sometimes home is the best destination."

Aunt Joy prepares a Thangsiving feast for over 30 people--she makes it looks soooo easy, and each dish is a tried-and-true success story that we have enjoyed over the years. She has multiple salads and vegetables and desserts and the best mountain of mashed potatoes you could imagine. And the warmth of the house was exactly what one wants as you count your blessings and offer thanks for our present state.

As is the tradition, Uncle Jack offered a stirring prayer just as we sat down with the different strands and threads of our family. Uncle Jack turned 80 a month ago--hard to believe that that generation is now reaching such a venerable stage. Uncle Jack reminded us all of the rich past that has brought us to this moment of thanks.

As I enjoyed the warm glow of Aunt Joy's triumphant Thanksgiving meal, I also realized we should send up thanks for the unexpected, for all the ways that life interrupts and renews itself without warning.

What would our lives look like if they held only what we had planned? Where would our wisdom or patience--or hope--come from?

I had not been at this table since the fall of 2006 when I had just recently found out about this school in Jordan and I spent a few weeks secretly looking at this possibility in my head and heart. That November, 2006 Thanksgiving was also our first without my mother, and indeed, even with the MS for decades, her death was unexpected and left us grateful we had been in the plans of her orbit and mighty talents.

In 2007 I spent Thanksgiving in Budapest with new friend Elizabeth and old friend Sharon. In 2008 I spent Thanksgiving on campus at KA with about two dozen colleagues as we faced the unexpected every day. The following day I jetted off for a weekend in Egypt. None of those jaunts was expected and on the safe planning sheet.

It will never cease to amaze me how the condition of being human means we cannot foretell with any accuracy what next Thanksgiving will bring. We can hope and imagine, and we can fear. Will I still be at KA in Jordan? Will I have made a move somewhere else? But when next Thansgiving comes around we will have to take account again of how the unexpected has shaped our lives. The unexpected enriches us and blesses us--with suffering sometimes, and sometimes with joy.

As I looked around at the cousins and aunt and uncle I have known my entire life, as I surveyed the groaning table and heaving satisfied bellies, I noted how we gather up the past and celebrate the present and open up to the unexpected future.

Of course, there are the short-term futures: will I have seconds? I did--on the mashed potatoes, stuffing, succotash, and broccoli salad. Will I have time to see Aunt Dot on this whirlwind surprise trip to Cincinnati? Will I get out of the house at 5:00 am the following day to shop with the diehards? The answer was a sad no, and an inscrutable yes to those questions.

I have arrived in New York now for a few days to surprise some more friends on this unexpected trip to the US for Thanksgiving. The unexpected--that time to blossom and ripen with new friends, new family, new love, new hope. It is our job to welcome it and give it meaning.

As we head into the holiday season, where most of us embrace our oldest traditions and rituals, let us look to the unexpected, that which we cannot know and could not have guessed, and see how the unexpected merges with our lives in Thanksgivings to come.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Faraway Places

I have a folder with all the clippings I save on travel ideas. I have enjoyed traveling abroad ever since that trip to England, Wales, France, and Switzerland back in the early 1980s with the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir. By the time I was a freshman in college I had enjoyed not just one, but two, TWO choir tours to Europe—but even years before that I had dreamed of calling a travel agent and booking trips to exciting places. When I watch that scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where Jimmy Stewart is regaling Mr. Gower of the exotic climes he will visit, I guess I knew I had a kinship with George Bailey.

Then 10 years ago I began traveling with my treasured friend Anne, and the travel excitement kicked into high gear. We went on domestic trips down South or to California, or we chaperoned students to Asia and Europe, and we went with other simpatico friends on thrilling, momentous trips.

In my travel folder right now are articles extolling the beauties of Easter Island, and Greenland, Thailand’s northern capital, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the obscure Italian Bassano del Grappa. There is an article on another obscure Italian area, the “magical boot heel” as the article describes Ostuni. There are the articles on budget cruises and the article on how to rent a chateau in France on a budget.

When I went off to college my mother gave me a mini-poster from Hallmark to put somewhere in my dorm room. The sign read:
To faraway places it’s nice to roam,
but nothing in the world beats coming back home.

That is so much my mother! This is the same woman who packed away in my suitcase bound for college, unknown to me, the clipped apron strings from one of her aprons. She wanted me to feel that surge of independence, and wanted me to understand she cooperated in that liberation from childhood. In her own inimitable way, she made sure I was aware of my “roots” as well as my “wings.” Mary Martha was an original for sure.

It is interesting that for all the wanderlust my mother harbored for faraway places, she never left the shores of the USA. But she thrilled to my trips, and encouraged me to visit these faraway places, hoping that these visits would broaden my horizons and teach me skills and maturity that traveling affords. But of course as the Hallmark placard reminded me, nothing beats coming back home.

Starting tomorrow evening we have a break here at KA. The examinations marking the end of the first trimester wind up tomorrow, and in the Muslim world there is an Eid holiday. This Eid is two moons after the last Eid holiday, and this holiday serves at least two purposes. One purpose of the week-long holiday is to allow people to make arrangements for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca if this is the year one might make that pilgrimage, one of the requirements in Islam. But for those not journeying to Saudi Arabia, families are supposed to slaughter a sheep. If you drive around Amman you see all these cute little images of lambs (with a strange smile actually) in store windows welcoming the holiday. The slaughter of the sheep is to remind the faithful of sacrifices, and specifically the sacrifice Abraham was willing to offer through his son Isaac. When the family slaughters a sheep they are also encouraged to offer half of the sheep to a needy family as well. So there is a week-long break coming up.

So earlier this fall, I got out the travel folder and looked through it to decide where I might spend this holiday. I had narrowed my choices down to four locales, three brand-new, and one an old favorite seeing an old friend. Each one had great possibilities for adventure and excitement in a faraway place. I looked at Cyprus, a 90-minute flight away to enjoy the Greek ruins and quiet Cypriot charm. (One of my dearest students here is from Cyprus.) Another choice was Tunisia. The travel article spoke so highly of the beaches and the Roman ruins and the quiet, elegance of Tunisia. Then I had been hoping to do a cruise down the Nile, culminating in the fabled Valley of the Kings. An old friend, this quirky genius named Andrew, lives in Switzerland, and last year we had made some promises of spending Thanksgiving 2009 together. Each trip sounded magnificent.

Then about a month ago I started thinking about these faraway places.

I thought about the excitement in the promise of these faraway places, but they weren’t where I wanted to be. True to that old Hallmark sign, nothing beats coming back home.

I write this blogisode on Tuesday evening in Jordan, and in about a half hour I will be going to the airport for a flight to Paris, and then a connection from Paris to Cincinnati. I have cooked up a scheme with our great friend Sylvia where I will surprise my family for Thanksgiving. I will not publish this blog post until Wednesday evening because my brother-in-law Steve is an avid reader of the blog and I want him to be surprised as well.

So Sylvia has invited my family over to her house for dinner tomorrow. Sylvia will have picked me up from the airport in the afternoon and when my family arrives, Surprise!!!

Since I plan things in my Teutonic fashion, I rarely actually surprise anyone, but this fall, as I wanly put aside the travel articles and instead looked toward the beauties of going home to Cincinnati—and yes, I will be there again just a couple weeks later for Christmas, I got so excited about the Price Hill Thanksgiving Parade. Hey—I know two of the marchers in the parade—Emma and Jack will both be in different groups marching down Glenway Avenue Thursday morning. We will end the day at Uncle Jack’s enjoying Aunt Joy’s sumptuous Thanksgiving feast. I will visit our neighborhood YMCA, I will eat ice cream at Graeter’s, have a BLT at the Imperial Diner, and then spend a few days in New York, seeing and doing familiar things.

Yes, the sights of Luxor sound spectacular—but the people I want to see and embrace are not in those distant climes and faraway places. The people I want to see are those friends and family who are the true essence of my Thanksgiving, and I want to spend my money to see them.

Faraway places are magical, yes, but right now, as I look toward the next 20 hours of traveling to faraway Ohio, nothing is gonna beat that trip back home.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I had three titles in mind as I sat down to reflect on the crowded events of the last week. I will probably share all three eventually, but the chosen title of the entry, the word, retreat, is such a delicious word. Oh, the many implications of this word retreat! As I like to do, I checked with as to how that website defines the word. Here is what they offered:

re⋅treat –noun
1. the forced or strategic withdrawal of an army or an armed force before an enemy, or the withdrawing of a naval force from action.
2. The act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy; retirement; seclusion.
3. a place of refuge, seclusion, or privacy: The library was his retreat.
4. an asylum, as for the insane.
5. a retirement or a period of retirement for religious exercises and meditation.
6. Military.
a. a flag-lowering ceremony held at sunset on a military post.
b. the bugle call or drumbeat played at this ceremony.

7. The recession of a surface, as a wall or panel, from another surface beside it.
–verb (used without object)
8. to withdraw, retire, or draw back, esp. for shelter or seclusion.
9. to make a retreat: The army retreated.
10. to slope backward; recede: a retreating chin.
11. to draw or lead back.
12. beat a retreat, to withdraw or retreat, esp. hurriedly or in disgrace.

So which of the definitions best fits the last week? If you know any of the events of the last week, appeals to the disciplinary committee and headmaster about a ruling made 10 days ago by the disciplinary committee (I sit on that committee), as well as a new problem/crisis from a team on an away game. (Remember that here “away games” do not mean Brooklyn, for example, but Beirut, Lebanon!). There was a colleague who was, as they say, on the verge. And new issues with…well…let’s just say it was a week crowded with events.

Which of the understandings of ‘retreat’ is it?

If you know me, you probably know my employment of ‘retreat’ can’t be anything with withdrawing—it’s just not what I do. But…oh, did you see choice #4 with the “asylum, as for the insane”?? That’s a good one! Perhaps a bit apt.

No, I chose the word because of the interpretation as a “refuge” or even for the “religious exercises” or “meditation.”

Last week at this time the History Department was packing up after a weekend retreat at Tala Bay. Back in August I had asked the department to carve out some time away from the campus, away from the issues of attendance and behavior and writing and sit-down meals and study hall, so we could enjoy a refuge from the world-at-large, and relax in a place of retreat. The Royal Court makes available for our use at school a big, rambling beach house condo if any groups care to make their way down the Desert Highway, four hours south, just past the port of Aqaba to the sleepy, quiet cove of Tala Bay. The bay is a retreat, a seclusion from the Red Sea. Pretty snazzy place for a department retreat, eh?

We piled on a KA bus on Thursday late afternoon, made a quick stop at Chili Ways in Madaba (it wasn’t even my idea!) and laughed our way down the spine of the kingdom to the comfy quarters of the beachhouse.

In all my years of leading history departments, I had always wanted to schedule a retreat where we could relax, have meetings, engage in collegiality and fellowship and discussion, and of course, it is never the right time, or well, not always does one have a Royal Court to provide the lodgings free of charge!

I have been to Tala Bay once before (check out a blog entry from late last May) so I knew to expect the banks of computer screens in the media room, the many, many flat screen TVs and the 15 or so bedrooms. Each of us could have a retreat-within-the-retreat, if need be. The plan was to work on our term exams, proof read a Mission Statement I had crafted for our department, and discuss how to be more effective teachers. And to cook together have some fun.

The refrigerators are well-stocked with bottled water and soda and there are mountains of candy bars around the compound as well. And there is the beautiful pool and patio area and just a three-minute walk around the pool area is the bay itself. An early morning walk provides just the retreat from the world can restore the soul.

We started in immediately on the fun. We played a game called “Apples to Apples” with which you may be familiar. It was a hilarious start to the weekend with the whole gang crowded around a big table. We would crowd around that table for several meals during our weekend stay, and each time it felt more and more bonded as a group.

One of the department members did not come on the trip, but otherwise, we were full force and on Friday morning people either started in on exam-writing or took a quick dip in the pool. I didn’t schedule the department meetings until the afternoon, so we could enjoy the balm that is the beach for a few hours. The AP teachers among us tended to put the nose to the grindstone immediately, but even when your environs are so splashy, it’s still a retreat from your usual surroundings.

In the afternoon I asked the department how we know when a comedian is effective. It’s actually pretty easy, isn’t it? When you hear an audience laugh—you know the comedian is effective. What about with teachers? Not so easy…how do we know?

We had a great discussion, sharing teaching joys and teaching terrors, committing ourselves to the Mission Statement, not just hoping these statements might come alive, but plotting how we can these hopes into effective practices of teaching. It was a stimulating discussion about goals and statements and aims and practices. After that, more shared dinners and games and laughter.

As we got on the bus a week ago about now to return—the opposite of withdrawing, I might add—my colleague Yasser announced that the weekend retreat had been one of two highlights for him so far in his tenure at KA. Delightful to hear after I “took away” their weekend, but good to know we had enjoyed that seclusion from everything else.

I was back about an hour when I got a call about the violators on the school trip abroad. Since our headmaster is away, Julianne would have to be in charge of the school and removed from the direct proceedings, and so she placed me in charge of the investigations and disciplinary committee hearings.

That little retreat had worked some magic, but now we were back into it. This disciplinary committee would consume large chunks of the next few days, resulting in about 11 hours of hearings. It was exhausting. Again, students violated trust and lied. Persistently! We met in many stages, and eventually recommended that more students withdraw from the school. That is never simple. One wishes we could retreat from such decisions.

On Thursday evening Julianne decided it was time for a dinner party. She asked me to make dessert for 13 and so Thursday afternoon I happily slaved over an Apple Crumble that tasted like autumn in the Midwest. We had a long evening enjoying the food and fellowship, enjoying a makeshift retreat from the difficult work around us, but reveling in this break. Her call had started the week, but the sweet apples, toasted oats, butter and sugar had provided the punctuation mark on the week. So, my runner-up for the title of the week was “Apple Crumble.”

During the week I decided I needed to indulge in some guilty-pleasure-escapist-fare television so I started in on the DVDs of last season’s heart-pounder 24. I have loved this show for years, but have missed it since coming to Jordan. I decided that since Jack Bauer’s days were always more crowded and nerve jangling than mine, it would be good for me to watch and escape into Jack’s earnest work to save the world. In one of the scenes when Jack meets the President, played by one of my favorite Broadway actresses, Cherry Jones, she questions whether or not he is truthful. She says, “How can I be sure where your loyalties actually lie??” Kiefer Sutherland, indispensable as all-mighty Jack Bauer looked her in the eye, and softly replied, “With all due respect, Madame President, ask around.”

I loved it! Ask around was my third potential title for the week. When I told Julianne I was spending my non-DC time and non-classroom, and non-Dean, and non-department Head time steeped in Jack Bauer’s difficult work, she looked me in the eye and reminded me, “Yeah, but he’s fictional! We’re in it for real!”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Afflicted, Not Crushed

They were great questions posed to me last week by a new colleague:

“How did you keep going in the first months of the school?”

“How do you keep on doing it now? I feel it’s so hard.”

Obviously since the first query is about the past, that one is easier. I talked with her about some of the “tricks” I came up with to cope with a new country, a new home, a new course, a new school, a new kind of student, a new kind of educational experience. I told her I drank a lot of Diet Coke—somehow it reminded me of home. And I took my new portable DVD player (compliments of my treasured sister) to the gym and watched episodes of “The Golden Girls” while on the treadmill. Somehow that mixture of the Coke elixir and the stamina of the old gals on the sitcom gave me a lift.

But I said the real support came from thinking back through my life to my own (non-fictional!) role models and imagining how they had endured trials and tribulations. I would think about great teachers and family members who had emerged from life as survivors and champions to me, and imagined what they had done to find peace and solace. As I thought about my two grandmothers, heroic, yet gracious; fierce, yet elegant ladies if there ever were, the inspiration was easy. These women of faith looked to biblical sources for sustenance. I would think about biblical passages that each had cherished, and somehow channeling their own struggles and desires to stay afloat, I found the will and resolve to make it while ev-e-ry-thing was new to me here. I remember walking one day to the gym, DVD player and Diet Coke in hand, and I paused in front of the gym—I heard my father’s mother’s favorite psalm in my head, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord.” As I repeated that mantra I noticed where my own eyes actually landed—on the other side of the very same hills on which David had uttered that petition millennia ago. Very powerful stuff.

Telling the colleague about the fall of 2007 was pretty easy. Probing my sense of stability right now, processing the current challenges and crises, well that seemed a little more difficult. I eagerly responded that my students in my classes provide me with a real sense of joy and purpose and accomplishment. But beyond that classroom door, well, life has been rather enervating. What is sustaining me???

I thought back to my role models, and something came up rather interestingly about the nature of education and how we make it through tough times. As this teacher was talking to me, I noted that working in education, and I guess, the faith in education is really a hand-me-down thing. I mean, here we were, discussing strategies of coping, and I was handing-down my tried-and-true-for-me methods. This teacher/mentor thing is a communicable thing. We receive these words, at first, by relying upon reliable people, those whose life experiences we trust, whose words are believable because they are believable.

When Thomas Jefferson wanted to know if there was an easy water route to the Pacific, he chose his old friend and neighbor, a man he knew, whose word he trusted, whose integrity was unquestioned: Meriwether Lewis. Lewis, in turn, reached out to an experienced frontiersman with a solid reputation, William Clark.

Lewis and Clark plunged into the unknown. They could have reported back anything. They could have made it all up. Or they could have mucked it all up by being lazy, imprecise, unethical, inept—any number of things. Lewis’ and Clark’s maps and notes were believable because they were believable. They were deemed to be trustworthy, worth investing in, worth gambling on.

I thought about the “interviews” I enjoyed in the late 1980s with my best teachers, asking these trustworthy people about managing teaching. I thought about how I went to Brown for graduate school because of the reports of my friend David, as he plunged into the graduate school unknown, reporting what he saw and experienced.

So as I was talking with this colleague I thought about what I had just been teaching this week—the art of the Early Christian church. This had always been a rather lackluster unit at Hackley since they just weren’t interested in the growth of this former mystery cult! But the unit on spiritual art has been dynamic and exciting here—these people understand spiritual devotion in a palpable way, and they are fascinated as to how it links to what they know about religious dogma and theology. I thought about how I had taught about Paul that day, and what Paul had meant in the transformation of the church—kind of publicizing and advertising this church.

Paul had been another source of inspiration for my family heroes. I recalled how in his letter to the Corinthians Paul had reported back on his explorations abroad. He told them that he had made it out there, beyond “the Rockies.” (okay, just follow the analogy!) He told them that the journey had been hard, but he had been made whole. He was loved.

But Paul does not begin with the easy part. He begins with the struggle—the same difficult, daily emotional experiences where those Corinthians were. He began his story knowing their stories, their lives, what ailed them, what frightened them, what caused them despair. Indeed, Paul writes in that letter in plain language: “We are afflicted…we are perplexed…we are struck down…”

As my brain went over those words, I could have addressed the faculty here and said the same words, these raw and spare words, and probably watched them nod knowingly.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that we humans are earthly vessels, and we are brittle things, fragile and breakable.

But Paul is writing to them not merely to confirm what they know, but to report back, as a reliable source, what they do not know…on the new territory he has explored.

I thought how those words are incomplete of the passage. “We are afflicted…we are perplexed…we are struck down…” is just the part that the bone-weary might hear. Let’s restore the rest of that passage:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”

All of this came out to the colleague, and I rushed to point out that the important word, the operative word, the pivot word in that directive turns and depends on but!

So this Thursday afternoon, as we look back on a trying week, a trying season, We are afflicted, I admit, but not crushed. We are perplexed, I confess, but not driven to despair. We are struck down, I can report, but not destroyed.

Because Paul was believable 2000 years ago, this faith was passed on. Because my grandmothers were believable this faith was passed on. Time to hand it down.

Monday, November 9, 2009

History In The Making

Oh, I know I said in my last blog entry that I would answer those questions that are hanging over our heads…but did you check the date? I can’t let this date go by without spending time on this date…the beauty and importance of that important-as-July-4th-date of November 9.

Those who witnessed this night 20 years ago of the events that unfolded in Berlin will never forget what happened—the night the wall came down. On the evening of November 9, 1989, I was watching TV. The Berlin Wall was coming down, and I was flabbergasted.

I was a graduate student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and I lived on the third floor of a house on Lloyd Avenue. There was a great deal I did not like about graduate school at Brown, but I really liked a course I was taking on the history of Eastern Europe with a man awaiting confirmation to become the next U.S. Ambassador to Poland. The course filled in so many blanks about my knowledge of Europe, since every course I had ever had was a western Europe focus. I was watching the news with delight but also with a deeper knowledge since this course from Tom Simons.

From my mid-20-year-old perspective, that Wall had always been there, and I had no reason to doubt that it would remain there forever. I had been to the wall in the summer of 1988 with my great friend Tony. In the summer of 1988 that wall seemed as permanent as what I hoped for my friendship with Tony. (Fortunately, my friendship with Tony is more permanent than that wall—it has lasted and stood the test of time.) During my only visit to the divided Berlin, in 1988, I had experienced the city in all its terrifying absurdity. I vividly recall the “ghost stations” of the subway: some Western subway lines passed through Eastern territory, resulting in a surreal glimpse of that life. So the news of the wall coming down was like somebody telling me that the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates had reversed course overnight, and everything we thought we knew and accepted about the cold war had vanished, or crumbled, like the wall.

I looked in wonder at the pictures of people dancing on the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I stared agape as Peter Jennings provided commentary about the millions out in the streets of Berlin, complete strangers falling into one another’s arms, smiling and weeping at the same time. The images could not have been more emotional, and since this history course was in the front of my brain it did not impact me as just an abstract event. This was history in the making. I felt almost as joyous as the woman from East Berlin in her pajamas and robe who didn’t even take time to change. She felt so compelled to go immediately out into the night and taste the freedom of crossing into West Berlin.

History in the making is all too often tragic. We see that all too often with shootings, the most recent the tragic shooting on the grounds of Fort Hood in Texas. History in the making usually leaves many with a gnawing sense of fear since those plate-shifting moments involve such change that can almost paralyze us. Only rarely is history in the making capable of irony. November 9, 1989, was one of those rare moments when irony reigned, because East Germany’s bureaucratic socialism died as it had lived—with a bureaucratic snafu. As we learned later in the night, as the revelers surmounted that famous wall and danced, the speaker of the politburo had simply misunderstood that body’s decision and by releasing incorrect information about the lifting of travel restrictions, triggered the fall of the Wall! That scene must have been just like a scene from the TV show M*A*S*H—Groucho Marx couldn’t have scripted a more ludicrous moment! It was Germany’s happiest hour. Germany, with a history so full of iron-fisted terror, war and wanton violence, had finally experienced a revolution without a single bullet being fired.

We can better view the sweep of that night now. Never has liberation come to so many people all at once — to Eastern Europe’s millions, released from decades of bondage; to the world, freed from the shadow of nuclear Armageddon; and to the democratic West, victorious after a century of ideological struggle. Never has so great a revolution been accomplished so swiftly and so peacefully, by ordinary men and women rather than utopians with guns.

I heard a commentator on CNN say earlier today that even twenty years later, we still haven’t come to terms with “the scope of our deliverance.” He cited Francis Fukuyama who famously described the post-Communist era as “the end of history.” By this, he didn’t mean the end of events — wars and famines, financial panics and terrorist bombings. He meant the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

Twenty years later many revolutionary consequences of that night lie behind us. The Soviet Union and its empire and international order quietly disappeared. Germany was reunited. The peripheral Soviet satellites won independence. Numerous civil wars around the war ended. Apartheid in South Africa ended. A disintegrating Yugoslavia degenerated into war and ethnic cleansing. The great European Union enlargement came about in 2004. And in the wake of the euphoria of 1989, Palestinians and Israelis came closer to peace than at any time since.

As the victorious heir to the collapsed cold war order, the United States stood alone, undisputed, at the peak of its global power. Twenty years later, have we squandered that special status? We have to look beyond the irony and the euphoria to deal with the remnants of that night twenty years ago.

I remember the following day in class with Professor Simons—seriously one of the most momentous days in my education—how would we fold in the events of the night before? Would we simply dance and frolic like the Berliners on television? Would we continue analyzing Joseph Rothshild’s book like the day before? Professor Simons was a career diplomat having spent years in the eastern bloc. How would he react? Well, he strode up to the lectern in the room, held aloft his notes for class, and ripped them up. He said, “everything we knew, everything we thought we knew, changed last night. I’m not quite sure what kind of world we are going to be in.” But he had the biggest smile on his face.

In our own way we at KA are in the stew pot of history in the making. The vision of the school is to create a kind of school that has never existed in this region. The making of history, the birthing of something new, is often excruciating. We have had disciplinary incidences recently that seem to suggest that our history in the making is too hard, which would be tragic.

But then last night I remembered the night I met Eric, our headmaster, at a fancy restaurant in New York, just after New Years’ in 2007. We were talking about the birthing of the school, and one of his comments has stayed with me. He mentioned that he knew the school would be on its way, and its course steady, when he heard students making music at the school.

Last evening, following an update on a four-hour disciplinary committee hearing from the night before, I attended a student chamber music concert. It was a modest concert. In the last week a wonderfully talented American chamber music quartet had been in residence at KA and the few who attended their concerts had been enraptured. Our students wanted to show off their own skills. Few of our students had ever played an instrument before coming to KA. I sat with a devoted audience and enjoyed their efforts. It took me back to Eric’s 2007 comments about his hopes for this plate-shifting school. Some days we seem to be in crisis—focusing on that 20% or so of bottom feeders who can drag down our spirits.

But I remembered Eric’s words that when he would finally hear students making music he would know that our course was steady.

I watched Faisal’s steady bow on his violin, George’s steady bow on his cello, Anna Rose’s confidence with her flute and Leen’s steady accompaniment on piano, and I felt wonderfully calmer about our own history in the making.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

He Makes My Day

The “trickster” from last week was at it again this week. “Must be done immediately” screamed an email and telephone call. That continued lack of civility has been a little soul-crushing as of late, but then Wednesday afternoon I was grading papers and I came across this weekly assignment of the Journal Sheet for AP Art History. This assignment is just a way for students to look over the previous week and choose from their own file of insights and reflections in order to make sense of the art and history we studied that week. The following is from a student I have known since the first week of the school—a young man whose enthusiasm, commitment, and decency never falters. This isn’t even the best thing he has ever done, it is just an example of what I get to read every week from a young man whose prowess with the English language has grown stratospherically (is that a word? I like the image!) since those early days in August, 2007. I feel like a young pop with snapshots, but here are his thoughts:

AP Art History.
Journal Sheet.

My Masterpiece of the week:
My masterpiece of the week is The Arch of Constantine circa 315. This arch which would be a sign or an indicator of triumph for Romans is indeed a triumphal arch, however, with one exception. Instead of being related to war, physical contact and physical victory, it’s about a victory of the soul, a victory of the essence and of a religion, Christianity; it’s about an invisible victory that is translated into art. Being such a sponsor of Christianity, Constantine could have the credit for enabling Christianity to spread and become legal instead of being “Superstitio.” In this arch, Constantine celebrates his heavenly victory by providing strong propaganda for the new religion by taking something old and recycling it into something powerful but with special and distinctive ideals and goals. By doing so, Constantine became an indirect Sacerdotal Intermediary that is connected both to God and to his people. It’s smart because it takes something usual and loved by the people to reach them but with different morals to teach, in fact, a completely different subject, not art, not Greece but Christianity. This will become the standard of the church in dealing with the people. The church will later reach the people in a smooth way using old morals but with some twisting and changes, thus, it becomes efficient.

Best textual example from the week and why:“For several centuries, mosaic, in the service of Christian theology, was the medium of some of the supreme masterpieces of medieval art.” This quotation from our textbook reveals to us as historians the strategy the church used to convey its ideas, the church used art, and in fact, various kinds of art. This shows us that the church was interacting with the people through something they all knew and recognized, art in its various forms. It explains the strong propaganda that was intended by producing such art works. But For us as art historians, we wonder whether these art works were done for the sake of art or for the sake of religion for it makes a difference even it was a slight difference. Was it intended to be unique to express themselves or was it because they followed Christianity that they felt they had to represent it? We don’t know. However, such issues show to us that many motivations and morals could encourage the people to produce art, that religion which is one of the most important motivations plays a huge role not only in shaping the people’s minds but also their lives and their art. For example, after Christianity, Romans didn’t have nudes, “Khalas,”
[that is an Arabic word for “okay, enough!] no more nudity; it’s time to be polite and mature. Again, here we see the power of art and its influence.

Best insight from a peer this week:
Faris said that building the church of Sainte Peter on the site where Sainte Peter and other Christians died is the same as when Augustus Caesar built the Ara Pacis (altar of peace) at the field of mars where wars would start. I think that this insight was smart and connecting the dots. It connected two different things but in a way that explains both of them better. This insight assures that Constantine who is the voice of Christianity at his time behaved like Caesar; he wanted people to recognize that Christianity didn’t have victory until these people sacrificed themselves who are Sainte Peter and others. It’s the same with Caesar; he built the altar on a place where Romans and soldiers sacrificed themselves for the benefit of Rome. So now, the Pietas, the devotion, of Christians is not to Rome, but to the church and the Pope.

Best insight from Mr. John this week:
One of Mr. John’s great insights was when he said that by bringing statues and panels form old Roman temples and buildings and putting them on the arch made Constantine a Summative Emperor. By saying so, Mr. John justified and explained why Constantine would do such a thing. This was very helpful for me because it inspired me with some ideas. One of them is that Constantine is continuing something but at the same time transforming it, meaning that he is everything good and thought to be great and possessed it which would indicate that he is even better than those prior to him. What Constantine is doing is the same as what Rome and the church did. They something and make it better and thus they become better and greater. It also triggered the idea that Christianity and its victory made Constantine a great emperor which shows how religion could affect people and their social status especially if someone is a Sacerdotal Intermediary like Constantine.

Best vocabulary word or phrase form the week:“Superstitio” is a Latin word that means witchcraft and evil and it was used by the Romans to describe Jesus and his new religion. The Romans used this word specifically to warn people for that evil, that new idea, that new life, that new way of living and that new power (According to what they thought of it). It’s interesting to look at this and then look at it after the Edict of Milan. The thing that was evil became good and legal. The usage of this word shows us how proud and thoughtful the Romans were of who they were. They were so satisfied by themselves to the extent that they would not hear any other thing but Rome, Glorious Rome. They want to be in charge, to be powerful, to be dominant and to control everything. They want to control in the name of Rome, conquer in the name of Rome and live in the name of the civilization their “Pietas” belongs to. It explains a great deal about how the Roman leader and their people had the same ideals and goals, bring glory to Rome.

I suppose reading some unknown-to-you student’s homework is akin to looking at another family’s photo album of that “great trip out west!!!” or going to the school play of students you don’t really know. It may be lovely, but…you know…okay, I understand.

If you are not a long-time reader of the blog, then go back to November 19, 2007 and find the entry about this student. Hamzeh has long been one of the most exciting and rewarding features of this sojourn to the Holy Land (I am remembering the Thoreau essay about when HDT imagined traveling to this region and encountering the holy sites) and I have the good fortune to teach Hamzeh again in his junior year. He came to us with gifts of energy and desire but a weak background in English. He had attended a government school that did not provide adequate English instruction and people worried in the fall of 2007 if he could handle the rigors of our education. Look at that homework. When he refers to us “as historians,” it just busts my buttons with pride at knowing how hard he has worked to become a skilled academic. None of his work above is from the textbook, save the quotation, and each of those insights represents his own thoughts—not summary from class or quick descriptions from our syllabus.

When I stand in front of the class every day and we look at art works, I hope my pedagogical choices enable a student to do several things: acquire knowledge from the mass of trivial data and facts; make meaning of that knowledge, and empower the student to transfer that knowledge and answer any question that comes along.

Tricksters are everywhere. They come in every size, every language, every administration and organization. But knowing a young man like Hamzeh, and enjoying the thrill of watching him do this every week, well, it may be another family’s photo album or trite school play to some, but for me, it encapsulates why you keep on keeping on.

Last week I was asked by a new colleague, “how did you keep going in the first months of the school?” followed by, “how do you keep on doing it now? I feel it’s so hard.”

The next blog entry will contain my answers…

Oh, again, I feel like the old days of the 60s show Batman with the suspense!

I’ll see you again.

Same Bat Time!
Same Bat Channel!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

And so it goes…

Hopefully the last of the trick-or-treaters have gone away for the time being.

I don’t really mean the hungry, costumed youngsters that are the trick-or-treaters, but I’ll tell ya, this past week has been a real trick-or-treat kinda week. I got home from Athens last week about this time and then the week just became this veritable roller-coaster ride, this volatile week of trick-or-treat relations.

And oh yeah, over the weekend we did have the conventional trick-or-treaters as well!

Remember that this blog is a public venue, and anyone can access all my blog entries. I say that not from any delusions of grandeur about the high number of hits on the website, just from the fact that these blogisodes are never “full disclosure,” i.e. I am not here to vent or tell embarrassing tales about colleagues and/or students. I am simply chronicling my life here in Jordan in as diplomatic a way as possible.

How is that for a caveat?!

But the volatility of this last week seemed especially sharp since I had just come back from a conference in which the participants seemed to re-affirm and re-commit themselves to putting “Learning” at the center of the School Enterprise. So the “tricks” of the week, to be a bit more specific, the nasty behavior on the part of some colleagues seemed to disappoint more than usual.

On Wednesday I had a nasty encounter with a colleague—commandments from on high as this person always demands. Frankly, the situation with this colleague is always tense. The person is notorious for chilly, rude, and downright nasty behavior to the ex-pats. When I fulfilled the latest imperious demand I said, “All right, how high do you want me to jump?? How high?” The way the tale got spun was that I was acting too high-falutin’ and I was a-yellin’ and a-screamin’. Funny thing, if I could explain more to you, it would not strain credulity that I should have been offered an apology. To choose the best clich├ęd phrase possible—I won’t hold my breath. (I used the word “nasty” three times in five lines!)

But then a couple hours later (after a couple more tricks from administrators) I had a lovely treat. I went out to a quickie dinner in Madaba at Chili Ways with a dozen seniors who had answered an appeal from me to help curb the chronic attendance issues here at our school. I had met with the senior class on Monday and compared myself to Dr. House on television. I wanted to solve the “poison” of the attendance problem, and I sought a team of extraordinary cohorts who would help me figure out and solve this problem. I had over a dozen students email me and the baker’s dozen of us went for some coney islands and chicken wings to discuss the problem.

What a treat of our 90 minutes discussion! It was not just a lame attempt to get off-campus for some fast food. We discussed the situation well, everyone contributing, and we agreed that we should meet every other week and tackle more problems. They liked calling themselves the “Dr. House Team.” Maybe we can crack some problems.

Floating back on campus, that treat counter-acted the tricks earlier in the day. But before bedtime the tension and anxiety of a tense and anxious October would overwhelm another colleague and yet one more trick awaited me that evening.

On Thursday we celebrated Halloween. The students were encouraged to dress up in costume. Halloween is a fairly new phenomenon/event in Jordan and we promised a costume competition, a pumpkin-carving contest, an Orange Meal for dinner, trick-or-treating at faculty apartments, and finally a “Thriller” dance.

One of the faculty—I think it was my friend Arthur—decided that we as a faculty should dress up as KA students complete with the hideous dress code violations we see everyday from a sizable group of our young scholars. I loved the idea. I borrowed a blazer from the lost-and-found room so I had an authentic crested blazer. I used my master key (shhhh…don’t tell…) to sneak into a student’s room to purloin a school tie. (I have since returned the tie, don’t worry!). I decided to sleep in my white shirt so that it had the greatest possible wrinkly appearance and I danced on my khaki pants trying to get the crease out of the pants as well as the sophomore boys must do.

Come the morning I worked hard to emulate the appearance of some of our boys. I made sure I was as crinkled and crumpled as possible. I made sure my pants fell down as low as I dared with colored underwear hanging out. The tie was a grotesque mess. I didn’t shave or comb my hair. And I thought—what other details will make this a thoughtfully executed costume. Ahhh…yes, gum to chomp! And a can of Pringles to nestle in the crook of my arm!

At lunch I discovered that I had won the Best Costume for Faculty. Now, granted, I was dressed like 90% of the faculty, but I like to think it was my extreme sloppiness, attention to detail, and surly attitude that put me over the top…always nice to win contests!

The whole day was a treat! Faculty laughed more than usual and the students looked rather appalled at how we dressed and high-fived and texted all day. The weather cooperated and there was even a chill in the air. It might have hit about 58 degrees---which counts as winter here.

That night a mellow dinner with the treats of colleagues. No more tricks in store for the weekend. A dinner party in my apartment. Singing with a guitar. A Turkish Bath in Madaba. Meeting a younger colleague’s new boyfriend. Attending church. Organizing. Cleaning. Solitude. And my dear sister’s birthday…a treat of a weekend after the tricks and twists during the week.

So here we are on November 1. As has been my custom on the previous two November firsts I have been in Jordan, I will share the lyrics to Barry Manilow’s reflective song, ”And when October goes”:

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smokey roofs
I watch the planes go by
The children running home
Beneath a twilight sky
Oh, for the fun of them
When I was one of them

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go
I should be over it now I know
It doesn't matter much
How old I grow
I hate to see October go

Hopefully the last of the trick-or-treaters have gone away for the time being.

Oh, and today in Art History class, Rome fell.

And so it goes…