Saturday, March 27, 2010


“And…the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot

It was a week ago at this very moment that I was traveling back to Jordan for the third term of this academic school year. There is always a little queasy-ness about the return from one world to the other world, an admixture of excitement of what will come and anticipation about how we will fare on the journey.

As you know I had spent my spring break in the United States, my, ahem, fourth trip from Jordan to the United States this year (last year actually I had four trips as well, but two of those were school-related and not visiting family). I stayed half the time in New York, and half the time with my family back in Cincinnati.

The day I arrived back in Cincinnati my father met me at the airport, and immediately we we sped to Skyline Chili—a totally familiar choice and a totally familiar menu and a totally familiar good time with my father. Let the comfort food comforts begin! Then we went immediately over to see my sister and her family.

Those first 30 minutes in their house—my first since New Year’s Day—are so funny, and so warm to look back on. My sister and brother-in-law stayed in the background, just watching as Emma and Jack, niece and nephew extraordinaire, filled me in on everything of importance in their lives in the 100 days since I saw them last. Never mind that I speak to them on the phone regularly—this was the important stuff to know. Jack wanted to show me what items he had won in the Cub Scout Popcorn Sale (I should be interested in this, after all, I purchased something like $40 of popcorn) and then it was Emma’s turn to show me what items she was going to choose for her efforts in the Girl Scout Cookie Sale (I should be interested in this, after all, I purchased something like $40 of GS cookies). Equal time! Then Jack wanted to show me the certificate and rating sheets for the recent Piano Competition in which he had participated (he earned a Superior rating). Emma elbowed him beside to show me her certificate and rating sheets for the same Piano Competition (she earned a Superior rating).

Next subject: Emma wanted to show me her medals she had won in a Gymnastics competition just days before (why couldn’t I be in two places at once?!) How many medals were there? Second places and a first place—even the Russian judges loved her! There was also a video to see of the Gymnastics competition—cue the spot…watch…look at her go! Applause! Oh, and then Jack wanted to show me the latest in Karate including his new belt color. As always, we practiced the “bow for respect” line…and now quickly, let’s get the video of the Piano Recital from just the day before…how well they played, and their poise and bow…oh, it looks great. “You went to Graeter’s for ice cream after the recital? That’s where your Mommy and I would go after our recitals??!”

In thirty minutes I had the most wonderful (and a little overwhelming) welcome home and assimilation into the Cincinnati life. Such excitement watching them with the fruits of their labors and explorations! It is hard to describe how exciting it was to go through the de-breifing of the last 100 days (actually so much was just going in the weekend before I arrived!).

On the way home that night to my childhood home, I remembered the words of 14th century writer Julian of Norwich, who observed, “all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

The following morning as my father and I went out to go to his Kiwanis meeting (“Would you like to come to Kiwanis today? A couple of the members want to meet you. They don’t know anyone who’s been to Jordan,” my father casually said. Of course. Let’s go to the Kiwanis meeting and see the gang with whom you spend your Tuesday lunchtimes.) we looked at the crocus blooms smiling in the March sun. My father casually remarked, “I remember when your mother and Kewpie planted those bulbs years and years ago. Every spring when they come up, I think how happy they were that we would see these blooms every spring.” Kewpie was a doggie presented at their engagement (actually I forget who the giver was—perhaps my father to my mother—but it was at their engagement and Kewpie was the name that kinda came from Cupid) and my earliest childhood pet, a beloved member of our family.

I have seen these crocuses dozens of times over dozens of springs, whenever I am in Cincinnati for the early spring, but I don’t remember the origins of my mother and Kewpie planting them. Maybe I had been told, but as I look back I remember that whenever I am not in town and they bloom, my father has always loved noting the peeking of the crocus blooms as winter wends its way toward the finish line. Somehow, I saw those crocuses on that Tuesday, and appreciated them, like the first time.

The week was wonderful. I didn’t get to see everyone in Cincinnati I enjoy, but I got to see the Diner gang, and the Griley cousins, and Penny the barber, and Pam the waitress, Edna, the 92-year old marvel, and Aunt Dot, and Sylvia.

From this visit home, like every other visit I enjoy, I knew what it felt like to be part of family, of neighborhood, of community. I belonged to Cincinnati.

During that brief week I also zipped up to mid-Ohio for a quick connection with Tracy, of the legendary Denison clique. We met in Granville, quaint town where Denison is located, on a spectacular afternoon. Again, even though I spent years there, and have visited from time to time, I just felt so refreshed seeing it again on this sunny afternoon with a treasured friend. Before Tracy arrived I gave a quick call to beloved Sue as I drove up and down the lanes of Granville, just telling her I was back at Denison, and it looked wonderful. It was good to be home. What energy is derived from being back at the beginnings of everything.

Granville is not only the home of my alma mater, the place where I decided to teach, but also the place from whence my mother’s mother’s family came. The terrific Aunt Dot has been spending time in Granville looking up the Rees and the Williams and the Evans clans, exploring the origins of our family, wondering how we all came to be.

There is a concept in history called the omphalos, a Greek word for “the navel of the world,” or more pointedly, “the center of the world,” and I remember standing at the spot in Greece, at the oracle in Delphi, which the Greeks deemed the true center of their world. Down the street from me right now, at KA, in the town of Madaba, lies a famous mosaic map in an ancient church. In the Madaba map, what do you think is the center of the world? Jerusalem! And last year at this time when I was in Jerusalem I certainly felt that I was in the omphalos of monotheism. There is, naturally, a sacred feeling to any omphalos. In the map, a tree is a great omphalos, and a connector to Heaven and Earth, a tree giving life from one to the other.

Hundreds of years later, when Renaissance Pope Julius II envisioned his private library, he asked Raphael to paint the scenes on the wall. On each of the four walls is a different piece about “knowledge.” One piece is about Jurisprudence, and one piece about Poetry. One piece is about secular (earthly) knowledge and skepticism, and the other is about spiritual (heavenly) knowledge. One is rational, and one is mystical. One is rejected in the medieval world, and one is now raised as a standard in his oh-so-modern world. Julius becomes the ultimate student, warrior and connoisseur. Remember that the word religion comes from religio, and it means, in Latin, “to bind together.” Obviously, Julius is the binder! The location matters, not just that it is in the Pope’s library in the Vatican but in Rome itself. It puts Rome back in the center, in the omphalos position.

I have had the good fortune to travel widely. I have also had the good fortune to travel with some extraordinary friends. I have seen cultures that I only had dreamed about as a child. But for this sweet spring break, I went back to my omphalos, to the childhood home that was where that dreaming took place, reminded of the mother and father who nurtured me, of the sister who loved me, of the college that trained me, of the friends that uplifted me.

Last Friday as I embarked on the thousands of miles returning to Jordan, knowing that in that 9-hour layover in Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris I would finally finish grading those term exams, I had that quiet calming sensation. Going home, in the presence of my Cincinnati and Granville omphalos was as close to God as I might get in this world.

“All will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

Postcard from The Good Life

Over the 32 months of blogging since I went to Jordan, I have included among my bons mots travelogues of my various trips, from daytrips to Roman-era Jerash, to weekends in Istanbul, and a Thanksgiving in Budapest. Way back last fall Julianne and I had looked forward to shepherding my art history students on an art history extravaganza trip to New York for Spring Break 2010. I loved the itinerary I came up with—showing them, among many treats, the medieval-like Cloisters in upper Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge at the other end. We had looked to house our KA students with Hackley families, not only as a means of making the trip more affordable, but also to forge some bonds from our beloved Hackley with our new students in Jordan. At the core of the trip was going to be a couple hours every day at the giant Metropolitan Museum of Art, using the encyclopediac museum as the greatest study guide for the upcoming AP Art History test.

Well, as they say about the best laid plans…about five weeks ago we ran into some snags with the planning of the trip, and we had to abandon these great plans. I had a coterie of dynamic, exciting students to whom I had hoped to introduce my favorite city on earth, as well as welcome former students from Hackley for some of our tours. I had already done planning for the work at the Met, and so I thought, why not send a “postcard” from the trip that never happened!

So tonight, as we would have been boarding a plane back to Jordan, I thought I would offer an imaginary tour of what would have been our first introductory tour of the Met.

Over the course of our week in New York I planned that we would visit the Met six times, studying everything from the votive figures from ancient Sumer all the way to a 1990s painting by Anselm Kiefer. I thought the first day we would eschew the typical chronological tour and I wanted to stimulate thought pondering the elements of The Good Life. How did various art works in the Metropolitan raise issues, or provide clues, or urge us to consider what truly was a good life??

Join me on our tour…

We ascend the grand staircase at the Met, and meet in Room 27 in front of Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of Lucas van Uffel, a Flemish merchant. I start with the most pressing, and obvious, question: what do we see? Swara, ever the curious and willing participant, would have looked at all the props on the table, and noted that this 17th century man was clearly broadly and liberally interested in things like shipping and mathematics. Abdullah, the keen actor, would have noticed his pose, ready for action in an active world. Dima, the wise-beyond-her-years sophomore would have noted the globe, reminding us that Lucas is interested in the heavens as well. Haya, the budding fashion designer, would note the elegant black outfit and consider how much fashion and good taste mattered to him. Ghaith, a student who notices details, would comment on how the classical bust shows off his knowledge and interest in antiquity. Ghassan, a scholar of the first order and a lover of music, would note that he also cares about music. The 25 of us would study how van Dyck hoped we would look at all the trappings of van Uffel’s life and realize that he certainly embodied “the good life” of the intelligentsia.

We would move a room away and encounter Pieter Brueghel’s The Harvesters. Mohammad, an earnest young man, would jump in making comparisons with the van Dyck piece, and his buddy Hamdi would compare this to other Brueghel works we had studied before. Thaer, an anarchist or future government minister (or both??) would urge us to consider how honest, hard work also is the good life. Jamil, funny, sly, tender, and strong scholar, would remind us that Brueghel’s works are also usually subversive—how can subversiveness be the good life?

Haya probably stayed behind in the first room—she would have discovered the enormous Tintoretto high up on the wall. We would traipse back, and yes, this work also fits in with our theme. The work is Tintoretto’s The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and Haya would have been struck by the frothy costumes of the participants in this Bible story. Tala, the insightful and pensive thinker, would offer that Tintoretto showed how the fashionistas of the day would have fallen in love with the contemporary clothes, giving credence to the Bible story and that this “miracle” was not just a Bible story, but clearly “the good life.” Haya is not just a fashion maven, but she loves using the clothes as clues as to the society.

Jude, the irrepressible and beloved Jude, would be motioning us into the next room. “I see a Carravaggisti,” she would crow. “Look at the use of tenebrism!!” Raya would recognize the art work from a recent test and scream out his name. Yasamin would show off her knowledge of 17th century use of light, and notice how this French artist,Georges de la Tour, is showing off his virtuosity with the candle and the mirror. My battling “Danas”—different in temperament, but both indispensable and memorable,would duel in explaining the importance of this Mary Magdalene. One would notice her jewelry cast onto the ground, and one would notice the skull in her lap, and the pensive and calm look as Mary considered which life was the most good.

Rob—hardly quiet all this time, but looking for the Dutch works (“They’re the best, the Dutch are just the best!”) finally found a worthy contestant in our contest for the Good Life: Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. Which life is better? Then they would weigh in—is the better life the life of teaching and service, or the life of wealth and power like Alexander. The quiet but brilliant brain Hamzeh would notice the chain around Aristotle’s neck and wonder about the “chains” that always come with wealth and power. Suhayb would usher us into the next room showing us the gorgeous and meditative Vermeers and paintings of Dutch flowers and vanitas. This crowd would compete for noticing the exquisite details and savoring the quotidian beauties of the Dutch reflections on the good life.

We lighten the mood with a pair of Boucher paintings from the French rococo. Again, the competition rages to decode the bawdy, randy, titillating paintings for the French nobility. What a contrast from the circumspect Dutch—yes, Dana, I know you were the first to say it out loud. Another dollop of genius from you, dear!

It is time to change the medium of art—we leave the European paintings and make our way to the newly reopened period rooms of American furniture. As we stare at the gaudy loggia from the Tiffany estate: this is an example of more is more and obviously opulence is their key to the good life. Several would hope to live in an estate worthy of such an architectural feat. Thaer would grumble and offer some Communist rhetoric!

Next we move through the rooms to find the simplest room of all, a room from a Shaker household in a 19th century New York home; Swara would comment about how this was the opposite of the Vanderbilt and Tiffany folderol, and that their aim was to live an austere life, and that the good life was indeed one of an unfussy simplicity. Swara would offer us a mini-essay as to how this room fit into the tour and offered us a contrast of obvious over-done and quiet simple beauty.

We need to leave the western world for a bit and we move through the Japanese Galleries “Hey,” Jude notes, “this Sho-in room is exactly like the Shaker family room!” and Suhayb launches into an intelligent comparison of the “less is more” aesthetic.

Finally we end up in the Astor Chinese Garden Court, a facsimile of a courtyard in the house of a Chinese magistrate. Faisal joins in the chorus noticing all the elements of Daoism in the courtyard—all the opposing forces that meet and provide a harmonious balance to the space and to life. Abdullah, kind of improvising as a Chinese magistrate, muses about how he would come home from a hard job on the bench, retreat to this serene courtyard, free of “toys” and gadgets, and simply ponder the power and presence of the natural world. How does this measure up to the good life? We joke about how Oprah and Dr. Phil are actually Daoists, and that so much of their TV shows are about how the good life is about relishing the journey and noting our place on the path.

It’s almost time for lunch, but let’s do one more art work…back to European paintings and to a quiet Vincent van Gogh. This is one of my favorite paintings. I often give a reproduction of this to friends who have just had a baby. It is about watching a child taking his first steps. It is a simple, powerful triangle of an anonymous family: a mother looking down at her son, the son stepping forward, and the father a few feet away celebrating the triumph of babyhood. Nothing fancy, nothing about math or science, or wealth or nature, just the joy of a family and the evolution and transformation of children.

There is so much more to see, but we need a break. We need the open air of Central Park and a hot dog on the sunny, spring-like day.

No, the tour never happened…but in my mind we enjoyed ourselves beyond measure and maybe even wondered a little as to what does constitute a good life—what better celebration of art and camaraderie!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Manhattan, My Muse

Usually I am a much better chameleon.

When I come back and forth on breaks from KA, I am usually adept at stepping into the “skin” and pace of my locale-of-the-moment. Almost all of my breaks take place in three places in the United States: Cincinnati, the home of my birth and youth; Westchester County, home of my dear friend Anne and workplace for over a decade; and Manhattan, home of Christy and my New York playground. In any of my 10-day to 14-day breaks I can usually be found in each place for a handful of days, adjusting to the pace and thrill of each locale, drinking in and restoring my soul from the grinding pace of KA. The restaurants are different in each stop on the itinerary, as is what I do with my early morning, late night, free time, entertainment. It’s like having three totally different vacations rolled into one. The pace with Anne in Irvington has a laidback feel—well, each place is laidback in a way, and fast-paced in a way. I would say it would be like comparing a Brahms symphony with a Bach invention and then a Handel oratorio—each of my “homes” feeds my soul in a special way, and I try and juggle all the things I hope to accomplish, and all the people with whom I try and connect.

But this year, spring break 2010, I find I am not as good at being a chameleon as I usually am. I am carrying too much baggage—the metaphorical kind since I am a whiz at whizzing back and fro from my continents and knowing what to bring and how much a suitcase weighs. But I have found that I can’t put down the baggage from KA this March. And this has nothing to do with the charms and joys of each of my locales—it has everything to do with putting behind the Jordan skin.

As I got on the plane last week anticipating my usual round of museums/restaurants/visiting/hugging/schmoozing/dozing/reading/exercising for my break, I graded exams on the plane and enjoyed that great Delta flight that leaves Jordan just past midnight and arrives at JFK just before dawn. It is a perfect flight—if you have to spend 12 hours on a flight. You pop a couple of Tylenol PMs and then sleep actually does descend even on the stubborn-flight-sleepers like me.

As with any job, there are those “prickly” feelings that creep over you as you know “inter-office” relations have become strained and the horizon looks cloudier than you would like. Usually, I hop on that plane, and I can leave those pricklies behind. But on this spring break, the pricklies have dogged me a bit. I just can’t shake some of those feelings.

But, then it has hardly been a troubled spring break. I have done the things I love—strolling through Central Park with Christy discussing the state of the educational world; enjoying lunch at a new special place with the glorious Kate; discovering a new art museum with Anne; sitting up savoring a treasured friendship; bacon; seeing a play; reading the New York Times and holding it in my hand; riding the subway—all quotidian acts really, but genuinely warming and meaningful.

When you look at history, many cultures have been aware of the difficulty of changing courses or locales. As far back as ancient Babylon, they created that fantastic and garish Gate of Ishtar, welcoming each returning soldier to pass through the Gate and by doing so, the warring troops would purge their martial impulses, and prepare them for life back in workaday Babylon. The Romans pilfered that concept and Roman towns erected Roman arches at a city gate, so that those warring Romans could do the same purging as they returned home, helping the men make the transition back to domestic life after their warring escapades. Indeed, one of the great Roman heroes, Cincinnatus was known to leave his plow in the field when the call came to defend Rome. I wonder, what was it like for Cincinnatus as he came back from war to pick up his plow?

One of my favorite paintings by American artist Winslow Homer is entitled, Veteran in a New Field, and it is a simple rendering of a Civil War soldier home from the battlefront confronting his field after his stint in the army. He has cast off his army jacket and canteen over on the side, and wields a mighty scythe trying to get back to his first job, that of farmer. You wonder how easy it was for those soldiers to come back from such carnage and resume the tasks at home. That new field offers such possibilities of life, and yet, that soldier has just come home after witnessing such harvests of death.

That makes me think of one of my favorite World War II films—The Best Years of Our Lives—and again it is about soldiers returning home and trying to play chameleon. How easy is it to pick up that old habit, those old patterns and paces? For some being a chameleon was nearly impossible…

Okay, I didn’t realize how many military allusions I had rambling around in my head about this! From Babylon to Rome to the 19th century and the Greatest Generation! And I am not even near a warfront.

And my problems are not that great. But those prickly feelings of work—you must realize, I rarely call my “job” work. I love teaching school so much that I hesitate to call it work but the pricklies are related to the politics of any workplace: people nursing grudges, scheming vindictiveness, callous backbiting, endless email threads, one-upmanship, reminders of the hierarchy, insecurities, all the strains that affect most workplaces. The portal of the United States Passport Control usually acts as a surer purging place.

Maybe it is that the spring break in the United States just isn’t that new anymore. Maybe it is because I have treated myself this year and this is my fourth time stateside this school year. Hmmmm…the first spring break it felt glorious just connecting with friends and cramming Broadway shows in as fast as I could. Last year I had a wedding to celebrate.

As I arrive into JFK from Jordan, there is that moment when I board the subway (which happens to be above-ground out by JFK airport) and finally dawn has broken on the horizon. I have flown all night, made my through immigration and passport control, grabbed the actual baggage, and secured my seat on the A train. That part of Brooklyn may not be the most gorgeous generally, but with dawn, and the hopes of a spring break, and the promise of rest, it always looks magnificent. I revel in that sunrise as the A train pushes closer to Manhattan.

And when I arrive at Christy’s townhouse on the Upper West Side, and look out her window to the right—there it is the skyline of midtown Manhattan. And on that first day, as I rediscover Asian food and book stores and the eastern time zone and bagels and banks that answer questions and pedestrians and leafy trees and church spires and my address book, there is such a purging like in the old days of Rome and Babylon.

I guess I expected to let go a little more of the KA pricklies. Every day as I was enjoying something my mind played a version of “Twister” where I would have my right hand on red and then my left foot on green.

But Manhattan and Irvington and Cincinnati do work a magic spell on me. No, it isn’t a cruise down the Nile, or a bistro in Paris, but it is a visit with Cristina checking in with her after her husband Luis’ death in January; it is discovering a familiar tour guide with Christy at the Met; it is laughing with Gary as we eat some of the best pizza available; it is sitting with Anne watching a play; it is enjoying the “violet hour” of dusk walking down Broadway, endlessly fascinated with every cornice and crevice of Manhattan.

Spring break was supposed to be a little different this year, anyway. Julianne and I had planned to bring a couple dozen of my art history students to New York and give them the Grand Tour. But that trip fell through a month ago. But that is not really the source of the pricklies.

You know—about an hour ago I passed by a church wayside pulpit and maybe the answer was right there on the clichéd message for all the passersby: Count Your Blessings, Not Your Problems. Hmmmm…

I think I will do exactly that. I will stop this blogsisode right now and take that tip.

Be back tomorrow.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

“At the sunrise of faith”

Last Sunday at this time a remarkable event was wrapping up here at KA. I had just been witness, and part-time chaperone, as an international conference hosted by KA seniors came to a close.

I come from a long-line of event planners. My mother and her mother both conceived and managed numerous conferences, meetings, and events in their time, and I grew up in a household where it seemed a festival or gala was always underway. I had first-hand knowledge of the vision, organization, stamina, diplomacy and grit needed to execute a conference-like event.

For almost a year a group of students worked with my colleague Fatina to create a Model United Nations conference hosted by KA. Since I was not a part of the organization, I got to simply watch as they “hatched” their plans, or rather, a more apt metaphor, planted the seeds and nurtured their seedling project.

For the first two years of our school we sent delegates to other international MUN conferences, and it seemed that our young scholars thought they were ready to helm their own conference. Where would they do it? How would they get the word out? Who would be in charge of what? How would it be supported? Funded? Would students from outside the region come to the Middle East for a conference? Could juniors/seniors actually run such a complicated machine as a conference?

Fatina would give me reports from time to time as the planning continued. These students really wanted to pursue this, and usually over a plateful of warm cookies, they met at her house to figure out the logistics of creating a conference from scratch. As Fatina described it to me, it seemed like the work and planning of doing a musical (I suppose if I were remotely sporty it might remind me of trying to engineer an international tournament, but you know, you start from what you know!). In my time I have directed a dozen or so musicals, and it always felt like you were building a house on the ground with a tremendous crew, some committed, others less so, and then finally, you hoist that house off the ground and see what you have right at the opening.

Her crew imagined the tasks, and divided up the labor, doing everything from creating a logo and website, to securing the splashy Kempinksy hotel resort at the Dead Sea as the site for the conference, to thinking of both the style and substance of such a conference. They laughed about how the delegates (from hopefully around the world!) would convene at the lowest point on earth, for a conference with the highest potential.

Over the next six months the finance committee secured an impressive list of sponsors and schools began to show interest. Then as 2010 dawned Fatina faced the countdown as that seedling idea began to grow. It was almost time to actually host the conference. Do you have coffee breaks? Do you provide time on the beach for the delegates? Who will open the conference? Will His Majesty be able to visit the conference? Will we have enough busses for the transportation? Should we take the delegates to world-famous Petra or not-yet-world-famous Jerash? I enjoyed watching these students grapple with the decisions. You know, I love the process of watching something come together. Heck, I also love the coming-together. As a director of 60 drama productions and 30 school trips I am usually the one in the driver’s seat. Now I had the pleasure of watching from the sidelines the work and tremendous effort of my colleague and my students.

So finally, that day arrived. There were delegates from Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, India, Israel, the United States, and Jordan participating! They really came. About 200 students descended on KA for the opening ceremonies. It really was an international event. I sat with a group from the Doon School in India, a venerable boarding school in the English boarding school tradition, over lunch on the first day, and enjoyed getting to know them over the next few days.

The keynote address at the opening was delivered by an exceptionally charismatic older gentleman who has spoken a handful of times at KA. He is a former minister with the government, former teacher, former really everything interesting in life, and a charmer. He spoke about how important it was for the delegates to be steeped in history (Yipee!! Smart Man!) and that History is geography in motion. He spoke eloquently about the last hundred years in the Middle East imploring the students to consider different perspectives as they approached their Model United Nations work.

As our guest spoke about the placement of this conference at the Dead Sea (another reference to the irony of being at the lowest point on earth, a sea called Dead,) right in the “cradle of monotheism” where “young minds will nurture the impulse toward peace and understanding.” In his inimitable way, he spoke again of where we all were—he bid us to look outside and think of this region, as he called it, right “at the sunrise of faith,” and urged the students to act in that manner of faith and dignity. To quote the hymn writer, “My Lord, what a morning!”

Of course not everything went smoothly. It rained. It rains maybe 8 times a year in Jordan. During this weekend conference, the heavens opened and it rained day after day. The trip to Petra had to be cancelled. The civil defense actually closed Petra! Petra is in a place like New Orleans, and is like a giant bowl, and when it rains, the water floods in. My friend Elizabeth actually was in Petra during this and spoke of the water coming up knee-high. So the poor guy in the Entertainment division of the conference had to keep vamping and rolling with the punches.

So after almost four days of committee work the whole conference moved back from the Dead Sea to our campus. The sun shone as the King arrived. (Can he control the weather?) His Majesty King Abdullah spoke to the students who had arranged the conference, traveled thousands of miles and worked through the position papers and hearings: “You are the new generation. You must seize the opportunities, chances and challenges to make the world better. We will create an environment in which you can surpass us.”

The eight student leaders in charge of the conference offered closing speeches, and they acquitted themselves magnificently. The poise, diction and commitment to this conference made it a pleasure to hear their words. Dana, the Madame President of the enterprise, and a natural orator and leader said “Our lives have been changed” from the work on the conference. She said that for her one of the most memorable moments in the conference came when a group wrangled over the semantics of what to call the place just across the Dead Sea.

Before I came to Jordan I would have not understood this dilemma. It is simply called Israel on every map I knew. But for the Jordanians, for my Arab friends, they want to call the area Palestine, and it is rooted in the problems and struggles of this region as to how to acknowledge it. I am sure for many of the delegates, the ones from outside the region, they perhaps had never wondered what to call this area. For them, for us, it may be simple.

“What do we call the country over there?” asked one of the delegates, as Dana recounted. Another delegate offered a humble answer, “Why don’t we call them neighbor?”

The fancy hotel was fun, the students dressed up in power suits wielding a gavel, all of that was fun, but it was exceptionally interesting to see the fruits of this seedling planted last year. It wasn’t my project at all, but I enjoyed watching the process of the process, admiring my students and all of the energy and effort Fatina expended at teaching our students how to organize an event.

An impressive feat, and an impressive seedling maturing into a mighty tree. An olive tree, perhaps, with the proverbial olive branch?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Should it be this exciting??

In just a few minutes—yes, in fact, as soon as I hit ‘send’ and propel this blogisode out into cyber-space—it will be time to give my examination for the second term.

I forget when I started calling tests and exams, “celebrations of knowledge,” maybe 20 years ago I guess, but today it is a Celebration.

I love it when the exam writing is finished and the papers are copied and all I get to do is talk with students, help them figure out a few more things, and listen to them pontificate on the historical subjects.

I chose Saturday as my exam day months ago in large part of where I like to have exams at KA. I love the Dining Hall for the exam venue. And Saturday afternoon is the one time of the entire week when it is quiet and peaceful in the Dining Hall. Since I have 60 students in the AP Art History course I need a large space that accommodates them and makes for a secure testing environment. Some people choose the Lecture Hall, but, yeah, um, if you have sat in there you can see how easy it is to cheat there anyway. In the Dining Hall each student claims his/her own table; you get to spread out, and when the writing time comes you can hunker down, put your feet up on another chair, and create your own little isolated world where Clio, our beloved muse of History, can urge you on to greatness.

“The Big Dance,” the BIG AP test, is coming up in 67 days. Today I have constructed the exam to be the same length of time as the marathon test in May (3 hours and 5 minutes, and no, I don’t know why some test planner has made it 185 minutes instead of a rounded-off 3 hours) but it is only on the material from this term. This term we began with the paranoia and fever of Y1K (for those who remember the paranoia and fever of Y2K, well, well, well, it was remarkably similar—minus the TV cameras tracking the non-event—back in 1000 as in 2000) and the Bayeux Tapestry from Norman England. This little bit of embroidered propaganda (an army of seamstresses sewed and sewed for months and months!) worked miracles to create the images William (now called “the Conquereor”) wanted for his new subjects. We ended the term with the spectacular painting from 1819 by Gericault called The Raft of the Medusa. This was also a little number about national pride, but stemmed from Gericault’s desire to inform his Frenchmen about the ineptitude of the French government. Those are our bookends for the term and for the Celebration today.

So last week I spent probably a collective amount of 10-12 hours creating the exam. By that I mean I study the old AP exams of the last 18 years and snip and snip and put together an exam from old exams so my students become more and more accustomed with the language, the feel, the tone, the rigor of the Big Mama test in May. Typing multiple choice questions is among the dreariest of teacher activities, but, sigh, it must be done.

I am producing this exam here similar to how the AP test will be done starting this May. Gone are the slide projectors and the changing of the slides as each prompt progresses onward in the test. We now produce a booklet, in color, with the art works and the questions. I have to say, it is a beautiful test, just seeing the colored images and the challenging prompts.

Okay, since no will be checking the blog in the next 10 minutes I hope, I will divulge some of the exam. Just think—if someone happened to check the blog walking to the Dining Hall they could have a heads up…hmmmm…they are probably studying instead of googling me.

The exam is in two sections. The first section has 2 thirty-minute essays separated by 29 multiple choice questions ranging from 1000 to 1800. This is the most challenging and liberating part of the exam since the young scholar must whip through the rolodex of his/her mind to come up with art works to respond to the question. Essay #1 ask this: Many cultures use architecture to express or reinforce power and authority. Choose two works of architecture from two different art periods. Discuss how each work conveys power and authority.

And Essay #2 asks: Most cultures have made use of art’s narrative function. Select and fully identify two works that visually convey a narrative from two different art periods. Identify the subject of each narrative and discuss the means used to convey the narrative.

The second section is 9 mini-essays and 62 multiple choice. You need stamina to endure this baby.

The real fun though in preparing for the exam is watching these students absorb the information and engage with the art works and the historical forces and personages.
Yesterday I had a 2-hour study session and we worked on practice essay topics and about 20 students came and labored over about 8 short essays and 8 long essays to get in shape for the visual calisthenics of Art History exam.

We looked at a sculpture of Napoleon’s sister depicted as Venus. The question asked to name the art historical period and explain how the form and content conveyed its meaning. As we worked on this neo-classical work from the early 19th century, Omar, a young man with a great mind, offered an insight that was pretty stupendous. Omar said that ever since the Platonic Academy deemed Venus the “originator of Life,” any connection to Venus strengthened someone’s position and power. As Omar explained to the class, “Napoleon would benefit from his family being seen as deities and that powerful. That would help his power and authority as the leader of France.” How about that for going beyond the naming and dating of the art work?

And then last night as I graded tests from this week, I got a call from Dana, another great mind. Actually she called several times. I had told everyone to call me if they had “an art history emergency,” so I expected calls. But Dana did not call over and over begging for an easy test or whining. Oh, no. She called for clarification. She called to ask if I could send her better images of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. She called to ask about labeling some artists “Late Italian Gothic,” or “Proto-Renaissance.” She never once seemed angry that she was spending her Friday night deepening and broadening her already impressive knowledge.

During one of Dana’s calls for clarification a gaggle of shebab came over to discuss their last test from this week. None of the guys pandered or indulged in the whiny behavior that some teachers face. These guys came over to see how they were doing with this knowledge. Zack had the best test of the bunch, a neat 98% on what was a challenging test over 400 years. Ghayth had come over to check on his test—he had taken a second version of the test just to see if he might improve. Yes, he had reached the A level finally too. George lamented that his test was not his best, but while he always is at the top of the pile, he resolved that for the exam today he would be back on top. Never once did he grin and blame senioritis on a non-A test. Instead they looked at each other’s tests, congratulating each other on the successes, offering nuggets of wisdom about why someone had said that that painting looked like Frans Hals even though it was Pieter Brueghel, reminding them that while Adelaide Labille-Guiard had joined the Art Academy in France in the 1780s, Judith Leyster, since she was a woman, was not allowed admission in the mid-17th century.

I went over to brunch this morning to meet with a few more students who wanted to check on their short essays and make sure they understood how to attack these essays. I spoke with the sharp sharp Qxhna about why her explanation of “they got classical fever” was not as strong explanation of defining the values of the neo-classical age; George came up and said he hoped knowing about 5 different door jambs from the Gothic Age would take care of explaining the evolution of Gothic statuary. Swara and Abdullah were arguing over whether Duccio or Giotto was the better artist. Hamdi and Gaith just stopped by and we discussed why a wealthy English family would copy designs by Italian designer Palladio—what would a father and husband hope to project in the design of his home. And so on and so on.

In a couple days maybe this satisfied glow will fade—especially as I attack the mountain of exams and grade them! But right now, I am so, what? Hmmm…Pleased? Blessed? Invigorated? Overjoyed?

I guess the best word to choose is—sublime. We have been discussing this word this last week as we entered into the Age of—wait for the bulky, clichéd word—Romanticism. Romanticism is an umbrella term for about a dozen movements, but they are unified in a sense in the hope of reaching a state of…wait for it…sublime. Not just any old calm, or serenity, but that state of having struggled and despaired and hoped and worked and agonized—a state of bliss, of sublime.

The last couple days have been blissful helping students, answering the varied questions, reminding them of all they know, seeing their work pay off. The discussions were all about the work, their knowledge, their skills, their prowess in the byzantine-like tunnels of art history. Not a one bemoaned (in front of me at least!) the exam or why is it so hard?? They just rolled up the proverbial sleeves and went to work.

And on the first page of the two exam sections is my favorite phrase in Latin, a phrase that my grandmother taught me: Per Aspera Ad Astra…From the rough places, to the stars…

I will let you know how they did and their place in those stars. Time to walk over to the Dining Hall and give them exam!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Grumble. Chuckle.

You know it’s gonna be a bad day when it is already a bad day by 7:30 a.m. Come on! The proverbial writing is on the proverbial wall!

By around 9:00 a.m. today I had invented a phrase for how bad of a day it was—GrumbleChuckle. I was already grumbling by that time so much that I had to chuckle as to how bad of a day it could be in just a few hours.

Two of my students are performing in a play in Amman, and so they are unable to take a test with the rest of their class on Thursday afternoon, so flexible man that I am, we looked at alternative times so that the test could still happen for them. It turned out with their rehearsal schedule that the only time was at 6:50 a.m. this morning.

Doing tests before school is a mixed bag of success: twice it has worked this year; twice the students have not shown up. Hmmm…I don’t like those moments. Especially when I got up early to do a favor.

I had sent an email yesterday reminding them of their obligation. I mentioned in class how I important it was to show up for such plans…one of them supposed to come this morning had been one of the failures earlier in the year…hmmmm….

So I got up about 20 minutes earlier than usual, was dressed and ready to receive the young scholars by 6:45 a.m.

No shows.

About 30 minutes after they should have arrived, and should have been neck deep in the Baroque period of art essays, I had a frantic knock on my door from a colleague. “There’s damage in the dormitory and boys aren’t in their rooms!” I quickly learned as the colleague and I went out exploring. I followed trying to assess what the damages might be, who and to where the young boarders might have made off, and a sneaky suspicion that the day just might not recover from its shaky start.

I knock on the door of a proctor and discover several students who do not reside in this single room. Stony silence greeted me as I asked if they had spent the night there, what they were up to, and if they knew about any damages. The replies, especially from one, was that typical senioritis-y apathy yucky you don’t matter stance and tone. Oh, great.

And it wasn’t even 7:30!

They assured me that they had gotten up early to study theology together. As brash comic Judy Tenuta used to bellow in her comedy routine, It could happen!!!
I noticed a half hour later that my early-rising theologians did not make it to morning meeting. Of course not.

I was enjoying a cup of coffee in my usual spot at 8:30 when those same boys came in requesting a late slip. I inquired why they hadn’t made it to morning meeting when they had obviously been awake and ready to greet the morn. The same one who had had the chip-on-his-shoulder conversation with me earlier just dug it a little deeper with a caustic, ”I was cleaning up the damage you told me I should have been responsible for.” In the next few minutes he made such an impression on one of my colleagues that when he left the room, she felt compelled to call his mother and report on his disrespect. She countered that people at the school do not treat her boy well. By the way, later in the day I followed up with a colleague, he had lied to me. He did not clean up the damage.

Okay—time for class…always the saving grace. Students had prepared presentations on artists from the Romantic period and they did a strong job…maybe all the evil spirits had dissipated. Grumble. Chuckle!

And the Lord taketh away…

Then I had one of those encounters with an administrator that just makes you giggle if you would happen to be watching it on Youtube. I was told that I must accept that a certain course count as a history department requirement for graduation even though it is not a history course. It reminded me of one of those old jokes like, “A guy walks into a bar with a duck on his head.” I don’t even know why it reminded me of that except it just seemed to be absurd to be having the discussion, and that as head of the department I should determine what does and what does not count as a history course towards graduation requirements. Double Grumble. Chuckle?

I don’t know, it just felt if I walked 15 feet someone said something or did something that caused the grumbling to increase, so naturally the sardonic chuckles became a throbbing bass line.

On and on and then the class that often is the coup de grace for behavior et al. Two students “confessed” that they had done a presentation (“Really, I thought I was going to get the presentation done, really!”) and one boy is absent. I had told the class that no excuse short of being in the middle of surgery counted for an absence.

During the day the two errant early-morning scholars professed disbelief that this had been the agreed upon day…sure…

It just continued, and let’s just say I muttered Grumble Chuckle fairly regularly.

Oh, I should tell you of the audacity of this one student who simply logged onto a website and just read aloud from the site as his presentation!

At the close of school I pondered the day. I needed a lift. I needed a distraction and a smile.

I looked at my phone list and made a call to New York Kate. We love her! She wasn’t in.

So I called dear Margie, dear friends, and parents of a superstar former student from the class of 2000.

We hadn’t talked in months and months. Margie picked up, and as we talked we picked right up where we had left off.

I learned her son Joseph is engaged. We talked about the old days. We talked about the weather and the snow and the books we have read, the TV shows admired, and just sat back and enjoyed a Grumble-free conversation. Just great.

Earlier this morning I had a conversation about “bouncing back.” Obviously the Grumble Chuckle days come along—no question, but how do you bounce back? We mused about how as we age, the bouncing is probably a little more difficult.

I told them about this great episode of Monk I watched recently wherein character Randy Disher shares his philosophy of life. Monk had asked Randy how he was so good-natured all the time, and essentially implied that Randy had a gift for “bouncing back.”

Randy shared how during one case he had had an epiphany. He had seen a bumper sticker that changed his life. It read, Happiness is a choice. Randy had decided then and there to be a happier person. Now Randy is a little like Barney Fife, but still, you have to admire his pluck and smile.

Our pessimist friend Adrian Monk reminded Randy that that bumper sticker had been found on a car that was wrecked and the owners murdered. So where was the happiness?

Oh, Mr. Monk—what a sourpuss view of life!

Of course if I could wish for my life to be perfect, it would be tempting—but I would decline, for life would no longer teach me anything.

As for tomorrow, hope springs eternal.