Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Words, Words, Words

Here we are at the end of June, the traditional day that I announce my summer vacation from blogging about my life in Jordan (and my “quirky style” as one friend put it where the blog is laced with sitcom allusions, Broadway lyrics, and Biblical references. I will try to work in each of those as I look back on this third year at KA!). There will be no trite announcement like, “I don’t know where the time has gone! My, my, the time has flown by!” If you have not spent time in the South, you may not know that the exasperated phrase, “My, my…” is just a euphemism for something far more coarse as heard in the North!

I rarely look back at old blog entries, and I probably should, for it would afford me some good laughs and reminders of all that has impacted and changed me over these three years. I started this blog at the behest of my supremely wonderful friend Judy, and here I am 36 months later, working on the 227th blog entry. Over the course of these roughly one thousand days, for whatever reason, I tend to write these blog entries in 3-page chunks…I guess my brain seems to work in 3-page chunks the way I conceive and teach a 45-minute class deftly. If you add up all those pages in the last three years, that’s about 700 pages I have tapped out on this laptop in these three years. That’s a lot of words! Lotta words…

At the end of the first year of our existence I wrote an overview of the year “From A-Z.” Then last year I wrote about how “parched” I was for a variety of things…this year, as I look back, I am amazed and full of wonder about the words involved in the creation and sustaining of KA. Given yesterday’s blog, you can tell I am rather upbeat about our enterprise, since yesterday’s entry was about the optimism I harbor about this project.

Moreover, the optimistic words in the viewbook about this school were one of the first things that attracted me to KA. Every school must create pretty picture books of propaganda to sell itself, but KA had some extraordinary words that compelled me to really ponder the big move there. First of all, in the very mission of the school they pledged that this school must work so that we “cherish one another.” Those words were in the very first speech our headmaster spoke to the faculty on August 1, 2007: “our success here will rest on whether we will cherish one another.” And the headmaster’s wife, the brilliant Meera, imagined that the school would hew to Five Guiding Principles, another way for words to command us towards the hoped-for success of this infant school. These principles are:
1. Respect
2. Responsibility
3. Love of Learning
4. An Integrated Life
5. Global Citizenship

As we spend more and more time on the accreditation process (which will take place next year) there is even more and more writing about the school—more words and more reflection on whether we do what we say we do.

In My Fair Lady, the iconic Broadway show about language, Eliza Doolittle at one point rages about how she is sick of “words.” All they do is talk the talk, and she loses her temper in the great song, “Words, Words, Words.” At the senior dinner the night before graduation, Meera offered a memorable speech about how our first-ever graduates will soon prove if we are more than just “words” at KA. The very author of those guiding principles declared that by themselves, those words are fairly static, as all words can be. She urged our seniors to take those words and put them into flight.

Our school is right in the heart of Bible country… just 20 minutes away is where Moses died…down the road 40 minutes from the school is the spot where John the Baptist got beheaded… …if you head down to the Dead Sea and turn right, about 50 minutes in total, you end up at the Baptism Site of Jesus…and then if you could cross the bridge quickly (not likely) in a wink or two you would find yourself in Jerusalem. It is not hard to juxtapose biblical allusions with any of our epic struggles—presumptuous, maybe, but not hard to do!

Let’s look at the Bible. The Bible is a talking book. It begins in speech. Commanding speech. Successful speech. Words that can make things happen. “Let there be light,” God shouts into the void. And the lights come on. These aren’t just any words—these are words with wings. Words with legs. Commanding speech. Successful speech.

The Israelites rendered their suffering in speech. In bondage in Egypt, oppressed and tormented, they cried out to God. And God heard their suffering. And God, speaking to Moses, told Moses to have a chat with Pharaoh, saying, “Let my people go.” The Bible is a talking book.

The Psalmist is the one who with words turns our insides out: whose words expose our ache, whose words render our bliss, our praise; whose words make palpable our defeat, our terror, our anger. The Psalmist is the one who turns our insides out.

After “Let there be light,” and “Let my people go,” Jesus is God’s next best word, and if you think about it, Jesus was himself a talker. He talked to fishermen, women, to Gentiles, Samaritans, to Pharisees, to lepers, the lame, the blind, tempters in the desert, storms, to God, and crowds on hillsides.

He healed with words: “Take up your pallet and walk.”

He freed with words: “Your sins are forgiven you.”

He saved with words: “You are without sin, cast the first stone.”

He conquered death with words: “Lazarus, come out!”

Is there more to all of this than just the words? How do we maneuver through all these words? One of the things the numerous committees in our KA Accreditation is trying to comprehend is whether we teach with the mission and guiding principles in mind. How and when do we teach to cultivate global citizenship, or respect or responsibility? How exactly do we model a love of learning and integrated life? Do we do those things? How do we go from pretty speech to successful speech? How do we get through the tangles of all these words? Are we failing in all of our words? Do we turn our students into latter-day Eliza Doolittles?

Back to the Bible: the Tower of Babel is of course, the story of the failure of speech, of confusion and cacophony and frustration and pandemonium. (And yes, there are days when we feel like fellow toilers on this tower at KA). Look around us, babble is everywhere. Shock jocks are babblers. Bloggers are babblers. (Gulp!) Babble is the sound of the serpent who engages Adam and Eve in gentle conversation, promising that this piece of fruit, this pill, this cosmetic, this Lotto ticket, this whatever will make you wiser, younger, slimmer, richer, stronger. Promise! Or as in Arabic, we would say, “Wallah!”

Three years ago I signed onto this project because I hoped that the story of KA is the answer to the Tower of Babel and to human babble. The triumph of KA will be the intelligibility of speech, of words that work, commanding speech…words that communicate…words with wings and legs, words that build and bridge.

Are we there yet? Who knows! I will be interested to see how our recent graduates fare in college, and of course, in life. The right words have been there for them, but it is up to them to give them wings and legs, to build and bridge.

This new year we will welcome a new headmaster. I would be hard-pressed to find a more beloved headmaster than our founder Eric has been, but at age 70, he decided it was a good time to retire from the headmaster game. We welcome a new man named John Austin, and I am eager to see what words he will mint and add to our collection of words. How will he inspire us to teach so that our words have wings and legs, to build and bridge?

And to the rising seniors, I have such affection for them. These were the students I taught in our inaugural year, as I struggled to find the right words to compel and inspire them to want to learn. I created a new course for this year really so I could have the opportunity to teach a bunch for the fourth year in a row. In this class of 17 I mandated a pre-requisite that you have to have had me before. In this class of 17, there are 6 students I will have taught twice, 3 students I will have taught three times, and 8 students I will have taught four times. Think of the mountains of words they have heard from me! I have designed this class to be like the old 1980s sit-com Head of the Class where a varsity team of precocious and exciting students tackle topics and explore in depth the wonders of history. It doesn’t have an AP test attached to it—it is simply an exercise to see if we can take our speech and see what we have. See if we can make things happen.

Thanks for your faithful readership. I will check in during July sometime to update you on the summer.

There—sit-com, Broadway, and Bible references—I done good.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

More Dawn

I have been home in Cincinnati now for more than a week, doing what I do very happily in these breaks: talking and eating. I make sure I see nephew Jack and niece Emma every day, and I catch up with old friends every chance I get. It is nearing the end of June, which also means it is time for my annual summer vacation from the blog. I have two entries left for this school year, so tune in today and tomorrow!

Last Friday I had breakfast with one of my oldest continuous friends, my friendly rival from junior high and high school, Dawn. Dawn and I met in French class in 7th grade, and except for a brief hiatus or two, we have been dear friends ever since. Our breakfasts are always fast and furious catch-ups of what has transpired, well less of the transpiring, and more about what we are feeling about what has transpired.

As I left my breakfast with Dawn, and after our pledge to see each other at least once more over the summer, I remembered a line from Henry David Thoreau that seemed apt:

“There is more dawn to come.”

And as I drove home from that Kentucky breakfast nook, the Thoreau line struck me even deeper than my desire to see my friend Dawn more over the summer. (Nothing at all against Dawn!) There was something in this line that beckoned me to think about distant KA.

When I first learned of my school in Jordan, it was from an article in The New Yorker in the fall of 2006 explaining the desire of King Abdullah II of Jordan to start a new school in his kingdom. One of the main points of the article was that he hoped to emulate the best features of his American prep school experience. Curiously, the writer did not explore what exactly that aim meant. I remember as I read the article, I wondered, what is it exactly they hoped to import to Jordan from American prep schools like Deerfield? I hadn’t attended a prep school, so I couldn’t guess from my childhood experience—indeed, from kindergarten through 12th grade I was a product of excellent Cincinnati public schools. But I have worked only in private schools in my teaching career, so I set about wondering what it is we offer…my first guess was that His Majesty hoped to cultivate the rigor he discovered in his prep school. I also hoped it would be to match the wonderfully rich relationships between teacher and student.

From time to time, over these three years, I have continued to wonder…what is it that King Abdullah hoped to borrow? Was it just from an American school, or was it from America and American sensibilities as well? Hmmmmm…

I have been wondering, as we end the third year at KA, what is it that the King wanted to emulate about his Deerfield experience? Rigor? Camaraderie?

I think it is rather something that America as a nation does better than anything else. Is it “power” or “money”? Nah, nothing of that ilk. I think it is something in our bones that compels us and that we do better than anyone. Optimism! I have traveled a great deal, and this is maybe what we do best. We kindle optimism.

Optimism in America, more than a widespread character trait, is a core tenet of a national faith: what we know to be true, how we experience the world. If stocks go up, they will continue to go up; if stocks go down, it is only a matter of time before they will regain their footing and go up once again, as is only right, what stocks must and should do. What merely appears bad will soon be revealed as good…take any current event (Iraq? According to right-leaning pundits, certainly. But I don’t mean to be partisan at all here.). Indeed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt seemed inclined to defeat the Great Depression with an ever-present smile as his sword and with the very idea that he and we could and would climb back out of that valley and resume our ascent to the very summit of human possibility. Ronald Reagan triumphed over the “malaise” of 1970s apathy and won the Cold War announcing that it was “Morning in America.” And in 2009 we witnessed the exuberance at the victory of Barack Obama’s inauguration.

But this is not merely a 20th century phenomenon…this is in our roots… Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams that “moral sense” and “justice” are not imposed by society or learned, but “innate” in each of us. Oh, the juices are flowing now—how I miss the classroom! Let’s go back farther in our American history…we might trace America’s extraordinary vision of itself to those stern Puritans who believed in this unprecedented opportunity to found an exemplary “city upon a hill,” a New Jerusalem cleansed of the catastrophic history they had left behind. If this fantastic metropolis never quite materialized, (although Ronald Reagan referenced it every chance he had) it nonetheless became our supreme goal, a beacon blazing throughout the development of a uniquely American culture. It was the promise of something greater.

In the mid-nineteenth century “more dawn” philosopher Henry David Thoreau advised his readers to build their “castles in the air” first and then “lay the foundations under them.” We sense that in Manifest Destiny a spirit to push us onward, and then Walt Whitman believed after the Civil War that a grander people would emerge. We built skyscrapers! We fought the war to end all wars! We christened forward-looking, epoch-making agendas of the 20th century: Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom,” FDR’s “New Deal,” John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” There was the “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” prophesied by a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. and there was Woodstock—a gathering billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music.”

Our optimism endures. Our optimism inspires.

We actually think that the most recent war could and should be the last. American-style optimism hovers above setbacks. Even when we wonder if our city upon a hill is built at the bottom of a strip mine, or our castles in the air might be collapsing, and our history just a revolving door of tragedy from which there is no escape, we quickly rebound. It could be enough to make us a little anxious…that we won’t keep up with the bills, find true love, catch the dream.

So with a sigh we could rise and head out into the darkened streets, to wander, to get some air, wonder if we went wrong, where we went wrong. We could see how imperfect life is, and fear the dawn as if it were a dreaded intruder. But that’s not how we do it…we get some rest and announce, “Tomorrow is another day!”

We just don’t stay with pessimism long. Seriously, pessimism just doesn’t fly in TV commercials (“Life’s a bust! Drink Coke!”)

At any point in our shared history on this continent, we might have gotten overwhelmed with all that is wrong. At any point! Go back and read about the crises during the Revolution. Go back and read about the disasters of the 1790s, our first decade as a nation. But Americans choose to savor the words and message of Thoreau who continued the thought about dawn:

“There is more dawn to come. The sun is but a morning star.”

But as much as I love all this history talk, there are also contemporary pop-cultural examples of how Americans bathe in optimism (yes, the cynics may say we “manufacture” it, but hey, we do that better than anyone too!). On Saturday I went with Emma and Jack to see the movie Toy Story 3. To be honest, I hadn’t seen the other two installments, so Saturday morning I got caught up to speed on the franchise with some of their VHS tapes.

Have you seen this movie yet? What a triumph of the digital process, and of narrative and characterization…but what moved me so much was that patented American-style optimism from the story. Without giving anything away, the message of this summer movie conveyed a veritable hope in Imagination. The movie spins the hope that with our youth we may reclaim creativity and curiosity and wonder. And solve problems! That a summer movie could re-affirm for me such monumental, and yet fragile tenets, well, our optimism is quite a feat.

So as I catch up with friends like Debbie and Tracy and Kevin and Doris and Shelley and more to come, I can savor the feats and hopes of what we do at KA. Vacation is good for the soul, and for reflection. Of course there are problems and difficulties at this three-year old school, but maybe it will be that American optimism of Thoreau and Pixar that triumphs and cultivates creativity and curiosity and wonder and problem solving in the youth of this school. Maybe it is that fuel of optimism that will be our best import.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Now you grow…

It is 7:00 a.m. in Jordan and I am leaving for the airport in exactly one hour. The grades are all computed and entered. The last academic standing meetings are completed. The apartment is relatively clean. Now it is time for summer.

And now it is time to reflect on the 2009-10 school year, the third one here in Jordan.

It would be simply too clich├ęd to just say, “oh, it’s been a roller coaster of a year, hasn’t it?!” Each year anywhere is a roller coaster, and many of the forces have been documented in the blog (some are best left to become hazy memories or the burning embers of such ancient wrongs anyway) so instead of trying to sum up the year in a few paragraphs, I thought I would look at the year as if it were a Broadway show tune.

Hey—stop rolling your eyes, there is much wisdom in the philosophy/lyrics of an Ira Gershwin or an Irving Berlin or a Yip Harburg or an Oscar Hammerstein! But instead of looking at the year as if it were the climax of Carousel and we all warbled “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” I am choosing to investigate the oeuvre of Stephen Sondheim for my summation of the year.

In the mid-1990s New York magazine or The New Yorker (can’t remember which) posed a question in a cover story, “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” Oh my. Well, Sondheim has had an incredibly fertile 50-year+ career and is often thought to be the last of the great Broadway songwriters. This spring Sondheim turned 80, and there have been a bevy of tributes and shows in honor of his musical genius. As an adopted New Yorker, I came to see that most in the theater world think of him as the grand master of the Manhattan sensibility—a certain urbane, sophisticated, neurotic, hyper-articulate and disenchanted humanist. I didn’t have to look too hard to think of a comparison to our school year in his shows. I turned to Merrily We Roll Along, one of the shows that has gotten away from me so far in my directing career. I have wanted to do The Miracle Worker and Merrily We Roll Along for almost 20 years, and somehow have not gotten that opportunity to direct them yet.

Anyway, Merrily We Roll Along is a show about youth and about middle age. The show is structured to go backwards, beginning with a certain disenchantment one can find in middle age, working backward, seeking when it all went wrong, and ending in that glorious ebullience and promise of youth. One of the reasons I have wanted to direct this show is that in the end, it is the 18 year old set that has the right attitude, and the mid-40 somethings should recapture the tremors of learning and growing and not just wallow in bitterness. The show was not a success at all on Broadway—I think it ran a total of 9 performances. One of the problems is casting—do you cast the parts with 20 year olds? Do you cast the parts with 40 year olds? Since I direct high school theater, the answer is simple and the pitfall over the perfect age a moot point for me.

Anyway, as I look back at the year, there have certainly been problems, frustrations, challenges, and moments of wondering what in the world…In Merrily We Roll Along Sondheim offers us a taunting tune called “Now Your Know,” which encapsulates a tart and skeptical worldview:

“I mean, big surprise:
people love you and tell you lies;
bricks can fall out of clear blue skies.
It’s called flowers wilt,
it’s called apples rot,
it’s called thieves get rich and saints get shot.
Now you know.”

Wow. Even God makes a fleeting appearance, only to be dismissed as a disappointment who “doesn’t answer prayers a lot.”

From this tough cookie, chipper, zesty song, the only solution is to grit your teeth and soldier on:

“It’s called count to 10,
It’s called burn your bridges, start again.”

The only palliative to the bitterness of experience is a therapeutic imperative:
“Now you grow.”

There are harsh truths about life, and we often don’t like seeing them in schools, certainly not in schools whose hyperbole is that we are creating the future leaders of tomorrow. But those harsh truths, of course, are not the only things to see and understand.

As I look back on this year, not to gloss over the many moments when an embittered guardian angel might have tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, now you know!” but it is more than the collection of those harsh truths. Yes, cynicism and disillusion come mighty easily in a new venture (or an old venture as well) but as our headmaster showed us all the time, we must not waver from the mission of starting something new and daring in a place where a school like this has not existed. As Julianne, my sensible, no-nonsense, the-mission-statement-is-my-middle-name friend and colleague told the board of trustees recently, “Look, we get up every morning. We meet the new day and we try and make it work. It’s working.”

As Merrily We Roll Along careens backward in time, to those moments of naivete about some of the harsh truths, our young and exciting protagonists celebrate the most important thing they have—their friendship. Its most eloquent expression is found in another song from Merrily called, “Old Friends”:

“Time goes by
Everything else keeps changing.

You and I

We get continued next week."

The bittersweet acknowledgement that friendship gets us through the rough patches culminates with a toast:

"Here’s to us!
Who’s like us?
Damn few!”

That’s it! As Sondheim’s songs in Merrily We Roll Along explore the aches and the complicated harsh truths about life and relationships, there is the unalloyed answer to survival: leaning on and celebrating old friends.

In a few minutes I will close the drapes, check the locks, and close the door on the apartment in Jordan, and effectively close the door on the 2009-10 school year. But the harsh edges of the year are quietly softening now as I think about the friends here at KA who make life meaningful and rich. As I said the other day in a blogisode, I worked with a quintet of people in the Office of Student Life who amazed and humbled and completed me. This team was a source of laughter and inspiration for hard work and intimacy without fear. When Eric asked me nearly two years ago if I knew anyone who had the stomach for this kind of hard work, I answered quickly—Julianne. And she has led the office with determination and a desire to know and grow. And I worked with my History and Social Studies Department—10 of us who fit so well despite age and background differences. I couldn’t wait to see them each day and learn from them and love being around them. These are the groups I wish to toast and thank—we continued every day trying to make the mission statement a reality at the school. We get continued next year.

And I head home on the plane excited for all the old friends I will see and visit this summer worthy of a toast.

Stephen Sondheim offered us choices in Merrily We Roll Along—we could succumb to, and wallow in, a bitterness that is not unfathomable or untrue or unreal. Indeed, there is only new and different in the largely unimaginable future. That can frighten us. But as the sage Steve said simply, like it or not, and however we do it, now we grow.

The Nature of Height

I miss The New York Times. Yes, I can, and I do, go to the online website, but come on—you know what I mean, I miss the “real” paper that you hold in your hands. The New York Times is one of my favorite things to do when I am in New York (or the library in Cincinnati that gets a copy of it a day late). It is careful reading, that paper. Each day, after I read, I wash the newsprint off my hands and think about the universal harmonies I discovered in the newspaper. I have a confession to make—one of my favorite sections to read is the obituary section, the “dead beat” as it is known in the news biz. My father often cracks the joke that at his age he checks the obituaries first just to make sure he’s not in them!

After the arts section, the obits are the next section I read in the Times. The obituary section teaches many things and somehow makes me think of guardian angels—do we have someone watching us, recording our moves, registering our work for posterity? Anyway, I love to read about the lives that the editors have deemed we should know about it. Is it an artist? A diplomat to the former USSR? Is it a child movie star? Is it a WWII pin-up? Is it an inventor of a cultural icon? A former press aide to a former president????

Somehow, these obits are never morbid—they really do make me think about universality and the times in which we live. The writers at the Times write lengthy feature stories, and they editorialize a little bit. Will it be a bracing reappraisal, a catty assessment or a hagiography? Was the subject a success or a failure? Was he or she lucky or doomed? Older than I am, or younger? Did he or she know how to live? I shake out the pages. Tell me the secret of a good life! Those obits in the Times tell me so much!

While certainly the fans of the obits aren’t as zealous as the fans of the sports pages, there is every bit of emotion of a good game in there. Read some of them—there is tension, entertainment, tragedy and comic relief. No, it is not morbid! There is a natural gravity to the obituaries, I mean after all, observe the human condition—life has a way of ending. But the good ones always let me in a little bit more of that secret of a good life…

Within a few days of each other in April, two people died whom I would venture to say never met each other, but when you read the obits and consider their lives, both teach a great deal about the secret of life and the nature of height. One subject, a 98-year old woman, was very tall, about six feet. And the other subject, a 94-year old man who never surpassed four feet seven inches. I saw the woman at a meeting once, in the summer of 2000, in Washington, and never forgot her elegance, her posture, her very presence. The other subject, the short man, I have never met but I have seen him dozens and dozens of times…oh, I will let the suspense grow to the next paragraph!!

The man was named Meinhardt Raabe—don’t think too hard, you probably won’t recognize his name. But you all know him! You all know him for 13 seconds of uncredited screen time. In his first and only Hollywood feature film, Meinhardt sang the following lines:

As coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her.
And she’s not only merely dead,
She’s really most sincerely dead.

That’s it. Thirteen seconds of time in a beloved Hollywood classic (do I really have to name it? If so, you are banished to the un-pop culture world!) with his high-collared cloak and curly brimmed hat sung in a strange tone as he unfurled an outsize death certificate. Raabe announced to eternity that the Wicked Witch of the East was dead.

Of course it is always interesting to note the passing of the familiar and the strange (although Raabe must count as both!) but what stayed with me is how thoroughly interesting and inspiring the NYT obit about Menihardt Raabe’s life was. We know him for those 13 seconds, and the obit said that he repeated those seconds and bits of dialogue obligingly, “month in and month out for the next 70 years as a motivational speaker before school groups, Rotary Clubs, and Oz conventions.” What got me was the motivational speaker part. But after I read the obit, I wish I could have heard him speak.

From the obit I learned that “he did not hear the word dwarf or midget until he was a young adult….Growing up, he later said, he assumed there was no one else in the world like him.” In 1933 Mr. Raabe went to the World’s Fair in Chicago and saw a “Midget Village,” and soon became a barker at the fair. I learned that Mr. Raabe received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Wisconsin, and later an MBA. Mr. Raabe was turned down time and again for jobs—many prospective employers telling him someone so short couldn’t be successful. Raabe was a skilled aviator in World War II—who would have thought? Even after the Civil Air Patrol almost rejected him, he persevered and later was decorated. Eventually Mr. Raabe joined Oscar Mayer as a salesman and for 30 years he traveled the United States as “Little Oscar—the World’s Smallest Chef.” Mr. Raabe was married for sixty years to another veteran of a midget vaudeville act. I also learned that Mr. Raabe was on hand in 2007 “when a star collectively honoring the Munchkins was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”

There was so much more to this man’s life than those thirteen seconds we have seen over and over…

In 2000 I spent the summer in sultry Washington, D.C. on one of my NEH seminars. I loved seeing all I could, soaking in the museums, and going to almost anything open to the public I could find. One of the things I did one day was attend a public meeting of the National Council of Negro Women (you might wonder why, since I am neither of those demographic groups! But I had just done a civil rights era trip to Mississippi that June and was interested in all such interesting things as the organizations that formed to fight for civil rights) and the president of the organization was there, and while I did not know who she was at first, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by her presence. Tall, elegantly dressed with that gorgeous kind of church hat, probably in her 80s, I loved watching her as she presided over this meeting. I remember going back to look up on-line some things about her. Her name was Dorothy Height, and she had an impressive past.

When Ms. Height died this spring, the NYT obit writer called her “both the grande dame of the civil rights era and its unsung heroine.” The lesson continued: “One of the last living links to the social activism of the New Deal era, Ms. Height had a career in civil rights that spanned nearly 80 years, from anti-lynching protests in the early 1930s to the inauguration of President Obama in 2009. That the American social landscape looks as it does owes in no small part to her work.”

Now this is an obituary to sink your teeth into! A history lesson, yes, but so much more, and since I met her that one time a decade ago, I felt a little kinship, and certainly an enormous admiration for her. She founded many organizations, usually around the theme of women and civil rights, and the writer says we don’t know about her perhaps “because she was doubly marginalized, pushed offstage by women’s groups because of her race and by black groups because of her sex.”

But none of that seemed to stop her! While Mr. Raabe was marginalized because of his height, Ms. Height, had two targets, and neither of these people felt stifled and stilled by the social forces around them. Both of these people seemed to work quietly and firmly, getting ahead with energy and charisma and not taking no for an answer.

Ms. Height was born in 1912 in Virginia, suffered from asthma and was not expected to live past her teenage years. In high school she won an oratory contest (the all-white jury awarded her first prize) that gave her a four-year scholarship to college. She was enrolled at Barnard College in New York, but when she arrived, the dean turned her away. She could not enroll—Barnard had already met its quota for Negro students that year. Ms. Height got on a subway and went downtown and showed her letter and scholarship information to NYU. She was admitted at once.

Over the years Ms. Height directed the Harlem YWCA, and in 1946 she oversaw the desegregation of the facilities nationwide. She started numerous projects and programs in the Deep South, and on that historic day in August, 1963, Ms. Height sat on the platform an arm’s length from Dr. King as he delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech. (Just as an interesting note, only men addressed the crowd that day.)

In the 1980s Ms. Height inaugurated a series of “Black Family Reunions” urging the black community to maintain strong family ties and community ties. Hundreds of thousands of people attend them every year. By this point she had become awarded over and over (75 years after turning her away, Barnard designated Ms. Height an honorary graduate) with presidential medals and bling (Both Clinton and Bush awarded her the nation’s highest civilian awards). In 2009 she sat an arm’s length from Barack Obama as he was sworn into office as the President.

These two nonagenarians led such interesting lives. Both faced hardships and both lived gracious, successful, invigorating lives. Think of what they have seen in the 90+ years they graced our planet! I met one for an hour once, and I saw the other on television over and over, but what a lesson of how we pigeonhole people. I daresay it would be hard to sum up such compelling lives but we do it all the time. We reduce people and events and experiences to a sound bite, or maybe we even allow them a full 13 seconds…but think of the richness beyond those obvious flickers in time…

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dinner Bells

The other day one of those emails came when a friend asks a bevy of friends 25 random questions and you see their answers and everyone knows just a little more about each other…you have seen these surveys, I am sure. One of the frequently-asked questions demands one’s favorite smells. And you learn that your junior-high locker mate likes the aroma of fresh bread, or you learn that the woman in back of you at church melts under the scent of orange blossoms. A colleague has a jones-ing for the beauty of the smell of the beach. Well, on this survey I encountered a new question…what is a favorite sound of yours?

I thought about it, and it was actually a little harder than the more conventional “smell” query. What sounds do we like? Traffic? Church bells? The call to prayer? Children’s laughter? The clarinet? Applause? The crack of a bat at a baseball game?

I decided to be a little smart aleck, and I responded, “My favorite sound is the dinner bell.”

I’m sure once in awhile I have actually heard a dinner bell (I remember that Aunt Audrey had one at her house out on Cliff Road, and I loved clanging that thing, once in awhile stirring Uncle Russell to come in early even when the repast had not been finished) but the idea of a dinner bell, or certainly the notion of dinner is dear to my heart. And why not choose a sound that reminds me of meals and fellowship as a favorite sound??

Students were asking me what I planned to do for the summer and I said, “Talk and eat! What better way to spend the summer!”

So with the idea of a dinner bell in mind, I thought I would share some of the interesting meals I have had in the last week or so. While I don’t believe any of these meals began with the wonderful clanging of a bell, it is always there metaphorically for me, at least.

The end of a school year always creates interesting dinners. There are farewell parties, and galas, and gatherings both large and small to commemorate the (hopefully successful) conclusion of another year of toiling in the proverbial trenches. This year is certainly no different, and the variety of the meals, the many dishes, and the socializing and reminiscing all adds to the (dare I say it??) poetry of a dinner experience.

The first dinner about which I will relay is also the most, well, the most everything. It is the largest of these meals, the most over-the-top, just the most, the most, the most.

Along with a small handful of other teachers, I had been invited to a dinner on the evening of our first graduation at the Grand Hyatt hotel. I had some inkling that it was going to be a lavish affair since I knew what the tickets cost. But I had nooooo idea of the spectacle and splashy ambiance until after I arrived! The ticket had said the party/dinner began at 9:00, so I arrived with my two colleagues at 9:10—hoping that the buffet would open soon, Hey, it had been a long day, and I was hungry! When we arrived, no other guests were to be seen…okay, we were seated at Table #50, way, way, way back in the corner of the humongous ballroom for the party. There were at least 75, maybe more, staff on hand to tend to the guest list of 600 (remember—the graduating class was 84!). The centerpieces were sights unto themselves. I have seen entire gardens larger than the centerpieces! Well, I learned that Arabs were certainly never going to arrive on time for an event like this, that would be seen as gauche. Buffet? Not for a long way off! We contented ourselves with the bread sticks and the ranch dressing on the table. At about 9:45 the place began to fill up, but the mood was unlike any other graduation party I have attended. Mind you, I have over 20 years experience with graduation parties, and I have been to country clubs, and barbecues, marvelously catered, and more humble graduation parties, but this had a mood—especially once the laser lights kicked in, and the World Cup kinda mood set an otherworldly aura. Around 10:00 when the ballroom was pretty packed with families who must have all shopped on Rodeo Drive, an announcer introduced each graduate and the grads paraded in, arm-in-arm with another graduate and they sashayed on a runway with search lights and laser lights and Star Wars-esque music setting the tone. This looked like a scene from a Bollywood movie! Anyway, my colleagues and I had stayed up late the night before patrolling the hallways and gotten up early, and we were pooped. We agreed to leave at 11, and hoped the buffet would do some magic. Well, 11:00 rolled around, and there was no buffet yet, so we left the movie set and headed home, stopping at Chili Ways for our late-night supper. A bit more low-brow than we had anticipated! It was a history-making dinner dance and I am sure the graduates felt special.

The next day was a dinner like the kind I relish the most—a group of dear friends went to someone’s home and relaxed and talked and laughed and ate. The five deans from the Office of Student Life were invited to our friend Reem’s grandmother’s house. Reem is our most loved dean, and her “Tateh,” wanted to make us a Jordanian meal. As much as the five of us love each other, we can count on one hand (sadly) the number of times this year we have been off-campus together for dinner. One of us is always on duty! But we stole about 5 hours away from campus and enjoyed the kind of family meal that just does your soul good. We got to see some of Reem’s family, rejoice and relax in the company of treasured colleagues, and eat and eat and eat. We had the upside chicken dish that has these succulent onions, and we had a rice dish with pistachios and beef that taste the way a Grandma’s roast is supposed to melt in your mouth. And we had the pickled everything as the Arabs like to add, then we had subsequent courses with teas and desserts and coffees and fruits. Afterwards we sat in their garden, right under a lemon tree (by the way, even the leaves smelled of the heavenly scent) and enjoyed the perfect cool Jordanian evening.

Last Thursday I accepted an invitation to the Korean Ambassador to Jordan’s house. I just re-read that sentence. Yes, that is true. Little ole me, from Cincinnati, had an official invitation to a diplomat’s house. Pretty exciting circles I run in, eh what??! I will tell you why: the son of the Ambassador has lived on my hallway this year, about 12 feet from my apartment door, and the family invited a small group of KA people to their home. Oh, I do love a fancy meal too. There was a comfortable formality about everything, and right over there was the American Ambassador (his son is a friend of the other guy’s son) and his wife. This food was something—I knew it was going to be. Koreans know how to make beef sing! There were some Korean salads and this velvety grilled beef, and the lamb chops of your dreams. After a cocktail hour inside the residence, amidst some beautiful paintings from Korean artists, we repaired to the side yard, done up with tables and lights. Again, one of those desert evenings that has a serene magic. After dinner there were many toasts and tributes to our departing headmaster, the beloved Eric. One of my favorite moments came toward the end of the evening when the American Ambassador came up to Julianne, my table mate, and bashfully admitted he was a huge fan of her late grandfather, the very famous and very talented musician Tito Puente. It was delightful to see this formal, precise, important man show off his knowledge of her grandfather’s life and music, and it made a nice capstone to a beautiful evening at the embassy.

The next day was the Third Annual KA Lunch at the Khalayleh House. This family is one of the most marvelous of all of our families. They have seven sons, and while only one of them attends the school at the moment, we see them often, and over the years, we have come to know this family quite well. I have taught their son Abdullah every day for three years now, but from these luncheons every June (and by the way, they are always the magnificent, Jordanian feast kind of lunches, platters the size of your first car, and hospitality to soothe and delight) we have come to know these seven sons (ranging in age, I believe from 8 to 22) and that integrity, courtesy, enthusiasm, imagination and curiosity are hallmarks of all these sons. The family welcomes us (about 12 of us invited every June) to their home to thank us for a great year…from our arrival and the ensuing tea to the sitting and chatting and catching up with the sons, it is a beautiful afternoon!

Later that night I got a call from colleague Yasser—he was having an impromptu picnic on his porch and hoped I could come. While I had eaten an award-winning amount of lunch, one never dismisses an invitation from Yasser! He is a master of the grill, and makes a chicken that is lip-smackin’ and noteworthy burgers. Yasser is moving in a few days, a recipient of an extraordinary invitation to teach at a brand-new branch of NYU in Abu Dhabi. This was a final opportunity to while away the hours laughing and eating and answering his dinner bell.

The next day was a total day of relaxation (hmmm…I think so was the day before!) and Elizabeth and I had our final Dead Sea Spa Day of the year…dinner that night was in a spectacular setting, high above the Dead Sea on the cliffs at a place called the Dead Sea Panorama. Julianne had invited the deans (another chance to be together off-campus!) to honor Elizabeth’s year and salute her as she heads back for a new job in New York. We met at sunset, sat at a table right at the cliff’s edge, and then dived into the Jordanian mezze that we love…few times in life do you work with a group, a tight-knit group as fantastic and smart and hard-working as this group of deans…we had about 90 minutes to enjoy dinner before heading back to duty in the dorm.

And then…and then…and then…you get the picture of how this week has been. There have been meetings and work going on, but the best parts of the day are these dinners and these opportunities to reflect on the year, enjoy a confidence that we are getting some of this right, and a moment to thank the colleagues who give you the strength to keep the vision in place, and in view.

The next day was a department lunch with the crackerjack History and Social Studies Department to honor Yasser. There were toasts and tributes and the mezze and roasted meats that produce smiles and sighs.

That night Julianne and I went for a casual dinner together in Amman to try out a place that had been suggested as the best wings in Amman. We ordered three dozen wings and rolled up our sleeves to see how that assessment stood. As I made short work of the wings I couldn’t help but marvel at this friend of mine. Several words flashed across my brain as we ate outside laughing and pondering the year. Honor. Thrill. Privilege. Blessing. Treat. Each of these words is accurate to sum up how I have felt working for, and with, Julianne this year. It has been a challenging year, but why not roll up your sleeves for the challenges, and then the wings.

Tomorrow night—dinner with the headmaster and the deans, one last night, before the year draws to a close. It will be delightful. It will be more than a repast, it will be more than a tribute to the year. It will be what a dinner should be.

And so…back to sounds…there is a new sound on campus tonight…a sound that doesn’t occur very often…it is the sound of silence. Earlier today the students cleaned up their rooms and moved out for the summer. It has been since late August since we heard this sound. For a day or two it is beautiful, then the sounds of their silence will be unbearable as we look forward to a return and their return. Then the bells and whistles will begin all over again!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Last of the Firsts

Last week, exactly at the time I am writing this now, we began the very last of the firsts at this toddler-age school here in Jordan.

Last week right now, His Majesty landed at the helipad, he walked over and joined the procession of the entire school of faculty and students and we made a double-inversion gauntlet procession to kick off the first graduation of the first senior class at KA. It was an impressive graduation, formal and elegantt, with spectacle and sweep and remembrance. It must have looked effortless…

I sat on the Commencement Planning Committee—so I know otherwise that it was an effortless event. But like all things that look effortless, there was untold amount of wrangling and wondering and deciding and working. What an interesting series of meetings over the last six months…think of all the things that must be decided for a First Graduation: Where should the event be? What should the graduates wear? Will the King attend? Should we give out awards? What about speeches? What should the music be? How should we get everyone to the space? Who should be invited? Endless questions and decisions!

The group of 8 of us that comprised the committee (including two seniors) come from different backgrounds, and each adult seemed compelled to describe (over and over) how his or her own graduation had been, and of course, you want to impress upon the others the beauty of your own graduation and the need to replicate its best features. It was almost comical as we waded through the first important questions. We have a stadium on campus—should the graduation be there? Should we copy other schools’ graduations in Amman? Do we have the event in the morning with a Graduation Breakfast? Certainly not in the afternoon with the blazing sun overhead…we had discussions about how schools do it in Jordan, the United States, the UK, and South Africa. Here is how my girl’s Catholic school did it… Here is how my public high school in the mid-west did it… Here is how my prep school in New England did… Here is how my prep school in New York did it…

Then came the arguments about what to wear…robes or nice outfits? Oh, the wounded hearts over the prospect at not wearing graduation robes. Hackley and Deerfield eschew the graduation robes in favor of simple and tasteful white dresses for girls, and suits for the young men. Oh, the gasping for air when a couple of us floated that suggestion…then once we knew that robes were ordained by the gods, what should the material be and in what colors? We saw fabric samples over the next few months, and we tested the colors (the school colors are actually several, a kind of khaki (which can come out mustard) and red and blue and gold (which can look even more mustard-y than the Dijon-esque khaki). Decisions…decisions…

It was decided that the lawn behind the Administration Building would be an excellent place, a more intimate place than the stadium—but for how many people? If there were 84 graduates, how many guests would/should come? Who had the vision to imagine how many chairs could be set up on that lawn? How would we bring in the graduates? Eventually, about 1500 outside guests would be there last week on the sunny late afternoon.

My favorite debate was about the procession and whether the King would march in the long double-inversion promenade. “The King cannot wait!” ran one argument, while another countered, “But I know the King wants to march!”” That little debate was just the funniest…(so you know, he enthusiastically marched the whole way, waiting as the entire upper school and faculty marched and he applauded for every single person…and then after the graduation he stayed longer than expected at the reception so the beloved monarch could meet with the ecstatic families. Eventually he took off in the helicopter, happily waving to the crowd below.)

So as the weeks sped by, the decisions whittled down…and schedules got made. Glimmers of all of our most beloved features of graduations past would find their way into this first one at our school. The King eagerly accepted the invitation, and he would bring royal bagpipers and a royal orchestra as well. The seniors would sing a newly-minted evensong that called on the school mascot of the Lion (the words “roar” and “purr” both appear in the lyrics!). And there would be a formal Senior Dinner the night before for graduates and parents—awards would be presented there from departments and in honor of graduates who best exemplify the “five guiding principles” of the school. And there would be a breakfast the following morning at the headmaster’s house before the formal graduation festivities in the late afternoon.

Graduation Day for most teachers is a bittersweet affair—it is surely welcome since our summer vacations are just around the corner, but of course, it also contains the hardest part of being a teacher—saying good-bye to beloved students.

I was the Dean of the Senior Class this year, but as the year wound down, I felt less a sense of loss and more a sense of relief that we had weathered the year. After all, this was a senior class that witnessed no model of seniors before them here—this group had been the oldest grade three times, since they were the 10th graders when the school opened with 9th and 10th graders. Of course, that will never happen again, but as the oldest three times, and without older models, their growth was a little stunted. They never quite elevated themselves as senior classes do. One of the exciting things in a high school is watching the juniors become seniors and seeing that elevation, an emotional and psychological elevation and compulsion toward leadership, toward maturity, toward polishing all the skills they have as they propel themselves toward university. It was not the fault of the seniors entirely, it is just the nature of being the first graduating class.

Anyway, as the procession began, Julianne and I led the senior class through the inversion, past His Majesty, and in front of the sea of happy faces enthralled at the pomp and ceremony of our first graduation. Alia read the names beautifully—this is not an easy job—so that each name sounded like an angel granted the diploma. The senior then ascended the steps to the dais and shook the hands of our headmaster and His Majesty. Each graduate then walked around the perimeter of the audience and back into place. All to thunderous applause.

While I was not as emotional a wreck as I often am on Graduation Day, I couldn’t help but get choked up yet again over the abstraction of graduation. Here was a group of young people, full of the excitement of newly minted diplomas and hats in the air, off to exciting destinations around the world. About 70% of the class is attending university in the United States, with a bunch also in the UK, and some in Canada, and a group around the Middle East. Even with the frustration fomented by some of these adolescents, there is a beauty and promise in every graduation. They are not only linked to other graduations I treasure—at my former schools in North Carolina and New York, but of course, my own, a zillion years ago at the Coliseum in Cincinnati. There is a breathtaking beauty and poignance in watching a graduate clutch that little piece of paper that professes that they are ready to take on the next stage of the world.

What will these graduates see in their lifetimes? What are they able to do and access because of this school? Because of these friends? What heartaches will they know? How will they manage those heartaches? How will they take advantage of the technology in the world and keep connected?

I started out the day mostly experiencing, as I said, relief. But then I thought of the words of the poet Wendell Berry, and another feeling consumed me. Berry wrote a poem called, “The Peace of Wild Things,” which I will copy here:

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

--Wendell Berry

The poem touches on what it is to be human, to know despair and fear and doubt. These graduates will certainly encounter these emotions over the years, but the poem reminds us that we must seek solace and resolution. The speaker heads into nature and finds a peace. The line “I come into the peace of wild things…” and I think back to 200-odd blog entries ago when I wrote that some of the faculty looked at these new students at this new school, and we saw “wild dogs.” We joked in those early weeks that our students just felt a little raw, a little untrained…and like one man said, “they remind me of wild dogs.”

Here we were last week—in front of hundreds of attendants, with a proud monarch beaming over the graduates who are off to a stunning assortment of universities, many ivy league universities and other top-tier universities, and I found a peace in the midst of these formerly “wild things.”

Graduation is many things, certainly a time for parties and throwing of hats, and also that solace and resolution and peace. When I came to this place, this nature, this desert, this land of hot sun and stubbly earth, I wondered if I would find solace and resolution. I looked at the faces of the graduates, so untaxed by the grief and despair that will visit them from time to time, and while the bagpipes played, I enjoyed the echoes of grace.