Monday, August 30, 2010

Well, maybe next year…

It is just after midnight, and by the end of the next 24 hours I will be on the plane flying back to Jordan to begin year four of this chapter of my life at KA. This day was the usual mish-mash of doing a million things, trying to see and enjoy as much of summer life, and American life, and Cincinnati life as I could.

In between categories on the Emmy Awards tonight I worked at packing up all the things (files, books, new clothes, American food products) for the suitcases for tomorrow’s flights. And as usual, there were some regrets about not cleaning more this summer.

Every time I come home, I envision devoting a couple hours a day to really cleaning and going through things in my old bedroom and my storage unit in Cincinnati. If you read the above paragraphs, you might get the idea that those expectations never are met. And so there is always a tinge of regret that I just didn’t take the cleaning seriously enough. In my defense, though, you should know that in the last week, I did spend about 8 hours going through some files from the storage unit, but still there is a residue of regret.

Maybe it’s the midnight hour, but those thoughts of regret remind me of one of the joys of the summer of 2010: Bernadette Peters’ performance in A Little Night Music on Broadway. I was there for her first performance of the replacement cast, Ms. Peters, along with 85-year old Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. I became a convert to Bernadette Peters’ charisma in December, 1985 when I saw her in Song and Dance (and maybe sometime I will tell you the story of how I ended up going to her dressing room that evening and actually meeting her…well maybe now is the time…I was with my college friend Sarah, who knew all the doormen at the Broadway theaters. We went to the stage door to meet one of her dancer friends in the show, and the doorman asked us if we wanted to meet Ms. Peters. Sarah declined, but I quickly interjected, “I would,” and so this man took me to her dressing room. She was gracious. I was a bit star-struck and incoherent.)

Part of what was thrilling that night in July was enjoying the audience reaction to these two stars in A Little Night Music. Each time one of these actresses appeared you could feel the love of the crowd for these veterans. You might be wondering how any of this relates to the “regret” I mentioned earlier…Okay: in the last verse of her quietly heart-breaking rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s anthem of regret, “Send in the Clowns,” Bernadette Peters asks us to ponder with her the cruelty of missed opportunity. “Isn’t it rich?” she asks as the actress Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, her sarcasm dampened by deep sorrow at the realization that in life and love, timing is everything.

This is one of those songs that is overplayed in our pop culture, and so it can become tedious. But in the hands of a master interpreter, like Ms. Peters, it is revelatory and allows you to reflect on the regrets of your own life and, well, maybe through all of history! One of the famous lines of the song sighs, “Well, maybe next year…”

So yeah, I have a hint of regret over not getting more cleaning accomplished this summer, but regret in August is simply not one of things in which most teachers indulge. Indeed, as I set about packing tonight, my quickly-vanishing regrets-over-not-organizing some-piles-a-bit-more pale in comparison to that heady August feeling most teachers feel about returning to the classroom. While there certainly will likely be some Desiree Armfeldt expressions of “Well, maybe next year…” for every teacher in every June, this is the time for unbridled enthusiasm about the coming year.

As August ripens into September we teachers get a little intoxicated with the possibilities of the year…the possibilities, the opportunities, the blank slates of it all—this will be the year it all works! Attendance! Relationships! Curriculum! Mentoring! Accreditation! Apathy! Success! It is like New Year’s Eve for teachers as we await the beginning of the new school year, the perfect year in our minds!

Ahhhh…I am savoring this feeling I get every year at this time…

So while I was doing a wee bit of cleaning yesterday in that bedroom upstairs (see? I did do a little work around all the fun visiting of the summer!) I came upon my diploma from Brown University. It has stood on a bookshelf for a long, long time, but I picked up the diploma perhaps because I realized it had been 20 years since I received my master’s degree from Brown. I opened it up—yep my name is still there with all the Latin explaining that I had an AM (again, because of Latin) in European History. I looked at the seal of the university and the motto beneath the seal. In Latin, the motto reads: “In Deo Speramus.” At Brown one of the disasters-of-courses I took involved studying medieval documents in Latin. My paltry Latin knowledge wasn’t enough to soar in that class. But this Latin I could do! “In Deo Speramus.” Those words do not mean in God we trust. Those words do not mean in God we believe. Those words mean in God we hope.

That’s it—that’s my stock in trade as a teacher in August! It is not a giddiness over grading (my, my, no, no, no) or a naivete about how some relationships will sour, or an immaturity about how a perfect accreditation report or lesson plan signals perfection in teaching, no it is that feeling/vibe/mindset that hope will activate us, energize us, and set us off down that urgent path to train and inspire our young charges.

Hope. Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to hope, does it? And certainly in a world where hopes are dashed so easily or ideals tarnished or discarded, it seems a remnant of an earlier, quainter era. But we never regret hope, do we?

Emily Dickinson once wrote that, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Feathers. Flight. Soaring. Planes. Airport. Tomorrow. Return to Jordan. No Regrets. Hope for the New Year.

In a nice bit of serendipity, the scripture in church this morning was from Jeremiah 29:11 that reminds us about the future and that God’s plans “give hope.”

The funny thing about my experience at Brown was that it showed me clearly that the college world was not my destination. And it wasn’t timing or missed opportunities, it was the actual revelation that I belong in secondary education. At the time I clutched that diploma for the first time, of course I had no idea where the next 20 years would take me. At the time I focused on my upcoming trip to the USSR and Baltic States with the Brown Chorus and an upcoming visit to cousin Susan in San Diego. But I had a new job coming up that fall, in Charlotte, and I knew, I knew that that was the place for me. I sailed on that hope that summer.

While Desiree Armfeldt is consumed with the mistakes she has made and finds cold comfort in her web of regret. “In Deo Speramus” can not be next year. No, it’s today.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Happy 90th to the 19th!

Tomorrow, August 26th, is the official 90th birthday of the 19th constitutional amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing the extension of suffrage to women. You may have seen other articles trumpeting this fact in the last week, but tomorrow is the day that it actually became an official part of the Constitution. But getting the right day is not the important thing for me. Highlighting this turning point in history allows us to think about some of the joys and frustrations of studying history in general. Whether or not one “celebrates” this day on August 18 or August 26, or just in 2010 is not the point. One of the poor ways many teachers teach history is through the “done-deal” approach of history. “All right everyone, in 1920 women secured the right to vote. It is called the 19th amendment. It will be on the quiz on Friday.” ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!!! While those facts are very pretty on the proverbial shelf (and correct) we need to take these dates off the shelf and remember the mess of how this fact got born. It’s like teaching about World War I and announcing to class, “Okay, boys and girls, remember that World War I began in 1914 and then concluded in 1918. Now we know everything about the war!” I have seen some history classes nearly that pat about the past.

Remembering this particular moment in history allows us to marvel at the 70+ year slog towards this moment when a female U.S. citizen could cast a vote in a federal election. It is a reminder of the frustrations that mount as supporters pursue something that seems to us today so mainstream and logical. In 1848 a little over 100 representatives gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss how to press lawmakers for an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee women the right to vote. What else do you wonder about this meeting besides the place and the date? Who attended? Did any men attend? (Actually nearly 40 men attended) Did they argue? How did the press cover this event? Did lawmakers feel a sense of urgency about this? How come it took so long? And we’re just getting started at the wondering about the rocky road to the 19th amendment! It was a slog. It was frustrating. It probably felt as if it would never happen.

Over those 70+ years there were 277 referendum campaigns for states to include women in the enfranchisement. And that was after hundreds of campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments. For 19 successive Congresses there were campaigns every session to secure this right.

It seems the U.S. Senate was the roadblock for several generations. So the women’s rights supporters went state by state, through all 48 states eventually, to amend state constitutions to allow women to vote in state elections. The redoubtable Susan B. Anthony spent months and months in South Dakota alone, urging the men in this new state to extend the right to vote to their womenfolk. Finally they voted in favor of this bill. Anthony rejoiced, declaring, “It’s coming sooner than most people think!” She pronounced this in 1895, just 25 years before it finally became the law of the land.

Finally in the summer of 1920 it was winding down to just a few state assemblies left to vote. There are stories of some representatives who left hospital beds for the chance to cast their vote supporting women’s suffrage. By August it came down to one state left to decide, the state of Tennessee. It all hung in the balance with the vote of Tennessee. Supporters knew it was going to be close—they figured they had one vote in the margin of support. But then one Tennessee lawmaker up and changed his mind, changed his yes to a no! If you go back and look at the editorials of the day, most men who opposed the amendment did so because they worried what women would do with the vote.

On the day of the vote, August 18th, one of the Tennessee men who had announced he would vote no changed his mind. The story goes that his mother told him “to be a good boy” and vote so women could vote. Twenty-something state assemblyman Harry Burn cast the deciding vote in support and announced publicly, “I know that a mother’s advice is always the safest for a boy to follow” switching sides. How interesting how narrowly this amendment passed, how so many people still voted against it. It would be intriguing to learn more about Mrs. Burn and if she had been a suffragette, or just had an eye toward the arc of history. What happened to young Harry Burns’ career? Don’t forget that this is Tennessee, and just five later a young twenty-something teacher named John Scopes would be fired for teaching his biology class about scientific evolution.

Anyway, I celebrate the 19th amendment tomorrow not just as a marker on the path toward voter freedom in the United States, but as a reminder of how to dig into history, and marvel at how messy History is. There are so many voices to hear, all clamoring to point the way toward progress and stability and truth, and facts that eventually seem so simple were born out of a process that would have been frustrating and probably frightening. I like to think of my grandmothers, the amazing Martha and Alta—both born in the first decade of the 20th century. Imagine that as little girls they did not probably entertain the prospect that they might vote, could be an actual citizen in the USA and CHOOSE the leaders to guide the country. But with the passage of this 19th amendment this all changed. As soon as they turned 21, young Alta and Martha could cast votes equal with the votes of male citizens.

I will be having breakfast tomorrow with a family friend named Edna, born in 1917. By most standards Edna is old (albeit a very healthy and peripatetic nonagenarian) but not so old that she was born within the confines of the 19th amendment. When she was born (in the same year as Leonard Bernstein and John F. Kennedy) that push for women’s rights had still not yet secured that right to vote. Maybe I will ask Edna when she first voted and if she was excited by that prospect to help America tick.

This may be in the category of “does it really fit the topic?” but on Monday as my father and sister and I played the game “Apples to Apples” with nephew Jack and niece Emma, the category was “Elderly.” You have to put down a word/phrase card from your hand with the hope that your word/phrase choice is the winning choice the leader might select. The leader then reads the choices aloud and goes through the selection/evaluation process. One card seemed a little strange for the choice. Jack had put down the card with the word, “Flag.” When we asked him why that had been his choice, he said logically: “Simple. Betty White made the first flag and she’s old!” Betty White is indeed old, and she is ubiquitous! But as a history teacher, it does remind us how many facts are out there in the History Jungle, and how confusing that mess is!

Monday, August 23, 2010


From where I am sitting right now, at the kitchen table in the home where I grew up in Cincinnati, I very plainly can see some cracks in the fading ivory paint on the doorway that leads to the living room. And on both sides of the posts of this home that my mother and father lovingly restored in the early 1960s are visible pencil markings. Since my father never thought of selling this house he wasn’t terribly interested in how these pencil markings would affect the re-sale value of the house. And although my mother, in her heyday, was an inveterate cleaner, she never attempted to wipe these very visible marks off these posts. If you stare closely, you notice the writing beside the horizontal scrawls. They denote birthdays. On the left post are markings with the birthday of October 4, and on the right post markings with the birthday of October 30. Every year on our respective birthdays, October 4 and October 30, my sister and I would stand and get measured at the post, and the thick pencil marking would denote our height at that moment in our lives. I think the markings began around 1972 and continued up until the mid-1980s when both of us were out of high school and into college. As I stare at the left post the biggest spread comes between ages 12 and 13; uh-oh, the difference between ages 13 and 14 is the greatest! Did I really grow that much in one year? We walk by these posts all the time when we are in this house at 2460 Montana and it is one of my favorite features of the house. These markings on our birthday become a concrete and sentimental way to mark the passage of time and the changes in our lives. Since it is in a doorway, the traditional post-and-lintel way of supporting a structure, it is also a metaphor of how we have supported our family over the years (or maybe vice versa). We families do it all the time—we use different things, different ways to commemorate the passages of time and reflect on the changes in our lives.

Yes, I am still on summer vacation! This has been the longest summer vacation I have enjoyed in four years (I am not complaining!). In 2007 I went back to school on July 30th, and in 2008 and 2009 I left around August 14. This year is longer because the officials at KA decided that we should try and start school after the holy month of Ramadan since it would afford families a better way to celebrate the fasts and iftars (breaking of the fast) without the nuisance of school. So I will go back to Jordan a week from right now. I will have two weeks to work with the new teachers coming to KA (cue the excitement and the nervousness akin to what I felt three years ago!) Then the students will come for orientation and the school year will finally get underway. But before I head back to Jordan and get back in the routines and structures of school life, it is time to end my summer vacation from the blog.

A few weeks ago I came back from a trip with my family where I was literally with them for 24 hours a day for seven days…hence the blog entry title of 24/7…Now I am not going to spend much time on such commonplace observations such as, “Can you believe six people really spent 24 hours a day for seven days? What would you do? Is that a vacation? What happens to a family on a trip like that???” It was what you would imagine. It was marvelous. It was close quarters. It was exceptionally planned (by my sister). It was hot. Occasionally it was tense. It was magical. It was memorable. There. See—you thought you would read an invective of “Can you believe he/she did this all week?????”

So for 24 hours a day for seven days we communed in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. (Now do you see why I noted the heat? August in Florida??? Yes, it was hot and humid. ‘Nuff said.)

This was not our first time to enjoy the luxuries of Disney World. Oh, no. Since my sister “re-discovered” Disney World in 2004, lo just a few years ago, we have been there…ahem…five times! She loves it. We love it. I went to Disney World once as a child, at age 9, and I did not go again until age 39. But this year, as we packed up again for our seven days at the Polynesian (my sister loves that property so much, we have stayed there each of the five times at Disney since 2004. They practically know her by name—yes ma’am, we will try and accommodate you in the Fiji building!.) I became a bit more reflective about these trips to Disney World. Since we have gone there in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and now 2010, these trips have become like the pencil markings on the post in our family kitchen. (Well, more expensive pencil markings.) These trips to Disney, in retrospect at least, offer us a chance to think about the changes in our lives, both personally, and as a family.

In 2004, our first trip, Jack and Emma were younger, obviously. Jack was just about 26 months and Emma was about to turn 6. She was in full-blown princess mode (meaning the Disney princesses). Steve and I were very settled in our professions—he having been at his company for 15 successful years, and I having been at Hackley in New York for 8 years. As I look back on it, 2004 was a year for me of being very settled and comfortable. I had been department head for six years, my routine in New York was well-established, I conducted exciting trips abroad with students (that spring a memorable one to Vietnam), I had stumbled into the AP Art History that had become such an exciting course, and I had just graduated a senior class that had been at the cutting edge of all the changes I had made in the history curriculum for the previous five years. Truth be told, I had recently confessed to a friend’s wife that I had actually met all the goals I had set for my tenure at Hackley. I had just come back from a trip out west with my veteran and dear travel companions Anne and Diane (imagine a summer with both Las Vegas and Disney World!! Jeez! What a summer of kitschy extravaganzas!). Jack did not speak in many full sentences yet, although he delighted in telling people that “Snow White kissed me on the forehead!” Emma’s priceless expression as we entered Main Street USA on that first day as she beheld Cinderella’s castle made the entire trip worthwhile. “It’s real,” she sighed, and her eyes sparkled. Our mother and father did not come on this trip. My mother’s MS had progressed so that traveling was simply too hard. We never considered that we should all 7 go. The MS did not claim her humor or her spunk, but the MS did win over traveling. But Elizabeth made sure they did not totally miss out: we took hundreds of pictures and I narrated a video of our discoveries for them to see. Elizabeth also purchased mouse ears for everyone in the family and when we returned home we took a great family photo of all 7 of us with Mickey Mouse ears and huge smiles. We reminisced about our trip in the 1970s as a family and compared the changes we had seen that summer since our 70s childhood visit. We knew we would go back to Disney World, but since it had taken us 30 years to return we had no idea when.

By the time we made our return trip, two summers later, in 2006, more had changed than just the height and verbal abilities of Emma and Jack. For those in the know, 2005 was the year when (how does one describe it in a phrase?) some student bad behavior altered my status at Hackley and I was not exactly on top of the world anymore. But much more importantly, about two months before our return trip to Disney World in 2006, our mother had passed away, and we all were still affected by that loss. We asked our father to join us, but he demurred. I suppose it would only have served to remind us all why he had been able to join us. So this trip was one in which we looked at the trip and reflected on how my mother would have commented on it, how she would have been moved by the creativity and beauty of the parks, and how her grandchildren enjoyed the spectacle and wonder of the attractions.

Lo and behold we returned the next summer and two things stand out for us on the 2007 odyssey to Disney: my father joined us and I was about to move to Jordan a week after the trip. We enjoyed hearing our father’s impressions of the Disney beast and how it had grown and morphed since the 1970s and we looked for as many benches as possible, his favorite ride as we have joked. Underlying the trip for me at least, was this nervous bubble that I was about to move to Jordan. Just a month before we had packed everything up in New York, put 90% of my life in storage in Cincinnati, and I was about to set out for the Middle Eastern unknown. Jack was 5 and Emma almost 9, and a perfect age to enjoy all of the Disney narratives.

Since you have found the blog, you have dozens upon dozens of entries commenting on how that move went to Jordan in 2007! In the middle of my second year in Jordan we found ourselves with a longer December break than usual (a reflection of the Muslim holidays and how they move with the moon). We decided to take advantage of that long break and headed to Disney World at a non-hot, non-humid time of the year, in December, 2008. It was such an exciting change to see what they do for the Christmas holidays in what they call “the happiest place on earth,” with the incredible decorations. The six of us went—no one new this time, and it was a time of almost solace for our family.

So this time, August 2010, we are back again at the Polynesian. Emma is nearly 12, and decidedly in the full flowering of tween-dom. Jack is saying things like, “But we have to preserve her dignity,” which is more articulate than in 2004! None of us has a major move impending, but the children are on the cusp of major changes in their lives (Emma has already made those great leaps in height that would cause a major yawn on the post in our kitchen!). Since nothing was incredibly new to us, and since we are old-hands at the rides and everything there, I spent time marveling at the creative power of the Disney authorities. The rides and attractions are breathtaking, and their greatness rests in their narrative power. The rides, or at least the ones we visited, are not just thrill-seeking, speedy amusement park rides. They are testaments to the narratives of the stories Disney has peddled these 80-some years. Everything from the Peter Pan ride in Magic Kingdom to Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom to Toy Story 3 in Hollywood Studios, it is about the details of taking the participant through a story, checking the details, infusing it with the wonder of a great journey and the thrill of discovery. I have nothing but praise for the parks. The hotels and food are expensive, sure, but those parks are a testament to ingenuity and wonder. One of my favorite attractions was in Disney Quest, off the beaten track, where you can design your own roller-coaster and then ride in a simulator taking you on your very own ride. Eight-year old Jack chose the highest level of “thrills and speed” and he very carefully worked on the design and then got to enjoy a simulation of his own invention. That is a far cry from Jack's excitement over the Dumbo Ride in 2004. But really, I guess it is not. In 2004, Dumbo was full of discovery and smiles and excitement for a two-year old..

Our family can mark the passage and maturation of the discoveries and insights through our trips to the Disney capitalist machine. As we left, I wondered, where will we be at the next time we visit? It is inevitable now that there will be a next time. But how long away? How tall will Emma and Jack be? Will I still be in Jordan? Where will I live? What will I do? How will the teen years affect the family? Will the bench warmer be up for climbing the 10 stories up to the inner-tube slide as he did so gamely this summer? What will we be thinking about? Worrying about? Loving? What will cause us wonder?

Well, for right now, I will focus on my last week of summer. Enjoying the family and looking toward getting on the plane a week from right now and beginning year four in Jordan.