Sunday, October 31, 2010

Postcard from Kathmandu

Teachers get to go to conferences once in a while, and depending on the school, and the location, sometimes the conferences are in exciting locales. At my first school, for example, in Gastonia, North Carolina, several of us piled into a car at dawn to drive down to Columbia, South Carolina for a day-long AP conference. At my next school, in Charlotte, I attended a great week-long conference in Vermont during July. That was nice…and then from Hackley, I went back to Vermont again (and again…the conference site also hosted a culinary school in the summer!) and also went to San Diego for a conference! Well…last week I attended the Fall Leadership Conference for NESA (Near East South Asia International Schools) in…wait for it…Kathmandu. I have stepped up in the world since that little day-trip down to Columbia.

But going to conferences is never easy during the school year—in fact, it is just plain hard to be absent; there are too many duties and well, you know, my life in middle management is just so hectic, it is often easiest to just stay put. But I attended this conference last year in Athens, really enjoyed the speakers, and well, it is excitin’ for this boy of the Midwest to end up at the base of the Himalayas (I will get this out right now, for those of you who read the blog aloud—wait, seriously, did I just think someone would read the blog aloud? I just hope a few treasured friends and family keep up a little—oh, back to my point—I have learned from my very sophisticated friends that the way we pronounce Himalayas is rather gauche. Hit the ‘al’ part like the word ‘all’ and put the stress on that and not that the ‘lay’ part. I would hate for any of you to ever be embarrassed by how you mis-pronounced this important mountain chain!) As it turns out, no one wanted to teach my AP Art History class (although they missed good lessons on Hellenistic Art and the Etruscans!), so my friend Gary (I know I keep promising his own showcased blog) suggested that he film me teaching him the art and he would show it in class. Okay! Finally, I will be a film star—please keep the close-up on me a little, Mr. DeMille, and not just on the gorgeous turbulence of Hellenistic art.

All the planning is taken care of, and I realize that for this conference in Kathmandu I have three full-time jobs: attend the conference and grow as a school leader; strengthen the bonds with the three women with whom I will be touring Kathmandu; and write the nearly 60 comments for the fall report cards for my students. Those comments are due the day I am back, and I then have 500 comments from my department to read so they must be done. Okay. Three full-time jobs…I am a multi-tasker, and I will make a schedule. And I will do all three of the full-time jobs.

Of course the blog readers are most interested in the Kathmandu part…the wait-where-is-that-exactly-?? part. At my sit-down lunch table the day before I left I announced I was going to Nepal for a conference and one student asked, “Isn’t that in Italy?” Before I corrected him, I said, “I think I know why you said that! Italy has a city called Naples, and I am going to Nepal.” How many of you thought it was in Italy? Okay. Quick geography lesson Nepal is at the base of the Himalayas (did you pronounce it correctly??) sandwiched in between India to the southwest and Tibet China to the Northeast. Given that it is in the valley of the highest mountain range on earth, I will be going to the Top of the World (you know I have to cue the 1970s Karen Carpenter tune…).

I am travelling with some formidable powers that be: Dana, Deputy Headmaster and head of the finance at KA, Ola, the Operations Manager for everything at the school, and Sheena, Deputy Headmaster as well, and Dean of the Faculty. And little ole me. One of the great promises of a conference with colleagues is a chance to bond with them in new ways, whether it is sitting through a long layover, laughing over some old piece of business, seeing a new site, exploring a new country, trying a new food, or feeling inspired by a speaker. Those were my hopes for that full-time job as we set for the airport.

We flew from Amman to Doha (oh, my…talk about hot!) and then had a six-hour wait before we boarded for Kathmandu. When we landed in the morning at Kathmandu, we aimed to spend that pre-conference day discovering the city and seeing what this country was about. In our 20-minute drive from the airport we got a sense as to this city. I knew poverty was a wet blanket on Nepal, so I was not surprised to see it so graphically in the drive. But in the next few hours as we meandered through the shopping district, looked for lunch, got a feel for the goods and services available (oh, don’t go to Nepal hoping for high-speed internet access or cell phone coverage) and saw each other in action in the realm of haggling, we did more than just drink in the warm sunshine. We drank in the beauty of the pashminas and the Buddhist painted banners and we were amazed at the number of trekkers in Kathmandu (duh…we are at the base of the Himalayas; again, have you gotten the correct pronunciation??). We also kept trying to figure out the time…from the airport to the hotel to every clock we saw, we surmised that Nepal is 2:45 minutes off from Amman. What? Not three hours?? But two and three-quarters?? Can they do that??? Very strange…

But the afternoon was wonderfully relaxing as we tried to connect the dots as to what we saw in Kathmandu. We walked about a half hour to the tourist shopping district (these women are fierce bargainers…again, with the duh…duh…they run the school! But I swear I saw some merchants crying over these transactions!) and saw the Royal Palace (more on the politics later) and finally found a restaurant a merchant had recommended (we promised to patronize his shop after lunch—sucker!) and we laughed and enjoyed a long leisurely late lunch at a place called Anatolia, a hole-in-the-wall gem (wait, every restaurant we saw was a hole-in-the-wall—we knocked at a place called Taj Mahal, and they opened and said, “Not open today. Come back tomorrow.” Anatolia specializes in Indian, Turkish, Tibetan, Chinese, and French cuisine. We picked out a banquet and took care of the bonding part of the trip. As always happens, you see each away from a desk, or away from an impending disaster, and the beautiful human elements stand in high relief to the mundane matters of an institution. I felt grateful to travel and visit with these colleagues. Oh, even the name of our hotel gave rise to good laughs—we will be staying at the Yak and Yeti Hotel!! Yakkety, yak…don’t talk back…oh, a deficit of sleep and a tummy full of food will make that joke funny again and again…

I spent a chunk of the evening beginning the comments so that I could do my other full-time job of conferencing tomorrow. Well, yes, I did work on the comments for a couple of hours, but I spent time in the evening in the hotel spa and became instant good friends with Raji, the guy at the desk running the spa. In between trips in the steam room, I learned a great deal about Nepal from him.

It seems we came to Nepal at a very auspicious time, at the tail end of a fortnight holiday known as Dashain. Raji and Buzzybashar (that is a transliteration of how his name sounded to me) explained that about 80% of Nepal is Hindu, and Dashain is a big, big festival honoring the Goddess Durga who showers her people with prosperity. It is two weeks long in which family members try very hard to travel and visit each other, buy gifts, especially new clothes, enjoy big meals, and get the vermilion-powder mark of Durga’s blessings on the forehead (it looks like a neon-orange-colored Ash Wednesday mark). The guys also grumbled and groused about how the prices were jacked up for the holiday season and that the heavy rains created such mud that the new clothes got dirty. I spoke with them on and off for about two hours, enjoying their kindness and learning of the holiday. “It is like your Christmas,” BB said, “and we try and forget all the feuds and quarrels.” They explained to me the elaborate public dances and animal sacrifices in honor of Durga, who in a victory (against whom I didn’t get quite understand) saved the world from the evil forces.

The following morning we four piled into a taxi about the size of my dining room table—seriously, it was sooooo tiny; oh well, we drove over to the Hyatt for the opening of the conference. I will discuss the conference in another postcard, so I will fill in a few more details about Kathmandu. That afternoon, in between the speakers and the evening cocktail party, we walked around the beautiful hotel gardens, out the back gate, and down a lane to the Baudu Stupa, a Buddhist shrine. I believe about 10% of Nepal is Buddhist, and there are several important shrines in the area. A stupa is a bell-shaped, pyramidal structure, made of earth, or stone, and holds sacred relics. When we arrived we saw a large contingent of pilgrims there, regular folks, and monks and tourists, all circumambulating around the stupa (it must be clockwise) and spinning the prayer wheels as they reverently sought protection and guidance. For the Buddhists it is a carefully calculated understanding of the cosmos as envisioned by Buddha. We joined in the walk after a bit, and at sunset it was a striking thing.

The following day, as much as I pondered the helicopter ride up into the mountain range (we know how to pronounce it, do we not?) I decided I needed to work on the student comments during the conference break. After a couple hours of mad typing and adjective spewing, I went back to the spa, and found my friends from the day before. They urged me to go and visit this Hindu temple nearby. In fact, they said they would take me after their shift. A little later I am on my way to Pasupati, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. I was not allowed to go into the temple, but I was able to stand a little bit away and witness the live cremation of bodies on funeral pyres. Oh, my. My guys explained different things to me so I would understand the significance. The pyres were built of wood and the bodies were wrapped in white cloth for purity and burned in 7 different pyres, historically representing the 7 levels of the caste system. The ashes and any remaining body parts were then ceremoniously tossed into the river along with flowers. The Bagmati River eventually flows into the sacred Ganges, so it is certainly a sacred rite in Nepal. Not your average evening…But then I needed to get back and write a few more comments.

Along the same lines, it is October 31, and while many will celebrate Halloween today, I always have college recommendations due on November 1 and I have a couple more to go…I will write another postcard tomorrow evening to conclude my trip to Kathmandu.

You know, for a boy from the Midwest, I have also travelled to Disney World a few times, and one of the newest attractions is a roller-coaster ride called Expedition Everest. I gotta say, having been on that a couple of times, the Disney people sure do their homework well. The set-up and landscaping of that ride looks an awful lot like Nepal!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Gastronomic News!

I know, this is not really a blog entry, but a promise that my postcard from Kathmandu is forthcoming. I have 9 college recommendations to write in the next 48 hours, but the postcard from the conference is coming.

But, but, did I tell you?! We now have bagels with cream cheese once a week in the dining, my what little morsels of civilization will do for ya! They are started at a bakery in Amman but baked on campus, and the bagels are fresh and good, and the cream cheese reminds me of how GIs in WWII began to feel that the war was waged so that everyone could have the freedom to have Coca-Cola...

bagels and cream cheese...almost as fun as walking across the street to Barzini's and getting a bagel and walking down Broadway in Manhattan...

Ahhhhh...okay...back to grading and recommendations...

Postcard on its way!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

October Woes

Margot remembered again!

Margot Robinson is one of those great souls who cross your life’s path for a short period of time, but fortunately she is never that far away. Margot was a “Junior Fellow” the first year of the KA project. Margot had just graduated from Deerfield the previous June, and she ventured to Jordan for a “gap year,” to work as a kind of prefect/proctor/indentured servant in our lovely new world. Margot and I worked together for a brief spell doing some drama work, but all year, she was just a joy to know.

In that first fall at KA, we talked one day about what we missed the very most from home. It’s an interesting question: and the answer might surprise you. It kinda surprised me! Since we live in a world of email and skype and vonage lines, communication with family and friends is not as big a burden as it was when I studied abroad in Austria in the mid-1980s (has it really been 25 years???). And since we have Hamudeh DVD, a.k.a. “The Candy Store,” providing us with (ahem, bootlegged—sorry Stephanie, I will send you a royalty check!) pretty recent TV shows, it comes down to…what? Food? Well, remember when I fly back from the U.S. I come loaded down with at least 30 pounds of food smuggled into the kingdom.

So I told Margot that what I miss the most is the changing leaves of autumn.

I have never lived far away from the magnificent changing leaves. Growing up in Ohio, especially right near a municipal forest, the autumnal beauty was all around me. Then when I went to Denison, well, the annual Licking County fall pageant was radiant with the maroons and yellows and oranges. In North Carolina, the changing leaves came a little later, but, please, I didn’t live far from the Smokeys and the Appalachian Trail…and then when I went to Brown, it was a zippy trip into New England to revel with all the other leaf-peepers. In New York I had a special connection with this one tree in particular. It was a tree right by Broadway in Tarrytown, right there by the Washington Irving Elementary School. It seemed it would explode into the most majestic red leaves every year right at my birthday. I always thought it a nice little present from the people of Tarrytown.

But here in Jordan—no changing leaves.

It was not long after our discussion that Margot returned to the U.S. for a week for some conference or something. She came back with an envelope full of autumn leaves from Massachusetts for me. I loved those leaves! I loved her remembering! Such woe at not seeing the collage of beautiful leaves every year.

Margot left Jordan in the spring of 2008, bound for Williams College. But each October I receive a letter in the mail, catching me up on her adventures in college, and also full of the autumn leaves I miss so much. Last week, the letter came and I have a tiny piece of the autumn I love so much.

I went and asked one of our science teachers why the trees change colors in the fall. I am sure somewhere sometime a science teacher taught me this, but it probably went the same place as the lessons my father gave me in car mechanics. Oh dear, why can’t everything stay in one’s brain!

The science teacher reminded me that trees are green in summer because chlorophyll, a green pigment in the leaves, absorbs red and blue light from the sun. The light reflected from the leaves appears green to our eyes. I learned that chlorophyll is an unstable substance, and bright sunlight causes it to decompose rapidly. So that is why plants must continuously synthesize and regenerate it. The shortening days and cool nights of autumn, I am now told, interfere with this process. As chlorophyll breaks down, the green colors of the leaves begin to fade. So some trees change from green to bright yellow as the chlorophyll degrades (oh, this teacher is a smartie!). In others, the action of sugar in leaves creates a red pigment, causing the leaves to turn shades of bright red as the chlorophyll fades.

Well, more stuff I didn’t know how it operates. Hmmmm…

For a couple weeks I have not been able to use my Jordan bank account ATM card. It seems I have been here long enough to have had an ATM card expire! It is three years after all! And the way it works here, the way the banks operate, they cannot send you a new ATM card. One must go to the bank. During banking hours. Which also happen to be school hours…argh….

So today I had a chunk of about 90 minutes to do what could be/should be a 35 minute trip to Madaba and back including the running in time to get the new ATM card. On the way I see a mother of a student who is struggling in class, and we talk for a little bit—it was a healthy, and necessary conversation. That’s okay—I don’t need lunch today, I’ll be back in time.

I zip down the road to Madaba, find a parking place not too far from the bank, run over to the bank, watch them stamp forms and check my various IDs and give me the new ATM card (“I hope it will work later today,” he adds as I leave. Yes, that would be nice. I need to pay back everyone who has been loaning me money!).

As I get back to the car, oh, no—really? A flat tire. A flat-as-a-cliched-pancake tire. Of course my father is too far away to call (If I had called him, he probably would’ve said, “All right, I’ll get on a plane tonight and be there tomorrow.”) So who do I call in Jordan? I call the ubermensch Julianne. “Um, Jules, I know you aren’t really in charge of this, but I have a problem.” After I tell her where I am, she says, “I will send someone for you. It’ll be fine. Call me in 20 minutes if they aren’t there.” Besides the 425 students at the school, she has to watch out for me too!

So in 15 minutes two guys are there in a school van, ready to help. This is one of those moments when I feel the most inept! Woe is me! But the guys open up the trunk of my leased car and start to cluck cluck (or is it ‘tut tut’??) my misfortune. They can’t find a jack, and it seems that the spare tire is flat. I whined that I had never looked at the spare tire and so didn’t know…I didn’t…have…a jack…oh, I am in Woe Soup at this point!

The guys get their own car jack and set out to take off the wounded tire and then we haul them over to the school van and they are in charge. I thank them profusely as we rush down the road to the gas station. We stop at the place where just the other day I overpaid for an oil change (and that was with a fluent Arabic speaker negotiating the price!). I explained that not only did I have no money, but my ATM card probably didn’t work either. They reassured me there was no problem.

In the next 30 minutes I watched a brilliant tire man at work—strangely, this tire guy reminded me of the science teacher who explained such important phenomena to me, phenomena like the science about which I knew next to nothing. I watched him take the tire, do surgery on the whole tire, figuring out the problem, doing this and that, looking at the innards of the tire in a way that I am sure I have not seen before (or again, my mind has purged the experience!). He took out the inner tube and fixed it, fixed—well, fixed both tires.

No charge!

The men asked me when I had class again, and assured me I would be back in time. They whisked me back to the public square where the car was parked, and bada-boom, bada-bing, put everything back in place. I told them they were my heroes. One guy said, “What is hero, Mr. John?” I said, “Superman!” They laughed. They took care of my woes.

I chose the title of the blog entry in part because of the woe of missing the leaves, and in part because of the temporary woe today with the tire(s), and in some part because this title reminds me of one of my favorite songs, “When October Goes.”

But as woes go in the world, these are not bad woes. Qxhna, a student from the U.S. got back tonight from a brief trip to interview at colleges in the U.S. Another student saw me asking her about her few days in New York, and how I love it there. She said, “Oh, Mr. John, you miss it so, don’t you?” I said, “Of course. Walking in Central Park in autumn is glorious. But of course, autumn in America does not have you, dear Jude.”

The woe can be tempered, either with wonderful students, remembrances from Margot, or my ubermenschen in Madaba-Manja.

In two days I am traveling to Kathmandu for a conference on school leadership. I will be sure to send you a postcard about this trip to Nepal!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Silver and Gold

Truman Capote once noted that “friendship is a full-time job.” Well, it seems to have been the full-time job of my dear sister Elizabeth, and wonderful friend Tracey to worry about my birthday plans for this October 4, 2010. Neither wanted a repeat for me of last year’s dreary birthday non-celebration, and both kept checking to make sure there would be a little somethin’ fun going on over here in Madaba-Manja, Jordan!

I will end the suspense now. It was a very nice birthday. Whew! Elizabeth and Tracey and the rest of my flotilla of friends probably didn’t need any more moping around like last year’s non-starter for a new year (if you didn’t read that blog, well, there was a little blues singing going on!). It was a delightful birthday.

I am entitling the blog entry “silver and gold” to sum up not what I received in tangible gifts, but the silver and gold friendships I enjoyed on my birthday. Okay, my mind is full of strange things, like sit-coms and camp songs, and I was reminded of the camp song (and this is when my brain is awfully strange—I think it was a brownie scout song that my sister sang back around 1976) that included the words:

Make new friends, but keep the old,
one is silver and the other gold.

So I spent my day, and enjoyed a birthday dinner, with some pretty great silver and gold.

In case you haven’t read other blog entries about how my mother always inaugurated birthdays, she would make sure to bid you good night the night before your birthday to bid adieu to your current age. So from young tender ages, up past 40, I would get a call the night before my birthday to say, “Good night little 41 year old,” as you went to sleep and dreamed about the next big year. Elizabeth takes over that job now, and since my phone lines are not always easy to reach, I now have to make the call to her, so that she is able to offer that farewell to that year. So at 11:30 last Sunday I called Elizabeth to hear her tender words (I can’t say the year/number though—the number just might get stuck in my throat).

The following morning at 6:30 a.m. Tracey called to make sure she had wished me the first happy birthday of the morning. She asked, “Now who is taking you out? Are the plans set?” I assured her that the plans had been made and that there was a celebration lined up.

When I had planned the lessons for the week I made sure I really liked the lessons for Monday. I mean, it is your birthday, and it should be fun. In History of the 20th century I taught about the struggles to cobble a peace together in the 1990s with the former Yugoslavia. Part of what made this so interesting was evaluating the needs of the participants in this drama and how hard it is for the actors in these real-life events to move ahead of revenge and hate. Ahhhh…we steeped ourselves in the peace process and conflict resolution!

In Art History we studied Chinese art—always a refreshing venture since the art is so much like reading Act III of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—over and over, a discussion, a rumination, a reflection on what is eternal in our lives. So much of Chinese art is like a Dr. Phil and Oprah marathon: how do we explore our journey in life? What will yield peace and harmony and balance? Ahhhhh…nice thoughts for a birthday while on the threshold of a new year.

In the afternoon Art History class a student had ordered a cake to be delivered to our class. This was the biggest cake I had ever seen outside of a wedding or something. It was from a bakery in Amman called “Sugar Daddy’s” and it was—well, dark chocolate fudge cake with rich, vanilla-bean frosting…I licked the box. It was great. Of course one reason a class wants to have a party for the teacher is that you get out of some class. Come on, I am not as young as…oh, I better not go there. I am as young as I look. Or maybe I have pictures of me as young as I say I am. Or whatever. The cake was spectacular, the wishes very thoughtful, and the class on Chinese art invigorating as always.

For those of you who know my friend Gary, well, this guy just doesn’t disappoint. I will devote a whole blog entry to him soon, for he can hardly be contained or explained in one birthday entry. Gary is a hoot, Gary is as golden as a friend can get. Last week Gary started saying things like, “John-O, what plans are in the works for the great day next Monday???” I mean, that’s what you want for a birthday…that little Stephen Sondheim like phrasing, Something’s comin’!

And again if you know Gary, I didn’t get to choose the restaurant for my birthday! When he asked me where I might like to go, I suggested “Fire Brazil” in Amman—the Brazilian steakhouse place in Amman with the skewers of meat that are paraded around the restaurant. Yum. Dramatic. He asked me if they have red wine available. I said I believed that they did not. Gary does this thing as he considers a restaurant. He chomps on imaginary food as he decides what his tonsils are tuned for. Not tuned for “Fire Brazil.” “Boss, I can’t have red meat without red wine. Let’s go to that great place in Madaba.” Gary gestured in that decisive way where he points and pokes and punches the air with resolve.

Haret Jdoudna it is. HJ is one of my favorite places in Jordan, the scene of many, many dinners over these 40 months in Jordan (Hmmm…saying the number feels slightly akin to the 40 years in the desert of the Israelites after the exodus!). The dinner party was a celebration of my silver and gold. Among the golden friends, the old friends, were Gary, of course, and sweet Lubna, a true friend here in Jordan almost since the beginning of this journey, and a guest who happened to be in Jordan last week, Danny Mallonga. Danny and I were in a class together in 1994 at Teacher’s College at Columbia, and had kept in touch for a few years, but then he began free-lancing around the world offering workshops in conflict resolution. It had been at least a decade since I had seen him. He was a welcome addition to the birthday table. The three silver friends were Win and Jennie, my neighbors in our Nihal dorm, and two of the funniest, warmest, most gracious people to spend an evening with. Our group was capped by Maria, one of our teacher fellows, a recent college graduate and a genuinely insightful teacher. She asked Gary if she could join the party. I am so glad she did.

So there I was with my three golden friends, and my three silver friends, ordering all my favorite dishes at HJ, basking in the warmth of tried and true and developing friendships. As we dug into the many dishes of mezze and then my favorite entrée of sagia, it was what a birthday should be: laughter, reminiscing, stories about childhood and longago loves, stories of strange obsessions, and a little reflection, vis a vis Our Town again, about the impact of another birthday.

We got home by 10:00 for I had been tipped off that the boys in the dorm wanted a birthday surprise for me with brownies. They trooped in, sang the Arabian version of “Happy Birthday” (it has several more choruses than the zippy American version) and left me to spend some time to make calls to my father, Elizabeth and her children, and Tracey. They were all relieved to know that the day had gone well. It is almost a full-time job worrying if birthdays will work out. Of course it is just silly when they don’t—but when they are as sweet and special as this year, well, it is a job well done.

Some people had gone to a lot of trouble to make the birthday matter for me. My father had hidden a birthday card in my suitcase when I returned to Jordan on August 30; Aunt Dot and family friend Edna had mailed cards on September 14 in the hopes that they would arrive. Lubna had looked for just the right shirt and tie for me. Gary had brought his birthday gifts in his suitcase when he left New York on August 7. Fatina had bought for me a camel tea kettle (!!!) while in Saudi Arabia. The Ungers had braved sending a musical card through the byzantine mail system of Jordan. Thanks to all those who went above and beyond!

And the Facebook emails! How fun to be able to send out greetings via that social networking site. I got greetings from junior high and high school friends whom I have not seen since President Reagan was in office, and I had greetings from people who call me Mr. Leistler, and Mr. John, and Johnny, and Bamm-Bamm…any other names I missed?

In fact, (spoiler alert!! Here comes a sit-com reference!!) as I went through my day I felt kinda like Mary Tyler Moore in the beginning credits of her eponymous show, enjoying mundane tasks, but just so oh-so happy about it all. Love is all around…

Good day. Good week. The theme song from MTM reminds me of another song that declares how important those silver and gold relationships are. The song is called, “Next Best Thing to Love” and it was a “trunk song” (a song waiting around to be used) by the lyricist of A Chorus Line. What a fascinating idea Edward Kleban postulated in his lyrics: that a deep friendship is as close to love as one can get – before coming to the beautiful conclusion that it’s good enough to qualify as genuine love, too.

We had the smiles
We had the tunes
We had a multitude of lovely afternoons
And come to think of it
It was the next best thing to love…

Couldn’t turn the corner
Never made sublime
Still we should be so lucky
All the time
So no regret
Forget the tears
I know a dozen girls who’d run with this for years
And come to think of it
I guess the next best thing to love
Is also love

Happy Birthday to me!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Double-take Re-visited

About 38 months ago, as the faculty and administrators nervously awaited the opening and inauguration of KA, I dug out a poem I had discovered a decade before and always liked very much. I remember reading this poem the night before classes began, when the still desert night had quieted down all the noise and fears and pricklies that come with the beginning of a school year (not to mention with the beginning of a new school). I wrote a blog entry that night, August 25, 2007, and here is a portion of what I wrote:

So now that the boys are in their rooms, I get to muse about tomorrow and the promise of this school year. Earlier today I thought about a poem I really like, a poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, but one I had not thought about for awhile. Take a moment and read his words:

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
if there's fire on the mountain
or lightning and storm
and a god speaks from the sky.

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

Seamus Heaney,
from "The Cure at Troy"

This poem starts out pretty hideously, doesn’t it? “Human beings suffer”?????? What kind of lovely, lyrical poem is this? And by the second stanza, one begins to beat one’s breast over all the angst and mistreatment in the world. Then we get to the third stanza, and we meet the mundane historian mouthing conventional wisdom that we should not hope for goodness in this life…But then…the little tiny hint that once in a lifetime, oh, and I love this phrase: hope and history rhyme. It could. It might!

Then the rest of it is this rush of possibility. The Pollyanna in me loves that possibility of “a great sea-change.” The global citizen in me longs for that “further shore.” The dramatist in me revels in the special effects of fire and lightning and storms. And of course, the teacher in me seeks to cultivate that “utter self-revealing double-take of feeling” in students.

I used to teach this poem when I taught a certain 20th century history class at Hackley. It was a poem beloved by James Agee and Walker Evans, two intrepid men who worked together in the 1930s hoping that their prose and photography might spark new empathy in Americans. I used to teach about Agee and Evans, and that little opening allowed me a chance to share this poem with my seniors hoping they might enjoy it as well.

As I enter my classroom tomorrow in the King Hussein Humanities Wing, I will lean on those possibilities. I will look for those possibilities. This school is certainly founded on a noble ethos, and it may take a long time for this school to live out the lofty principles and promises set (and of course there is always the possibility it will not), but tomorrow I will start to enjoy that double-take of feeling along the way, and I can help my students long for those connections when hope and history rhyme.

--August 25, 2007

So last week I assigned my 14 seniors in my marvelous History of the 20th Century class to read and respond to these very lines. This was the third assignment of the year. Two nights before they had read the preface to Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, a man so burdened with the “weight of history” as he called it, that he took his own life. And the night before they had read the preface to Howard Zinn’s memoirs, a historian who also pondered deeply the burdens of history. I asked them to write a one-page response to the lines by Seamus Heaney. Here are some of their responses:

Zeyna wrote, “This light at the end of the tunnel view on life is much like the state of the sublime present in Romanticism, in that there is always hope for a calm after the storm, a moment in which the wars and conflicts subside and we are left with a serene landscape….In my opinion this is a naïve view of life. Howard Zinn’s reflection on life, while similar, was different in one key aspect: instead of saying to “hope for a great sea change” he says to be the instigator of that change…”

Abdullah wrote, “To better understand Seamus’ poem one should take into consideration the play it is from and the historical context it was written in….The play ends with the boy repenting and Philoctetes being healed. Perhaps this also reflects that both Heaney and Sophocles saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps Sophocles also saw that despite all this corruption with the Peloponnesian War there is still some hope left. Similarly, perhaps Heaney also saw hope in the world with the end of the USSR and the Cold War.

Dima wrote, “This excerpt was taken from a play written in 1990, almost at the end of the 20th century—a century of “the most inconceivable decline of humanity into a barbarism,” according to Stefan Zweig….Heaney adopts the concept of a post-rain existing rainbow, motivating the readers of a splendid future that would be gained after the schism and disaster many experienced.”

Qxhna described the poem as “the marriage of how Stefan Zweig felt about the 20th century and how Howard Zinn felt about the 20th century,” and summons up Howard Zinn’s reminder that “we have been given a gift: the gift of life.” She quotes how Zinn discussed his wartime buddies who died, “I owe it to Joe and Ed not to waste my gift…for that new world we all thought was promised by the war that took their lives.”

Rob said that “when I read the title, “The Cure at Troy,” it struck me, so I looked it up and my suspicions were correct, it was an adaptation of a play by Sophocles….When it says, “don’t hope on this side of the grave” I am driven to think about the classical ideal of the Kouros, the young male full of potential and possibility, and it usually served as a grave marker. I find this quote to be related to this somehow…”

Thaer writes, “Let us imagine that time machines became a reality. As an experiment, a man by the name of Mr. John would be sent to live through every historical era and every civilization known….As Mr. John travels through today’s world he finds that there are 1 billion people starving’ around 30,000 people starving to death every day…However, there are areas where women and non-whites can vote; there are environmental activists; there are many glimpses of hope….If you can see those glimpses of hope, we can aim to bring the walls down and see the sun again. That’s what activism is about. That’s what the Revolution is about.”

Adel noted that Winston Churchill had declared that the 20th century was a “disappointment” in 1922. Adel said, “the 20th century is not what anyone expected. What was expected was an era of peace, harmony and advancement.” Adel suggests that we act like Heaney and “believe in miracles,” and Howard Zinn who insisted that we hope.

Jude discusses how Heaney views the “failure of the human race as the poem begins. He magnifies the viciousness of our race. Our swift ability to kill each other, to erase a life, push, pull, and eventually fall ourselves. Heaney hints that in the midst of this chaos there is no way to take back time…. Though optimism is in short supply there is still a lingering sense of reunion exemplified by courageous folk.”

Reed feels that “the poem reminds us that within the dark violent sea of prejudice, there stands a wave above all to reunite and carry us through….Much like Howard Zinn and Stefan Zweig’s confusion about society and the heavy weight of history behind them, the poem recognizes the dark past, but transcends despair just as Howard Zinn had a glimpse for the future…”

Faisal comments that this realization about life “comes with a burden. Because we are the solution, we have a responsibility toward those suffering. But Heaney, like Zinn, does not demand much. All we are asked to do is “hope,” and “believe”….Now that I think about it, Heaney’s message to “hope” helped get a U.S. president elected into office in this new century.”

Yusra says she “likes this way of thinking during hard times. I myself have learned first hand that it’s the only way to keep going in life. I am so optimistic about life that people often question my sanity, when really it’s my optimism that keeps me sane.”

Hamzeh notes that “Although History is telling us not to hope, justice can defy every rule and thus enable us to hope and defeat the ego of History. I see it as History versus Hope….This hope, its believers and embracers are demonstrated best in the case of the African-American people….What did these people have? Nothing, except hope….They got their freedom and history got defeated by hope.”

Suhayb reflected that “this poem reminded me of the painting Raft of the Medusa…Heaney throws out all the despair in the beginning of his poem and then gives you the hope. The Raft of the Medusa uses a similar format showing you the complete despair of the people on the raft, but then it builds up this pyramid of people showing the hope that then leads to the little point of life igniting hope in the people.”

Back in August, 2007, I wondered where it all might lead. I wondered what this experience might be like, if the project would work. Hamzeh noted that history and hope cannot sound the same, but just as Heaney wondered, might they just sound a common chord? As I read these papers this morning, I see where we have come in these 38 months.

Can you hear it?