Saturday, December 31, 2011

Really, where would you keep a partridge in a pear tree???

Just as Joseph and Mary travelled to their ancestors’ hometown long ago, two weeks ago I made the journey to the emotional, social and spiritual home that has shaped and nurtured my identity. My expectation was the same as every trip to Cincinnati: for joyful reunion and a renewal of the bonds of love.

But this season is of course more than just my return to America, it is a return to that story of Jesus’ birth, a return to the story where we re-discover how deeply God loves humankind—so much so that God took on human flesh to join the human family, to make a home with humankind.

When I come home each December—and I have never missed a December homecoming—there is no ambivalence on my part. While there are no angels or shepherds waiting for me at the Greater Cincinnati airport, it is one big YES on my part to reconnect with missed family and foods. It is the promise of those family and foods which generates such excitement on my part. And I look forward to it for months. When I left in August, I knew that I would be home four months and two days after I left for the fall term in Jordan. I know that officially the season of Advent is four weeks long, but for me, it really is kind of a four-month long anticipation of the joyful reunion. My mother was born exactly four weeks before Christmas day, and so for her, and therefore for the rest of us, the prospect, the anticipation, the excitement, the probity of Advent mattered deeply.

In Christian theology, to live in Advent’s hope is to live in eager anticipation of this homecoming where God arrives to give a living, in-person confirmation to the promises of forgiveness and life, reconciliation and peace. Getting Christmas right is that appreciation of God’s spinning of divinity into human form, to stand in awe of the presence of God.

It is not always as easy as we think—it is not just the anticipation of the easy times, of the triumphs. There is a gritty story here too—like Herod’s rage, treacherous crowds, foolish followers and a dangerous road to Jerusalem. To give into Advent fully, the anticipation of what will come, is to risk being taken into the hands of strangers and carried to unknown destinations.

Advent is about paying attention, being alert through the chaos and marching down that unknown road. Exciting and exhausting.

Do you find Christmas exhausting? I know many people do—especially those with small children, what with the parties and programs and dresses and shopping and hopes—it is a little like going into battle. There is a certain amount of chaos involved in the season.

I guess, I remember my own mother and her reaction to the exhaustion and chaos of Christmas. My mother, perfectionist that she was, aside from the exhaustion, she had an uncanny ability to stand back and get a better perspective on the chaos around her. Maybe it was just in her name, but she would reflect on Mary, the original Mary, at such times. I can almost hear her saying, “Mary certainly experienced chaos and exhaustion too, you know.” Indeed! That Mary rode a donkey while nine months pregnant; without a reservation, she and Joseph had to bed down in a stable/cave. There she gave birth in front of a bunch of cows. Then she was visited by strangers both low and high-born after Jesus’ birth announcement was broadcast across the sky. What would we do if we answered the door and found the herders, or the foreign dignitaries smelling of incense??? I am sure Mary was unnerved by all these strange things going on. I wonder what she thought of the unfolding of this divine plan???

But Mary kept her calm—somehow she was able to keep peace, a cool head, amid all the chaos. I remember a moment from my childhood, probably circa 1973 when my sister was to read the Christmas story during the lighting of the advent candle, and our mother coached Elizabeth to read the story with all the wonder and awe she could muster. There, almost forgotten sometimes, at the end of the story, was one of my mother’s favorite lines in the Christmas story: “Mary treasured all…and pondered them in her heart.” Yes, in the middle of the craziness, she reflected on the miracle that had just occurred. There is a quietness to the story that I love, and all these years later, my mother’s guidance still affects me. In the midst of chaos and exhaustion, we need to treasure and ponder.

This year Elizabeth and I sang in our church on Christmas Eve—just as we have done every year for 38 years. We sang a song, “The Cradle of Bethlehem,” for the first time since 2002 when we last had a baby in a cradle, and it put me in my mind of baby Jack, 9 years ago, and the wonder of the amazing little being who came to grace the earth. How Mary must have felt as she cradled her baby and realized her world had changed forever. Think of the peace Mary must have felt.

As we leave the Christmas season behind, perhaps a bit more weary, I would remind us of the excitement and importance of Advent. I would argue that we should operate as if it were always Advent. I mean, we never really arrive where we think we will, or once we do, we learn that in fact, we’re not finished with the journey at all. There is always something to come, there is always a way for us to go further and continue to evolve and grow. We should never just be “waiting”—as we wait and anticipate the unfolding, we should treasure and ponder the evolution of it all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Lights, please!

Have you ever encountered someone who didn’t know the Christmas story?

This year at KA I am in charge of a small choir and during December we worked on several Christmas songs. (I asked the Muslim students whether it was appropriate or not for them—I didn’t know for sure. They had no problems.) The students weren’t particularly interested in the traditional Christmas carols—they didn’t know them so had no affection for the beauties of 19th century British expressions of Christmas joys. But a little obscure piece, “And Love Was Born,” just enchanted them to no end. This is a piece from the late 1970s and I believe I did it in Studio Choir at West High, but it isn’t a very complex piece so I am not sure. Anyway, the students loved this piece. One student groused that he couldn’t find a performance of the piece on Youtube. Anyway, as we worked on some of the musical subtleties, a young man asked, “What actually happened in Bethlehem?” I felt a little like Linus in the TV classic chestnut of “Charlie Brown” (except I refrained from asking for “lights, please!” as Linus does!) as I told the story to those in my little group who didn’t actually know what transpired in our neighborhood over 2,000 years ago.

I found myself saying to them “Of all the characters in the Christmas story, the ones we need to keep our eyes on, indeed, come to think of it, the ones most like us, are those Magi, those Wise Men.”

When I posit that those Wise Men are the ones most like us, I am not suggesting that we are either so regal or wise, but let’s consider some of the other characters in this story. Let’s take Mary, the young Palestinian teen minding her own business when an angel of the Lord comes and addresses her: “Hail, Mary!” Like that’s going to happen to us. Consider this: the shepherds are out in their fields watching their flocks by night, when an Angel of the Lord appears to them…speaks to them…and suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appears, praising God. Like that’s going to happen to us.

And on and on—but those Magi—we need to watch them. These are the travelers, the ones who undertake a great and arduous journey. Last week I packed a suitcase, hopped two planes, and via Paris, travelled the 10,000 or so miles from Jordan to Cincinnati. Not really arduous at all, and in under 24 hours I made it from my apartment back to my family homestead. But let’s muse about those journeys 2,000 years ago. Let’s imagine the conversations back home when those magi have agreed to undertake this great trip. “Honey,” says one, “Me and the guys, we’re following a star. Not sure where or what it will lead to. We’ll be away—for months, maybe longer.” Of course, I am just joking a little here. For the magi it was no mere whim, their undertaking. They didn’t embark upon this adventure without careful thought and good reason. They did their best to explain themselves and their reasons to their families. They extracted themselves from various commitments. They planned the route and agreed how to finance it. Journeys of this sort are expensive—the costs of travel, with inns and meals, not to mention a loss of income from being away from work. I guess they worked. (Come to think of it, this sounded a lot like my thought process as I pondered this whole Jordan thing in 2007.)

They probably spent considerable time on what to take, what gifts to bring, and anticipated the exchanges of cultures and rituals and languages they would encounter.
The long awaited day arrived for them. Those magi hugged their loved ones and said their good-byes, not quite sure when they would return. There are tears, second thoughts, probably pleas to stay. Finally, they are on their way—on their adventure. As they spent time together on this adventure they began to learn each others’ moods, rhythms and fears. They learn the sound of each others’ laughter. And they probably needed to ask for directions. You know that since these are wise men they were probably not inclined to ask for directions.

The star gets the magi all the way to Jerusalem, but then it goes on the fritz. It is in Jerusalem that they have to ask for directions. “Where,” they ask, “is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we have observed his star rising, and have come to pay him homage.” This is the moment their adventure really starts. It starts when their accents give them away; when they reveal themselves strangers in a strange land; when they first disclose to others the purpose of their quest; when they admit they don’t know which way to turn; when they are forced to entrust themselves to the good will of complete strangers (some of whom turn out to be possessed of ill will); when they find out that the mere mention of Jesus causes shifts in power, threatens principalities, begs for a re-ordering of the structures that discriminate. Now, they are on their way.

I guess I have thought about these guys this week when I realized they would have been traveling right around where KA is, my home and work in Jordan, not far from Jerusalem. I think about them when I think of the journey that I have taken since January, 2007 when I decided to follow this quest to help start this school here.

So as I look out at those plains to the west of our school—there in those hills where David once shepherded, I reside in the very land where those magi traveled and risked and followed their star. Yep, those guys, those exotic, adventurous, risk-taking, intrepid kings or astrologers, or whoever they were—they are the ones to watch.

We all have journeys, some longer, or farther afield, but we all have journeys in relationships, or new jobs, or simply the life of faith is a life of adventure. I think you will know you are on the right road, that you are getting close to wherever, when it gets thrilling, tense and intense, important, scary, edgy, absorbing and fantastic.

Have a Merry Christmas and enjoy the journey…

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In Deo Speramus

Yesterday I had a parent-teacher conference in the afternoon, and I arrived a few minutes early, so I sat in the reception area blithely looking at the magazines out for waiting people. As I casually leafed through old magazines, a bold cover story from Time magazine caught my eye: “Islamophobia” screamed the cover. I sighed, wondering why someone would leave this 2010 magazine out for the KA public to read. What an ironic twist to have this available at a school that has 80% Muslim students with about 40% of the faculty American ex-pats. I paged through the article, and of course, it was about why so many Americans are fearful of Islam. It is not that the exploration of fears bothers me, but the article probably stoked more fears than it allayed. Of course, I sat there in that lovely waiting area the day after I read about Newt Gingrich’s comments this week about Palestinians (again with the “they’re all terrorists” mania).

As I waited for the family to appear, I thought about not so much what Newt Gingrich had said, but instead the many ways that our worlds are more in common than what we first think. “Allah” in Arabic is “God,” and we share that same God of Abraham. That part is obvious, but I thought about how both the Arab world and western world share some other “gods.” After four years of commuting between both worlds, here are some other gods I have determined that we share:
• Our god is money
• Our god is power
• Our god is fame
• Our god is ending suffering
• Our god is truth

I could add more—what about our obsession with Ivy League schools? And of course, the obsession with landing a highly-paid job? Aren’t those gods as well? I suppose the thing my years in Jordan has taught me more than anything is that there are new faces of old religions, there are many sides of what religion means.

KA teaches a World Religions course, and I have long treasured that we help students better understand the concepts behind these disparate world faiths, help students develop an open mind about what and how and why other religions practice as they do. In my youth and early adult years, these were all just lumped as “The Other” in my mind, and it was easy to develop a discomfort or distaste for strange practices and beliefs.

Let’s look a little more closely at Islam—especially if we do harbor such a “phobia” against it. Each chapter in the Koran—as well as each Muslim prayer—begins with these words: “In the name of God, the beneficent and the merciful.” I learned that the Islamic prophet Muhammad was known as Al-Amin—the trustworthy—and was revered for his honesty, humility, desire for justice, and disdain for greed. And I read passages in the Koran that struck the same ideals as all the world’s great faiths: repentance, forgiveness, and tolerance. Here are examples:

From the Koran: “O Mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is knower, aware.”

From Hinduism’s Hitopadesa: “One should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated.”

From Buddhism’s Dhammapada: “Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating, but by not hating; this is an eternal truth.”

From Judaism’s Book of Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

And from Christianity’s Gospel of Luke: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”

I am not suggesting that we are all exactly alike under the skin, but treasure these beautiful thoughts and aims! Have mistakes been made in the name of religion? Sure! No doubt, horrible, unjust, heinous things have been done through the corridors history in the name of gods—but is it because of the religions, or because of naivete and ignorance? For me the greatest flaw we have as humans is our ability to lose our compassion. To delude ourselves into thinking we are right and others are wrong. To turn members of different groups only into that dangerous “other.”

A student asked me today if I had heard what Newt Gingrich had said, and wondered if I thought Candidate Gingrich actually believed his words. I replied that I had no way of knowing if he truly believed the scurrilous things he had said about Palestinians and Palestine, but he has certainly figured out that it gets him exposure and support. It doesn’t bring a lot of shame to his words, evidently, and doesn’t that tell us so much! Islamophobia sells magazines and wins hearts and minds of voters.

Religion can bring out the better angels of our nature; however, religious extremists can bring out our worst. In my students’ lifetimes, in Bosnia, Christian extremists slaughtered 8,000 Muslims around the town of Srebrenica. In the Palestinian territories Jewish settlers dismissed Muslims as animalistic. In India, Hindu nationalists raped and slaughtered Muslims, in Sri Lanka, Buddhist extremists abused Hindus. In the United States, Muslims slammed planes into the World Trade Towers.

As we so often tout in a fairly smug way, ours is a globalized world. But indeed it is a polarized world. We are more interconnected economically and culturally and politically, yet in terms of issues of faith, we also seem to be more territorial, suspicious and reactive. Becoming more interdependent almost seems to be making us less tolerant.

But as a teacher I get the chance to talk with students about these media reports. Here at KA I get to meet and know Palestinians and realize how wearying that steady diet of anti-Palestinian rhetoric is, and I get to wonder how we might overcome all these phobias.

I look back at the list of gods that many in both of these worlds share. I teach the same here as I did in the United States, but I think I have become even more deliberate in my aims for my classroom and my students. I exhort all the more for students to be open to the mysteries around them, be compassionate as we learn about The Other, and challenge ourselves in terms of our beliefs and perceptions about The Others.

I had a nice conference with the parents, and in just a few days I get on a plane to go celebrate Christmas with my family and American friends.


Of all those things that might indeed be tertiary gods, or subsidiary gods, wouldn’t it be nice if we all added to our wish-lists that each group around the world makes hope their god.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Encounters with Ihsan

One of the delights of this fall here at KA has been a seminar led by one of my young colleagues. His name is Moamer and he has significant ties to the school. He is the older brother of “The Mayor of Awesomeville,” that kid Abdullah that I taught every day for the first four years the school existed (and one of the A-list students I have known in my whole career). Another brother has worked here in our summer program. Another brother is a 9th grader here. The family hosts a party for teachers every June with all seven sons in attendance. This family dynasty has been integral to the school since its inception!

Moamer leads a seminar every week on Islamic Tradition and the History of the Middle East. At times the course has been frustrating—in a good way—and always enlightening. He started the seminar on 9/11/11—an auspicious date I suppose on which to begin the best training and teaching I have yet received on the Islamic world. Moamer explained up front how he went about planning for this course. He decided that three lenses would be used to create this course, three “filters” as he called them. He set up his own parameters and ground rules: the sources he would use must be Islamic, must be western, and must be grounded in teaching. He explained that he would rely on Hamza Yusuf, an American Islamic scholar, a book entitled The Vision of Islam, and his own experiences. How exciting is that to see from the get-go exactly where he would cull his information and insights.

The last few seminar meetings have focused on the concept of Ihsan, a concept of the encounter with the divine, in which the faithful are reminded to make something beautiful of their faith. As Moamer reminded the group, “You worship Allah as if you see him; for even if you do not see him, he sees you.” One spends one’s lifetime, therefore, as a seeker on the path of Ihsan. This seeking will bring true happiness.

What a profound concept—we must see the beautiful, the true, the closeness of God for our lives to have meaning.

As I have done many times this fall in the seminar, I have learned how similar so many of the tenets of Islam are with the tenets of Christianity, but also really almost any faith I can think of.

At first this almost bothered me. Week after week, as Moamer explained “what Muslims do,” my mind would automatically say things like, “Well, we pray too,” or “We also believe in repentance.” As Moamer explained the tenets that Muslims believe that “There is no God but God,” the commandment to bear witness, and certainly the eternal query, “How do we know God?” it was so remarkable to me the comparisons. Now, this should hardly be news! Allah of Islam is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, David, Solomon, et cetera on down the line…and while I have taught about Islamic art before, I have never had the benefit of hearing a Muslim crack open the nut of faith and unpack the theology and the beliefs quite so thoroughly. It had always remained so much “The Other” in all these years both in the United States and in Jordan.

Like many Americans, I grew up with really only one part of the history of the Middle East—an ancient Biblical-era history, and a modern history of Israel as told through the heroic birth of the state of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. I had studied the Holocaust many times, visited many concentration camp sites, directed Holocaust-themed plays, been to Passover seders, and so what I knew quite well was the history of the genocide and that Israel was a safe haven for the Jews. I knew nothing of the Arab side. For millions of Americans, Jew and Gentile, it was the same. We were all raised with the version of Middle Eastern history as told in Exodus, Leon Uris’ influential and riveting mega-bestseller, then turned into a Paul Newman movie. In Uris’ engaging novel, Arabs are alternately pathetic or malicious, and have no real claim to the land. As is said in the book, “If the Arabs of Palestine loved their land, they could not have been forced from it—much less run from it without real cause.” Of course, as devoted readers of the blog will know, I have certainly gained new insights and perspectives in the 53 months I have lived in Jordan. As I have come to see, the actual history of the region is far more complex, richer and interesting.

Since coming here and writing about this from time to time, I have had wonderful conversations with friends and family state-side about the deeper narrative, one that penetrates beneath the headlines and the endless cycles of repeated history, and attempts at explaining how we got to this difficult place.

Not everyone is comfortable hearing the story of The Other. I have had some acquaintances profess that they are tired of hearing about the Jewish/Arab love of the land, and a Kiwanis colleague of my father chastised me for telling the story of the Arabs as a “nonexistent Palestine.”

But most people have listened intently, enthralled at what I have been able to learn here. In many ways what goes on here mirrors the struggles of people anywhere I have lived, the struggles of families as they encounter and embrace faith and each other’s history.

So back to Moamer—in many ways, each week as he unravels the mysteries of faith, I think of my grandmother. My mother’s mother taught Sunday School for 62 years, and in my eyes she must have been phenomenal because of her knowledge, her convictions, and her sincere and life-affirming piety and faith. Moamer is winning with that same combination. As my grandmother must have done for decades, Moamer has helped me get past the canned summary of Islam, and certainly opened my eyes to the beauty and purity of his faith. As I have said, many tenets are similar. The process of revelation, of discipline, of commitment, of reflection—all are similar to the traits found in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism—certainly all the faiths with which I am acquainted.

But of course I know there are boundaries between our two faiths—and how in the world ecumenicalism really works is amazing. In Islam Jesus is deemed a very good prophet, but not the Son of God, and certainly then the supernatural elements of the Resurrection are eschewed. But the divergences are not really what interest me; those I know, and I expect. It is all the things in common, both good and bad. As Moamer discusses the mysteries of faith, over and over I see the parallels in what I know and understand about Christianity. And certainly in the chauvinism that can mark Christianity, that chauvinism of superiority is quite vivid in Islam as well. And why not? It accomplishes the same thing to promote one’s faith, and comes from a certain world view that each respective faith finally got spirituality “right.”

One day that caused me the most agita was the day Moamer explored the role of the intellect in Islam, specifically how faith and science co-exist in Islam. He used the absence of that symbiosis in Christianity as his foil. In my notes from that day I wrote down in my notebook, “It seems as if there is no tension in Islam about science and faith, and must Islam always trump everything else? What about modern science? Where are the Islamic scientists now on the world stage?” It was a provocative class, and Moamer and I did not agree. His understanding of the West seems grounded in many ways like Clarence Darrow in the Scopes-Monkey trial, but of course there is more.

Science and faith are not officially mutually exclusive in Christianity, although there are numerous examples that would create that understanding. Galileo is a great example. And Moamer raised him. But I countered with Pope Julius II who, a century before Galileo, believed he was the one who could bind theology and science together. And there are a host of scientists, on every list of great innovators of science, who were monks! Moamer and I debated, and I wished we could do more history. For a moment or two I thought I should not be a part of the seminar any more.

But of course, this was some of the best part of this opportunity. I get to hear what a twentysomething, intelligent, Arab science teacher thinks of his world, my world, and the mysteries of faith. His explanation of the dogma and the practice is enlightening. I can pair it with my experiences too, of course, and treasure those crossing points, those junctures in which we agree so easily. It also helps explain many world views that seem frustrating to me, or limited, or even un-enlightened. It is not un-enlightenment, it is simply what you have seen and experienced on your own journey.

Moamer tells many stories about the origins of words and phrases, all of which help illumine even more this part of the world, the delicate co-existence of Islam and Christianity, and certainly the keys to their world views. One week Moamer reminded us that in Islam, faith is “always amazing, always good, it is always "hamdillallah,” the phrase uttered when asked how you are. The phrase means, “through God and my faith, I am good.”

We have discussed jihad and terrorism, but again, the simplest and purest understandings come down to that journey in life seeking the divine, seeking the closeness and love of God. Moamer said, “We understand that life is like a prism; it is transitory, but our greatest reward is a closeness with Allah.” From there he went to explain the concept of repentance. At the end of class Moamer turned to me and said, “John, surely you have a comment. What do you make of this?” I had looked at my notes anyway, and realized, yet again, the similarities and challenges as both faiths (all faiths?) embrace the desire of Ihsan, to make life beautiful and meaningful.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

To Count, To Make a Difference

Yesterday I woke up without any plan at all for the day! Maybe four times in a calendar year is there such a day for me. Now remember, it may be my Teutonic blood which craves a plan, or my mother’s insistence that one gets so much more accomplished when one has a plan—whatever it is, I plan. I plan on days off; I plan when I may relax; I plan when I may be spontaneous. So yesterday was an unusual day. No plan! There was an inkling of a plan in the morning—there was supposed to be a grand going-out last night with a colleague, but that never materialized. So I spent the day plan-less. (I must admit I started to plan this blog entry, but then since it was officially a plan-less day, in the end I decided to wait until today when I knew I would resume my planning. Does the existence of an Official Plan-less Day actually constitute a plan??) I read outside in the warm, afternoon sun, fell asleep lazily over a novel, a book about Jan van Eyck, and a book about teaching. I watched two old movies, Anastasia and Double Indemnity. I wrote a couple emails, made a pot of soup—but there was no plan to the day.

In the afternoon I also caught up on some of the news of the last week. I have been intrigued by the events in Egypt all year, so I took great interest in Egypt’s first real voting since 1952. The results of Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections do not matter as much as the drama of the first day of voting, when millions of Egyptian citizens from all backgrounds mobbed the polls and cast ballots for the first time. Two threads in the story stayed with me through my lazy day. One reporter made it clear that the voting was not just seen as a right, but if you were found not to have voted, you were fined! (Think about how weak voter turn-out is in the USA—sometimes under 50% of eligible voters—maybe we should start fining our less-than-patriotic errant eligible voters!). The other story I liked so much involved a quotation from a twenty-something Egyptian who said he wanted his vote “to count” and “to make a difference.”

What an important concept! As I re-read Bill Ayres’ book on teaching for the 5th time, I came upon the end of Chapter 1. In the book this energetic, passionate teachers asks people why they teach given the lower salary and status of other professional careers. Ayres writes that “Teaching is an act of hope for a better future….the reward of teaching is knowing that your life makes a difference.” So many blog entries about counting this week! This statement is not especially novel—but when you line it up with the quotidian act of voting, as in Egypt, and the excitement over counting and the hopes for a better future, it becomes quite a heady thought.

Egypt will not have it easy. There very likely will be impediments in this transition from what has been military rule to democracy, and also likely is that the political parties elected will not deliver exactly what the people want. These disappointed and disillusioned voters will likely return to the streets in even greater numbers than before. But—the people have been transformed in 2011. The date of January 25th is seared into the people’s minds, the date of the first mass demonstration in Tahrir Square, which led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. The mindset, expectations and attitude toward rule has been transformed in Egypt. However, most people guess that the military has not changed and is rooted in the past. In the past couple of weeks tens of thousands of Egyptians have returned to protest in Tahrir Square—indeed, that square has been “legitimized” as the space for “people’s power” to confront the army-dominated regime. Tahrir Square has been the pulse of this burgeoning “people’s power” but now those people must discover what the people want and convey its will. Then they will become more powerful than the army and will insist on parliamentary accountability and that the Parliament will deliver.

Somehow in the midst of my lazy, plan-less day, I went from thinking about Egypt to other adventures in the world. As I basked in a sunny, December day I thought about one of my favorite stories. You probably can guess what story/movie it is: a storm separated her from her family, and her weathered farmhouse was ripped from the earth and spun around like a top. The events happened so fast it is easy to see why the young girl was afraid. But then suddenly, and unexpectedly, the screen lit up in dazzling Technicolor, soft music played in the background, and the girl’s world became one of enchantment. Dorothy Gale was in a multi-colored world far away from her home in Kansas. Dorothy sang and danced her way through her magical new world, caught between a desire for adventure and a hunger for her safe and loving home. Who doesn’t want to follow her, to be one of her new friends, and share in her journey??? When Dorothy sings, “Over the Rainbow,” who isn’t spellbound by the longing and hope she expresses?

So as I drifted in and out of my lazy, afternoon nap, I juggled the books on my lap, the stories of Egyptians, teachers, and the motley crew of The Wizard of Oz in my head. Let’s remind ourselves of a few things about The Wizard: it is the story of a journey, complete with lessons about heart, courage, inclusion, self-determination, and the will to succeed in the face of daunting obstacles. Dorothy also wanted to count, to make a difference. In many ways it is a parallel to the 1930s, the time of its greatest cinematic creation, but also just about any time since then. My, my—whoever thought of this parallel to Arab Spring??

A few years ago, in one of my Christmas letters, I was thinking about The Wizard of Oz then too. I wrote, “Although I haven’t seen any wicked witches or flying monkeys lately, a great tornado of events has shaken our community and our nation. We are emerging from our houses, much like Dorothy, to find that our world looks nothing like it did before. Where there was once predictability and order there is now uncertainty and adventure. But, like the movie, where there was only black and white, there is now Technicolor, adventure and opportunity. We all know Dorothy never actually traveled to a new place. Instead, she had the rare opportunity to see beyond the limitations she and others placed upon herself and her world, and looked over the rainbow to the colorful possibilities that, as she later learns, had been there all along. Our environment has been shaken by economic, political, and social forces that provide us the same opportunity to look over the rainbow and “see” the excitement and adventure in our own community.”

What powerful images and ideas emerge from that chestnut of a movie. As I work on notes for the professional development seminar I will lead tomorrow, and re-read a great book on teaching, I marvel how the 1939 M-G-M classic movie has many lessons for us. The Egyptians have many lessons for us. We can weave together all of these for another reminder of how we can “count” and indeed “make a difference.” And most importantly, we have the opportunity to fashion our future and achieve great things. Like Dorothy, we must recognize that the power to achieve our goals lies not in Emerald City far away, but right at our own feet.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Inscrutable arithmetic

In the thirty years since I left the domain of mathematics (you have heard that story right? About when I skipped math class for a month as a high school sophomore? Oh well, if not, you should ask about it sometime—it is a doozy of adolescent stupidity!) I have rarely found myself in a math classroom. However, with my new title and responsibilities as…ahem…Dean of Curriculum and Instruction, I have been to every kind of classroom in the last month. It is safe to say that I have seen more math classes this fall than in the last thirty years put together. I have seen Geometry and Algebra and Algebra II and Statistics and something called FST and Calculus, both AP and non-AP. I have seen some excellent instruction, and since I do not have to worry about the content (one could easily say I am content-free in this arena) I can simply enjoy the pedagogy of my colleagues. I have enjoyed going to math class!

So all this going-to-class in math made me think about math and arithmetic in other areas of the world; since I live in the world of the Bible, I often think about the people who trod this area back in Bible times. So I was thinking about the Bible and arithmetic. The story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes concludes with this bit of data: “Those who ate were about five thousand men ….to say nothing of the women and children.” So I gotta ask: Who was doing the counting? I wonder who was counting on the day Jesus produced this miracle. Matthew tells us someone was counting the loaves and fishes: they started with a count of five and two … but then, after all had eaten, they ended up with “twelve baskets full.” And someone was counting the people … or at least someone was counting some of the people: “those who ate were about five thousand men … to say nothing of the women and children.” Whoever counted, only counted the men. They only counted the men because only men counted. So how many were there? How do we do the arithmetic? At this picnic there could roughly be two or three or four or five times as many people, if we count everyone really there. (I need a tangent here—the whole thing about ‘not enough food’—have times changed so much? For what mother leaves the house with her child without bringing along snacks: juice boxes, animal crackers, yogurt, Cheerio’s, string cheese????)

Biblical arithmetic is inscrutable. Jesus said if you own two coats, that’s one too many: give one away. On the other hand, if someone slaps you on one cheek, that’s one too few: invite them to slap you on the other cheek … and make it an even pair.
Biblical arithmetic is inscrutable. Jesus said we are to forgive those who sin against us, not seven times, but seventy times seven times … which is a lot … four hundred and ninety times … The point is that none of us, not even those who make an art of holding a grudge, can count that high.

The moral of the story: stop counting and start forgiving.

Jesus has an unusual way of counting. He said this: If you have 100 sheep and one goes missing, you should abandon those 99. Leave them defenseless against wolves and go chase down that one that was lost. That’s quite a gamble. So, here’s a riddle: What if those numbers are reversed? What if it’s the other way round? What if it is not the one who is lost, but the 99? Put it another way: If the 1% are okay and the 99% are in trouble, what should we do?

Ahhh…do you see a contemporary connection right now?? In 60 cities across the US (as I follow from my Middle Eastern armchair) right now there is a “99% Movement” in the Occupy _____ protests. These movements claim to represent the 99% of Americans and how the 1% of wealthy Americans have grown too rich while the vast majority have been left behind. As these protests grow into their third month, critics keep asking what it is all about? (This question came up the other day in a class of mine and a supper time conversation with students and teachers.)

From what I have gathered it is a little murky, but not really anti-capitalist. I think the source of the frustration and anger is income inequality. Let’s do the math they tell us in the news. I have read that the wealthiest 400 people in the US are now worth more than the bottom 150 million Americans. Hmmm…and three years after taxpayers bailed out the Wall Street gamblers whose recklessness stirred up the Great Recession, the average pay in the securities industry is over $360,000. Gulp! I don’t often quote Al Gore, but the once-inventor of the internet says we are seeing “a primal scream of democracy.”

“We are the 99 percent” is a great slogan. It correctly defines the issue as being the middle class versus the elite (as opposed to the middle class versus the poor). And it also gets past the common but wrong establishment notion that rising inequality is mainly about the well educated doing better than the less educated; the big winners in this new Gilded Age have been a handful of very wealthy people, not college graduates in general.

Economist Paul Krugman wrote the other day, “If anything, however, the 99 percent slogan aims too low. A large fraction of the top 1 percent’s gains have actually gone to an even smaller group, the top 0.1 percent — the richest one-thousandth of the population.”

Krugman’s article helped me out a little: “The recent Congressional Budget Office report on inequality didn’t look inside the top 1 percent, but an earlier report, which only went up to 2005, did. According to that report, between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted, after-tax income of Americans in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent. The equivalent number for the richest 0.1 percent rose 400 percent.”

I read a story the other day about one of the satellite protests, the Occupy Boston protest. There were champions and critics of this protest, like in all cities, but it made me think about the history of Boston as well. Back in another November, the November of 1773 (wow—238 years ago, and no, I was not there) there was incredible frustration about income and tax inequality then too. People we routinely call ‘patriots’ today did some counting and counted the total chests of tea aboard three ships in Boston Harbor: 342 chests. They counted and deeply resented the taxes they were obligated to pay to the British Crown for their beloved tea. So they had a Tea Party. Heard of it?

After the Boston Tea Party, after the three ships had been boarded and after the chests had been pried open and the tea poured into the Harbor—all 342 chests, all 90,000 pounds of tea—Benjamin Franklin, the one and only, counted the cost. No fan of such wanton waste of good tea, Franklin urged the colonists to pay back the cost of the destroyed property (which, at two shillings per pound, came to £9,000, or, in today’s numbers: £888 thousand). I was just in London, so let me do the math for you. More than a million dollars. A tidy sum. But counting is a tricky business … as we know, the counting being in the eye of the beholder.

Like the Occupy Movement, the Boston Tea Party had its many detractors: those who condemned it as the “ill-conceived act of a lawless mob.” And it had its defenders: those who, like John Adams, found it “dignified, majestic and sublime.” The Boston Tea Party was, and Occupy is, fundamentally about money and fairness.

Both movements sprang from a similar conviction: that a small percent of those in charge are playing by a different set of rules than everyone else.

The Boston Tea Party involved trespassing on private property and the temporary occupation of ships belonging to the East India Company … while Occupy involves the occupation of public spaces.

Unlike Occupy, The Boston Tea Party, centered on and depended on the intentional, calculated destruction of property.

Like the Occupy Movement, the Boston Tea Partiers were comprised of more than its serious organizers and activists … there were other elements along for the ride: common thieves, smugglers, hooligans, drunkards, and provocateurs … all of whom attracted the attention of detractors and gave to the committed activists a bad name.
If Biblical arithmetic is inscrutable, it is not alone in that. One of the most inscrutable statistics about Occupy is this: half of the top 1% of earners in this country don’t count themselves in the top 1% … according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Whether you are counted, and how much you count for, very much depends on who is doing the counting.

What about your arithmetic? How do you count?

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Joy of Pie

The other day during one of our advisor/advisee lunches, my advisee Mu’umen smiled at me and said, “You know, Mr. John, of all the things I like about you, I think it is how much you enjoy food that is my favorite thing about you.”

The boy knows me well!

The occasion for the comment was a quasi-Thanksgiving meal on Tuesday, on the last “sit-down” meal of this term before exams swooped in and everyone would eat for a week in what we call “walk-through” meals. The chef and dining hall staff approximated a Thanksgiving meal for the students and advisors, and my advisees gamely tried things like stuffing and sweet potatoes. I love my advisees anyway—we six simply enjoy being together—and we love to talk about food, share food, laugh over food. (Other advisor/advisee groups are not as lucky and I heard some grumpiness about “Why do we have to have this stupid American food?” and “Who said we wanted to have an American Thanksgiving meal” and “That orange stuff is awful!” and also “Who would actually want to eat turkey????”)

So of course in Thanksgiving week, if you are far from your real home, a wistfulness creeps in. I have only been home for Thanksgiving once in the five years of this Jordan project, so it puts me in mind of things Cincinnati and New York. And, well food. And when I think of Thanksgiving, in the top 5 food things I think about, I think about pie.

Pie has been on my mind this week in a wonderful way. (Is it ever that far from one’s mind??) On Wednesday night this week, I invited over dear friends Reem and Julianne for mushroom soup and other things fresh from the London trip (like cheeses…yum). Reem knows me well—she eagerly offered to bring a pie for dessert. Oh, Reem—we need to have dinner more often! As always, the mood was light and fun and deep and important when we three get together and break it all down. But then came dessert. Reem made that pie. And it was a beauty. She made a peach pie (how did she know?? One of my Top 10 Favorites!! Oh, time for a little tangent: do you know the story of the joke my mother used to tell about my father and pie? When she did a “This Is Your Life” party for my dad, she had all these quiz questions about Kenny Leistler, and one question was…” ‘Ken Leistler only likes two kinds of pie…what are they??’ The answer: “hot and cold”! Well, our family friend Edna, who turned 94 this fall, always forgot that answer, and we would tease her going over to this veteran pie-baker’s house for dinner, “You know Edna, our father only likes two kinds of pie…I hope you made one of them!” Edna would dither and sputter and flutter and flither (a new word as of this moment) hoping she had guessed right, and then we would slay her with the monumental answer of “hot and cold!” Oh, see how these pies give my mind a flight of fancy!! Back to Reem and her peach pie…) and it was a beaut. Oh, I think I already said that. Well, she had made a flaky crust, and you know how a good flaky crust just takes those flecks of butter and just enough sugar…oh another strange allusion—do you remember the 30 Rock episode where Tracy Morgan’s character loved the cornbread so much he wanted to go out and marry it…well, this peach pie was a beaut.

Maybe I like pie so much because of all the gastronomic things I like to make, I don’t attempt pie much and so I appreciate it. Maybe I like pie so much because my mother was an intrepid pie-maker. She eschewed cakes for the most part and concentrated her efforts on supremely great pies. Meringue pies stunning! Berry pies, and, yes, she made a ribbon-worthy peach pie. Maybe I like pie so much because it takes time and commitment and I love things that require investment and labor and then have all the simple wonders of butter and sugar and…okay blog-writing is not supposed to be so mouth-watering.

So Thanksgiving morning (a work day for us) I get a call from my friend Randa—she has an apple pie for me! She knew Thanksgivings were hard for the Americans away from home, so she wanted me to feel some of the love and care of home…Randa—well, pie can do that, can’t it?!

Reem had tendered an invitation to her family’s home in Amman for Thanksgiving dinner, and even though I would sadly miss the faculty pot-luck Thanksgiving meal, being with a real family on that day beats almost anything. Reem’s mother and father have lived in Georgia, in the United States, for a long time, and just this fall moved back for awhile to Jordan to be with Reem’s grandmother, her sweet and feisty 90-year old Tateh. So Reem’s mother and father know of Thanksgivings.

Julianne and I come over to Reem’s family’s house, and the mother is putting the finishing touches on a splendid meal. She has a schedule on the refrigerator of when to get everything done—ahhh…a woman after my own heart—and has it all mapped out. Soon the guests arrive—Reem’s aunts and family friends for decades spill into the apartment. The dishes spill out of the kitchen, the two kinds of stuffing, an American-style and an Arab-style stuffing, broccoli salad, beets, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and a beautiful turkey. We gather round and hold hands, and Reem’s father offers a stirring prayer. He thanks God for our blessings and abundance and gratitude for flourishing lives. While I know really well only two other people in the room—Reem and Julianne—I am surrounded by a loving family and devoted friends and a sense of sincere thanks. It may not be my blood family, but in this moment of food and thanks, it fills the void. This is a family that has had to be peripatetic: they had to leave Palestine in 1948 and then they left Lebanon and many have left Jordan to America. But through it all, these ties of family and friends have obviously sustained them. In Cincinnati, at almost the exact same time, my large extended family was eating at Uncle Jack and Aunt Joy’s house (now she is a Thanksgiving cook of your dreams!) reveling in the same ties of family and friends, in awe too at the abundance and blessings.

I did good work at Reem’s mother’s house. I had thirds. And then came dessert. There was chocolate mousse cake and a pumpkin cheesecake and Arab sweets and a pumpkin pie. You know, Libby’s canned pumpkin really does fit the bill well…it wasn’t quite the American pumpkin pie, but maybe that’s just all right. I can still think about and long for that ideal pumpkin pie.

At the dinner I discovered all kinds of ties to my own peripatetic journey. One aunt had lived in Chicago, and I told her about when I lived there as a college junior, and I would take the bus right by her church, and we talked about the North shore of Chicago. Another friend lives in Charlotte, North Carolina part-time, and her church at one time met in the school where I taught in Charlotte; we talked about the explosion of activity and homes on the south side of Charlotte. Reem’s mother and I looked at her hymnal collection, and right there was the same hymnal that my family had used in my childhood in our church.

Another family friend wanted to ask me about the tradition of the US President pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving time. She wondered if it went back to the beginning of our history. I don’t know when it started, but I guess it is much more modern, perhaps the 1930s or 1940s and certainly just a photo op really, but she was fascinated by the ceremony and the official pardon for the National Thanksgiving Turkey. I told her about the great episode of “The West Wing” that also goes over this strange tradition and the lighthearted jesting that must ensue as the President says something like, “Our guest of honor looks a little nervous. Nobody’s told him yet he’s getting a pardon.”

It was a delightful Thanksgiving. I have pie in the fridge and pie on my mind…which reminds me that the title of this blog could go another way as well. The Joy of Pie, could also be understood, by math-o-philes, as The Joy of Pi.

Speaking of math—a phrase rarely uttered by me—I heard a thrilling lesson the other day by a math teacher. On one of the professional development days that I plan, last Sunday, I asked a handful of teachers to give brief lessons so we can watch colleagues teach and enjoy their expertise. I asked Cassie to do a lesson, and she did a lesson on graphing that astounded me. She had graphs and asked us to make up stories about what the graphs might mean. Then she gave us some story scenarios and asked us to “graph” the stories. It was so fun. I loved math again!

Thanksgiving is obviously about thanks. Not just food, of course, but thanks. But as we expand that understanding of thanksgiving (expand? A Thanksgiving pun on expanding waistlines?!) it is also about pardons and therefore forgiveness. And maybe as we make our way out of our food comas, we can go from the pie to the thanksgiving to the pardon to the forgiveness and therein lies the greatest of all gifts…hope. As we remind ourselves of our blessings, think purposefully about forgiveness, there we find the hope to sustain us. An old theologian once wrote, “Hope is fueled by the presence of God…it is also fueled by the future of God in our lives.” We can join in the psalmist who sang, “I shall yet praise Him and thank Him.”

You know, math got a little short shrift in this blog entry. I think I will come back in a day or two and offer some musings on math. I’m serious! I even have the title already: “Inscrutable Arithmetic.”

Time to turn on the Christmas music, and have a pie break.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Postcard from London

It has been thirty years since I first travelled abroad—and the first city the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir landed in was London on that 1981 tour. London has always been a special city for me (have I revealed that in my youth I even subscribed to a British magazine about the royal family called Majesty???) and I sat and down and counted. I think I had been to London 13 or 14 times. Although, I haven’t been there much in the 21st century.

Anyway, the Eid break in the school calendar came up, and I decided to go to London. In the last couple of years I have gone back to the USA for this break (By the way, to refresh your memories, this Eid break is two moons since the last Eid celebration which marks the end of Ramadan. This Eid marks when many pilgrims will make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. If you don’t go to Mecca, well, Muslim families rejoice and celebrate and eat a lot of lamb.) but I decided to go to London when one of our dearest students from last year planned to attend a university in London.

Well, his college plans changed, but I still liked the idea of going to London. I hadn’t been there in such a long time, and for many of those times I went I led group tours and I got in a bit of a rut of seeing the same things. I also called up Christy, the education genius/guru friend of mine in New York and floated the idea of meeting in London for a fall holiday.

She was in!

Now came the real worry—how would Christy and I meet up in London??? In the 17 years I have known Christy, while she is a genius about education and pedagogy, well, her genius stops short of being a whiz with plans and meeting and times. I could fill many a blog entry about the misfires over plans and where and when to meet (and not just say 8 hours away, just when we are in a museum and we plan to meet at the end—bathroom stops anywhere practically fill me with dread…will I ever find her again even though we had a plan. See here is the difficulty: we were coming from different continents into different airports. Christy—(oh, how can I put this gently???) is not good with maps or times or meeting points. They all run together and fortunately, the angels have conspired to nudge her along in life so that she stays out of harm’s way. Where shall we meet? I was to arrive at midnight and she would arrive the following morning about 10:00 a.m. Hmmmm….have you heard the story about when we both flew into Amman at the same time but on different airlines? The plan seemed so simple—I said to her, just wait for me at baggage claim and we will go back to school together! Such a simple plan…oh, but as the sage warned us, “the best laid plans…” She found a ride back to school and left me waiting at the airport for an hour or more until I guessed she must not have followed the simple plan. So how shall we handle this? I needed a plan. Yes, but a plan with extra plans. I needed a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C.

Before I figured out the plan, I also needed to tackle the problem of lodging. London is expensive! Since many of my trips to London over the years have been group tours, I don’t really know how much a good, clean, well-located budget hotel costs. Let me give you a hint: anything under $200 a night is subject to the kind of reviews on-line that run the gamut from, “If you don’t mind peeling paint, cigarette burns everywhere and mold, then this is the place for you!” Another review went, “I believe the breakfast served us at this place is historical. I am sure the bread is left from sea rations from WWII.” Or the many reviews that went something like, “This is the worst place I have stayed in my life.” So…how to find a budget hotel…I finally decided that we didn’t need central London. We had decided to come to London to visit each other too, and so a longer subway ride (the Tube, you know, as they call it) didn’t matter. So I found a guest house in the suburb of Brentford, a suburb in Zone 4. (Central London, of course, is in Zone 1). But the reviews were decent and the price was about $75 a person…far superior than all those other highway robbers. Okay, now to the plan…

Plan A—where shall we meet? How can Christy find me? I decided that we would meet at Victoria Rail Station…okay, but where? I hadn’t been in that rail station in over a decade, but, hmmm…they must have a Track 1! Yes, that is Plan A. Let’s say noon!! Christy will come off her plane about 10:00…oh, and did I say that there would not be cell phones available to us…she knew hers would not work…oh, see, you thought it should have been simple to just call each other. I am one scary step ahead of you! Okay, she would get through customs, get on the Tube at Heathrow, transfer—good heavens, would she remember to transfer???? Then we would meet in Victoria Station at Track 1 at noon. She was not to walk around, go shopping…nothing…if there were any complications…we would meet in front of Buckingham Palace at 2:30, and then Plan C, the scariest one of all, we would proceed to the guest house in Brentford and meet there.

When Julianne took me to the airport in Amman to catch my flight to London she said gravely, “Does Christy understand that the very future of your relationship hangs in the balance here??” I felt like a Secretary of State going into a high level meeting, “I think she does,” I responded.

She arrived at 12:02 at Track 1 looking like the intrepid plan-follower that she was at that moment.

Oh, yes, the blog entry isn’t just meeting at Track 1! I almost forgot…
It was a great holiday in London.We had a glorious visit and holiday! Christy was there for three days, and then I was on my own for three days in London. What a great city. I saw 5 plays, 1 concert, 1 British film, visited a dozen museums (they are FREE people!!!) ate food from around the world, kicked autumn leaves as we walked down our suburban street in Brentford. (By the way, if any of you go to London, I recommend the Hazel Wood Guest House highly—cleanest place I have ever seen, a hearty breakfast, and interesting guests…in fact…at our first breakfast, as Christy canvassed the table, we discovered that there were guests at the table from New York, England, India, China, South Africa, Ireland, and I was the Middle Eastern representative. There were only 8 of us in this guest house (it was full) and look at the around-the-world dynamics.)

The weather report on-line had predicted rain every day, and so I carried my umbrella with me, but after the third day, I left it. It never rained…well, maybe four drops. I walked into bookstores, I lingered in tea shops, I ate many, many good bacon sandwiches, and I just walked. While I used the Tube considerably, I hopped on the double-decker busses, but I walked. London is a walking town.

Oh, and the plays. Christy and I saw “The Pitmen Painters,” a British play in New York I saw last year about coal miners who had a little fling with art and the art world in the 1930s, and then I saw Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in “Driving Miss Daisy,” and I saw “Inadmissable Evidence,” a bitter 1960 play by the angry John Osbourne, a play about Wallis Simpson, a play called “The Kitchen” at the estimable National Theater, and Hamlet with Michael Sheen…wait, that makes six! I forgot—one glorious day was a double-play day!

I went to several museums I had never gotten to before—the unbelievably beautiful Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Cortauld Gallery, and the Tate Modern. I flitted in and out of the British Museum several times, the National Gallery several times, and just soaked in the vast amount of culture in London.
I could hardly have been happier!

London is really everything Amman is not: there is variety in food choices, diversity in people, art, theater, bookstores…lots of music and attention to history, clean streets, abundant maps on the streets and easy to understand signs (and signs, of course in English!) and some very good manners. I made a new friend, Marcey, an old friend of Christy’s who is in college in London. Marcey is also enamored of London. She can hardly imagine living anywhere else. After Christy left Marcey offered me a free dorm room in her college hall—how wonderfully nice—and we sighed over our mutual love of London.

So what doesn’t London have? Well, this week when we started school, and my first class came in, that wonderful 20th Century History class of Dima and Lubna and Mohammed and Moutasem and Jooho and Mounir and Hashem and Zain and Noor and Sumaya and Noor-Eddin and Hussein and Hanna and Divij, I just love these guys. They weren’t in London. I needed to come back and get to work as we deconstruct the 20th century.
My trips to London over the last 30 years have been with most everyone who has made it into my Travel Hall of Fame and also my Travel Hall of Shame. I thought of them as I traversed the city, readying itself for the 2012 Olympic Games. I loved thinking of Anne and Chuck and Tony and Sharon and Mary and my sister Elizabeth and students from all three of my previous schools. What a grand reunion with London, six marvelous days in an exciting, vibrant, fulfilling city!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Capacity to Love

Since my last blog entry, an important milestone in the history of the world has passed. No, it wasn’t a Golden Girls marathon, or a chili festival, or a musical about my life. (Nothing about me actually!) In the last few days the world witnessed the birth of the 7 billionth person on our planet. I went and looked up and learned that since I was born, the world has literally doubled in population.

Of all the 7 billion people who are alive now, and the billions before us who have passed into the life beyond our profanus, there are two who really stand out to me: my parents, Kenneth and Mary Martha.

And in the next 24 hours a slightly less momentous event will pass in the history of the world—Kenneth and Mary Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary.

Over the years of blog writing you have picked up bits and pieces about how influential on me my parents have been. Right now is a perfect time to re-visit some of those thoughts and think about what they were doing 50 years ago right now.

Frankly, Kenny and Mare couldn’t have picked a better date for their wedding. Maybe they knew that their first-born would be a history-obsessed being, because they chose such a perfect, November 4th, for their wedding day…wait for it..wait, you don’t know? You can’t see how perfect it was that they chose November 4th? Ahh, maybe you weren’t invited on another November 4th, back in 1842 when resolute Abraham Lincoln married saucy Mary Todd. In my childhood I was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, and I remember one year thanking my parents for having picked the Lincoln’s wedding day for their own wedding day.

Talk of this glorious November 4th wedding in 1961 was never far from us in my childhood. My mother loved her wedding photo albums and we looked at them frequently. There was a beautiful one, bound in red leather, of the black-and-white shots of the wedding. Then there was a more-expensive-looking album full of the color shots. And from time-to-time, my mother was known to take out the reel-to-reel tape recorder and play the recording of the actual wedding. My sister and I would sit right by my mother, and we heard the recording often enough that not only could we recite the vows, but we knew the exact intonation of that wonderful bride and groom. The bride sounded dreamy and the groom sounded no-nonsense—what a pair, what a combination!!

When I was in 5th grade I inaugurated a new way to celebrate my parent’s anniversary: I would cook them a multi-course meal. This was toward the beginning of my obsession with cooking, and I would get out my mother’s cookbooks and pore over the possibilities of courses. In the 4th grade I made a meal, like, you know a standard, bourgeois meal. But the following year, I planned far ahead, chose stuffed pork chops with an orange glaze as my main dish, and then looked for appetizers and courses and courses to make. I decided to invite my friend Kecia Yee home from school, and paid her $5 to be the waitress for all the courses.

At the end of this extravagant meal I wished them well, and wished them good luck in cleaning up, and went to watch an episode of Rhoda. I announced that none of the great cooks in the world cleaned up. Can you imagine what Kenny and Mare talked about as they cleaned up every pot and pan they owned from their multi-course anniversary meal? Oh, my. Eventually, I did learn to clean up after myself.

These days I like to watch the TV show Mad Men just to get an idea of what those days were like in the early 60s when my parents courted, got married, and started a family. My father even looks like Jon Hamm as Don Draper. But while the fashions and the mores are similar to 1961 Cincinnati, that is where the comparisons end. In terms of personalities, smoking, and drinking, Kenny and Mare are nothing (thank Heavens!) like the Drapers.

I enjoy thinking what my parents were like in terms of personality. I know them well. But of course much of our family story could be overshadowed by the MS that took hold in my mother. The MS limited us in some ways, and some people would think it would ravage the dreamy-ness of that 1961 Mary Martha. But no, the MS did not deter the resolute Ken, nor rob the dramatic, dreamy Mary Martha of their love and efforts at wedded bliss.

A couple years ago, in a blog entry, I wrote this about my father: Last summer I read an account of Abraham Lincoln’s rise to national prominence. A New York newspaper characterized the newly minted Republican Party Presidential Nominee: “As for Lincoln, he has all the marks of a mind that scans closely, canvasses thoroughly, concludes deliberately, and holds to such conclusions unflinchingly.” I read that, and thought—that’s my father! Those are the same traits as Ken Leistler. Grappling with my mother’s MS for decades imbued him with strength and human understanding rarely found in people. He has taught us that life-affirming humor and profound resilience will lighten despair and fortify one’s will.

And as for that dreamy-voiced, effervescent bride 50 years ago? Well, they didn’t make it to the 50-year mark here on earth. But they triumphed in nearly 45 years of marriage plus the courtship. Four years ago I wrote of the evening when my father called to relay the news that she had slipped away to Heaven: On that May evening when my father called to relay the news that my mother had passed away, I was on the way to one of my plays I had directed. There were scenes in this play from the myths that Ovid wrote in ancient Rome. My favorite was the last scene, wherein a man and wife begged the gods not to outlive their own capacity to love. In the weeks preceding the performance I had enjoyed this scene anyway, for it reminded me of the love between my parents. In the play, this man and wife stood hand in hand begging the gods not to allow them to outlive their own capacity to love. As I drove to school that night, it was such a natural thing to honor her life by watching this play of mine. She was the one who infused my life to enjoy adventure and excitement, instilled in me a love of imagination and wonder, and taught me that love was the mightiest bulwark. As I watched those two beg the gods, “let me not outlive my own capacity to love,” I knew that I had witnessed the best example I will ever know of a man and wife who never outgrew their own capacity to love.

For many years I would call my parents on November 4th, and ask my mother to remember what she was doing on that day. While her short-term memory became more like vapor, she had a vibrant memory of that day in 1961 when she married her “Special K.” I would ask what she had been doing that November day, who she was talking about, how the plans were going, what she worried about, who she was excited to see at the wedding. I could feel her smile and joy as she re-lived that day for me on the phone.

In a couple minutes I will call my father and ask him some of the same questions, marveling that half a century has passed since he wore that white dinner jacket, dark trousers, and brilliant smile at the end of the aisle. In a couple hours I will be jetting to London for a quick vacation, and who knows if I will get to call tomorrow. I have to relay my congratulations for this momentous event in world history.

In my Christmas letter of 2006, I reflected on the power of my mother in our family’s life and times: My mother’s life and death have been powerful teaching tools for our family. She showed us what deep, abiding faith in God looks like. And yet, she never exhibited a stony stoicism, nor did she cultivate an anger at God for what had happened to her. While some say anger might be appropriate, and certainly understandable, she showed us that we have to imagine other responses. Anger, vengeance, regret, remorse, these only foster a destructive cycle—like Indiana Jones, we may have to make it up as we go along, so in my mother’s opinion, we might as well choose joy. Mary Martha Griley Leistler always looked for something to give thanks for in the midst of what might be troubling and fearsome. She would remind us that we don’t always have a choice about what happens to us, but we always have a choice in our attitude. Refuse to complain. Insist on hope. Expect miracles. Seek peace.

They may not be as famous as the Lincolns; it may not be as earth shattering as the 7 billionth earthling, but what a pair that I have been blessed to know. There is a bulletin from a church service in Tarrytown back in 2004 that I keep in my Bible. The title of the sermon is “The Grip of a Loving God.” I keep it because of the title of that sermon. I look at my parents, the wondrous Mary Martha, the resolute Kenneth, and I think that my whole life has been shaped by that loving grip of my parents’ capacity to love.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What’s absurd???

I remember when I read Tip O’Neill’s memoir, twenty-five years ago, his dictum the then-Speaker of the House emphasized throughout his book: “All politics is local.”

Oh, in the last week, as I have mused about politics local, regional, global, and back in my old neck of the woods, Tip had a good tip. “All politics is local.” You gotta understand the locals, hear their stories, see their point of view, and then you have a better idea of politics.

Like many of us, I watched the news about a month ago when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave what some consider a deliberately offensive speech describing the United Nations General Assembly as “the theater of the absurd.”

As I flipped the channel from an American news source, to a British news source, to an Arab news source, it was interesting to see who supported Netanyahu’s speech and who blasted him. From two of three news agencies it was clear that Israel has few friends at the UN, and that the world community seems very much united in its support for Palestinian rights.

As I have said time and again in these blog entries that touch on the political, I have no baggage toward either “side” in this debate—and before I came to Jordan, I spent little time wondering about the Israeli or the Palestinian “side.” But having been in the Arab world now for over four years, and reading and watching other news agencies, and listening to the locals, I have at least a more expanded view on the politics of Palestine.

I suppose the bitterest pill to swallow in this stalemate has been the Israeli penchant to build more settlements on Palestinian land, or as one colleague calls them, “illegal colonies.” These settlements keep coming, in spite of their violation of international law. And the sad fact that they are funded by US money.

Oh, let’s go back to Netanyahu’s speech (now that I am thinking about Tip O’Neill, Benjy kinda looks like the former Speaker of the House…anyway, I digress…and if you notice, it was not a sit-com digression…). As I watched the speech, I took in the theatricality of it all. Despite the difficulties facing Netanyahu at home—social upheaval and mass protests—and abroad, Prime Minister Netanyahu remains well-composed, speaking with the tones of an emperor. (Maybe I am thinking of emperors since I just finished teaching about the Roman Emperors…oooh, let’s see, which Roman emperor would he be like? Caesar Augustus? Nero? Titus? Marcus Aurelius? Caracalla? Romulus? Each one reflects a little differently on the nature of governor…)

Oh, yes the settlements. Shortly after announcing plans to construct 1000 new units on Palestinian land, the United States announced it was “disappointed.” And the Israeli anti-settlement organization “Peace Now” called it “the height of injustice.” Did you know there was an Israeli anti-settlement organization?

As we look at the situation, it becomes clearer to me that that the United States has done much to ensure that Israel’s violations of international law go unpunished; heck, worse, it largely funded these violations, and shielded Israel from any accountability. Another colleague once showed me a list she had compiled of words that the United States State Department had used when reacting to the build-up of these illegal settlements. The words and phrases used over the years include: “disappointment, disapproval, not constructive, not helpful, threat to the peace process, and obstacles to peace.”

And Tip O’Neill’s reminder rings in my ears as I hear the stories of colleagues whose families and friends have had more olive groves destroyed and homes demolished. That politics—it certainly is local. We rarely think about this aspect of it in the United States; we simply allow the politicians and lobbyists to bolster and repair the alliance with Israel. Do we think about the local politics of it all?

The Obama administration tried hard, albeit with no success, to get the Israeli government to accept a limited freeze on settlement building to enable direct talks to resume. But it is coming up to an election year and that quadrennial theater game soon goes into overdrive.

Sadly, in the wake of the Abbas Palestinian Authority bid for statehood, I read of a new push by US lawmakers to cut off aid to the Palestinians as punishment for their efforts to become a separate state…oh my, the O’Neill Corollary to Politics is singing a grand aria about the Mitt Romney declaration that “Our friends should never fear that we will not stand by them in an hour of need.”

Theater of the absurd, indeed.

But another note, we hosted a “theatrical” event at KA this week. There was a delegation of about 30 dignitaries on campus, fresh from the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea last weekend. My advisees and I hosted two guests from the government of Rwanda at our lunch table and they were so interesting to talk with. After that, the school went to the auditorium to hear General Tommy Franks speak about leadership. Afterwards, students peppered him with questions, some of them critical of American involvement in the region, and he answered with care and grace. It was another moment of politics being local, both from the Middle Eastern side, and from understanding the American side that every action and inaction in America has consequences with the electorate.

What a great week to think about politics, on the small scale, and the large scale.

As for all the theaters of the absurd, I like Tommy Franks’ question and exhortation to our students, “What are you going to do about these problems???”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Third time the charm???

I have signed up for Introductory Arabic class…again. I suppose the single biggest regret of this whole I-live-and-teach-in-the-Middle-East thing is that I didn’t become fluent in Arabic. Oh, languages…I used to love learning languages! I remember being in French I class with Mr. Hall at Gamble Jr. High—I loved that class! I was the best! And then in college I started in on German (after a brief foray with Spanish and Latin) and went to Salzburg, Austria to perfect my German. I even convinced a tourist one time that I was a native. What happened to my muse for languages???

If you are a long-time reader of the blog, you will remember the fanfare and excitement with which we all flocked to Arabic class four years ago. Khalil taught us, and our class of 18 met at the end of the week for two hours. That timing might explain why halfway through the year the class had dwindled to about a half dozen. I attended class pretty faithfully, hey, I even made a stack of flash cards. I learned vocabulary—but then something happened when we went to make sentences. The sentences didn’t really form very well. By the end of the year, I attended the class with two other friends—yes, it turned out our class of 18 had reduced to three—and I even cheated occasionally off of their papers. Oh, no I just announced via the internet that I have cheated. Well, I wanted to save face in Introductory Arabic class.

In the fall of 2008, I decided I should go back to Introductory Arabic again. Khalil had a fresh batch of ex-pat recruits, and this time I was going to practice more. I think I lasted three weeks.

Since then, I have learned that one can get by in Jordan without an extensive understanding of Arabic. But still, that isn’t how I wanted it to be. I wanted to be one of the “sensitive” ex-pats, one who enjoyed the knowledge of the different Arabic dialects, and could converse with everyone from the souk bazaars to the boardrooms. I did have a great line every time a parent asked me about the ex-pats learning of Arabic when I served on panel discussions. My ready line is, “I know the three most important words in Arabic: inshallah, wallah, yallah.” Cue the laughter. [Oh, I should translate for those of you who did not attend even rudimentary Arabic classes—those three words mean, “if God wills it,” “I swear to God,” and “Yeah, come on, let’s go!”] Every time I am on the panel they beam and laugh.

I have even bought four books over the last three years about learning Arabic. I am not sure if I have cracked those books very often (“I am not sure,” he asks????? I think we all know the answer to that one!) but they look good on the bookshelf. They make me look earnest. Well, I suppose they also make me look stupid since my level of Arabic is still at the advanced introductory stage!

Last year KA hired a new teacher to help the ex-pats in their Arabic immersion. I heard she made you work. I heard she gave homework and quizzes. I heard she was feared—and good. If you saw her, you would wonder where the “feared” part came from. She is a beautiful, 24-year old who studied in the UK. At the end of last year the adult students did a play in Arabic for the school…wait a minute—no one said there would be a play!! And applause!!!

I heard that our headmaster John planned to sign up for Introductory Arabic class this year. I decided I should probably sign up for it…again. Maybe this time…cue the Liza Minnelli soundtrack please.

Okay, so I looked at the lists of who had signed up for the two blocks of Introductory Arabic class, and I decided to go with the group I thought would be the most fun. So I am back in the game! The first class we all got to pick our Arabic names and practice with the “Isme John,” part—guess what that means…”My name is John…” Yes, I am back at the beginning.

I picked Yahya as my Arabic name. In part because that is the name for Christian John in Arabic (when you go to Mukawir, the site where John the Baptist had that unfortunate tangle with Salome, one sees that name on the signs) and I chose Yahya in part because I love the sound of it. Every time I say it, my shoulders go up with a little bit of whimsy. So Lina, the lovely teacher, told us the meanings of many, many Arabic names, and the adults start choosing names because they want to be “Gift from God,” or “Lovelier than All,” or “Tough Guy,” et cetera. So our class is comprised of the following in their Arabic guises: Yasmin, Hadi, Danya, Zein (whoops! She changed her name to Fareeda because she liked the meaning of it more.) and Sara, Qusai, Ali, Bader, Tarik, Khalil, and Heba…We enjoyed the practice and had fun.

We worked on the guttural sounds that just don’t have a match in English, we learned new words and she put each of us in the “hotseat” for about sixty seconds as she plied us with questions. Lina is an excellent teacher and we are doing well. I will speak for myself—I am doing well. Of course, it is my third time in Introductory Arabic class. So I should be a star.

Last week I learned that one of our classmates jumped ship to the other class because that student felt the other adults were having too much fun and weren’t serious enough. Well, I won’t comment because I do not use the blog to vent, but SERIOUSLY!! We can be a little rowdy and learn too. I suppose he or she will study so hard and be in intermediate Arabic class soon. He or she might not even repeat Introductory Arabic class.

So last week we learned words associated with weather, so everywhere we went we practiced our words for ‘sunny’ and ‘chilly’ and ‘hot’ and ‘gorgeous.’ Oh, as long as we are reciting these words, I am at the top of the class. We haven’t done much writing yet. I am interested to see how Lina does with the teaching of Arabic writing. It’s hard. It takes me back to third grade when there were all these comments and warnings about Johnny’s messy penmanship. Let’s see how this goes…

One day we practiced the, “How old are you?” question and learned numbers associated with age. Well, that is a hoot. The oldest in class is 61 and the youngest is 23. When it came time for me to disclose my age, I looked over at the young, newbie John and said, “I am John Wolf times two.” But it was funny when someone looked at another young ‘un and said, “I have pants older than you!” We have a 54-year old, a 44-year old, a 34-old year, and a 24-year old in class. So we had to muse about the march of time.

Anyway, so far class has been mumtaz (excellent!) and I am getting the gender classifications correct and I am even about to go look for those flashcards.

I mentioned last time that this is a difficult month—it is college-recommendation-writing-hell, or as I have called it for the last 15 years—October. I have stayed on my schedule. I have written 17 college recs in the last two weeks, and I have 3.25 left to write this week. (After I finish this blogisode I should go and finish that last .25 about the wonderful child—what is her name??!! Just kidding!) Then I have to write advisor reports about my five advisees…but the German train is arriving and departing on time so far.

The other day Fareeda asked for a quiz tomorrow—Fareeda!!! Oh, by the way, the other day I walked into Introductory Arabic class one minute late, so I was the first on the “hotseat.” I missed a response to “Good night” (Hey! It has like 6 syllables to it and doesn’t follow the model for “Good morning”!!) so Lina, asked me, “Yayha, did you study?” Oh, see, there is where the feared part comes in. I looked at her and answered honestly, “La!” (Which do you think it was? I was honest, No!). So we have a quiz tomorrow and I don’t want Qusai or Fareeda to beat me. However, the young wunderkind, Khalil, will probably beat me…but maybe if I go study…okay. I will report back later how I do! Here we go again: the third time may be the charm for Introductory Arabic class!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Birthday Leftovers

Ten days ago it was my birthday. I think the biggest change since the birthday is when I go to the gym and sit on the exercise bike and have to plug in my age, it has to go one number up.

Ten days ago it was my birthday.

I’m not sure if that is especially blog-worthy, but as I looked back over the last four years of blogs, I do mention it every year. Gosh all-mighty! In 2009 I wrote, “Oh, I am glad October 4th and 5th are over. My birthday is October 4th, and frankly, I’m just glad the pressure that something might happen is over, and then the questions about my birthday are over. It was just a non-event, that’s all.

Don’t worry about me—I am not some sad clown crying in the corner acting any more needy than usual. It’s just an interesting thing, the birthday thing, to figure out and reflect upon, but rest assured I am not one of those middle-aged (gasp! when did that happen??) Bah- humbug-haters-of-birthdays. Actually I love the whole birthday thing. It’s just that this year, it was a non-starter.”

In 2007, I was brand-new and dear Elizabeth Berger organized an outing on October 4th—and that was at the time at KA when outings were few. No faculty had cars yet and we had to rely on shuttle buses or taxis to take us anywhere. I remember the excitement of going out then (and no one knew where to go either!) like it was when you were 14 and you went out without your parents…exciting indeed. In 2008 my dad came to Jordan and was here over my birthday. You know the best thing about that birthday was exactly what I don’t like about my birthday anymore—when my dad was here there was no wondering if I would go out. How funny is it that—in the absence of a spouse or partner—you wonder if anyone will ask you out. Any other day of the year, it is no bother at all.

In 2010 old friend Gary and new friends took me out—and Gary is wise enough not to wait to make plans. As another bachelor with the “plus one” status perpetually added to invitations, he understands you just want to know you have a plan.

So as the birthday rolls around, one wonders—who might want to take me out??? It’s okay to laugh at that sentence—I just did after I typed it. It reminds me, in a strange way of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry is appalled that Keith Hernandez would ask for help moving. Jerry reflects, well, comes close to reflection, I don’t know if any of those characters actually reflected much. Jerry thinks about what level, what class, of friendship you must be to ask someone to help you move. Those aren’t the regular friends—no!! It is that special bond of friendship. That’s the birthday thing. One might have many friends, but only a certain level, or class, of friendship is the take-you-out-on-your-birthday, or organize-the-birthday-dinner mate.

So how was birthday #5 in Jordan? Well, my students were tickled at the whole thing. Now remember, students get excited in part because they hope you won’t have class on your birthday, and so everybody wins! I don’t do that. But some of my advisees had told many people so as I walked around all day, many students wished me a happy birthday. At lunch my advisees tried to figure out a way to skip sports practice that afternoon and take me out. I advised them that we would all get in trouble! But they wanted to go out. The only problem is that I had choir practice at 7:00 and needed to be back before that, and since many of my advisees are day students, 8:00 was too late to wait to go out. So that was the end of that.

Mohammad Attar, a student from last year’s AP Art History class, delivered a gorgeous cake, similar to the cake he delivered last year from Sugar Daddy’s in Amman, and, bam, that 20th century class got to have a party for 15 minutes.

As the day progressed, the students were so enthused about a birthday and wished me well. The mail didn’t help out—no mail came, but that is hardly a surprise. So at 7:00 I went to choir practice (have I mentioned this in a blog yet? I don’t think so—I will have to chronicle the progress of the choir in a blog soon) and then went back to my apartment and enjoyed some birthday calls. At 10:30 Tristan came by with flowers and a pecan pie.

Here is where the bachelor status is most noticeable—there just isn’t anyone designated as the One to take you out. Again, here is what I wrote in 2009: “it wasn’t a day for pining, just wanting a little more of something…and then the following day when some people asked, “So, what did you do??” and I tried to change the subject to a less vulnerable topic. So October 4th and 5th ended. Regular life could resume without the pressure and potential letdown of a New Year’s Eve like day.”

This year on October 5th a number of colleagues asked what I had done the night before. I looked non-chalant and replied, “Nothing really. I talked on the phone with some family and friends.” They looked almost upset—see that’s what you want to avoid—and said, “I just assumed so-and-so was taking you out. I’m so sorry.”

That’s exactly what you don’t want at a birthday!! “I’m so sorry.”

So anyway, the days since the birthday are better because that strange pressure is off, and the person you think will ask you out, well, it just recedes into the background. And frankly, I have had some nice offers. Last Friday, the advisees got it together and we went out for a Friday lunch. Friday lunch in Jordan is not some quick affair—this is an all-afternoon event of eating and relaxing and talking and visiting. My advisees planned for us to go to Ren Chai, my favorite Chinese place in Amman. This is a swell-egant place and I had been there just once before but very excited to go again. We arrived at 2:30 (lunch is late on Fridays here!) and didn’t leave until almost 6 PM! The guys were so excited for the lunch and we had the best time. They even came with birthday presents!

Then on Monday this week Randa’s advisory group said they wanted to take me out! Maybe to rival my advisory group! So Randa organized the group and we went in between soccer practice and evening study hall. I had only taught one of the group, Hussein, but it was a delightful chance to go to Haret Jdoudna, my favorite place in Madaba, and have a nice 90-minute meal with a group of tip-top students.

Thursday—about 9 days after the actual birthday—some cards arrived by mail. My family and the Ungers in Dobbs Ferry never forget, but of course, the mail coming here is as lazy as it wants to be. In an age when everything can happen by email, it is invigorating to get a real card in the mail. My sister’s card is about how much fun I am to be a kid with, and the Ungers’ cards are always about the ideal happy life. How kind they are to remember, and how much richer they have made my life since I met them in 2000.

So today was kind of the closing of Birthday 2011—Lubna and I planned to go to the Dead Sea. Lubna is the friend at KA who is a secretary for the Office of Student Life and I am exactly two weeks older than she. Last year I realized the best gift I could give her was a treat for a massage at the Dead Sea. So we made plans to go again this year. Lubna also wanted to treat me to lunch at the Dead Sea and surprised me with a shirt and tie as well. So here we are—two late 40-somethings—giggling over an Italian lunch overlooking the Dead Sea enjoying talking about family, and surprises, and struggles, and joys and pains. When the check came Lubna quickly snatched it and smiled broadly. After that we walked around the lovely pool area over to the Spa for our birthday massages. This was the way to spend a birthday!

Going to the Dead Sea is always therapeutic. The drive down is stunning, and now with 51 months of trips to the Dead Sea under my belt, a great chance to look in the rearview mirror of the KA experience and think about what has transpired here. You drive down the windy road that takes you from Mt. Nebo, where they say Moses died, and you head down past the multi-colored shades of brown to the oooo-la-la resorts, and finally let go of the angst of the real world. As I ascend the mountain at the end of the day, I am a rested soul.

So back from the Dead Sea, back from the birthday angst of 2011, and I decide my last treat for this year’s birthday is to watch the final episode of Friday Night Lights. On my schedule I planned to write a college recommendation, but that can wait until Saturday morning. I need to enjoy that mellow feeling and watch the last episode ever of one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

Sometime if someone learns I like that show they are incredulous…I hear, “But it’s about football?!” I guess these aren’t the people who would know you enough to ask you out for your birthday! Gary gave me the book Friday Night Lights around 1999, and I have been in love with the tale of the small Texas town ever since. It is about making your way through high school, struggling to define who you are and what is truth, it is about relationships and passions, and it is about aiming high and maintaining integrity. Actually watching the final show, watching the team and the characters I have loved—it was the perfect way to close out the birthday chapter for this year.

There is one piece of Mohammad Attar’s rich dark chocolate cake left in the refrigerator…um, yeah, I think it is time to finish the birthday leftovers!

On a final note, October is a terrible month to try and maintain blogisodes current. October is the month when we write student comments, but I also have to proofread about 500 other comments, and it is college recommendation season. I have about 30 recs to write. I have started though! I have done three of them, aim for three more tomorrow, but…that is why there aren’t many blogisodes these days. Stay tuned, I will return.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Panel Of Experts

Last Sunday we had our first of five Sundays in the school year that we call “short days.” From the get-go you need to know that these are not short days for the faculty, but short days for the students. Classes begin at 12:30 and are shortened classes a bit and the class part of the day ends, oh I guess at 4:30 before they go off to co-curriculars. For the faculty we spend the morning in professional development activities. We joke and call these “Long Short Days,” or “Short Days for the Students,” or “Anything But Short Days.” One of the new facets of my new responsibility at KA is that I am in charge of planning and executing these professional development days. For this first one Mary Tadros, long-time consultant at the school, was scheduled to conduct a workshop on planning inter-disciplinary units. I also made sure to have a component on educational technology workshops. But my favorite part of the day was a panel I created of six teachers so that they could just talk to the faculty and start our day off.

I love teachers. For all of you, this should come as no surprise. I love what teachers do and I love when teachers wax eloquently about our profession.

I wanted a panel of three veteran teachers to share insights they had gleaned in their respective long careers about the secrets to success in education. I paired three veteran teachers with our three youngest teachers, fresh from college, at the beginning of what may be a teacher career. While the newbies did not have experience prior to the month of September, 2011, I wanted to showcase their expertise as college students and ask them to share what we need to make sure we do for our students in preparation for the KA students’ college experience. They are a resource as well!

In light of the whole morning—a little over three hours—it was only 30 minutes, but still my favorite part, just to get train a spotlight on these six teachers and celebrate their insights and expertise.

The first to speak was Majid, the oldest of our faculty at KA. He has been teaching for 45 years and always has a twinkle in his eye. He spoke in Arabic—he apologized to me for that, and I had no problem with him speaking in the most comfortable language for him—and he began by saying, “I love the work we do.” As Lilli translated for him, he clearly enjoyed reminding everyone that the secret to his success is that he treats them “as grandchildren.” He spoke about his classroom that he wants “to give each student an opportunity to speak and to feel important.” In terms of his classroom management he said, “good eye contact is important. That eye contact makes them feel respected. My job is to engage them and to be firm with them.” As he spoke for his several minutes, he ended with another reminder, “Never forget that we can always learn from our students. I am always learning from them.”

The next in the panel is another veteran from the first year of the school as well, the venerable Tessa. Before coming to KA she had run a girl’s school in Capetown, South Africa, and is, like Majid, an iconic presence on our campus. Tessa began by turning to her right towards the three young teachers and said, “I envy you new teachers. I envy you the chance to do all of this. Every minute is new.” As she reflected on her 40-plus year career in education she said, “It has been more treasurable than I ever expected.” She said her advice was not all that earth-shattering, but simple: “Respect other people and you will be respected. Make sure you get to know the children—know them properly. Know what they knew yesterday. You have the chance to build them, to build fine young people. Tessa is famous for taking faculty on side trips to archaeological digs and anywhere someone needs to go to learn, and reading all the time. But she admonished us, “Make sure what you teach them is relevant for them in Jordan. Relate Huck Finn to them as Jordanians.” She ended her comments with an interesting, “And if you want to see the most spectacular teaching of all, go watch the good teachers of 3 year olds. They will teach you everything you need to know.”

Our last speaker of the veteran side is a new teacher to KA named Mark. I interviewed him last February in Boston and was astonished by his excitement for teaching and what all he had done in his decades of work. Mark began saying, “I am supposed to offer you some pearls of wisdom about teaching. Well, as a science teacher, let me remind you that pearls evolve. Teachers evolve. Pearls never quite get finished entirely. Teachers never quite get finished evolving entirely. Both keep adding and removing layers.” Mark continued to refine his pearl metaphor about how he was as a new teacher and that that “inside pearl” has changed dramatically. I especially liked when he compared pearls and teachers again saying, “And just like the pearl, I didn’t do it all myself.” From there he exhorted his new colleagues that “we must enrich each other. We are all our own pearls and I can learn so much from all the other different pearls.”

Each of the three earned applause—no surprise at all—for the respect they have cultivated as well as the excellent insights about education. It was wonderful when we moved from the three seasoned teachers to the three new ones. They more than held their own. They commanded the panel and spoke with ease and conviction about what they learned about college, about the demands of college, and how one can successfully manage the college years.

John from Yale spoke first. He spoke emphatically: “More than anything, students must be able to write well in college. Besides that important task, students need to know how to deal with failure.” He stated his two choices, explained the importance of them, and spoke excellently about how we rarely allow students to fail in prep school and help them bounce back from failure. He spoke about writing, and not just in the Humanities, but lab reports, and in every class he took at Yale. Thanks, John—I probably couldn’t have picked two more important topics for us to ponder.

But Melissa from Davidson added to John’s list explaining that college-level expectations are far beyond most high school expectations. “I would say the most important things students can learn to do is #1 learn how to think independently and then #2 learn to advocate for themselves and #3 learn how to question things.” Melissa explained beautifully how these things are at the core of the college experience and asked us to consider how we are preparing our high schoolers for such expectations.

Lastly, Katie from Brown smiled and said, “I learned the hard way that time management issues are crucial” and she was shocked in college how “hard and fast the rules are.” She asserted that we must help coach them to work on time management skills and help them set clear expectations for themselves. She concluded that she also hopes students know that the close rapport they may wish with professors in college comes from their own assertions and wishes.

Frankly, I could listen to teachers all day—not the whining part one occasionally hears in a faculty lounge, which I usually just tune out if it is the drab, dreary kind. But I love to listen to what teachers hope for their students, what life-giving force the classroom gives to teachers, and how they would rather not be anywhere else on earth.

Excellent panel. A Wonderful 30 minutes.

So I am an expert after having been on this job for six weeks?

Some things have gone well, but oh, I have learned a number of things that I hope will smooth the future roads for me. I have learned that most questions from faculty are not “innocent,” i.e. when I am asked an opinion, it may be more about soliciting my support for an agenda or a “side” in a battle. And be careful of those opinions and sides. I am not just another teacher now, but my name can be used in a way I may not like. I must also ask, “Did I ask enough questions to get enough of the story to understand a sore point?” Am I seen as intervening on someone else’s territory?

None of these has been tragedies, but I stop and say, “Hmmm…this pearl can continue to evolve as I understand the hazards of my administrative job.”

But all around me are experts, from the inspiring headmaster to the indefatigable Jules to my colleagues from Majid all the way down to those newbies. And by the way, people look at those newbies differently now. They are not just babes in the educational wilderness. They are savvy young educators with talent and vigor and are gonna make gorgeous pearls.