Sunday, June 19, 2011

Still in Wonder

In the first and second year of KA it was not uncommon that I would hear things from students like, “This Shakespeare is amazing!” or “I never read an entire book before,” or “Doing a play is more exciting than I imagined,” and of course the ubiquitous, “I never liked history before,” all absorbed and transfixed in the wonder of what they were doing and experiencing.

So here we are, at the very end of the fourth year of the school, two hours away from my getting on a plane that will take me to Paris and then to Cincinnati for summer vacation. What is it like now at the end of the fourth year?? For experienced educators, there can be great danger in losing the wonder. The improvements in the school or students that once thrilled us may become more familiar and academic. We may fall into the lethargy of using our minds but not always our hearts.

I have not found it hard to keep growing in wonder, however. I am still moved by what we have done in these four years, and the possibilities of where our students might go. It is still enormous work here, but very satisfying work. I am reminded of the great Stephen Sondheim song, “Finishing the Hat,” in Sunday in the Park With George when George sings, “Look, I made a hat…where there never was a hat.” Look—we made a school, where there never was a school!

It is not hard to keep growing in wonder when I look at two of my colleagues, both of whom have turned 70 in the last 3 weeks. Joan and Nancy have been teaching since the year I was born, and they are vibrant, warm, enthusiastic, optimistic, necessary, and full of wonder themselves. It is not hard when you work for such a good man as our headmaster, John. He is visionary, intelligent, humorous, considerate, hard-working, and believes in the “hat,” the mission of the school. Julianne has had an outstanding year, tightening up the structure of the school and ensuring that we run a tight ship. The tight ship means we can focus on all the good things of a school. It is not just structure, but a matrix upon which we can rely so we get to do the good stuff, to keep exploring new layers of wonder.

I am still in wonder at what is going on in the Arab world. As I look back on the last six months in this region of the world, at what many call, “The Arab Spring,” I am in wonder. How interesting, indeed, what poetic justice, you might say, that Osama bin Laden died at the exact moment he was made irrelevant by the Arab Spring. None of the wave of democratic uprisings transforming the Islamic world were inspired by bin Laden’s despotic, twisted version of Islam. Instead, they were fueled by waves of well-educated young people, including women, who want the chance to vote in free and open elections. No one in Liberation Square in Cairo chanted his name. I am still in wonder at the possibilities at what may take place.

Of course none of us knows what the four years at KA will actually do/for/to our students. But at the end of this year it is marvelous to look back at a calm year, an invigorating year, a year of great scholarship, of great thinking, of empathy, of respect and responsibility, of bittersweet loss as we graduated our first four-year class.

So I want you to know, I am still in wonder at this project. Now, I didn’t write as much on the blog this school year. In 2007-08 I wrote 90 blog entries, and then the next year I wrote 72 blog entries. In 2009-10 I wrote 63 blog entries, and this school year I only wrote 48 blog entries. Of course the excitement of seeing a camel is no longer new, but the wonder at what our work can accomplish still sets my heart racing and my brain zigzagging.

But it is time for summer. I will now take my annual sabbatical from the blog, with an update in July, but a break from the writing and pondering and planning of the blog. Someday I would love to convey some of the stories that don’t make it into the blog. It would be interesting to describe for you the horror and the humor of this insane teacher’s breakdown. It would be interesting to relay what the loss of a friendship means. It would be interesting to try and sum up what it is like to work with some difficult and inscrutable colleagues. But the point of this blog is not to air dirty laundry anyway or vent my spleen. I write this blog to communicate the wonder I feel as this project unfolds.

So here is to summer…here is a poem suggested to me by Steve Shapiro, a friend I made on the conference to Kathmandu last fall. The picture at the top of the page is the subject of the poem, and a kind of flower seen around in Jordan in April.

Camas Lilies
Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the natives ground bulbs
for flour, how the settler’s hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?
And you—what of your rushed and
useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything,
leaving only a note: “Gone to the fields
to be lovely. Be back when I’m through
with blooming.”
Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake.
Of course, your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.
-Lynn Ungar

So in about two hours I head out for the summer. The first day of work is exactly 8 weeks from today. But for right now, I am going to do exactly what the poem suggests, I am going to set “it all down—the papers, plans, appointments, everything.” I might also do exactly as the poem suggests and when I turn the key in the apartment door lock, I may tape a note on my door: “Gone to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I’m through with blooming.”

Ahhhh…enjoy the summer. Steep yourself in wonder. Go to your own fields and be lovely!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Camping With Henry and Tom

Back in the day (have I ever mentioned how much I don’t like that imprecise phrase??!) when I first moved to New York with the Klingenstein Fellowship (I don’t like the phrase because as a historian, I like the precision of saying 1994-95 instead of the vague, generic, ‘back in the day…’) among the dozens of plays I saw in that ‘Cinderella’ year was a play called Camping With Henry and Tom. Part of the gimmick of this play was wondering what would real important people talk about on a camping trip. The ‘Henry and Tom’ of the title refer to the real important people of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison who actually did go on a real camping trip with the head of state, the President of the United States, Warring Harding, back in the early 1920s. It was a satisfying play, and does allow us to think of leaders of countries and leaders of industries kicking back and going camping.

Last month I had my own version of Camping With Henry and Tom. Now from the picture above, it would look like a strange version of Henry and Tom. No, those two colleagues are Lyndy and Jill, colleagues who work in the University Counseling Office here at KA. Last month we had the opportunity to go with the senior class on a camping trip with His Majesty. I got to go on a camping trip with a head of state! Not too much unlike when buddies Ford and Edison went with sitting President Harding. Ha!

I am not the biggest fan of camping, but let’s face it, the company here makes the difference! His Majesty started a tradition last year of taking the senior class on a camping trip and of course it is an exciting prospect to join His Majesty down in Wadi Rum in southern Jordan for an overnight camping trip.

A couple days before the camping trip I had a call from one of our administrators and she said, “I am going to ask you something weird, but I really want to know. Do you like to ride motorcycles?” Yes, it was strange and random, but I answered that I had not ever ridden a motorcycle and I had once promised my parents I would not ride one. As she inquired, I kind of guessed the purpose of the call. His Majesty is a big fan of motorcycle riding, and she did not want to say, but I figured I was turning down a chance to ride motorcycles with the King. Yes, indeed, that was the case, but I am not sure I should have answered any differently.

Anyway, camping day arrives, and the senior class and a dozen chaperones board the busses for the four hour trip down to this mysterious beautiful desert spot that is captured forever in Lawrence of Arabia. When we arrive we are met by a fleet of about 25 silver SUVs that will whisk us to the camp site. It was impressive since the other two times I had been down there I had taken rides in two of the most battered, uncomfortable pick-up trucks I could have imagined.

When we arrive at the camp site, we meet the team from Protocol from the Royal Court who tell us the program of the camping adventure. We have lunch and then can wander around the craggy rocks of the area, and then we can enjoy all the guns at the shooting range. His Majesty is a big military guy, and I had been told how he makes these guns, real guns, available for shooting practice. As everyone finds tents (and by the way, thankfully, these are tents with floors, electric lights, sunscreen, and hand sanitizer—this may turn out to be my kind of camping!!) we relax in the various venues set up for the kids to enjoy themselves with unlimited soda and candy and the lunch station, the tents, the volley ball area, what will be an enormous camp fire, and the shooting range.

I don’t know whether I should go and shoot or not—it had been since YMCA camp in the 1970s when I had done any shooting, and those of course were BB guns. But when Lyndy and Jill went over to shoot, I thought, I might as well try everything our camp experience has to offer. There were pistols and rifles and machine guns. Real ones! Some gentlemen were there to help us learn how to shoot and how not to get hurt from the kickback of the gun. My parents would be pleased to know that after the shooting experience I would not want to re-live my childhood and shoot more or change my life goals and join the military. But it was an experience to hold a real gun and shoot at a target.

After a little while His Majesty arrived, eager to meet the students and visit with them…and take them on tank rides! He arrived in jeans and a t-shirt, and of course he cuts quite a charismatic figure. He said he loves to take people on tank rides and the tank could handle about 4 people inside the tank, and then about 12 people could ride on the tank as he drove around the desert. As he got in for the first ride, he said to the students around him, “Now I can’t always hear when I drive this thing, so if it gets too uncomfortable, just tap me on the head so I know.”

Let’s just process all of this…a head of state, in jeans and a t-shirt, taking giddy students and teachers around, in a real tank, and if we have a problem we could tap him on the head.


Obviously I had to go on a tank ride! The picture above is from inside the tank when Lyndy and Jill and I rode inside the tank. Then we joined the line to jump on top for the ride on top of the tank. The inside ride was hot and not a very good view. The outside ride was exciting, yet incredibly dusty and I held on for dear life as His Majesty zoomed over the sand dunes in the desert. Neither ride is something I thought I might ever do when I ventured into the classroom for the first time in the fall of 1986!!

Before the camping trip the Royal Court had impressed on all of us that we could indeed take pictures on the camping trip, pictures with His Majesty, but we were asked that we use them strictly for private purposes and that we not put pictures of him on the internet. As I have come to see, the Royal Court wants to control the images of the king, and so we were asked not to put them on facebook or blogs. That is why you see a picture of me with Lyndy and Jill, a la Henry and Tom, and not one of me with the king. But if you come over and see me sometime, I will show you this great shot of me leaning up against the tank chatting with the king. Now I have a little sense of what camping with Henry and Tom was like!

That night we had a dinner—and this was a buffet dinner that forever will make my mouth water. Some of the best steak, some of the best food was ‘rustled’ up for us. Actually, I should thank the staff, the staff of about 30 whose job it was to make sure our camping trip was a great experience.

During dinner a student came and told me that John, our headmaster, wanted to see me.
I went over and John said, “His Majesty would like to talk with you one-on-one.” No way! So I walk over and sit down and this man who seemed to like the same foods on the buffet that I did, put his plate down, and said, “I want to thank you for the work you did with Hussein this year. He enjoyed your class more than I can say.” In this chat, what was so wonderful was the look in his eye. I am blessed to say I have seen that look before—the look of a parent so grateful that his or her child had been transformed by something in school. He and I talked about art history, and about writing, and about school, and about adolescence and teaching, and about how he and his wife do not know much about art history but they are amazed at what their son knows.

I have seen this man on campus many times over these four years, as a man proud to have started a school like this, as a man who realizes everyone wants to meet him, shake his hand, have a photo taken, as a man with security guards, usually in a suit and school tie. But here I was, sitting casually with this man, this head of state, and I was talking solely to a grateful and interested father. I guess he doesn’t get to do that all that much—he doesn’t get to do all the parent’s day things and parent-teacher conferences. He and I talked about the incredible leaps Hussein had made as a scholar this year, and he very kindly said, “You will be the teacher he remembers as the teacher that helped him grow the most.” Of course I was trying to tell him about how wonderful his son was, but he wanted to make sure I knew how proud and grateful he was. I said, “I get to teach him again next year too. I know it will be a great year.”

The conversation came to an end. But what a wonderful moment. Stripped of any folderol, it was just a warm parent-teacher conference sitting by a fire in the deserts of southern Jordan. Soon after that His Majesty spent the next couple hours talking with a gaggle of kids about politics and college and leaving KA and Jordan and their families. He was clearly pleased. He got to sit and talk and be as real as any generous man could be. He was obviously happy and in his element.

Of course the senior class stayed up all night. We knew it was in the cards! The adults, well, some of them, took shifts of chaperoning, and shifts of 90-minute naps so we could monitor loosely and make sure everything went well. The following morning had a breakfast buffet and then a trek across the terrain and a climb up the biggest sand dune I have ever seen in my whole life.

My shoes are still covered in the ochre and rust-colored sand of Wadi Rum, and I still don’t know if I am a camper, per se, but what an extraordinary time with a class I have enjoyed so well, and getting to talk to a father about how well his son has done. A satisfying time.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The People In The Picture

I might have missed this wonderful little art exhibit if I hadn’t been mad at the moment.

Okay, back in spring break I was going to meet Christy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Now if you know Christy, you know that among her many gifts, punctuality is not in that line-up. I called. I texted. She was on her way. I waited. Finally, we met up. What was most egregious to me is that when she had arrived she didn’t even look for me! She just figured no one would wait for her since she was so late. So she went about looking around in the Met while I had continued to wait. Then when we finally met up, and I heard the tale of how she didn’t wait anticipating I wouldn’t wait…well, I was steamed.

To blow off some steam I decided to duck into this small exhibit in the Met and let myself cool down.

The exhibit was something about this Cezanne painting called The Card Players. I figured I would admire the Cezanne and then resume the afternoon plans.

But in this little exhibit on this seemingly mundane painting, as usual at the Met, I was greeted with a world of knowledge, and realized yet again how easy it is to overlook something. Or certainly to forget that there is probably more depth from what first meets the eye.

Look at the painting at the top. It is very typical Cezanne. He paints with a rough texture, reminding the viewer of the painterly qualities of composition and how he loves to explore the “volumetrics” of people and subjects in his paintings.

But there was more. Cezanne had picked a topic in art history (card playing) that had a long history—I kind of knew this, but not to the extent I would learn in the next half hour! For about 500 years painters had taken up the subject of card playing so as to moralize and weigh in on the dangers of bad choices in one’s life. Durer and Caravaggio are two of the famous artists who had added to the debate about how card playing could ruin your life.

But the curator of the show wrote that Cezanne had no desire to sermonize about the evils or sins of card playing. He simply wanted to pick up a thread of art history, the oft-told tale of card playing, and ask the viewer to look at the people playing. Cezanne had no interest in trying to shape the moral life of a young viewer. He wanted us to look at the people playing cards, not the demon instruments in their hands. Cezanne asked the gardeners at his estate to pose for the painting. Of course they must have been surprised—it was common knowledge that there are certain people who make for subjects of art works, and certain people who definitely do not have the status to be the subject of an art work.

As I walked around the room—the Met had put other examples of the moralizing card player paintings and etchings around—I saw what Cezanne was going for. Cezanne was doing what really great teachers try and do. He wanted us to look more deeply, beyond the surface or concrete subject of what was going on. He wrote, and the Met quoted him, that he wanted his hardscrabble gardeners to look important, to have the same kind of volume and value as a pharaoh from Egypt, or a king from Europe, or a banker.

I quickly got over my frustration with the Late One (I have had to do that many times in the nearly 17 years I have known Christy!) and went and got her to show her around the room. As we walked around the room, we realized how easy it is to overlook something, or someone, seemingly mundane. There is always a story there, for us to explore. Cezanne was urging us to get past silly moralizing (I won’t even begin to make jokes about politicians who spout Family Values and then end up resigning amidst tears and shame) and focus on people. Who are these men? What are their stories? What do we learn about them? What more do we need to know to better understand them?

What a lovely lesson and reminder in that quick little art exhibit on Cezanne.

Later that week Christy and I went to see a Broadway show about which we knew next to nothing. We knew it starred the spectacular performer Donna Murphy and we knew the title, The People In The Picture, and we knew we got to go for $4 each. What else does one need to know???

As we entered the theater (the rehabbed old disco palace Studio 54) we saw all these black and white photos up on the walls of families we didn’t know. The stage had been created as one giant picture frame angled out towards the audience with an enormous crack in it. As the musical began a photograph of unknown people projected above the stage. Who were these people? What was the point? It turns out this was a musical about an episode in the Holocaust.

Other than the creation of the state of Israel, the greatest and most profound reaction to the Holocaust has been the extraordinary outpouring of art that has attempted to come to terms with this egregious event, from The Diary of Ann Frank to Cabaret to Schindler’s List and on and on. The People In The Picture, this heart stopping musical, would be the most recent attempt. The People In The Picture asks us to take a hard look at the suffering and loss that resulted from this diaspora and tragedy.

The people in this picture of the show is “The Warsaw Gang,” a ragtag troupe of actors barely surviving, but finding solace and entertaining their fellow Jews amidst the pogroms and poverty of 1930s Poland. Their story is told in flashback as troupe leader Raisel, nearing the end of her life, shares her life’s journey with her granddaughter, Jennie.

In her memories, The Warsaw Gang literally comes to life on stage in all its glory and ultimate tragedy. And even though we know from the start that Raisel survived the Holocaust, it is only at the play’s climax that we learn the terrible toll it took on her and her unhappy daughter.

The triumph of The People In The Picture is that the show insists upon—and earns—heroic stature for even small gestures of humanity. A man loses his life over bringing a doll to a little girl. Another man is knifed to death because he cannot ultimately joke his way out the anti-Semitism of bullies. One by one the good and noble people we have come to admire and understand from the picture are murdered. By the end of the show we know so much more, we feel so much more for the people in the picture.

Donna Murphy miraculously morphs back and forth between robust womanhood and old age. I watched how as one number ended, simply by taking her glasses out of her pocket and rolling up her sleeves, it was as if she aged 40 years. She was marvelous.

Christy and I loved the show. But there were many in the audience who thought it was ridiculous and stupid. At intermission we heard two young, 20-somethings harrumphing their way out of the theater uttering, “That’s 75 minutes of my life I won’t ever get back.” They just didn’t get it. Oh well. At the end of the show there was a “talk-back” with some of the actors and creative team of the show. Christy and I love these things—we always learn more and get more juicy context about a show.

The people who stayed for the talk-back, maybe only about 30, glowed with appreciation for the show. Many of them were grand-children of survivors of the Holocaust, and they always struggled how to better understand the enormous sufferings of their grandparents. The writer of the show said that that was why she wrote this piece. She found a few photographs from her parents and just wondered about their lives, she needed to figure out what made these people in these pictures tick. The grateful audience applauded them and thanked them for humanizing this period in a new way. Christy and I walked home, grateful that in that city we experienced so many moments in which we learned and remembered to consider people and incidences we might overlook. As I anticipated coming back to Jordan after spring break to finish, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, I relished that opportunity to think about those sepia pictures and their lives.

So—one art exhibit reminds us that attention must be paid to even the card players in a painting. And another musical urges us to consider what goes on beyond the borders of a photograph. How stunning to have these reminders—almost like the biblical urgency to “consider the lilies of the field.”

As I pack up for the year, think about graduation and all the hundreds of pictures taken at the conclusion of this school year, it is important to think of those pictures and the people. Decades from now will viewers know the struggles, experience the joys that brought those teen-agers to that moment? Will the men and women look back and see beyond the tossing of a hat, or see that the smile is so well-earned because it was hard to get there? How good to remember to look beyond the borders of the photographs we find and try and re-create the epic battles and triumphs that allowed that photograph to come into being.

Oh, I love learning from art and theater! I am reminded of the great quotation from the snarky writer Paul Rudnick: “Most convicted felons are just people who were not taken to museums or Broadway musicals as children.”

She asked, gingerly

Perhaps the most intriguing question posed to me this school year came a few months ago when a student asked, gingerly, indeed politely but delicately, “Why are Americans so obsessed with the Holocaust?”As with everything, don’t you know, context helps us explain and understand things more.

This student, one of that wonderful coterie of students at KA I have taught every day for the last four years, is Jordanian-Palestinian-Lebanese but has lived most of her life in California. She really does understand and enjoy both worlds.

Her question did not come out of nowhere. We had been studying the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and one of the saddest realizations of the aftermath of studying that Olympics designed and executed with German precision and taste, is that many of the European Jewish athletes who attended and won medals in Berlin would later die in Nazi concentration camps. Naturally, our discussion morphed into the meaning and the teaching of the Holocaust.

When this diligent, happy, marvelous student asked her question, “Why are Americans so obsessed with the Holocaust?” many faces quickly looked to see if I was upset with her query. But they were riveted with what my answer might be. Of course I wasn’t upset—one of the greatest joys of my four years in Jordan is that I am often allowed to be out of my comfort zone and learn things, reflect on things, decide about things that would not come up in the United States.

This excellent historian then asked, “Do Americans study the Armenian genocide as much? Do they study the kulaks in the Soviet Union? the Filipinos under the care of the Americans? The Chinese of Nanking under the Japanese occupation in the 1930s? The Muslims of Bosnia in 1990s Yugoslavia?” Again, she did not ask any of these rapid-fire questions stridently. As we all know, Americans have little interest or knowledge about these other examples of genocides or mass killings. In our History of the 20th Century class, we had discussed all those other examples, and as you might imagine, the class sat dumb-founded at the too-many examples of reckless mass killings and carnage of the 20th century. She really wanted to know—why, then, are Americans so interested in the Holocaust?

Here was a great teachable moment—we wondered if the answer is that there are so many people of Jewish descent? No, that is not the case. Nor can it be that so many Americans have known Holocaust survivors. (I met my first survivor when I moved to New York in 1994.) Is it guilt over the Holocaust that creates such zeal to teach about it in American curricula? Off the top of my head I wondered, if in part, Americans have been drawn to the Holocaust because of the sheer amount of evidence left to us by the Germans. The Germans documented things so well—in large part since they were creating a “Museum of Inferiority” which would showcase the Final Solution in a seriously-folks-they-planned-it-for-real-museum which would have been in Prague. The photographs, film, interviews, statistics, etc. all are so available that that makes it so much in the forefront of our brains. There is not much evidence about the Armenian genocide of 1919. Indeed, there is so little evidence that the Turkish government insists it is exaggerated and did not really happen as survivors claim. And what of the movies? There have been dozens of films about the Holocaust in the last 45-50 years…where are the Hollywood films about the other peoples’ plights?

It made for a great discussion, simply trying to figure out why Americans have studied that example of injustice and hatred more than any other world history grievance. And, then I asked, ”Why are Arabs so opposed to any mention or study of the Holocaust?”

I knew most of what their responses were, but it was instructive to listen to each other and formulate an answer. None of their answers really had anything to do with anti-Semitism, although that would be what most of us would assume. Some of the answers lay in the question, simply why can’t there be a balance of all people’s suffering? One student finally cracked open what some wondered would come to light, or at least public light in our class. “The state of Israel has capitalized so much on the Holocaust, and has cheapened it, so that some people are just tired of that being the answer and reason for everything.”

This sentiment is one of the most important to understand about the Middle East, but not just the so-called exploitation of the Holocaust. It cuts to the core of the most searing problem in Jordan—the issue of Palestine.

Let’s go back to all this context…I mentioned this exchange in class today because I wanted to set the stage for why it was daring to produce I Never Saw Another Butterfly here in Jordan. Yes, it is a beautiful play about survival, about family and friends, and a memorable teacher. But the subject makes some people uncomfortable and some would prefer it never be broached. Never. Not in school. Certainly not in the faculty lounge.

I had the idea to produce my warhorse play about the children’s concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, not simply to raise the idea of the Holocaust here. In some ways, the Holocaust does not intrude much on the play. You never see a Nazi, and there is no gratuitous violence. But I got the idea for the play when last autumn a group of student-actors appeared at our school doing monologues about the Israeli occupation and war of 2009. As these teen-agers performed their “Gaza Monologues” I was struck by the parallels between this contemporary drama and I Never Saw Another Butterfly. But of course, it shouldn’t have been so surprising—both were dramas about the refugee experience, the phenomena of having daily life disrupted or shunted due to an occupation force. I couldn’t get over how similar the feelings were. I went to our headmaster and suggested I direct I Never Saw Another Butterfly and pair it with the Gaza Monologues. I made clear that we were tackling a subject that could create controversy. He read the play and agreed that the message needed to get out there.

Again, some context helps enormously to see the magnitude of this play choice. Yes, I had directed the play a bazillion times in the USA, but in this region of the world schools are not encouraged to teach about the Holocaust. Pages are ripped out of some textbooks, The Diary of Anne Frank is banned, and I swear that I heard that Fiddler on the Roof was performed in Amman with all the Jewish references taken out! Seriously????!!!

After I spoke with our headmaster, I spoke with Fatina, my friend and colleague of four years. I go to her with every question I have about the Middle East (“Why do your people do this?” I have often asked, and then she sighs, and says, “My people do this because…”). I told her about I Never Saw Another Butterfly and said, “Do you think we can, we should, do this play?” Fatina said it would create some tension, but that definitely the message of the play was vital. Fatina is so important here, and she does insist on teaching the Holocaust even though few teachers in this region would. She teaches about it so that the students understand the desperate need for a national homeland for Jews after World War II.

That lies at the heart of the problem, the tension, the confusion. When we discussed in class about why Jordanians don’t want to discuss the Holocaust, or want to deny it happened, it again is not anti-Semitism, per se. As one student said, “There is so much pain for us associated with the formation of Israel." Over half of Jordan is comprised of refugees expelled from Israel in 1948 or in 1967. I mentioned in class then about the possibility of doing a play about this. I just happened to have a scene from I Never Saw Another Butterfly, ready to read and discuss…I had anticipated the discussion. The scene was the family scene, and if you changed the names and place of Prague, it could easily have been a scene understood by Palestinian families in 1948 and 1967. They understood the worry and fear that everything they knew would change.

The class was extremely interested in the play. One of my most vocal and dynamic students suggested we didn’t need to pair the two plays—he thought it important for our community to really consider the feelings and attitudes of this Jewish family. Of course when the play schedule was shortened, as I mentioned in the other blog, it became necessary to toss out the comparison of the two plays.

However, it is never as simple as collecting some key person’s approvals. On the day of the play, some people at school became quite upset that I would offer a play that would remind people of the pain of the Nakba, the great 1948 expulsion of Palestinians (or worse, glorify the ones who did the expelling). The headmaster and Julianne steadfastly supported me, but a handful of people were quite hurt that I would want to hurt the community so much. I offered to speak to anyone and explain that the play is not a political play, it is not about Zionism, it is a play about survival, and friends and family, and the refugee heartache. Only one of those so upset would speak to me, and while I know they were upset at me, I also did not want our school to go along with the norm and not discuss the issue. It is not about sympathy for Israel, it is about the triumph of the human spirit. It was about the fact that sadly, these experiences have happened too often in the last century and the experiences seem more similar than not.

I did not want to belabor the point that when the Nazis created their Final Solution genocide was the goal. As much as the refugee experience has been similar, Israel has not had that genocidal goal. But I did feel that the experiences had parallels. It made it all the more interesting to watch young, vibrant, Muslim Farah tackle the part of Raya/Raja.

One last little tidbit about context: I told them of a story about how I formed an opinion and how socialization and stories can help construct our opinions. I told them about how in 1978, I watched the Oscars for the very first time. As an 8th grader I was in love with the movies, and watched and cheered on the movie stars. When Vanessa Redgrave won her Best Supporting Oscar for Julia, she was booed and heckled. I thought, “Who is this awful woman? She must be hideous since all of Hollywood is booing her!” A few years later she wins the part of a Holocaust survivor in a movie, and again is castigated for her beliefs.

At the time I just figured, given the Hollywood reaction, this Vanessa Redgrave must be a horrible person. I later came to understand she came under such fire because she believed that Palestinians deserved the right to return, that Israel had acted improperly in the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians.

We sat in class discussing how our impressions are made, how heroes and villains are born and treated, and reminded ourselves to look for as much context as possible to better understand the many facets of the complicated issues of our time.

One last comment about the play—it was received well, but for some it is hard to get past the pain. A student said to Fatina, “That was the first time I felt sorry for a Jew. That surprised me.” Fatina considered the situation and said, “It wasn’t that you thought of her as Jewish or not—she was simply human.”

Human. Humanity. Maybe we are getting closer all the time…

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Butterfly Kisses

Last month at this time I was busy prepping for the opening of my all-time favorite play to direct, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. This was one of the tightest rehearsal schedules I have ever had. Years ago, when I started directing, I came upon the magic number of 25 rehearsals being the optimal amount of rehearsal time. At 2 hours a rehearsal, those 50 hours seemed to yield a quality production. This time the rehearsal period got squeezed like a, what, like a Florida orange, I guess.

Another colleague was doing a play earlier this spring that needed a bit more time, so he postponed the production by two weeks. The problem for me was given the unmovable boundaries of Prom and Graduation, I couldn’t extend my production dates. And on top of that, we had to take a sabbatical due to spring break and the madness around AP tests …so in order to do the play, I simply had to move everyone a little faster. It’s a little like rushing a 9 year-old in taking the training wheels off the bicycle…I think I did the play in about 60% of the time I usually need.

But I am getting ahead of myself…in case you don’t know this play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, let me give you an overview, and I want to see if you can tell why this play is a provocative choice for us here in the Middle East. Here are the notes I wrote for the program last month that provides some background for the play:

In the summer of 1942, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia—Terezin to the Czechs and Theresienstadt to the Germans—had settled into a deadly rhythm, fulfilling its role as a great reservoir for Jews in central Europe. These Jews came to Terezin on their way to the “Final Solution” at Auschwitz. However, Terezin became known primarily as a “children’s camp,” and a camp noted for its schooling, and its emphasis on the arts. Music and poetry thrived in such an odd place, certainly an unlikely place for a cultural celebration. In fact, strangely enough, the Germans encouraged cultural activities as the Nazis transformed Terezin into a public relations coup. Terezin earned the name of “The Paradise Ghetto,” for the Nazis created Terezin as a false front camp to deceive an all-too-believing outside world. The Nazis used the model ghetto well, wringing every potential drop of propaganda out of the place. Foreign dignitaries and the International Red Cross paraded through Terezin to view how the Germans treated these refugees, leaving with their stamp of approval for the “Paradise Ghetto.”

Many books and films about the Holocaust founder on the hugeness of its scale: individuals get caught up in, and blur into, a faceless mass of victims and victimizers. But I Never Saw Another Butterfly is the particular story of one survivor, Raya Englanderova, a young woman on the cusp of adolescence who endures the unendurable. Her family is a typical family in Prague, stunned at the news of Nazi occupation, and shocked at all the changes in their lives. The family conversation gives the Holocaust a narrative frame and also a pathos. Papa Englanderova and son Pavel are at odds, both coming from different perspectives about what resistance means, and how to deal with the enemy. Eventually Raya is separated from her family and she goes to Terezin, where she joins Irena Synkova’s classroom, a teacher who has found the will to live by nurturing her children. In I Never Saw Another Butterfly author Celeste Raspanti uses the actual poetry from children at the Terezin concentration camp and thus has found a way of imagining the Holocaust, an event that is commonly described as unimaginable.

Through this memory play, one comes away knowing the workings of the ghetto black market, the threat of typhus, the degradation of camp life, and the treasured moments of working together in the classroom. Children like Raya, Zdenka, Bedrich, Olila and Honza kept alive not only their glowing sparks of creativity, but did not shy away from making their art a weapon, a teaching device—pictures which terrify and engross the viewer, but also elevate and enlighten. Besides the opportunity to study and hear the poetry of the children, I Never Saw Another Butterfly raises large and complex questions about survival, about freedom, about suffering, and about the moral choices that people make in response to these issues. Although the Englanderova story is a somewhat fictionalized creation in itself, one is compelled to consider the terrible relation between history and the real human beings who are history’s casualties. As Celeste Raspanti writes, “this play is history as much as any play can be history, showing the best and worst of which the human heart is capable.”

Oh, doesn’t that just stir the soul?!

If you know me well, you know this play. I Never Saw Another Butterfly is the only play I have directed in all four of my schools, and it has been one I have repeated as often as I felt I could. My debut production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly was way back in 1988 at Gaston Day School. Then at Charlotte Latin School I directed the play in 1991, in a summer production in 1992, and as a farewell production in 1996. At Hackley I trotted out my warhorse in 1999 and then again in 2003. This is a play near and dear to my heart! It is a director’s dream, but also, very, very cheap to produce. All you really need is some battered stools, some rags, some endearing young actors, and, if you can swing it, a great spotlight.

Did anyone notice anything from the director’s notes that seems different?? Anyone who knows the play well? I will give you a hint…check out the lead character’s name…see it? I spelled her name Raya. That was the first time in all my productions I spelled it Raya. That isn’t a typo. When I decided to do the play here in Jordan, I thought it wise to change her name from Raja to Raya. Why, you wonder?? One of my great students here at KA is a guy named Raja (and an exceptional historian, I might add). Pronounced the same way as the character in I Never Saw Another Butterfly; spelled the same way as the character in I Never Saw Another Butterfly. I just thought it smart to let Raja stay Raja, a young man, and change the young woman character name to Raya.

I also made a leap of faith in the casting of this part. This part of Raya/Raja is a huge part with 12 monologues and the actress appearing in every scene. She carries the play, and she needs to be an instinctive, gifted actress. Over the years Kathy Grice, Liz Donlevy, Kathleen Coyle, Liz Asti, Megan Winter, Mandy Cloud, Jennie Nolon, Liz Gunnison, Sam Barnard, and Erin Steiner have essayed this role. When I decided to do the part here, I decided I would cast a non-native English speaker for the part. As a director with many non-native English speakers I wanted to send a signal that I didn’t just cast actors with American accents in lead parts. A lovely young woman named Fakher won the part, and while it took enormous effort (for example, she had some early problems with pronouncing all the words, like ‘barracks’) she performed the part with dignity and grace and humor and poise and eloquence. Fakher takes her place with the other fine actresses I have directed and became a model of hard work and commitment. And she did the part and all the monologues in a second language!

The next part that is close to my heart in I Never Saw Another Butterfly is that of the dedicated and wondrous teacher, Irena Synkova. Each of us hopes to know at least one Irena in our lives, a teacher who transforms and loves and cares for the children around her. This part must be played by someone wise and compassionate, an actress who can communicate all the despair and hope in the world just by sitting down on a battered stool. My adult friend Mary was the first of my Irenas, and now from Jordan, an exceptional young woman named Hana Mufti played the part. Irena has one of the great moments in drama when she leaves the schoolroom for the last time and offers a look like the one Mary Tyler Moore offered in her last look at the WJM newsroom at the end of her sitcom. (I still can manage a sitcom reference!!)

There is a sort-of love interest in I Never Saw Another Butterfly as well. Honza is worldly, kind of, goofy, kind of, strong, kind of, caring, kind of, and must credibly convey the promise of what young love offers. In this part I cast the young man whose own friends have dubbed him, “The Mayor of Awesomeville.” Abdullah Khalayleh is one of the most natural actors I have ever directed, and he has the intuition and awareness—dare I use the German word, gewahrsamkeit—of a pro. Abdullah is also reliability personified. At times when an actor could not seem to make it to rehearsal, Abdullah would step in and play that role at that rehearsal. Abdullah can play heartbreaking and then funny in a heartbeat.

Raya/Raja has a family scene that is gripping and dripping with subtext. The family scene is set in Prague as they await to see what the Nazis will do to their lives next. The parents cling to normalcy as they wait and see. It requires actors with skill and patience and also a tension that must explode and haunt. I gotta say Thaer and Hanna and Suhayb delivered the goods. Later in the play there is a wedding scene that is so simple, but since it takes place minutes before the families must part forever, it must have an unsentimental but raw joy to make it work. Suhayb and Giulia looked lovely as they stood there in the night air of the courtyard showing how love can conquer all.

But the heart and soul of I Never Saw Another Butterfly always will be the sections with the children. I have had as few as 8 children in a production, and as many as 45. It is a flexible amount, obviously, but in the school scenes as we see Irena help them process through the realities of their lives, and we hear the plaintive, poignant words these real children once wrote, it never fails to take my breath away.

I am not tired of this play, perhaps never will be, and this production in the deserts of Jordan in May, 2011, stands as a hallmark of my work here. I remember when at my great Khosrowshahi/Polcari going-away party in New York in 2007, dear friend Adam Kahn said he couldn’t wait until I did I Never Saw Another Butterfly in Jordan.

Tomorrow I will write about why this was not a simple decision and how the impact has been on our community.

Oh, I love suspense…come back tomorrow!

For now, savor the words that Raya/Raja says so confidently and unapologetically at the end of the play as she faces life, “not alone, and not afraid.”

Friday, June 10, 2011

Utterly So

I have been to many, many graduations. I have been to probably 25 graduations now as an educator. I have been to graduations in the morning, in the evening, with caps and gowns and teachers in academic regalia, with students in suits or white dresses. I have been to graduations inside and outside, in gyms, in auditoriums, under tents, in the open air…I know of graduations.

They all start out pretty much the same, once everyone has been seated. The headmaster welcomes the board of trustees, the parents, the faculty, and of course, let’s not forget the graduates.

But you know it is an uncommon graduation when the headmaster begins with “Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies,…” and then goes back to the usual parade of names. Royal Highnesses and Excellences?? Where might I be? Oh, yes, I am living in a kingdom, near other kingdoms, with students who are children of royalty and children of very modest means. It is our graduation at KA. And even beyond that flashy opening, it is a stunning graduation.

This year’s graduation was so much easier than last year. For one thing, we had done it before. We had a template. We had an idea how to deal with the security, with the 1800 or so guests, how to include the entire school, how to…well, you name it. For another thing, the class of 2011 was a bit more “loved” than last year. I hate to be so plainspoken about it, but it is just true. This class was easier to love. And, in case you don’t know, faculty want to love a class. They sincerely do.

Anyway, we learned a thing or two from last year, but mostly used the well-designed template from last year. We did make it an hour later since the desert sun can still be unforgiving at 5:00 in the afternoon.

The first exciting thing about our graduation is the procession—the entire school forms a double inversion gauntlet. Say what? Our founding headmaster, Eric, loved the idea of having the entire school march in a procession through the rest of the school and then invert and continue into the graduation. He calls it the WIG—the Widmer Inversion Gauntlet. What that means is that the underclassmen are all lined up, and then the faculty march through a gauntlet of 11th graders, 10th graders, 9th graders, then they march through a procession of us, and finally, the senior dean and the King lead the seniors, the graduates through a gauntlet of the entire school. It is a heady experience to see the entire school march and parade in front of itself. The dais is exciting because there is His Majesty, and the chairman of the board, a man who formerly was an Ambassador to the US, and our headmaster now, our founding headmaster, and Alia, the one who will read all the names. There is a royal bagpipe crew that played the entire gauntlet and lead us into the grassy area where the graduation is with about 1500-1800 guests.

Two students deliver speeches, one in Arabic, and the other in English. The two students were chosen from a panel of adults and they do a beautiful job. In fact, about every five minutes like clockwork my eyes well up with tears in this graduation.

I probably remarked about it last year, but the graduation last year was a graduation with no tears. I felt robbed! In over 20 years I had never gone through a graduation without tears. I guess it is like people at weddings. It isn’t just the graduates themselves—it is the moment when we graduate our children from childhood and exhort them to follow their dreams and mine their potential. What isn’t there to love about a graduation moment??? We don’t need to go into it anymore, but this was my first graduation since 2007 then with the usual tears and how-will-I-make-it-through-and-I-am-going-to-miss-them-so-much. Two final awards were given: the student as the Valedictorian, and the student chosen by the faculty for the King Abdullah spirit award. I know both young men well, taught them over and over.

The graduation speakers were the Widmers, founders and role models for the early years of the school. Dr. Eric reminded the crowd that when the ground had been broken for the school a few years ago, His Majesty had remarked that this school was certainly four things and must be these four things: “utterly idealistic, utterly progressive, utterly optimistic, and utterly necessary.” They spoke of the genesis of the school, and now here was the first class to go all the way through four years at King’s Academy. Again, I was very weepy as I thought of these students and what these four years have meant.

The aftermath of the graduation at KA is not my favorite part, however. There isn’t a recessional. We tried last year, but the crowd just stormed over Julianne and me as we tried to do the recessional we loved at Hackley, and then the reception is too crowded and too rushed. And, well…really nothing to nosh on either. The evening party at a hotel in Amman is just too over-the-top and loud to be enjoyable. I think I will skip that in the future. It just isn’t what I want in a graduation party. So actually I thought about what I missed from other graduations.

Since I now have nearly a quarter-century of graduations under my belt, I miss the string quartet playing outside of Gaston Day School supporting the small graduating class with Mozart and Haydn. I miss the academic regalia of Charlotte Latin School. I miss the white flowers on the lapels of the young men’s suits at Hackley. I miss the recessional at Hackley where the faculty recessed and then formed a gauntlet and tearily and happily greeted the new graduates as they marched out. I miss the reception where Anne and I stayed until the bitter end hugging and saying farewell. If you said you couldn’t find us—you didn’t really look. We waited until we were the last. I miss the graduation events from Charlotte Latin and Hackley where you visited with families, had backyard cook-outs, or tasteful receptions at country clubs. I miss the sweet presents and letters given from Hackley students.

But there is one part that has been hard from the first graduation as a teacher. How do you relate to these, your former students now? They are not your students anymore, nor are they your peers. It is always a strange paradox, and one in which they seem almost brand-new to you. I have long told senior classes that when they graduate, they get to call the shots about our relationship. I can’t dictate any more. I act more aloof than usual, waiting for them to decide if we will be more friends, or just a great memory. I suspect it is a little like a parent watching a child go through his or her 20s wondering how they will relate to them as adults. I am reminded of a great line from the musical based on the movie, Big. The mother is singing into the cradle of her son, thinking about how fast it all goes in her ballad, “Stop, Time.” She opines in song:

“Nobody warned you of this parent’s paradox. You want your kid to change and grow, but when he does, then another child you’ve just began to know leaves forever.”

I had thought I might write about a number of the seniors, but I think I am just emotionally kaput! I have written college recs about them that quoted Frost, and Flaubert, and Lincoln, and Joyce and Julian Barnes, etc. and lifted passages from their best works about the Greeks or the Europeans, and spun the top about them in class comments and advisor reports—I fear I am out of words for this lovely bunch.

But there is a very fitting way to end the report on this graduating class, and it isn’t about parties or sunny days or caps and gowns or tears. I am thinking of what His Majesty said about this school: “utterly idealistic, utterly progressive, utterly optimistic, and utterly necessary.” That also neatly sums up this class as I have known them these four years. They have been indeed “utterly idealistic, utterly progressive, utterly optimistic, and utterly necessary.”

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Graduation Day, 2011

It is Graduation day here in Jordan, and in just over two hours I will watch our 100 graduates leave the fold and go out into the world. This is bittersweet, as every graduation is, since this is the last class (of two) who was here on the first day the doors opened to this school in the Middle East.

The Class of 2011 chose me to offer a valedictory address last night at the senior dinner. How very honored I am that I got to speak to them at this beautiful dinner under the stars. Here are the remarks I made about this special class:

I Could Talk About Your Class All Night…

I am not allowed, but I could talk about your class all night!

Many of us here tonight were here when the school opened, and we celebrate our first four-year class at King’s Academy. Before the school opened, the faculty were here for four weeks, and during that time, we wondered, what were you going to be like?? Finally, in the third week here, on a random trip to the Administration building, I bumped into a King’s Academy student, two students in the same day. I met Leen. I met Reed. I finally had met one of you. They smiled. I smiled. We talked. They were nice. I thought—this is going to be okay.

They were my first two! Eventually over these four years, I would teach 2/3 of this class. I got a list the other day of your class and I counted up the number of you I would eventually teach. 2/3 of this class—you see why I could talk about your class all night! And then I would teach 31 of you twice, 12 of you three times, and there is a special place in heaven for those 7 students I have taught every day the school has been open.

In your 9th grade year, I taught 37 of you, but it was not easy at first. I don’t know if you remember, but you couldn’t sit still! I brought in a camera to experiment if you could sit still long enough for me to snap your picture. And then there was the problem that almost none of you brought paper and pen to class! Remember? I called a friend of mine and asked what I should do! She said, “Give them candy if they bring pen and paper!” Within a few days, Karim al Zeine brought pen and paper!

I love to remember the candy story because one year later, I taught 10 of you in the first AP history class here and you earned some of the best scores in the world.

In that first year I remember the day, the class, the lesson about ancient India, when you finally thought in class—the day you rose above just filling in answers and thought deeply and sophisticatedly. I remember walking by one of your rooms at night, and one of you was reading Shakespeare for the first time and you said, “This Shakespeare is amazing!” I remember the end of that first year, when we gathered in the courtyard, and many of you spoke so emotionally about how that first year here had affected you. Some of you cried. I remember who cried. For some, I don’t think school had been very meaningful before. I have watched you find meaning in your work, in your school, in each other, over these four years.

I remember in your sophomore year, the night four boys came to my apartment late, and told me I needed to make up a new exam for the following morning. They explained that some of the juniors in AP history had told them what was on the exam that they had taken that day. Those four guys said they wanted an honest chance to see if they knew the material. Really knew what they were doing.

I could talk about your class all night!

As these stories tumble out of my mouth and out of the scrapbook in my brain, there is a common theme here: I have seen you at your best, I have seen you grow, improve, evolve. All these stories are about your best selves.

But your class is not just about me watching—your class is linked to my life’s path. I have stayed in Jordan because of your class. When I came at the beginning, I think I planned to stay about two years. But during your sophomore year, Jude Dajani, the wonderful Jude Dajani, said, “You couldn’t possibly leave until we graduated!” Jude is persuasive! She was right. Jude offered me a verbal contract that has been binding—I have stayed because I love your class. And you know, I am staying past your graduation because of your class as well. You are what King’s Academy can cultivate. I want to see another class match you. I am staying in large part because of the standard you have set. Thank you, Jude Dajani.

At Graduation time, as you are finding out, no doubt, well-meaning adults like to offer advice. Oh, my. They want to tell you what to do, how to do it, and often how to avoid mistakes that they have made. I don’t have advice, per se, but I have two stories to share about when I was your age.

In the fall of my senior year, I attended a conference, and one of the things we had to do, was take a piece of paper with a word on it, and define that word to our small group, and explain how we might apply that word to our lives. Okay… how very Dr. Phil. I open the piece of paper, and on it is written the word, risk. I think about it. I know what it is, but how do you define it, explain it, tear it apart, apply it…So I defined the word to my group: Risk is when you sacrifice who you are for what you might become. There are a few words in there that are loaded. Sacrifice? No one wants sacrifice something, to give something up. But I suggested that we embrace “risk” and sacrifice who we are for what we might become. That word ‘become’ is a beautiful word—transformative, evolving, graduating. But I didn’t guarantee success in my definition of risk. I sneaked in that word “might.” What you might become…

I don’t have tell any of us here tonight about the power of taking a risk. Each of us here shares one risk in common. Each of us came to an infant school, sacrificing where we were, our comfort zone, for what this school, for what we might become. We know the power of risk-taking.

My other story comes from a few months into my senior year. I had an appointment to meet with my college guidance counselor. It was different in my class of 800—you met maybe once, and they asked if you were thinking about college, and then they gave you a thumbs up and said, “Good luck with that!” So I went in to meet Albert Bross. I sit down, he had my file in his hand, that file with everything important about me in it. Albert Bross asked my plans. I said, “I want to go on to college.” Sure enough, he smiled and said, “Good luck with that!” Then he asked if I knew what I wanted to do. I had thought about it for, maybe, days. I said, “I want to be a history teacher.” His reaction was not what I expected—I am not sure if I thought he would applaud, but I thought it might earn a smile and a thumbs up and a “Good luck with that!” No, he looked perplexed, dug through the file, and said, “Um, John, that is not a good idea. In your file it says you have this speech problem, and as a teacher, you have to talk every day. It would be very unwise to be a teacher.” Then he smiled, and said, “But I see you have good grades. You could be a lawyer who researches and then you don’t have to talk.”

I absorbed his well-meaning advice. He must be right. I mean, if you have talked with me, for a half hour or more, it is clear, that I have a speech problem. He was an adult, he was being helpful and sensible. I should follow that advice.

About a year later in college, I thought about his advice again. I really wanted to be a history teacher. So against that expert advice I pursued that. I remember driving to school on my first day to teach, and it’s as if a ghost of Albert Bross appeared in my car warning me, “Don’t do it John. It would be unwise!” Well, I survived that first day, and I have been doing this now since long before you graduates were born.

My advice is, don’t let someone’s “No,” determine your path. And I don’t mean rules and laws as ‘no’s’ but someone’s roadblock from what you feel you are meant to do. Sacrifice who you are for what you might become.

My hope for all of you is that you find a path, a course, a road, on which you find as much joy as I have known, and especially known in teaching you.