Thursday, May 31, 2012

You know what May brings...

This week we graduated our 3rd class...later today I will write about this event. But for old times' sake, I wanted to "repeat" (am I not like broadcast TV???) my blog post from our first graduation in 2010:

The Last of the Firsts

Last week, exactly at the time I am writing this now, we began the very last of the firsts at this toddler-age school here in Jordan.
Last week right now, His Majesty landed at the helipad, he walked over and joined the procession of the entire school of faculty and students and we made a double-inversion gauntlet procession to kick off the first graduation of the first senior class at KA. It was an impressive graduation, formal and elegantt, with spectacle and sweep and remembrance. It must have looked effortless…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poem touches on what it is to be human, to know despair and fear and doubt. These graduates will certainly encounter these emotions over the years, but the poem reminds us that we must seek solace and resolution. The speaker heads into nature and finds a peace. The line “I come into the peace of wild things…” and I think back to 150 blog entries ago when I wrote that some of the faculty looked at these new students at this new school, and we saw “wild dogs.” We joked in those early weeks that our students just felt a little raw, a little untrained…and like one man said, “they remind me of wild dogs.”

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

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

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Oscar had it right…

Oscar Hammerstein could write lyrics in a very overripe style—witness his extravagant words, You are the promised kiss of springtime/That makes the lonely winter seem long. Now, as someone who is not unfamiliar with the charge of “overripe,” it doesn’t really bother me (unlike how this “bothers” Stephen Sondheim) much, and I am fond of other overripe lyrics like you find in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Graduation song anyone of the last 68 years??). But I have had another Oscar lyric going ‘round my head in the last couple of weeks that is not overripe, and very much right on the money.

Picture it—Anna Leonowens is in 19th century Siam—and to her students she sings,
“It's a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought,

That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you'll be taught.”

This is the time of year when my two courses (Art History and History of the 20th Century) have come to an end and my students have taken over the teaching, offering an entire class of a topic as in the 20th class, or a self-curated art exhibition presentation in Art History. This is when I get to be taught by my students. And it’s a kick.

But even more wonderful than that annual parade of neophyte teachers, I had a guest in Jordan for nearly two weeks, a former student named Adam, he of the famed and wondrous Class of 2000, current PhD student, and a former member of three courses of mine at Hackley. I taught Adam sophomore, junior and senior years, and I remember, I think it was in his junior when I saw him around campus I would shout out, “Vive Le Kahn!” as a way to say hello. Adam is not terribly French, and yes, one could say the nickname/greeting was a little overripe, but again, pretty much on the money!

Anyway, Adam had been trying to visit me in Jordan for a couple of years, but I often had a play going on when he could come, and then that of course would not make for a very interesting visit for someone since they would only see me in the classroom and then working on a play, and that would be about it. This year, there was no play in the cards—someone else needed to postpone an event and that ate into my rehearsal time—oh well, c’est la vie.

So when Adam asked, I said, “Sure, just know there is a lot of time in school!” Adam also asked if he could teach a class…he was coming at the right time of year!

He combined a bunch of interesting things at Stanford for a major that included History, Computer Science and Communications. Adam wanted to teach a class in his field which is something like the history of computer and human interface…I think, but along those lines. This is obviously something I didn’t teach Adam in high school!

When it came time for Adam’s day to teach, I sat back, and enjoyed the thrill of learning about something about which I know—nothing! Adam decided to frame his lesson very much in a way that I would frame a lesson, with a “cultural artifact” to start us out, whet our intellectual appetites, then begin weaving together the context that is the broader landscape of said artifact finally hurling us into an epiphany—how did I not know about this before?! Don’t you just love those moments??? It is not just because Adam aped my style—it is hardly that revolutionary of a style, but taking a detail, processing it, scaffolding it, building it onto pre-existing knowledge and finally that exhilaration of how did I not know about this before?! is breathtaking.

Adam began with a cover from Time magazine from1943 of a man totally unknown to me, a man named Vannevar Bush (no relation to the Bush family pere and fils who have occupied the White House). Bush is on the cover of other magazines as well, and one announced, “Meet The Man Who May Win Or Lose The War.” I am intrigued. Oh, I love the exercise of accruing bits of knowledge and making sense of them. So who is this V. Bush guy? His pedigree was exceptional in terms of the universities for whom he worked or represented. He was interested in the information overflow he noticed and imagined ways to deal with the storage of information. Adam spun a great historical narrative as well, never leaving far behind the suspense of how this particular man, unknown to me before that day, may help the United States win or lose World War II! Bush imagined many ways to store information, and as Adam explained Bush’s musings, wow, well, we have achieved all of these things with our laptops and PCs etc. now. As Adam helped the class understand the impact of Bush’s musings we began to think about the link of our computers, the very keyboard at which I type at present, and how they are indebted to Professor Bush and his desire to help the United States win World War II. After we understand Bush’s proposals, Adam helps us understand the rush to progress with electronic computers (the rush is to beat the Germans, and then as the Cold War insinuates itself into the fabric of post-war life, the rush to beat the Soviets) not just as esoteric technological knowledge, but as a way to predict Soviet missile ballistics.

Adam explored the work of three other scientists all interested in “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” and in true Adam Kahn fashion (remember I taught him three times so I know him) he dazzled me. Adam took the concept of a personal computer, something now so quotidian, almost bordering on the mundane, and re-cast its history in light of the historical context of the last 70 years. Adam relayed that scientists involved with the first personal computers in 1975 found it to be a “religious experience.” Now this might sound overripe, but wait until you have watched a crackerjack former student teach you, and I might suggest, that is a religious experience as well.

Adam did the usual things while in Jordan—we tromped around Roman ruins in Jerash, Byzantine ruins in Um Ar Rassas, looked out over Mount Nebo as Moses did thousands of years ago, visited with Jordanian friends, shopped at Carpet City in Madaba (Ziad is the nicest shopkeeper in all of Jordan) and marveled at KA. Twelve years after he graduated from my daily tutelage, Adam and I spent more time in 2 weeks than in all those intervening years combined.

Just a few minutes ago I was presented with a gift from a graduating senior, a delightful and vital student named Noor. Noor decided to paint for me my third favorite painting of all time, a 19th century Friedrich work entitled, Two Men Contemplating the Moon. Noor knows how much I like it—especially because the painting is about Friedrich expressing thanks to his teachers and pupils. The two men in the scene have been apart from each other, but now are standing on the ridge of this hill, contemplating. Musing. Wondering. Reminiscing. I imagine the pupil is teaching the teacher a thing or two. It is natural. It is marvelous. It is education at its best, friendship at its most authentic, and, yes, beyond Oscar just being right, a rather religious experience.

Savor the view gentlemen.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

It is easy to forget about Mother's Day in May here in Jordan. I am not suggesting that my Jordanian friends and colleagues do not celebrate Mother's Day, indeed they do, but they celebrate it on the first day of spring every year. Very fitting in many ways...but it is easy to forget about American Mother's Day in May. We are in school, busy-at-work, so it is not like the Sunday Mother's Day pre-Jordan life, and there are no reminders in the stores or anywhere in front of us.

Of course with a mother like mine, Mary Martha, it is pretty hard to ever forget her, her warmth and humor, intelligence, charisma, and impact on our family. I thought I would re-run a blog entry I wrote about her for her birthday in November, 2007, my first autumn in Jordan, and the second November since she joined the Heavenly Sunday School class. As you think about your own mothers today, indulge me a moment while I revel in the life of Mary Martha, who graced our planet from 1938 until 2006.

From November, 2007:
"Sixty-nine years ago today Mary Martha Griley Leistler leapt upon the world’s stage for the first time. She was born on a snowy Sunday morning, in Cincinnati, just a couple of days after Thanksgiving in 1938. Not surprisingly, the celebrations of my mother’s birthday and the spirit of Thanksgiving have always been intertwined for my family. As an adult I have only been absent from Thanksgiving in Cincinnati a handful of times ever: in 1984, 1989, 1994, and now 2007. Sigh. Thanksgiving, and those days around my mother’s birthday, always marked my first visit home since I had gone off in August to teach somewhere in the world.

Naturally this year a bouquet of memories sweetened the day away from home. It is funny how memories work: they don’t follow chronology necessarily, and they wash over your brain in a haphazard, yet utterly exhilarating way. I recall the year my mother saw in her Frisch’s, her coffee shop away from home, a sign noting, “CLOSED FOR THANKSGIVING.” My mother asked to have the sign after the holiday—for years she put it up at home, declaring that she was closed for the holiday! Ever since I was a child we had a rule in our house—you can’t talk about Christmas until after Mommy’s birthday had passed on November 27. Oh, and I remember the recent Thanksgiving weekend that I took my mother to the dentist, and as I wheeled her in, she announced to all in the waiting room: “Yes, this is my son Johnny. He finally came home after being gone for five years.” As her short-term memory became more of an option, my mother still reveled in being a drama queen!

There was the Thanksgiving in the mid-1970s when my mother invited the entire Griley clan for the feast. I remember the day well—in part because she invited my cousin’s fiancĂ©, a woman named Kathi—I had the biggest crush on this cousin-to-be, and she was coming to my house! I also remember vividly the main course of that Thanksgiving meal—a roasted ham that still tantalizes my memory some 30 years later. As some of you may know, my dad and Uncle Jack are kind of poultry-phobes, so my mother decided to have a ham instead, and she went to a local bakery and asked them to roast the ham, and it came encased in the most fragrant rye-bread coating you could imagine.

As much as I love the food memories of Thanksgiving—what a wonderful way to connect to dear ones through the comfort-foods of our blessings (and I could go on about Aunt Dot’s yams, or Aunt Joy’s succotash, but I will not digress!) I more deeply appreciate collecting all the memories of Thanksgivings and Mary Martha as a chance for me to reflect on the power of my mother’s influence on me, and the simple thanks I send up at simply knowing her. For those of you who knew her—she had a way of putting her own personal spin on everything. For example, sometime in my childhood she decided that a better way of observing the holiday was to wish everyone a “Happy Thanks-living.” Of course as a child I thought it was just weird. But as an adult, now more cognizant of her 49 year battle with MS, I plainly see how she embodied an appreciation, a thanks, simply for living, and loving.

Her name was a dual name: Mary Martha. She couldn’t stand just being called Mary, although she loved it when my father called her “Mare.” Her name is a combination of the sisters in the New Testament we meet in the book of Luke:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to Bethany where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me! “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

--Luke 10:38-42

Mary and Martha both loved Jesus. These sisters of Lazarus are known for their hospitality, but they go about their goals of serving very differently. Martha wished to please, to serve, to do the right thing, but tried too hard sometimes. She tended to feel sorry for herself when her efforts were not recognized. Martha’s frustration was so intense that she finally asked Jesus to settle the matter. He gently corrected her attitude and showed Martha that her priorities, though good, were misplaced. On the other hand, Mary’s approach to social occasions shows her to be a quiet responder—Mary had learned when to listen, and when to act. Mary had learned from Martha that the busyness of serving God can be a barrier to knowing him personally. Mary understood that one should not be so busy planning and running things that we neglect precious time with loved ones. My mother’s personality and priorities reflected the duality of these sisters—indeed the lesson of the Biblical Mary and Martha continues to challenge us to have a Mary heart in a Martha world.

Of the many legacies I enjoy from my mother, perhaps the greatest gift she leaves me is her desire never to squander a teachable moment. As a young boy, perhaps 7, I recall her coming home from her annual trip downtown to have her diamond rings cleaned. I commented on how beautiful her ring was. She clearly loved them too, and she showed them off to me saying that this diamond ring was more than just a pretty ring—she taught me that it was a symbol of the love Mommy and Daddy shared. She told me that diamonds were chosen since they were such a hard stone, and they could stand up to anything—just like the love Mommy and Daddy enjoyed. She said plainly, life is hard too, but love as strong and brilliant as a diamond would always stand up to that. She then took off her ring, and had me stare at it, and taught me the word, “facets.” She taught me: a radiant diamond has many facets, like our lives, and we must cultivate our many facets, our many gifts. Ever since that tender age, that diamond ring has meant more than just cost or status or bling.

Although I rarely saw her perform on stage, she loved the theater, and in college had starred in two classic plays, Our Town and Death of a Salesman. These plays certainly informed so much of how she embraced life, for her character Linda Loman demanded in Death of a Salesman, “attention must be paid,” to the poor forgotten salesman. I don’t think she ever forgot those words, and she always wanted to pay attention, especially to the ones most forgot. In Our Town you have the story of Emily who comes back to earth and finds that people don’t look at each other enough. “Why don’t they tell each other they loved other,” Emily urged. We have talked for years in our family about the “Our Town” moments we enjoy. Just as MM never squandered a teachable moment, she never missed a chance to remind us what Emily learned in Our Town.

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.

At my mother’s funeral in 2006 we marveled that on earth she had freely lived her life in the service of God, and now she would eternally bask in the presence of God. How fitting that I can celebrate the lessons of her life every year as Thanksgiving rolls around. Just as the pilgrims celebrated their survival, their thanks-living, we can also offer thanks for the miracles around us.

In December, 2004 my mother again entered the hospital, and again doctors offered a grave prognosis for a return home. A couple weeks later one of the doctors confided, “frankly this is a miracle she has done so well.” My father calmly said, “You should know something about us. We expect miracles.”
A woman as charismatic as Mary Martha deserves a major holiday for remembrance. It is almost as if the poet W.H. Auden had her in mind as he once wrote, “All our thinks should be thanks.”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Question of Nerves

In my over 300 blog entries about life in Jordan, have I talked about going to the dentist much? I might have mentioned it, because it always made me chuckle, but in my twice-yearly visits to the dentist in Amman, I always thought it odd that he didn’t take x-rays. The first time I went to the dentist here I actually asked toward the end of the very quick cleaning. “Don’t you take x-rays,” I inquired innocently but directly. “Oh, no, Mr. John, your teeth are good!”

That reaction and observation actually reveals a great deal. But anyway, I always found it a little comical that you had to have bad teeth, or at least noticeably bad teeth, to warrant the taking of x-rays.
In January, 2012, I started to have some shooting pains in a tooth (I had just been for one of my cleanings the month before) so I went back to the dentist. I am not a dentist, mind you, but I figured I had a cavity. So the way my trained dentist figured out which tooth it might be—why we couldn’t take an x-ray did seem a mystery again—he had an instrument that shot air and he used it against the teeth on my upper left side until I jumped from the pain. (I half-expected him to yell, “Found it!”) So we did the filling and that was that. I said good-bye to the jovial dentist. Have I mentioned he wears a biker jacket? I am not judging, just filling in the landscape for you. Have I mentioned he looks the age of our seniors? Probably a child prodigy.

Anyway, when I came home from the trip to Belgium in March, the shooting pains returned and the tooth aches intensified. I started chocking ibuprofen like I would love to eat Reece’s pieces. If you have ever had tooth pains, do you remember how difficult it is to sleep? During the day it is a little easier to manage except—wow, the shooting pains again!!—but the nights are hard. Shooting pains are hard to overlook when trying to fall asleep. One night I almost called Julianne here and asked her to come and have my teeth all ripped out.

I mentioned the problem in the history department office and two colleagues immediately suggest their dentist, the same man, assuring me he is great. “Does he take-x-rays” I inquired innocently but directly. That is my new criterion for greatness in dentists. “Of course,” they answered, “Dr. Sami really is great.”

Later that day I called Dr. Sami and got someone whose English is as strong as my Arabic. She had difficulty with the phone number, getting it so very close so he could call me back, but not quite getting it accurately. Finally she said, “Oh, you have more than one number?” I sighed, and hoped he might try one of the combinations she wrote down. In a few hours I got a call from Dr. Sami. I told him about the pain—very hard to describe the quality and intensity of pain, I guess a little like trying to describe your “heat” spice level you want in an Indian restaurant—and he asked if I could wait until Sunday when he had an opening. I asked if Saturday might work. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could be poppin’ pills to try and curb the pain.

Of course finding his office was a struggle. We don’t really do street names in Jordan, and so you say things like, “His office is in Sweifieh, but not on the main walking street, and kind of near the Papa John’s pizza place.” Uh-huh. Could we have a number? How near Papa John’s??? Is there a sign? One colleague drew a map for me. When I got there, the map wasn’t perfectly accurate…I called the other colleague at home and asked if she could guide me to the office. “I was told it was in an office building with glass.” There were several of those. Finally, I got there. The street address is #23 though, in case you want to find Dr. Sami. His sign is in Arabic but does have the English word “California.” I don’t know the street name however, but it’s only about a 4 minute walk to Papa John’s.

Dr. Sami is so nice! And so interested in explaining everything. He takes x-rays. As he looks at the x-rays he actually utters an “Uh, oh.” In what context in any doctor’s office might that be a hoped-for response??? So he says there is a problem with the tooth that was filled in January. He says he wants to drill. He then gets out a little white board—honest—and draws for me what he wants to do. He says, “I want to drill without numbing you because I need to check on the nerves. I think there might be some nerve damage.” I said, “I know I just met you, and my colleagues like you, but doesn’t that sound like torture?” He said he had lived and worked in California and liked Americans’ humor.

So I grab the sides of the dentist chair and he begins to drill. He is very kind, asks if it hurts. Hmmm…no, it doesn’t hurt. After he drills some more I find I haven’t winced once. He asks if it hurt. No, I said. He explained that he hoped it had hurt a little. He worried about the damage and worried that the nerves for that tooth might be dead. He then said, “Mr. John, can you take bad news?”

We retired to his office and he got out a chart, his white board, the x-rays and a pad of paper. He explained that he wanted to see if the nerves were still sensitive enough, and they did not seem to be. Moreover, he spied a crack in the tooth, and he said it was a crack that went down to the base of the tooth. Had I done something to cause that? I had no idea. He used the white board to draw pictures, and then he showed me the x-rays—I mean he wanted me to see and understand everything and get a sense of the scenario. He then worried that the tooth might have to be extracted. He looked so pained to have to tell me this. Extracted. Then he got out the pad of paper to explain the alternatives one might choose in dealing with the extraction. He even explained, and then drew it out, why I had had pain. It wasn’t a cavity, although he said it wasn’t filled expertly, but he said bacteria had probably settled into the crack and caused the pain.

He really couldn’t have been nicer, or a more detailed explainer of everything! He called a colleague of his, an endodontist, and suggested I go to him for him to take better x-rays and see if possibly I might be able to have a root canal. The root canal became the best-case scenario!

A different colleague drew me a map to his office (at the third light make a left and then go across from the hospital and find the flower shop that sells cards and balloons—it in that building) and this map proved more successful for me. I meet him, we take pictures, we schedule the root canal (Dr. Sami even calls me to see how that appointment went! He also burst my bubbled by saying, “He may find in the middle of the root canal that we can’t save the tooth. Sorry.”)

Let’s make this long story short—the root canal went fine. There was no pain, but of course the sounds are unbelievably harsh—what are they doing in your mouth anyways?? It went fine, I went back to Dr. Sami, and I have been twice more. We have taken care of the less-skillful dentistry of the last couple of years. Now, these doctors aren’t on the insurance plan. For those of you who know me well, yes, I can be frugal, and even a cheapskate. But I decided you don’t fool with this. The crown I got was top-of-the-line (Dr. Sami had written out all the options, drawn pictures about how each option would affect the tooth) and no it wasn’t covered by insurance. But the cost of all this was probably a third of the cost in the USA.

Anyway, the saga of the teeth really ended last week. I had a filling taken care of and Dr. Sami, my BFF, bid me adieu.

But this morning I thought about this whole story, the nerves, the anxiety, the wondering when and how it might play out…strangely I thought about this as my art historian warriors went into battle for their AP test.

As I wrote the other day, I love this time of year. I love preparing them for battle, I love showing them the clip of Henry V and the St. Crispian’s Day speech to galvanize them for this battle (I have been showing that since 1993 to AP classes the night before!) and then we go outside and have a water-gun fight and release a little of the tension.

What my students do, or really any students, on an AP test, astounds me. The tests are hard. It takes nerves to withstand these tests. They cover an entire subject, be it Art History or European History or Biology—and many, many more. You could fold, crumble, dissolve, et cetera.

But my students muster their courage, manage their nerves and go and sit for a test that today asked them to navigate through 5,000 years of visual arts, politics, philosophy, religion, sociology, architecture, and personal crises. And they come out smiling.

As they went in to sit for the exam, we could probably have drilled and they wouldn’t have felt a thing—not that their nerves are dead—no, they are so excited about the prospect of celebrating their knowledge.

It is a wondrous thing every year to watch their display of nerve.

Friday, May 4, 2012

That time of year…

It’s one of my favorite times of the year…right now. That could be one of a few things, actually. Jordan explodes with color in the spring, and we are enjoying the dazzling wild flowers and carpets of green. It lasts for about 5 or 6 weeks, and that it is back to the brown that we know so well.

It is the last few weeks with seniors too, but, if you have ever spent time with seniors in the spring, you know that that is probably not what I am talking about. Sigh. This time of year is actually pretty joy-less in the teaching biz with seniors. Even seniors whom you have adored and felt hung the moon become sullen and defiant and, again, joy-less. I have been seeing it for over 20 years. It comes with the territory. They begin the separation, and that includes teachers, especially teachers with whom they may have been close. They speak to you less frequently, dare not to act excited about class, and adopt a world-weariness that is unbelievable.

Oh, wait, this blog entry is about one of my favorite times of year, not one of the most trying times of year! Sorry, I lost focus!

It’s the time right before the AP Art History test. We have made the long haul from pre-historic times to post-modernism, so we covered all the ground required. And it is not that students are newly smart, but they are smarter, and more profound than ever before. They have come to that point in the course when they are not studying something for the first time, or probably even the second or third. They recognize that this test is not really about recognizing art works, but discussing how the visual arts have worked over millennia. They see how similar a pre-historic sculpture might be with a post-WWII de Kooning painting. And they say the most amazing things!

I feel a little like a parent of a chatty, inquisitive 5 year old at this time of year. Yes, everything they say is phenomenal! Well, it pretty much is really. We are not just cramming facts in heads, but they are responding to art works and testing themselves with mock essay topics and as Art Linkletter swore for decades, they say the “darndest things.”

Last week I asked the class to come up with their list of 50 art works upon which the whole course hinges. Now, admittedly, it’s a pretty easy assignment. Frankly, copy down any 50 art works and you get credit. But year after year, students take this assignment seriously, and they strain and furrow their brow and they try and have a list whittled down from the possibly 1000 art works we studied this year.

Last year a student decided to choose the one art work that moved him the most in the entire course. It wasn’t an assignment actually, he just wanted to select one and write about it…for fun…He chose a Rembrandt painting that is in the Met in New York, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer and wrote so well about why it matters to him more than any other art work…wow…sigh…This year I decided to pose that same challenge and asked if there was one art work that moved them more than any other. They know my choice since in February I tell them a particular Vermeer is my favorite and most moving of the entire year. I am pretty sure I have mentioned it in the blog at some point.

I had a student write and tell me the one he would choose. Again, it was a Rembrandt. Maybe there is something to that guy. The student chose a work that is in St. Petersburg, a narrative about the biblical story of the prodigal son. I will wait a second while you google image the work so you can see this Rembrandt work late, late in his career.

The story of the prodigal son is always interesting anyway. It is famous beyond the confines of the Bible and Jesus’ parables. Did you know that this biblical story is alluded to more often than any other in William Shakespeare’s works? There is something about the story. Think about it—it has almost everything, from greed to envy to confession to celebration to jealousy to bitterness to forgiveness. A sweeping array of emotions and responses!

The student explained why it moved him so much. Firstly, Rembrandt’s career had taken a nose-dove and he had become a pariah, of sorts. The student explained how the trajectory of his career had gotten him thinking about how we treat people on the way up the ladder and then, gulp, down the ladder. The student appreciated Rembrandt’s technique, yes, but the part of the painting that he responded to so much was how the story evokes “unconditional love.” He said that! Again, a painting can make you think about the most important, universal things.

The student’s response offered me the opportunity to think about the story again. At times when I have thought about the story, I think about that other son, the elder son, and how he reacted to his brother’s return and his father’s response. I can picture him now, with his arms folded, marinating in his own bitterness. I wonder what happened after the parable ends…does he let go of his resentment? When we resent someone, it gets down into our bones and our tissues and our cells. It can rot away at our insides.

We don’t know what the younger son did. The Bible doesn’t relate many details about his escapades. In class, as we look at the painting, I always suggest the younger brother went to Las Vegas, or a fraternity party, so that they have an idea, but I don’t have to spell out exactly what he might have done. The King James version does tell us that “he wasted his substance in riotous living.” They get some of the levels of what “wasted” can mean.

Then I think about the younger brother—why did he come home? Was he out of money? Hungry? Needed to wash clothes? Sorry for his having “wasted his substance in riotous living”?

But of course, the real focus of the story, and the student reminded me of it, was the attitude of the father, the bar set so high in how to love. The story is about transformation—at the beginning of the story the thoughtless kid has a “gimme” attitude as he claims his inheritance, a kind-of biblical Veruca-Salt who wants it, and wants it now. But upon his return, and look at the Rembrandt painting now, and you see how that has changed. He has transformed and begs his father to “make me.” He wants to be made a hired hand so he is worthy of his father.

But the student’s response focused my attention on the father and his character. When the young son confesses his unworthiness, it is his father’s love that prompts the confession, not the confession that prompts the father’s love. When the older son rails against the father for showing a special, favored love to his decadent brother, Dad reminds him that it is not a special, favored love. This just happens to be the way the father always loves.

The student marveled at the unconditional love shown by the Dad. I also marvel at that as well. For most of us, loving part of the way is what we tend to do, instead of all the way, and that acts as our defense against being hurt. Not so with the father in the story. His love is not an “if you do this, then I will love you” variety. It is so much more a “because of who you are and who I am, I must love you” type.

The student said he had a father like that. I told him that I also am fortunate to have a father like that. We didn’t say much to each other after that—who needed to speak when we had just figured out one of the most important lessons for humanity???

But it is not an easy lesson, is it? It is a love riddled with unfairness. The younger son is mystified by the extravagance of the father’s love, and the older son is infuriated by it. But then, the father isn’t working on fairness. Indeed, if you think about the end of the parable, the story is actually an exercise in un-fair¬ness. That party! The father practices unfairness in the celebration of the return of that younger son.

Fairness. Whoa. Talk about your weighty subjects. I guess fairness really only works in the realm of mathematical calculation. I don’t teach or spend much time with mathematics, but I deal with the mess of humanity. I guess grace and generosity have little to do with math, and we no doubt, probably deserve little of either if we scrutinize our own behavior.

It is now May, the month of Mother’s Day (in the United States) and my father’s birthday. How lucky I am to have had parents who both exhibited that kind of unconditional love, both to me, my sister, and to each other. I need no better example about love and generosity.

So these seniors…well, I love them, and I have loved teaching them. But they seem awfully like that younger brother, itching to go, and not very grateful. No, I suppose it isn’t fair. But it also isn’t fair, perhaps, that I have gotten more than my fair share of exciting, invigorating, challenging, thrilling students over the years.

One art work can spawn such a great discussion. I wish you had been there the other day in class as a student masterfully analyzed a work by 1980s artist Barbara Kruger, or the student who talked about Gauguin’s Nevermore in a powerful way, or…I could go on and on…it’s just that time of year. Each day offers thoughtful, moving analyses, not about names and dates and show-off cocktail party conversation about art works, but about the human condition. And how we might appreciate it just a little bit more.