Monday, June 18, 2012

The 2011-12 A-Z List

Yesterday was the last of the meetings. We do meetings very well at this school! Yesterday was the meeting for senior staff and each of us had to speak about where we were in terms of preparing for the beginning of school two months from now. Eight weeks from today I will be in my first meeting of the year, again with senior staff. One of the exciting features of yesterday’s meeting (besides my friend Mona’s homemade treats she brought for us) was the presentation about the projections of where we are going in the next five years…of course, I couldn’t help but think back to five years ago right now as I closed up shop in Tarrytown, heading for a few weeks in Cincinnati before the big move here—that would be 255 weeks ago…

As an ode to the 2011-12 school year, I thought I would try and sum up this last year with an A-Z look at the students who enriched my year. Here goes…

A A is for Ahmed, the latest in the Khalayleh dynasty. I met this 9th grader (now rising sophomore) as a 5th grader, interested in culinary and artistic pursuits, and ready to come to KA years before his application hit the desk. Unfortunately, I didn’t teach 9th grade this year, so I didn’t have Ahmed in class, but watching him learn the piano and cello, and enjoying him in the choir, was very exciting. Ahmed also rates a placement in the A-Z line-up since he offered me a contract to stay at least through his junior year so I could teach him AP Art History! As one of the terms of the contract he has promised me good ice cream once a month.

B B stands for the Bawab boys. These are the children of one of my colleagues, and these guys, senior Fayez and junior Aziz, are the epitome of friendliness. I taught Fayez last year and each day he walked into class smiling and hungry to learn. This year Aziz was in my colleague Chris’ art history class, but he would come join our class on Mondays each week in his free period. Both young men radiate the potential of our students.

C C stands for that motley crew I met for the Choir each week. Try working on a music program 45 minutes a week!!?! Oh my, well, I tried a variety of pieces over the course of the year with the dozen or so 9th-12th graders, many of the pieces which I sang in junior high and high school. I finally realized singing in parts was not going to work so I found some great pieces in unison. They just don’t have a music education to fall back on, but we delighted in our weekly sessions and we performed at the Senior Dinner with two pieces that we all enjoyed.

D D is for Divij, one of the best and brightest of the Class of 2012. Divij was placed on my hallway as a sophomore, as Dean of Students Wendy explained to be a “reward” for a couple of baddies on my hallway the year before. In our three years of knowing each other, he was always a “reward” and his integrity, rigor, and warmth amply repaid me.

E E is for Elias, one of the quiet ones in my AP Art History, but another stunner as a student. As the whole class took notes, participated in discussion, engaged with the art works and cast an exciting spell, Elias did all of that, plus he sketched the art works as we encountered them as well. This hard-worker mastered the material well, thanked me often, and enriched the class.

F F is for Faris, another of the young men in AP Art History (only three girls in this section, a sea of junior testosterone!) whose smile in class lit up the day. I didn’t pronounce his last name correctly until I learned a cool Arabic colloquial word for “Killer!” that rhymed with his family name. Faris left class every day with the words, “Thank you so much, sir!”

G G is for Gefei, a student I did not teach but loved to watch from the sidelines. Gefei is one of the handful of Chinese students who joined us this year. She plays the viola and in each concert she offered examples of her musicianship and care to her work. I do hope to have her in class someday.

H H is for Hamza—what a great kid! You already know about him since he is the student whose art exhibit, “I Am Sexy And I Know It,” made me laugh so. This guy is the embodiment of that tired cliché, The Renaissance Man, but it is true. He is a scientist, an athlete, a champion art historian—and unfailingly polite and reliable. Recently Julianne’s mother met him and asked me is he was the legendary Hamzeh of my blog posts. I said, “Not the same one, but that same name has produced a new legend.”

I I really don’t know how to sum up the joy I experienced teaching my 20th Century History class. One day last December we played the “Connections Game” where I put on the board about 30 random names or facts of what we had been studying for a month; each student must come up to the board, draw lines among at least three of them and explain the connections. They were remarkable! At the end I said, “This is why we don’t have tests in this class. You have mastered the material and can articulate your reflections brilliantly.”

J J is for my superstar Jude. Jude spent the last six months extolling how much she loved art history. She loves the story of the day it all changed for her. Last fall she was not answering something very effectively—I grabbed her shoulders (gently!) and shook her saying, “Jude—you have to think!” It jarred her so much, and she skipped class the next day, but every minute after that she worked to think and rise above high school-level work. She made it to the top of the mountain faster than almost everybody else.

K K is for Kareem, a student I may never teach. For three years he has come to me excited about when he might take a class from me. Each year, however, he comes back and says, “My advisor says I’m not ready for it.” He glumly walks away. He is a rising senior now and he did the walk-away again recently. But how nice that someone could be that sad to miss out on the work!

L L is for Lubna, the senior who is acknowledged to be the best in her class at the “Connections Game.” She doesn’t just do the three connections—no, she does 4 or 5 connections, where she weaves together things like J.P. Morgan, Gesamtkunstwerk, the kaleidoscope, “Oh, What a Lovely War!” and W.E,B. DuBois. This girl loves history! And I loved teaching her history!

M M is for Moutasem, my one advisee left to me. Moutasem and I were linked together in so many ways this year: advisee, student, member of Model Congress, in my dorm—we were hardly out of each other’s sight. He has the intelligence and kindness of a poet, the charm and the dash of a bad boy, and one more year (lucky me) as my advisee.

N N is for Noor-Eddin, my other senior in AP Art History. If you were looking through a catalogue for role models, you would find his picture. I finally had the chance to teach him this year; in September he asked if he could sit in on 20th Century History. He said he couldn’t do the work, didn’t want a grade, just wanted to audit the class and soak in the history. He is a model of restraint and decency and brilliance. He embodies our school’s mission.

O O is for Omar one of my advisees and the Valedictorian for the Class of 2012. Omar and I talk about food and history and poetry and the future and plans and suffering…whatever might cross our minds creates fruitful discussions. Omar is the kind of valedictorian who earned that title through his love of learning and perseverance. Omar is the kind of student we will be talking about in Teacher Heaven.

P The P sound doesn’t exist in Arabic so there aren’t really P words—they make a B sound instead. But never fear—I have a great P name to celebrate: Julianne Puente. In my list of A-Z greats, Julianne, the Dean of Student Life, certainly deserves every accolade. Julianne is great in her job, a tireless job to say the least. But she looks at every crisis as an opportunity for learning, for both students and faculty, she lives and breathes the mission of the school, and she has made KA a much better school. This whole A-Z list has benefited from her vigor and work ethic.

Q Q is for Qais, a young man in my Art History class who learned one of the most important lessons in life—observe deadlines. Qais had every excuse in the fall about his missing work, and after a meeting of the minds last November, he never, never, ever turned something in late. Qais stuck at the course, held his own, and became a model of one of those key lessons in life—“become dependable.”

R R is for Ramie, one of my senior advisees that I have known since 9th grade. Ramie was my right hand for three Model Congress trips. In his college recommendation I casually mentioned that if I were President, I would choose Ramie as my Chief of Staff.

S S is for Dima Saad, the anointed Queen of Art History (anointed by seniors in the Class of 2010 when Dima was but just a sophomore!). Dima won the History Department award this year—it really couldn’t have been anyone else—because she makes every class she is in better. Her writing, her discussion, her insights, her praise of peers, her work ethic, her enthusiasm. The reigning Queen!

T T is for Tawfiq, one of my most frustrating students. Usually the “frustrating” students don’t make the A-Z list, but Tawfiq does. He is bright, inquisitive, participatory, and also chronically tardy or absent. ARGH! The class loses when Tawfiq isn’t there. Tawfiq loses when Tawfiq isn’t there.

U U is for the Underground Cheating Ring that got exposed this year. Students sick of other students benefiting from an organized paper-writing-mill complained and the Office of Student Life uncovered this ring. It may be like the mafia but we are more aware now than ever.

V V is for the word “vital.” I tried to sum up the importance of a senior, Noor M, who brightened two of my classes in the last two years. I came up with the word “vital” for Noor since it means a “life force.” Noor was necessary, vital indeed, to the energy and urgency of my spectacular 20th Century History class.

W W is for Walid, another art historian whose work never ceased to amaze me. Walid maybe worked too hard. But one of the great things of Walid’s work was seeing his joy as he understood a difficult Renaissance concept, or dug underneath a Mark Rothko painting and discovered the profundities that art has awaiting the patient and the bold.

X You didn’t think I would have a student for X did you! But I do! X is for Xu, another of the coterie of Chinese students to join us this year. Xu was in the choir and greeting her each Tuesday was one of the highlights of the day. She loved to sing. She loved being at KA. She loved creating a happy atmosphere.

Y Y is for the word Yawp. Okay, I didn’t have an exciting Y-named student this year, but in the absence I thought about that great line from Walt Whitman celebrated in The Dead Poet’s Society: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.”

Z But I had a plethora of Z-named stellar students! Z is for Zeid and Zaza and Zain. Zeid had one of those come-from-behind victories in AP Art History class, Nadine Zaza, gifted artist, taught my art history class in my absence this spring, and Zain, well, Zain wrote the Journal Sheets in 20th Century History class to which I looked the most forward every week. The Z names have been good to me here!!

From A-Z…

I will close with a quotation from A-Z blog four years ago:

"I am reminded of the old story about two guys doing masonry work on a building. The first one, when asked what he was doing, says, “Laying bricks.” The second replies, “Building a cathedral.” Some people see teachers as merely attendance-takers, paper-graders, naggers of homework, and setters of traps for young people, or worse, just baby-sitters. Not me. I have the best job in the world, and my first year at KA reminded me of the exhilaration in creating a classroom.

Last July, in my maiden blog voyage I wrote of the American named John Ledyard who set out for the Arab world in 1776 “on a passage to glory.”

It has been a glorious year, and as that 18th century American John L. wrote, “My heart is on fire,” I can concur."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

legend out of happenstance

Summer comes in fits and starts when ending the year at KA. It is nearly 3 weeks since the seniors graduated, a week since we bade good-bye to the underclassmen, and yet we faculty are still in meetings! Meetings yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The weather in Jordan—perpetually sunny with blue skies in the mid 90s—says that summer has arrived. The students we all taught are reveling in summer. And soon summer, real teacher summer, will be here soon.

I decided to get a head-start on one of my favorite things about summer—reading for pleasure…

Now I do some reading for pleasure during the year, yes, that is true. And with my fairly peripatetic ways, I am reading on planes quite often. But there is nothing like that summer reading when you are lying on a couch with a summer breeze floating by, or sitting on the front porch as a rain storm (that would be in Cincinnati!) freshens everything, or lazing under the shade of an olive tree (that would be in Jordan!) lost in another world.

So this last week, as classes ceased and grading finally ended, I started the summer reading. Shhhh…don’t tell anyone I got a headstart on summer! I began with a book suggested by my good friend, my math teacher colleague Dragana, a 2007 historical fiction book by Nancy Horan called Loving Frank. Dragana had said in her inimitable voice of authority: “John, I know you will like this book. It is about Frank Lloyd Wright—oh, it doesn’t end well.” Normally, one doesn’t really like to know much about a book, but I guess Dragana didn’t want me to get my hopes up!

Anyway, Frank Lloyd Wright, huh? I remember as a child seeing some of his homes in Kankakee, Illinois when my mother would drive us half-way to Chicago to meet her suburban Chicagoland sister, Helen. I teach FLW in AP Art History so I have enjoyed seeing how much he loved Egypt and Japan and sought to bring elements from those worlds to his homes in the United States.

I also remember watching a grainy, late 1950s TV interview (not in the 1950s, mind you, I was not alive yet!) with Frank Lloyd Wright and he was asked about a comment he had made lauding himself as the “greatest architect of the 20th Century.” The old architect with the shock of white hair looked disgruntled and protested to the interviewer, “That’s not true! I said I was the greatest architect of all time!”

Wright was indeed a visionary, and his Prairie homes made in Oak Park, Illinois (ahhh….see the example above!) were organic in nature and designed to blend into the landscape rather than compete with it.

FLW himself—ego, bravado, talent, control, temper—on the other hand, could hardly be considered as a man who “blended into the landscape” and his unconventional affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a married woman of Oak Park with two children, resulted in tragedy both personal and professional. (I shouldn’t act so knowledgeable about this affair—I only learned about it from the book.)

So author Nancy Horan's historical novel takes you into the lives and minds of this unusual couple and explores their relationship and its effect on the people who loved them as well as those on the periphery of their passion.

We are drawn into the inner thoughts of Mamah, an unusually accomplished woman for her time in her own graduate, fluent in several languages.....and her attempt to “stop standing on the side of life watching it float by” and instead “swim in the river and feel its current.” In an era when women were expected to quash any desire for personal growth and “act happy,” Mamah's personal conflict threw her into the arms of charismatic Wright. Both Frank and Mamah were trapped in loveless marriages, and they ultimately sacrificed everything in order to be together: leaving their spouses, their children, and their credibility (the factual recitations from contemporary Chicago papers reminds us how forbidden and taboo infidelity was then—Mamah and Frank didn’t have a People magazine yet through which to tell their side of the story). Although society pegged these two lovers as wicked adulterers, I was moved by their desire to share their lives together. They thrived off each other not just physically, but they had a deep intellectual connection that seemed to justify their choice to be together. By the way, this really is in no way a major spoiler—you get all of this in the first 50 pages…there are 300 pages more to go.

And what a fun summer read! I lay under one of the olive trees by our administration building, in the shade, several late afternoons in a row engrossed in the story. One of my favorite moments in the book comes from author Horan’s assessment of Frank Lloyd Wright himself: “He could make a legend out of happenstance.” I love that line! Indeed, anyone who blogs just kind of assumes that they also make legends out of happenstance! I mean, think about the proliferation of social media—the tweeting and the facebooking—we are daily, hourly, every second making legends out of happenstance.

But of course it does go a little deeper than that—the line is a celebration, not just a self-publishing claim, about our lives, the happenstance, the quotidian. One of the things I love about the Thornton Wilder play Our Town so much is how it elevates the quotidian. In an age long before the internet, Wilder is kind of blogging about the ordinary lives of the Webbs’ and the Gibbs’s.

Of course, that got me to thinking of some of the “happenstance” moments in my life of late—well, I mean, the ones that haven’t already made it into the blogisodes.

There is the time a couple weeks ago when I volunteered to chaperone a study break trip to the new Taj mall in Amman. I am sitting at the Starbucks there, minding my own business, hoping the students will all come back on time, reading for pleasure on my Kindle, when I hear a loud voice over my shoulder exclaim, “Oh, good! You speak English! Can I talk to you? May I sit down with you?” I quickly learn that this woman named Kelly has been desperate to speak to someone in English. She wasn’t in danger, she didn’t need car help (thank goodness!), she didn’t need money nor had she lost her passport. No, but I did learn a fair amount about this Kelly, in this happenstance conversation, over the next 40 minutes!

It turns out that Kelly has been in Amman for about 6 weeks, recently arrived from Kansas City. She doesn’t get to speak to someone who speaks English very often, you see. She had been a dispatch operator for a taxi company in Kansas City ("Did you know they have great BBQ there?" She misses it so!) and had met a man who lived in Jordan on-line. The _____ (fill in the blank for the right noun—friendship? relationship? lonely planet-acquaintance ship? stalker-ship???) blossomed and the man proposed (!!!!!) and so Kelly, who had never left the United States before, got a passport, took her savings from said dispatcher job, left Kansas City and flew to Jordan to meet, marry, and live with her husband’s family (who don’t really speak English). The husband goes to work every day, six days a week, and she is left with the mother-in-law who doesn’t trust air conditioning, doesn’t have Dr. Pepper in the house, and doesn’t like shopping. So this was Kelly’s second time out of the house alone…so of course, she was thrilled to speak to someone who spoke English so she could tell me the story of the beautiful ______ (fill in the blank for the right noun). Oh, and she will be in Jordan for about six months while they await his visa to go with Kelly to America. Oh. What an ______ (fill in the blank for the right adjective) conversation with Kelly. I was able to tell her that the grocery store in the basement of the mall would have Dr. Pepper for her. Happenstance—and kind of fun.

Another happenstance moment that should become legend: a recent dinner at my friend Reem’s parents’ house in Amman…this wonderful couple moved back to Jordan last year from Georgia to be with family, and they had us over for a dinner in their garden. Maybe the best meal of the year…plus in a beautiful garden on a cool evening. The meal was legendary. And Reem is legendary.

Then another happenstance thing—but not in the good category, came recently when I had another flat tire in Jordan. I think I have had 5 flat tires nowin my time in Jordan—probably the amount I have had in 15 years time in the USA—and, well, you know I am inept about that kind of thing. Remember—I was so glad Kelly didn’t need car help! But the best part of this little flat tire episode is that I went into my usual produce store in Madaba, asked if I could leave the car there on the street until tomorrow, and then some of the guys from the shop came out and changed the tire for me. Legendary help!

Another small happenstance moment—the other day I was in a little store in Madaba, a kind of Walmart that is perhaps .005% the size of a real Walmart, and I found a hand-held mixer at a decent price. Now I have not been willing to buy one of those things here—“how long am I going to be here??” I always say. Well, I am at the end of five school years here. I think it is time to have a mixer instead of whisk and whisk and whisk and whisk. So there. I did a legendary thing. I made a statement that I may be staying here a little longer. Enjoying the moments of happenstance that make it into the blogisodes and become, at least in my self-publishing mind, legendary!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Looking Back

members of the Class of 2011, long ago, in the first year of the school, over four years ago

Two of these young men pictured above have come back on campus in the last day to work at a summer program here. They have finished their respective freshman years of college and have come back to teach 12-year old Jordanians some English for the next two weeks. If you are faithful readers of the blog, you know who the two are, the two on the left, first, Abdullah, aka "The Mayor of Awesomeville," and to our right, Hamzeh. This past year I kept in touch with both of these treasured alumni and got to hear about college life for them.

This week I had planned to do a blog entry on this past year highlighting students' of mine from A-Z. As I thought back, I remembered doing an "A-Z" entry after the first year in Jordan, way back four years ago. I decided that since my life often feels a little like a TV broadcast, I might as well take advantage of  a repeat blog entry again (I know, I know, the really faithful readers of the blog will note that in my paltry dozen blog entries this year, this is my third repeat. Hmmm...well, when you get your blog, you can be a little less high-and-mighty, perhaps!) so here a summation I made four years ago about that first year.

So as I look back four years to when I wrote this, so much is still true that I would celebrate about my life here. I will write an updated A-Z version later this next week. It is good to have a trip down memory lane...

"The Year From A-Z

When I was a little boy, I loved to hang out by my mother’s desk in the kitchen. She was always planning something big—a party, or a mission festival at church, or an article she was writing—and I loved seeing what was strewn over her desk, seeing her thoughts and works in progress. On one side of her desk she had two framed “sayings,” the kind you might get in a Hallmark card store. One of them read, “Man cannot discover new oceans until he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Although my mother never did leave the shores of these United States, she cultivated a remarkable wanderlust, always yearned to discover new things, and instilled in me the desire to, as Mark Twain would say, “light out for the territories.” The other quotation on her desk was the John Donne saying, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” As much as my mother loved to be in charge of projects, she certainly understood that we are a part of a larger landscape of people, and most of what we do cannot be done alone. Like her curiosity with new places, she cultivated human connections. What lessons in those two little sayings...

As I look back on this last year—exactly one year ago today my father, brother-in-law, and I left my home in Tarrytown, New York, to unpack and store the gazillion boxes of my possessions in Cincinnati. Within a month I would be off for the adventure in Jordan; little did I know how much those sayings on my mother’s desk would bolster me, and reward me, as I navigated this change in life and career path. I discovered new places, new people, new smiles. And I reinforced the John Donne dictum that we need connections, that we must bridge the spaces between us. Indeed, relationships lie at the heart of who we are as humans. Though our jobs may make us wealthy, our relationships give us lasting value and enduring worth. I thought I would try and sum up this last year, with snapshots from A-Z. Here goes…

A As I learned Arabic words and phrases this year, it was very telling to me how many words in Arabic actually call on Allah, God. There are blessings for a fresh haircut, oaths, and cautions to get going fast, and of course, the wish that we will meet again, God willing, in the ubiquitous in’shallah.

B Oh, all right, I will show off my Arabic phraseology again with my favorite Arabic quip I learned this year: Bukra fil mish mish. This phrase is akin to our “when pigs fly!” declaration, or a more slacker version: yeah, right. It literally means, “Tomorrow, everyone will have apricots.” The phrase is also a good metaphor for some of the frustrations with bureaucracy in Jordan. It’ll get done, sir, bukra fil mish mish.

C C is for my extraordinary colleagues I worked with this year. The great Mr. Rogers once said, “The thing I remember about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing…and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.”

D D is for Damascus—which is a strange choice, I suppose, since I did not visit the ancient Syrian city this year. I had promised my father that I would not go anywhere he deemed ‘dangerous,’ and we got out the map to look at what that might mean. Syria was certainly on his hot-spot list to avoid, so I dutifully avoided Syria. But since many of my colleagues do go shopping in Damascus, I look forward to a trip there in Year 2, and so Damascus represents my future trips I will take this next year (along with Aleppo, Palmyra, Sinai, and Lebanon). [Blogger's note: I still haven't made that trip to Damascus and it seems unlikely for a long time. Sigh.]

E If you are a regular blog-reader, you have heard of my BFF, Elizabeth. I delight in knowing her. She is a self-propelled wonder and a natural leader. Although she was a novice math teacher, she operated as if she had been doing this for years. She was always looking for new ways to approach math and present her material. She leaves us to start medical school, but the footprints that she leaves are golden.  [Blogger's note: Elizabeth just graduated last week from medical school--I hope hope hope we will meet together this summer!]

F Last July 28, just before I left the US, my Aunt Dot had a party for our entire side of our Griley family. As if I needed reminding (!) this day was rich with family lore and connections, and offered me support and love to go out and discover some new oceans. How marvelous to have a family that imbues you with the courage to lose sight of the shore.

G Ahhh…the excitement of weekend get-away-trips from Jordan! From Petra to Kenya, Riyadh, Budapest, and Istanbul, it was a kick-in-the-pants to recruit, plan and revel in these trips.

H Haret Jdoudna is the default choice for a restaurant when living on the KA compound. It is just a 10-minute trip into Madaba, and the hot poofy bread, excellent dips, spreads and roasted meats in the stellar outdoor garden make it the go-to spot for guests or just an evening off-campus.

I This year I attended the Amman International Church whenever I was in town, and my trips there on Saturday represented one of those things we all crave in a new home setting: a routine, a hang-out, the regular thing we do. The laid-back protestant service was a wonderful way to spend the evening before the new school week the following day.

J Jabal Amman is the area in the old, old section of Amman that is fun to walk around with cobblestone streets, Turkish baths, good brunch spots, a view of the Roman section of Amman, and also the setting for the movie I loved, Captain Abu Raed.

K My student Rob offered one of my favorite comments of the year on his final exam. After his last essay his wrote, “Thanks Mr. John for giving me the key of knowledge this year. But you know, what you really did was show me that I had the key, and it was right there in the door all along.” Very gratifying.

L “Lubna’s Lounge” was the place-to-be at 9:15 every morning! After our first class, several of my fun rockin’ friends would meet in our faculty assistant Lubna’s office, have coffee, sing and dance and make sure our moneymakers were hangin’ in there. Chris and I would text each other as we walked over, trying to maximize our time together in our self-appointed lizard lounge.

M Mukawir is about a 30-minute drive from KA—and it is spectacular. On the wind-swept hill stand the remains of Herod’s summer palace, the supposed place where nearly 2000 years ago John the Baptist had his head lopped off after His Honor promised his wife and step-daughter. In one fell swoop you enjoy biblical history and a natural wonder of the world as the view screams down to the Dead Sea valley.

N You are thinking you have ‘P’ all pegged, don’t you? It has to be Petra, right?? Ahhh…I am a crazy minx, and I am shakin’ it up a little. Instead of celebrating Petra under the ‘P,’ I want to honor the architects of this wonder-of-the-world, the Nabateans. The Nabateans are the ancient civilization that created this city in stone, and a civilization we in the west have hardly discovered.

O O is for Onion. Hmmm…while roasted onions appear in many of the celebrated Arabic roasted fantasias, it is more the metaphor of the onion to which I allude. There are layers to an onion, and for the last year I have been peeling back the layers of Jordan, enjoying the discoveries in the successive layers.

P This spring I murdered Philip II with my 9th graders. I concocted this whole murder scenario and set these young scholars off to ferret out the suspects and the clues left at my constructed murder scene. They rose to the challenge and made it very exciting to be historical detectives.

Q Hamzah al Quda is one of the finest young men I have ever met. I have mentioned him often in blog entries, and must include him in my whirlwind tour of the year A-Z. Hamzah never aimed too high and missed. He made me love teaching every day.

R One of those friends of the heart is the marvelous Rehema. We went to church together, we laughed together—I know, it sounds like the makings of a “Lifetime” movie. Well yeah, so what! This woman from Africa who finished prep school in the U.S., took Harvard by storm, now adds a special re-re-radiance to our KA world.  [Blogger's note: sadly, this friendship did not survive the distance between medical school in the US and Jordan, so a "friend of the road," instead. But my friend Doris says, "We are friends sometime for just a season and a reason." But how delightful to look back four years ago to when it was a vital friendship to my experience here.]

S Remember last October? I, the camping-phobe went on safari in Kenya!

T One of the best mentors I have ever enjoyed is my neighbor in the dorm, Tessa. This remarkable woman has headed a celebrated school in Capetown, founded world-renowned organizations, and now is working with us in the trenches at KA. Her humor and her warmth are legendary. She embodies the John Bunyan quotation: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

U On one of the first nights in Jordan the entire KA staff went out for dinner and Arabic dancing. It was on this night I was introduced to the phenomenon of uulation, the exotic tongue-dancing. Maybe some time I will offer you my own little performance f this tricky exercise!  [Blogger's note: I love this uulation--I will be doing it next week at Chris and Ruba's wedding here in Jordan! I greet Ruba every day with a little uulation. You should try it!]

V One of my favorite books this year is called Vermeer’s Hat, a book in which the writer uses familiar Vermeer paintings as a portal to understanding 17th century global history. I had never before taught a real world history before, and it was exciting connecting the dots, historically, in new ways. This book, from the KA library, is as exciting as trying to grasp the enormity and connectedness of the world itself.

W One of the most beautiful elements of the Jordanian landscape is the ruggedly striking, valleys, known as Wadis. They look just like mini-Grand Canyons and are utterly breathtaking.

X This one was easy—Jordan, especially in August is: Xtremely Hot.   [Blogger's note: it is summer again, sunny, blue skies, 90s every day...]

Y Yasamin is a student I would not have pegged as a scholar-in-the-making. When our schedules all switched around in January, Yasamin was transferred out of my class. But Yasamin went to the Dean of Academic Affairs, and supposedly said, “I want Mr. John. He makes me work hard, and I need that. I must be in his class.” As the months flew by, this actual model became a model for how some hard work can transform you intellectually.

Z Karim al Zein is a wily boy. He is my advisee and in my class, and for awhile last fall I thought he was just a cut-up, a goof-off—you get the picture. While he remained notorious for not doing much of his homework (his grade never rose to what it might have had he done the assignments) on the last day of school, this devil-may-care rapscallion took me aside, and asked, “what do you think I accomplished this year?” We talked about the growing pains in academic transformation, but his query revealed how very much he is working at becoming an effective scholar.  [Blogger's note: I don't know how he fared in his freshman year; he never took my class again after 9th grade here--I wish him well.

From A-Z…

I am reminded of the old story about two guys doing masonry work on a building. The first one, when asked what he was doing, says, “Laying bricks.” The second replies, “Building a cathedral.” Some people see teachers as merely attendance-takers, paper-graders, naggers of homework, and setters of traps for young people, or worse, just baby-sitters. Not me. I have the best job in the world, and my first year at KA reminded me of the exhilaration in creating a classroom.

Last July, in my maiden blog voyage I wrote of the American named John Ledyard who set out for the Arab world in 1776 “on a passage to glory.”

It has been a glorious year, and as that 18th century American John L. wrote, “My heart is on fire,” I can concur.

Let's see what this year's list will look like...

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Chinese Clio

How would a Chinese superpower treat the rest of the world?

That is a question that is debated from here to Moscow with Washington and London and everyone else wondering…

How would a Chinese superpower treat the rest of the world?

If the Chinese government is anything like my friend Li Zian, a Chinese foreign exchange student here at KA, that superpower would treat the world very well.

Li was one of the real finds for me this year at KA. I met him on his first day here in Jordan, a tall, smiling young man, so excited about his new school, so excited to jump into everything he could here at school. I soon discovered that Li would be in my AP Art History class, and would also live in my dormitory. You couldn’t ask for a nicer, friendlier, more involved student.

Then I heard him play the flute. At a “coffee house” in the first weeks of school Li played a flute piece and asked us to imagine the subject of the work, an old man, and feel the wind and the waves. Li masterfully played this piece. I mean, this guy is remarkably good on the flute. Soon I looked for a piece for Li with which he might accompany our choir. I found the perfect piece for Graduation, a song called, “Take These Wings,” and it had a flute accompaniment. Li soared with this piece.

Unfortunately, Li’s schedule changed sometime in early October and he changed English classes and Art History classes. But I loved to talk to Li about a hundred things.

Eventually we got to the subject of History and how History is taught in China. I never baldly asked Li, “How would a Chinese superpower treat the rest of the world?” (maybe that will be a subject for next year!) but I do think anyone wanting to peer into the future about that query could do well to start by looking at the past, or at least the version of the past China teaches to its youth. Li and I had several conversations about the study of History in China. First of all, Li said no one knew any authors of history books, meaning, there was no discussion of point of view or bias, or that there is even such a study called historiography, the study of how history is perceived. Li said you memorized whole texts, never wondered about them, never thought the text was anything other than pure fact, indeed, pure dogma (my word, not his).

Here is the gist of what I got from Li: China’s schoolchildren are being taught a version of history that is strongly nationalist. Now, really, that isn’t a real surprise. Who isn’t taught a “nationalist” version of history at home? But the next piece in my puzzle is more interesting: the official narrative of history, the conclusion, is that their country was once ruthlessly exploited by rapacious foreigners. And only a strong China can correct these historic wrongs.

There is more than a kernel of truth in this official story. Foreign imperialists certainly made designs on China in the 19th and 20th centuries. The trouble is that China’s official history lacks the quality that Maoism was meant to stress: self-criticism. When I visited the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square on my trip to China earlier in this century, I saw and read about the terrible things that foreigners have done to the Chinese. There is nothing about the even more terrible things that Chinese people did to each other—largely because most of these things were committed by the Communist party, which still runs the country. When I asked Li about what one could talk about in a history class, he said, “Oh, anything.” He paused and said, “Well, you can’t say anything about 1964, of course.” I asked about 1989, and he said, “Oh, no, the history doesn’t talk about that.”

These gaps matter.

A more honest debate about the past will be an essential journey to a more open political system. A view of Chinese history that moves beyond a narrative of conclusions, a narrative of victimhood, to a narrative of inquiry, might also make China’s rise to global power smoother.

The galleries in that Beijing museum devoted to modern Chinese history are called “Road to Rejuvenation.” I found on its website that the visitor is treated to an introduction that reads, “The Chinese nation is a great nation whose people are industrious, courageous, intelligent and peace-loving.” Based on my interactions with Li this year, I would say that he indeed fits that bill to a tee. The museum exhibition promises to show how the Chinese people, “after being reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society since the opium war of 1840, rose in resistance against humiliation and misery and tried in every possible way to rejuvenate the nation.”

Li spoke with me about how political and insistent the history lessons in school would be. This national museum explains that “the imperial powers descended on China like a swarm of bees, looting our treasures and killing our people.” Tons of space is devoted to the Japanese invasion of the 1930s—but the Chinese civil war between nationalists and communists is given relatively cursory treatment. I remember our tour guide explaining to me, when I pressed him, “That isn’t seen as so interesting. It is seen as just Chinese people fighting Chinese people.”

As Li explained, and I already intuited, China under communism is even more heavily edited. As I mentioned before, Li said, “you can’t say anything about 1964,” the time of the “Great Leap Forward,” the man-made famine that killed about 20 million people. The turmoil and terror of that time is not discussed. Nor is the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

It is interesting to think about what a national museum might look like if it had an international array of historians, guided by our Greek muse Clio, at the helm. I am not saying the Chinese should remove the emphasis on exploitation. No, but as 21st century nations engage with modern China, it will be important to understand how China views its own past. According to Li, every Chinese schoolchild is taught about the 1840 opium war waged by the British. It would also be wonderful to teach the Chinese about the events of 1989, but not just the resistance, but that that student revolt was part of a time-honored tradition of student uprisings in China, demanding national rejuvenation, and had echoes of similar events in 1919 and 1935 (and on both of those occasions, the student protesters had been provoked by perceived humiliation by foreigners). Those historical memories help to explain why the Chinese authorities feel vulnerable, I think, to accusations that they have shown weakness in dealing with the outside world. Is the Chinese government deliberately stoking up nationalism as a source of political legitimacy?

Anyway, I am thinking about China so much today since a couple of hours ago I bid adieu to Li for the summer. I thanked him for coming to KA and enriching our campus so much. Can you imagine—how courageous it was for him to get on a plane, knowing no one in Jordan, and take that risk and come here? I guess I did the same thing five years ago, but I was over 40, and he is but a 17-year old.

What an ambassador for his country, this Li. How exciting to hear him play the flute, discuss his homeland and its culture and discuss some of the pedagogy and facts about the study of his nation’s past. Li reminded me that how we perceive China, or rather the name of it, is really a western creation. We liked the china porcelain from China and so dubbed this great land after the sought-after glazed ware. The name for China in China is actually, “Middle Kingdom,” or really, the center kingdom, and even more precisely, the center of the world….hmmmm…

That understanding that China to the Chinese is an “omphalos,” a Greek word for the navel, the center of the world, also helps us as we ponder that interesting question about the years to come, “How would a Chinese superpower treat the rest of the world?”

I will have to ask Li about that when we return at the end of the summer.

Friday, June 8, 2012

And I know it!

A month ago today was the AP Art History test—the summit of our long trek up the metaphorical mountain for 9 months. But there is about four weeks of class time after that test and it is also an invigorating time every year. Over the years I have refined how I like to spend that time after the AP test, after the students have worked so hard to master an understanding of 5000 years of the world’s art and architecture.

Last year I worked hard on a unit that I knew would mean a great deal to my students here in Jordan: art from the contemporary Middle East. Every now and then students would ask during the year about art of “their people.” I would patiently explain that Islamic art makes appearances on the annual AP test, but sadly, there was never any art from the last couple hundred years from their area of the world. I would also confess that I didn’t know much about the art of the last century from the Middle East either. Last year I rectified that by exploring about 20 art works from the last 10 years of artists that enjoy prestige and popularity in the Arab world. Maybe some time I will blog about the exciting art I discovered in that venture.

Besides that look into the contemporary Middle Eastern art scene we read the play Red about the artist Mark Rothko, set in 1959. We also watch the Ed Harris-helmed movie called Pollock about Jackson P and his wife Lee Krasner. I have watched that movie maybe 30 times in the last 10 years of AP Art History and love it every time (maybe not the days I am watching it 3 times in one day though).

But my favorite post-AP activity is enjoying the art exhibitions curated by my thrilling students! After the AP exam is over, each student enjoys unlimited money and access to any art works and architectural pieces in the world for their personal exhibit. They must come up with a concept, a thesis, wall text, and must present their art exhibit by a slide show and explanations to the class.

Last year my student and advisee (and recent Class of 2012 Valedictorian) Omar designed his dream art exhibit entitled, “We Place our Souls in our Soil.” Omar imagined a space in which museum observers would walk barefoot on grass and view art works from ancient Egypt up through Frank Lloyd Wright rooms. Omar began his exhibit with a piece unknown to me, The Harvest, a painting by a Palestinian artist named Ibrahim Ghannam whose work he compared to 16th century painter Pieter Breughel in that it depicts the lives of ordinary Palestinian peasants before 1948 (Breughel famously depicted oafish ordinary people in many of his works). If “creation” is indeed the highest form of learning, Omar’s exhibition of 15 pieces was remarkable and revelatory.

I thought I would give you a glimpse of some of the art exhibits from this year’s tour.

Jude went first. Jude—such a superstar art historian and beloved senior—began by blind-folding each member of the class. That is an unusual way to begin an art exhibit! As she played music that changed with each art work, she described various art works throughout history, challenging us to summon the work to our mind’s eye, allowing us to relish the memory and excitement of our first encounter with the various art works. Jude urged us to see the art works anew by blind-folding us.

Another advisee of mine, Moutasem, had spoken to me a night or two before his presentation. He had so many ideas he didn’t know which one to pursue. Well, he took us in an interesting direction by showing us art works and asking us how they might taste. Taste???!! I know I never thought about how an art work might taste before. Moutasem showed us a Rococo work, one of those naughty 18th century French pieces that encouraged everyone to, ahem, enjoy an assignation. Moutasem thought a Rococo work might taste like white chocolate. So he passed out white chocolate and urged us to look at the work anew with the white chocolate melting in our mouths. For another work Moutasem passed out the “taste” first. He told everyone that one of his favorite candies as a child was the kind of ‘Pop Rocks’ candy that explode in your mouth, a little like fireworks and rockets. We all grabbed a handful of the candy, and as the candy joyously exploded in our mouths Moutasem projected a Jackson Pollock painting. Moutasem thought that the random, exciting burst of energy in our mouths reminded him of the action painting style of Pollock. Who would have thought?!!!

There were exhibits of the appropriations of Jesus Christ, one called, “Ignite Your Senses,” and another one that had two paths through the museum (one path if you feel that War has benefited humankind, and another divergent path if you believe War has dehumanized and ruined humanity) but the art exhibit that made me laugh out loud in the most fun way is from my new advisee-to-be-next-year, named Hamza. Hamza opened his art exhibition with a clip of Homer Simpson. Homer Simpson—wait, is he an art critic or an architectural historian? No, it is the animated TV Homer Simpson we all know and he is dancing in a bikini speedo and proclaiming the song, “I’m Sexy And I Know It!”

Hamza curated an exhibit of art works that, in his curatorial opinion, know they are sexy! Think about it! Hamza surveyed the history of art and chose subjects that, in his curatorial opinion, know indeed that they are sexy! Along the way, we enjoyed his estimations of why each subject knew their own sexiness. (I was waiting for a photograph of me actually—not so much out of vanity but Hamza and I have often bumped into each other in the gym at 6:30 a.m. and I just thought it might be wise to end the exhibition with a photo of the teacher. I guess, in his curatorial opinion, I don’t rate on one of those counts!)

One choice of Hamza’s was more clever than the others, in my humble opinion. Hamza flashed a slide of the 19th century bronze statue of French writer Honore Balzac by Rodin. It is the photo at the top of the blog entry. It helps to know a little context (It always does! We love context!!) in that Rodin made this statue particularly inscrutable. Rodin didn’t make the statue very lifelike on purpose, but he wrapped the subject in that big, bulky cloak. Rodin wrote that one had to “unwrap” Balzac to really understand him. He presented Balzac as wrapped up and that each of us must unwrap the subject, his works, his ideas, his theories, in order to “get” him.

So Hamza flashed this slide and asked, “How does this subject feel about his sexiness? We don’t know yet. We must unwrap him in order to get at the answer.” What a great reminder of that challenge Rodin posed! At the end of his exhibition Hamza then told us to look in the secret space in the tables in class (kind of a place to hide pencils and stuff, a kind of clandestine drawer beneath the tables in class) and then find a treat wrapped up. Hamza had wrapped up a doughnut for each of us to find and unwrap and enjoy. I never thought of combining doughnuts and art!! Of course one could make a joke about the more doughnuts one eats, the less sexy one might be.

It has been fun in the last couple weeks to pass Hamza in the hall and say to him, “And I know it!!!”

Another of the post-AP activities is the annual writing of letters to next year’s AP Art History class. Among the most interesting tidbits in the letters (Yes, I peeked at them) was this list from Saif. Saif decided that all of his advice to the newbies would be in the form of allusions to art works they will study throughout the course. Of course, none of them will know these art works in the first weeks, but I will bring the advice back before the AP exam next May. I loved his cleverness and earnestness in his advice. Even if you don’t know the art works, treasure his creativity!

I have things to tell you:

• Don’t be a votive figure—be interactive and always ask questions.

• Be as solid as Khafre

• However, you should be as balanced as the Diskobolos and don’t forget to read and write.

• Be coherent with your friends in class…like the architectural styles of the Pantheon

• Don’t ever be as dull as the Middle Ages—always seek for knowledge

• Accept every speck of light Mr. John offers you, just like the Gothic stained glass

• Always think about the Classical world and synthesize it with your theology. Undersand VIRTU!!

• Do not be a drama queen like the Baroque Age. Do all the assignments!

• Be as licked as an Ingres painting, in the sense of being tidy and on top of your work and don’t ever fill your life with brushstroke!

• Never hate the reality of being an art historian just like Die Brucke did!

• Lastly, look at the Laocoon, and wonder about the greatness of the Greeks…

Saif’s buddy Hamza also wrote with the same theme in mind:

• Don’t confuse Manet with Monet—they are totally different artists

• Try to be like Naram-Sin—a sacerdotal intermediary

• Take David as your role model and go to the gym and workout

• Link every art work to the classical arts—it always works

• If you work hard like Millet’s The Gleaners throughout the year, you are going to feel like the SUBLIME after the AP exam

• Look at the background of the Raft of the Medusa by Gericault and you will find the ship of hope

I have taught this course to roughly 450 students in the last 10 years and I marvel at the surprises that I continue to unwrap and find in the gems who fill my classroom each year.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Ride the bull!

Yesterday was my last day to teach for this school year. Three months from today I will begin the very first day of real teaching in the next school year. And while the AP test is long gone, and my prize seniors Noor-Eddin and Jude have both graduated by a week, I decided to really teach AP Art History today again and not just enjoy their curatorial exhibitions, watch a movie or read a play. On the first day of this course nine months ago we spent an entire half hour discussing one painting and it seemed high time to enjoy that luxury again of so much time on one work. On top of that, I decided to teach them a painting that was not just new to them, but one I have never taught before. In this course I teach them almost 1000 art works (!!!) so I had to dig a little to find a work I have never taught in my 25 years. (Of course there are thousands upon thousands of art works in the world’s history so let me not be too desperate sounding!)

I decided that the art work should be one that takes some time to unpack its meaning, and couldn’t be an obvious ode to graduation. I decided that I would pick an art work that is famous, or the artist is famous, but a work they might in a museum just pass by quickly since we had never studied it. Ultimately, I wanted an art work that might have a personal connection to these juniors on this last day of class for them as juniors before they reach the summit of elementary and secondary education.

I love those challenges. Sooooooo…what did I pick?

I think you know. Take a look.

As our last exercise in class, I asked them the very same question I asked on the first day of school, lo those 9 months ago: “What do you see?”

A student yelled out, “I think it is Baroque.” Someone else countered: “No, I think it is Romantic.”

I said, “Let’s be patient. Naming the era isn’t really the goal—yet. We have half an hour. Let’s sit in silence for sixty seconds and ponder my question: “What do you see?”

Sixty seconds is actually longer than what we think. You go ahead and do it. Look at the painting above for 60 seconds—“What do you see?”

Since we slowed down, and removed the Jeopardy element, they began to operate as a wonderful team noting various things they saw. But of course it comes down to the obvious—what is the woman doing riding the bull???? They knew it had to be a “narrative” of some kind.

Awn, a student that you have to meet to believe—no truly, he is either irritating or astonishingly bright—got excited. “I know the story of this.” I wondered if he did, and lo and behold, he recounted the myth accurately that Zeus, in order to pursue a young woman, transformed himself into a white bull, charmed the princess Europa, and then abducted her.

I asked the class why in an artistic rendering someone would recount a Greek myth—they knew the answer quickly—“Greek myths are signs of being well-educated.” I informed the class that the artist knew this story and was commissioned to tell this story in a painting. Another bright one reminded us, “The patron obviously wants his friends and family to know how well-educated he is by contracting the artist to do a Greek story for the family.”

The students got a little distracted trying to name the artist. After all, they are enormously proud of their rolodex of artists they know so well. They rattled off possibilities: Is it Poussin? Is it Rubens—no, the flesh isn’t rosy enough. Is it Friedrich? Is it Rembrandt? Is it Caravaggio—no the light isn’t a sharp enough contrast. Look at what they can do after 9 months!

But the point wasn’t to play a trivia game. I decided to end the trivia part and said, “One of your choices is indeed correct. Rembrandt painted this in 1632.”

I wanted them to go beyond the storyline, but we needed to explore the storyline a little more in order to pierce its meaning. We had time! No more tests, no more racing the clock to end the chronology of all of art history!

Someone asked about the patron. I said, “Good, let’s continue to ask “What do you see?” but add to that, “What more do you need to know?” I told them that the patron, one Jacques Specz, a merchant for the Dutch East India Company, had a healthy business trading goods from Asia to Amsterdam. A student called out, “That explains the hazy image of the ship on the left!” Someone noted that the landscape looked Dutch, like many other works we have seen from the proud Dutch. A sharp one said, “So the Dutch are lining themselves up with the Classical guys. Hmmm….they see themselves as great as the Classical people.” But another student noted that this image of the Classics was so different from the usual parade of heroes we have seen. “Where is the hero?” he wondered. Then a student noted, “This is so different in that it is about fear. Look at the women on the shore. They must be her friends. They are so scared at what is happening. The woman on the bull—what is her name? Europa? Look at how scared they are.” Another student observed the man in the darkness on the right. He is so frightened he can’t move. They are aware that this action has scared the people on the shoreline. Well, of course! Imagine if a white bull abducts a lovely young woman that you know!

A student looked at the woman on the bull—she reminds him of Rembrandt’s wife (named Saskia and painted very often by Rembrandt) and wonders if the story is like Rembrandt abducting his soon-to-be-wife. Someone wonders if the city in the background mist is Amsterdam.

I asked the class, “So we get the story of Zeus abducting Europa. But what haven’t we asked about the narrative? We see the frightened people. We see Europa holding on to the bull as she moves out into the unknown. What haven’t we asked about the narrative?” In a half-second, someone answered, “What happens next?”


One clever lad says, “We know her name. She must be the namesake of Europe.” Bingo.

Europa is abducted and the story ends gloriously! Europa gives the name for the landmass of Europe, the region of the world that will triumph and dominate the world for 500 years. Rembrandt is celebrating Europe. 1632 Amsterdam is like New York or Dubai in today’s world—high atop the world. Jacques Specz works in a Europe that is just about to reach the summit (in their minds certainly!!) of world civilization. Look at the darkness from which Europa leaves. Look at the light on Europa.

We continue to look at the painting. Is this an allegory of European greatness moving the world from darkness to light? Why not? What is Europa about to do? Well, after that initial trepidation, she will soon turn forward and grasp the future! It is a strange journey, indeed.

Our half-hour with the Rembrandt is coming to an end. The teaching year is officially coming to an end. Let’s wrap this up. I tell these wonderful juniors that they are about to embark on their senior year of high school. They have been warned of the misery of senior year (the dreaded applications!!). Of course they look forward to graduation, but that misery lies in front of them. They will be the oldest students in the school. And they are scared. I know they are scared. They have been in a comfort zone of being younger than seniors up until now.

But a student reminds us, “We thought this story was about the perception of fear. It seemed so simple. Europa and everyone else was frightened.” Of course, but think of the rest of the story. Europa deals with her fears, and then will soon turn forward and grasp the future!

That mysterious journey towards graduation and college and adulthood really begins for them today as they end their junior year. I told them they need to let go of childhood fears and work on that unknown journey of the senior year. Look at the light with which Rembrandt bathes this story.

As we gobbled up some chocolate chip cookies, I thanked them for a great year, and urged them to jump on the back of the bull and ride into the future.

Three months from today I begin the trek up the mountain of Art History again. That group will seem mysterious and unknown to me too. Then I will ask the first question, “What do you see?”

Monday, June 4, 2012

And so it goes…

Oh, I know graduations. I have graduated myself a few times, but oh, my, I have participated in many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many graduations. I have been in graduations in the morning, in the afternoon, in the early evening, and post-sunset. I have worn academic robes and regalia in graduations and I have also worn suits both light and dark. I have been in outdoor graduations and indoor graduations. I have watched students in caps and gowns and also watched girls in white dresses and young men in summer suits. I have had string quartets play in graduations, an organ, a brass quintet, and bagpipes. I have heard speeches. Yes, most of the speeches are similar—no surprise, it is a graduation! (However, as I think about the variety in these graduations, I do not think I have ever been cold at a graduation!!). Last week, as the faculty sequestered itself in the Dining Hall (having gone through the security checks) awaiting the line-up for the beginning of the commencement exercises for 2012, a young faculty member and friend asked me, “Do these graduations ever get old for you?” Obviously I look a little long-in-the-tooth, since I guess the subtext was, “Gee whiz, after all these decades, is graduation boring for you old people?”

Twenty-five years ago today (!!) I participated in my first graduation as a teacher. I remember it vividly—the string quartet, the warm North Carolina sun, the hot blue robes, and the sensation of being moved by these graduates. I will be honest—I didn’t much like that first graduation class of seniors! I doubt any of them are readers of the blog, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but they weren’t the most winning bunch. I taught a handful of them in a Government and Economics class, directed a few in Fiddler on the Roof but they just seemed a wan lot overall. But, but, but, during this first graduation as a teacher, my eyes welled with tears and I could hardly believe how moved and excited I was by these graduates. And I didn’t really like them! There were two graduates who got away with academic murder. These two hadn’t done much work in their classes, so everyone buzzed around them and wrote out a contract in the spring binding them to do work or else—no graduation! They didn’t do the work, and I asked the headmaster how the school would hold them to this contract we designed. He smiled sheepishly and said we couldn’t—I learned from this: don’t create contracts you won’t keep. Anyway, what moved me in that graduation 25 years ago??? I suppose I was caught up in what Danish philosopher Kierkegard once wrote over 150 years ago: “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but…for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible.” In spite of my lukewarm response to that Class of 1987 (perhaps totally unfounded—although I am not in touch with a single one of them, and that is the only class about which I could say that!) that realization of their possibilities moved in me that graduation, and continues to move me every year.

So, no—it never gets boring. The possible never gets boring! What our young adults may achieve and change never gets boring.

Graduation at KA is more than just a bunch of kids in caps and gowns and relieved parents. It is a state affair. His Majesty attends, walks in graduation, and every other year, speaks to the class. This year, of course, he was more than a head of state. He was a proud father. The graduate’s mother and siblings sat in the front row, just a few feet away from me, as a proud family for the first born. I have seen that look on families’ faces for 25 years. I know that look, and no, that also, never gets boring.

Graduation is extraordinary here. It is outside on what is known as Commencement Lawn, the area behind the Administration Building, bordered by the bell tower, the library and the headmaster’s house. Over 1000 chairs are placed orderly, the stunning risers (or really, pedestals!) for the graduates erected, and then everything is timed to the second. There is the requisite pomp and circumstance, of course, and my favorite part is the processional that leads us onto Commencement Lawn. The entire school, faculty and all the hundreds of students, form a gauntlet and process before the entire school. First the graduates process, and then the faculty, then we march in front of all the underclassmen and His Majesty. The parents don’t see this part—they may hear the bagpipers, but we do this for us, the members of the school. All the faculty and all the students process and applaud for the members of this community. His Majesty saw the possible in the founding of this school, and the realization of his vision is this procession. It is one of my favorite moments of the entire year.

One of my favorite little moments happened during the procession. I march with Dragana, my dear Croatian math colleague (who spoke beautifully at the Senior Dinner) and as we passed through the gauntlet of the senior class, we looked wistfully at them as we begin the formality of bidding them adieu out into the world. I passed Hussein, formally known now as the Crown Prince Regent Hussein II, and there was a moment of marvelous and warm eye contact. It was exactly the kind of eye contact I had all the time from him last year in AP Art History, a course in which he triumphed spectacularly. It was just a fleeting moment, but it was a smile and a look that spoke volumes.

During graduation, Jude, one of my seniors in AP Art History this year, had been voted to deliver the student address in English. Jude loves public speaking and strode to the podium in the de rigeur high heels and offered a traditional and moving speech. Jude was one of my superstars this year, and while she opined about the endless essays in Art History I also knew of the transformation she made this year as a scholar. She attempted and realized the possible in this course. I would entrust her to do anything!

Later in the graduation, Omar, one of my five advisees, was named the valedictorian of the class. Faculty always get a little nervous about this selection—will it be someone that inspires pride in the profession??? Yes, Omar, fought the good fight for excellence and rigor in his four years. He is a gem. Then a few moments later two students were named for the “King Abdullah II Prize,” our all-around prize—essentially, the prize for whom the adults at the school would like to be when they grow up. Noor-Eddin and Dima Saad had been selected. Both superior historians!!! There go the tear ducts again. It is hard to believe that anything is beyond the reach of these outstanding young adults.

Beginning to end, the graduation is ceremony is one hour long. And there really is no rushing, but each of the 100 graduates has their moment in the sun (literally, of course, it is always sunny in Jordan). Julianne waits with each one alone before ascending the stage to receive the KA diploma from His Majesty. I love to watch that moment as she talks with them, calming their fears and thanking them for their contributions to the school. That is another of my favorite things to watch in the graduation. Not a surprise, but when Hussein walked across the stage, the proud papa embraced him.

The night before Graduation we celebrate the graduates with a formal dinner outside under the stars with the parents and graduates. About 30 awards are presented and the choir sang. This past year I led this fledgling group of a dozen singers (oh, my, perhaps I will do a blog entry on the year with the choir!). I picked a piece last fall for this occasion for two reasons. The words are perfect for graduation and it also has a flute accompaniment and this year we had a new Chinese student named Li who is dynamite on the flute. Nadine Zaza, another memorable senior, introduced the piece to the audience saying:
     “Take these wings” is a piece composed by Steve Kupferschmid and Don Besig. It is an optimistic and beautiful choral song and the lyrics seem to have worked perfectly with our graduating class. You will hear the story of a bird that was taught many things, taught to fly, to see, to sing, and to set its heart free. And you will find when listening to the lyrics that we as seniors are heading off to do greater things and each one of us is like that bird lying on the ground and was shown better things by our teachers, family and friends during our time here. Mr. John never failed to remind us how significant this song was in our lives, and I hope you find it as beautiful and meaningful as Mr. John and the choir did."

In his address His Majesty spoke as a proud father and urged the graduates to mine their potential and seek imaginative solutions to the world’s problems. Have I heard that exhortation before? Yes, but, no, it never gets boring to hear it again. Graduations allow us to reframe the world and ponder the possible once again.

Not even two days after the graduation last week I learned of the death of the mother of one of last year’s graduates. I taught this student in the first year of the school (and also her senior year) and got to know the parents well. The juxtaposition of commencement and Farah Hamati’s mother’s death struck me—I guess speechless, actually—as I thought about this kind woman and the ending of her long suffering from cancer. A story of the mother from the first year of KA sprang to my mind. Farah’s advisor decided to take the advisory group out for a fancy dinner. Farah’s mother called the advisor and offered to cook a fancy meal in their home instead and the advisory group could donate the money they would have spent to charity. I wasn’t the advisor, but I got invited over as well! The evening was a memorable celebration of Jordanian hospitality and the excitement over this new school—the possibilities embedded in each day of this new school. Over the years they were always the first family I looked for at school events. You couldn’t ask for a kinder, sweeter, more gracious lady. The second year, when my father came to visit Jordan, I asked the Hamatis to meet my dad. Dr. Hamati took off work two days to show my father around Jordan. That’s the kind of family I met here. That is the kind of warmth I have known from the Hamatis. My heart breaks for their grief this week.

But commencements and deaths…they happen all the time. I am not inured to either end of the emotional spectrum. Jordan has enriched me with both kind of celebrations.

And so it goes…