Sunday, May 26, 2013

Grilling Lawrence, Part II


Where was I??  Oh, yes, I was ranting about my screening of Lawrence of Arabia!  To re-cap: on Saturday, May 25th, Jordanian Independence Day, I  watched all 220 minutes of the 50 year-old blockbuster for the first time. I noticed things I am quite sure I would have overlooked had I watched this long before I came to Jordan. Of course  I would have marveled at the breathtaking, cinematic sweep of David Lean’s directorial genius, but I would not have balked at some of his “story board” decisions about how he treated the Arabs in the film. Case in point: as I said in yesterday’s post, in the movie the Arabs govern Damascus for two days before the more adept Europeans step in. In reality, it was almost two years. The French army forced them and Faisal out of Damascus. Why is this a problem? It denigrates what the Arabs actually did, and it reinforces that the Arabs can’t be trusted to run a government. To end the re-cap: yesterday I quoted the Arabic proverb, Al tikrar, biallem il hmar—By repetition even the donkey learns.  Over time, all these caricatured Arabs become the reality for the movie observer.

You see, about 270 million people live in the 22 Arab states—and there is more diversity than most think.  Over 15 million of the Arabs are Christians. The Arabs I know seek out educational opportunities in the West. None live in a tent. Not one travels via magic carpets. For a century the movie folks have used Arabs as villains; the derogatory stereotypes are aimed at the young and the old. Since moving to Jordan in 2007 I have been sensitive to such portrayals—and I am not saying that an Arab should never be portrayed as the villain—but almost all Hollywood depictions of Arabs are bad ones. These celluloid images perpetuate the adverse portraits.

Let me give you an interesting anecdote about bad stereotypes and how they come across. In 1999, my previous school, Hackley, presented the fun musical, Anything Goes. I didn’t direct this show (but I had directed the show in 1994 at Charlotte Latin School) and was just a theater-goer to this musical. In the original 1930s Anything Goes there was a comic subplot of two Chinese passengers and the portrayals trade on Chinese stereotypes. It was no doubt hilarious in the 1930s but would definitely be seen as racist today. So the Hackley director removed the now-offensive humorous Chinese stereotypes and changed them to be…Arabs. I remember thinking, So it is bad to poke fun at Asians in an Uncle Remus kind of way, but it’s okay to poke fun at Arabs???

I guess what I wish is that we could see ordinary Arabs in films. Remember why the TV show Cosby was hailed as a breakthrough in the 1980s? It had an affluent, ordinary black family! Missing from the history of Hollywood film are images of ordinary Arab men, women and children living ordinary lives. Movies fail to project exchanges between friends, social and family events. One of my favorite epiphanies in all my time in Jordan came in 2008 when I was chatting with my friend Lubna here. We are the exact same age—I am two weeks older exactly. We were chatting about TV shows our families watched in our respective childhoods. I described a drama that my family watched together on Thursday nights. As I described the show, she said, “I think we watched that too.” I said, “Oh, no Lubna, that show is so American. You couldn’t have.” Well, it turns out that while my family watched The Waltons, in the USA, so did Lubna’s family watch the same show in Kuwait! She said she and her family loved it.  Then I realized that the attention to family and spirituality that made The Waltons seems so American to me, worked for an Arab Muslim as well! We are not as different as we think sometimes…

So in Hollywood movies, you don’t see Arab youth participating in sporting events; absent are the gracious and devout Arab mothers and fathers caring for each other and their neighbors.  Where are the Arab scholars who pioneered mathematics and science? Where are the lovers of Arabic poetry?

Of course, historically, around 1980, at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, anti-Arab feelings intensified. Most Americans wrongly identified Iran as an Arab country. (Iranians are Persians, by the way, another people altogether!)

Mindlessly adopted and casually adapted, the Arab-as-enemy stereotype narrows our vision and blurs reality. Obviously the world events of the last 20 years have led many Americans to believe all Arabs are terrorists and that Arabs do not value human life as much as we do. I am sure some Americans think every Arab is a clone of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. I am sure many, many news producers say, “We’re not stereotyping—just look at your television set. Those are real Arabs.”

I know, I know—movies are entertainment, not documentaries. We should not expect reporters to inundate the airwaves with the lives of ordinary Arabs. But maybe filmmakers have a moral obligation not to advance the news media’s sins of omission and commission, not to tar an entire group of people on the basis of crimes of a few.

In the last year a producer from the Cairo bureau of the Today show decided to do a piece on our school. The producer had decided too much news from the Middle East was bad and they needed a good story, a happy story from the Middle East. So they came and filmed at KA. When the piece ran on television, the piece had polarizing reactions. My American friends thought it was a great story about our school. But the Arabs here who watched it were aghast at the same stereotypes trotted out (yes, the blinding sand of the desert, the camels, the Bedouins, the mysterious music, the thrill of co-education, the exotic-ness of the students, etc.)

But stereotypes are easy, aren’t they? They may even be comforting! They mean that we don’t have to work too hard to figure someone out…they make complicated understandings unnecessary. Want to make a good joke? Looking for a villain? Instead of writing witty jokes or interesting narrative arcs, we all know what the bumbling sheikh or Arab terrorist looks like. It makes us feel better to see ourselves as superior to someone else. Think of the groups we are no longer “allowed” to feel superior over—but there are those wretched Arabs!

If one did project Arabs or Arab-Americans as regular folk, well, then they might be labeled as “pro-Arab,” and of course pro-Arab must mean anti-Israeli, and you know what even a whiff of that means.  And the stereotyped movies make money! Producers exploit the stereotype for profit. Moreover, where is the criticism? Discrimination is a hot topic, but we should challenge all hateful stereotypes—even the caricatures of Arabs and “poor white trash.” [Um, witness the popularity of this Honeybooboo person and her family!] I remember when I heard Elie Wiesel speak—wow, way back in 1995—he said that no human race is superior, no religious faith is inferior; every nation has its share of bad people and good people. The denigration of one people, one religion, is the denigration of all people, all religions.

Oh my…whatta rant! I almost lost sight of Lawrence! 

The film’s real-life hero, T. E. Lawrence was a flamboyant British officer whose assaults on the Turkish occupiers, helped pave the way for the Ottoman Empire's downfall. In the process, he came to see himself as a demigod, destined to unite the Arab people and “give” them freedom — an illusion crushed by big-power politics and the Arabs’ own tribal rivalries: a mix that has thwarted dreams for the region ever since, from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism to George W. Bush’s cakewalk for democracy in Iraq.

Lawrence figured in the debate over our own recent tangles with insurgents, in Afghanistan and Iraq. His memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was tapped both by the United States Army’s counterinsurgency strategists and by skeptics, who quoted Lawrence’s warning about wars against rebellions  as “messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife” — though the enthusiasts took the pronouncement as a challenge.

In thinking about it for another day, I have come to see that the film is not quite so biased in the second half. Maybe there is a sly derision cast at the westerners, at Lawrence himself. In Part Two we meet Jackson Bentley, based on the real-life media mogul Lowell Thomas who exploited Lawrence’s fame and wrote about his friendship with the charismatic Lawrence. Bentley reveals his intentions to Prince Faisal, the political leader of the Arab Revolt: he is in search of a romantic figure that will persuade the American public to join the war effort in the Middle East. Faisal cynically responds, “Then Lawrence is your man.” For the rest of the movie Lawrence seems more of a hollow man—or am I reading what fellow Jordanians now would say about the man?? Am I able to watch this movie any more as just a cool, great film??? I noticed the gradual soiling, bloodying and rending of the white robes Lawrence had donned earlier in the story and wondered if this is actually a questioning of the white hero?

So here I am at the end of the movie, at the end of my rant, wondering about how I view this film now, after six years in Jordan, on Jordanian Independence Day. I think about  an Arab-American named Alex Odeh, who dedicated his life to working against discrimination against Arabs in his native United States. He was shot and killed in 1985, but here are some of his words that still grip us:

 Lies are like the dead ashes; when the wind of truth blows,
the lies are dispersed like dust…and disappear.




Saturday, May 25, 2013

Grilling Lawrence

Yesterday was Independence Day in Jordan, so in honor of that auspicious day I decided to do something I can’t believe it took me this long to do: I finally watched in its entirety the much-lauded and beloved epic adventure Lawrence of Arabia. I know, I know, I act as if I might have seen the whole thing before, probably have nodded many times as people talked about it, just as I have done about Star Wars. I just hadn’t watched the whole thing. Well, I have put the DVD in before, lying down on the couch I never made it through the whole thing awake. So, in honor of Jordan, I decided to watch the epic about the flamboyant, controversial Lawrence of Arabia.

Did I mention it is an epic? Oh, yes…in the way that Gone With The Wind  is epic! Huge! Spectacle! Movie magic and sweeping pagantry…and about as reliable of history as GWTW is. Wait—‘reliable’ isn’t really the right word. It’s about perspective. When you watch GWTW we are manipulated to weep for the end of the ‘Old South,’ and fear what those nasty scalawags and carpetbaggers did to the Glorious South. While I love to watch GWTW, I don’t share that perspective. But that’s for another blog entry…let’s get back to Lawrence of Arabia, and the sweeping David Lean epic!

Lawrence, oh,  Lawrence…It is interesting to watch the movie at this stage of my tenure in Jordan because I see things in the movie now I am quite certain I would have ignored or been oblivious to six years ago. While the movie is lush and yes, Peter O’Toole is searing in his beauty as Lawrence, it is a movie that makes you just shake your head and wish they had gotten it more “right.”

I rather like my title of this blog entry because I think I am being clever. I want to “grill” the movie on its interpretation of Arabs. If you know your Roman Catholic saints, you will know that Lawrence is the martyr that ended up roasted on a grill. Get it? Grilling Lawrence? Grilling Lawrence? The movie? I am still chuckling at my clever title. Oh and another level: it’s Memorial Day weekend in the USA and what do many families do on this holiday weekend?? Clever, right??!  What? Oh, am I the only one? Never mind…

Here is the problem of Lawrence of Arabia—it doesn’t portray the Arabs fairly, and to quote a film scholar, Max Alvarez, editor of Cinecism: “The culture for which Hollywood has shown its greatest contempt has been the Arab culture.”

My dear friend and colleague Ruba loves to teach everyone, anyone, proverbs in Arabic, and here is one:  Al tikrar, biallem il hmar—By repetition even the donkey learns.  Here is the problem of bad interpretations and perceptions: seeing a steady diet of caricatured Arabs in movies since the dawn of cinema has adversely affected perceptions of Arabs. I looked at a book I bought in 2007 entitled, Reel Bad Arabs that stated in the introduction: “I was driven by the need to expose an injustice: cinema’s systematic, pervasive and unapologetic degradation and dehumanization of a people.”

Whoops, I started my rant about the movie, I was so eager to get to the grilling that I almost neglected to look at some of the problems/issues of the movie. Okay, grab your bowls of popcorn, boys, and girls, and let’s look at the movie…

After the beginning of the film when we learn that an older T.E. Lawerence has died in a motorcycle accident (hardly a spoiler alert if you know the story at all) we go back in time and meet our Arab friends circa World War I. We see two Turkish planes bombing Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and his followers, gunning down scores of Arabs. We immediately see that Lawrence empathizes with the victims. Soon after that Lawrence and his Bedouin buddies blow up Turkish railroads; the Turks are the villains and the Arabs are seen as decent…as we get to know Lawrence we see that he prefers Arab dress and befriends Arab youth. As we get to know Faisal I notice that there are not any (yet) gratuitous harem scenes. But then as the movie winds on, the Arabs become denser and denser, and greedier and greedier, and more and more helpless, it seems, and certainly one-dimensional and primitive.

There is a scene that is pretty improbable to me: Ali greets Lawrence and shoots his guide dead; Lawrence has a soliloquy about Arab feuds and Arabs being a “cruel people.” Ali shot him for drinking from his well—that is so not like the Arabs—not the uber-hospitable Arabs that I know! Hospitality is a sacred duty for Bedouins. The incident is also not in Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Well, there is an encounter at a well in the book, but it is light and humorous and not deadly.

While Bedouins were seen as heroic in the beginning of the film, later, after the Arabs take Damascus from the Turks, director David Lean shows them as untamed animals who quarrel over everything. The message here? Arabs are not qualified nor worthy to govern civilized societies. In the movie the Arabs govern Damascus for two days. In reality, it was almost two years. The French army forced them and Faisal out of Damascus.

Overall, how does the movie look as far as history?? Well, it is that theme of cultural domination prevailing—the civilized British conquering uncivilized folks. The film peddles the trope of the brave Englishman and not a valiant Arab. Lawrence is the sun god uniting the Arabs! His courage and intelligence saves the day! Lawrence continues to compel the world’s attention, but I have learned that he is not as beloved in Jordan—how self-serving might he have been? How much of a media darling? The movie is the same old self-flattering theme and also of Western prejudices about Third World peoples. Lawrence’s real value to the Arabs was more about his role in supplying arms, equipment, and money. But the movie does show how France and England reneged on promises to the Arabs about independence.

It is time for the school day to begin here, the day after Independence Day in Jordan…I will continue my rant later. Stick around for Grilling, Part II  (Hey, aren’t sequels also a predictable part of Memorial Day fare??? That title just kills!)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Senior Anthem

Each year KA holds a "Declamation Contest" in which every student in the school must declaim in front of both his English and his Arabic class. Each student must practice public speaking! In 9th and 10th grades you do not write your own speeches but rather you look for a previously written great speech in Arabic and in English and then you orate. However, the juniors and seniors must write their own speech and deliver it front of the class. Each class then selects a winner; then the entire grade hears each class's winner. Once you win your grade you go on to the final round and the final four in English, and the final four in Arabic, and present to the entire school. Then a panel of judges selects the winner for the school.

Recently Talal Toukan, a student of mine in Art History, and an actor in my plays, and all-around stupendous young man, won the Declamation Contest for the school. He based his talk on a painting we had studied in class, but more importantly, he put his own spin on this painting and what it should mean to his peers. I asked Talal if he minded if I had a copy of his speech and posted it on my blog. Give this a read and see if you don't feel better about the future of the world in the hands of some of our youth!
I saw a painting recently called Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer. It is by a man called Rembrandt. In it a bearded Aristotle grasps a marble bust of Homer, thinking, while a gold chain clings to his upper body. On this chain hangs a medallion of his student Alexander the Great. He is dressed in 17th century attire, with long hanging sleeves and a big circular hat characteristic of the artist's era. Although he is surrounded by darkness, which fills up most of the canvas, his face is covered by light from an unseen window to the upper left. As for the subject matter, Aristotle is thinking of what the future has to hold for him. Will he be like the person whose bust he holds, a poet and artist. Or will he be like the person whose medallion he wears, a ruthless but great leader.

In 1961 the painting sold for $2.3 million dollars. To me it's priceless and the reason for that is simple. It's because it's is a portrait of me. When I look at it, it makes me Aristotle. He may look older in the painting but Aristotle is a senior, and I'm sure of it. He has just completed his college applications and started his second term. Besides his fatal case of senoritis, he has been confronted with a question we all faced this year: What defines me?

Aristotle is thinking about how some of us as seniors have tried to answer it simply. "We are older therefore we get to be in charge. We get to be destructive, who cares we'll be gone next year anyway. We get to laze around and forget about our grades and forget about our lives because we've been thinking about them for so long."

But I think Aristotle would beg to differ. He would say that, yes, we do get to forget about our grades, but not for our own comfort. We get to forget about our grades because we realize that the numbers that we thought defined us no longer apply. A 94 percent or a B- doesn't mean anything to us anymore. Instead we have to choose how to judge our success. We have to remember life because we neglected it on all those nights when we we're up until two o'clock in the morning working on an essay or a lab report thinking solely of our GPAs.

So let's remember life like Aristotle does. Does it make sense to define ourselves by what universities we got in to? I don’t think so. I think this admissions process only blinds us. You should be the one who chooses what university you get into, not vice-versa. Regardless of how difficult it is to answer the question "Who am I?" you should be the one to answer it, not a room full of people looking at your SAT scores. We're artworks not statistics.

So who do you want to be? Rembrandt's Aristotle was faced with the choice of becoming an isolated artist or a great world leader. Should we seek fame, fortune or, knowledge. Pleasure or depth. Mind or matter.

Well it's really up to each of us to answer that question individually. For now all I know is that we need to return what we took, what we took for granted: King's.

Let's go back to the painting for a second. Aristotle was an ingenious Ancient Greek philosopher as I'm sure a lot of you know. However, we only know as much as we know about him because of Islamic scholars. It was Al-Kindi, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina among others who originally translated the philosopher's ancient Greek works into Arabic which were then translated into Latin just in time to fuel a Renaissance in Florence. But don't worry I'm not going to follow in the footsteps of speakers we've heard before. I'm not going to reminisce over times when Arabs ruled the world. And I'm certainly not going to tell you off for all the misery Arabs have gone through since our glory days. We're only teenagers after all.

All we know is that Arabs haven't been doing really well lately, and we shouldn't be ashamed of that. Every people have their ups and downs, and now we're down. I would even take it to the extent of saying that we're going through a Medieval Age. Religious extremism and dictatorships have eaten us from the inside out. Our culture is a broken mirror lying on the floor. You pick up a piece and only see a fragment of your identity.

But I'm not upset about that. In fact, if I were thinking selfishly I would be happy about it. I mean, look at us; we're the thinkers, the exceptions. And the great thing about exceptions is that they break the rules. We get to break the misconceptions and spread our progressive mentality.

And I love King's Academy for that. King's is my intellectual sanctuary. It's a breeding ground for ideas. It's a place where you can talk about whatever you want. You don't think God exists, ok then let's discuss it. You think homosexuality's a sin, we'll I'm sure that can be debated. And my respect for King's doesn't stop there. You want to know what I really think? I think King's could possibly give birth to another Arab golden age.

But some of you dislike King's and you dislike me for talking about it in such a grand way so let me share my crazy vision of the Middle East with you. In the future, King's continues to produce excellent students who go abroad to study. After several years those students come back and start donating to King's. Some of them might even open up schools that match King's. Those schools then begin to compete to see who has the best writers, the best mathematicians, the best poets, the best soccer players. And it isn't even about which one sends off more students to Harvard. It's about which school enriches their students' minds more. Anyway, that wave of students goes to study abroad, and possibly at regional universities King's alumni opened, and they too come back. Then they become professional mathematicians, artists, poets, etc. and they begin to compete to see who can produce the most intellectually stimulating material. And there you have it another Arab golden age.

But that's ridiculous isn't it? What about all the problems? What about the economy? What about the politics? Who in their right minds would come back to this wasteland of a country? Who would donate to King's after the years of torture it put us through?

We'll be graduating soon seniors. And as we near the end of the year they'll be putting together a senior video and they'll come up to each of us and ask: "Where will you be ten years from now?" So let me tell you where you'll be and save you some time. You'll be in your office on top of a skyscraper named after your billion dollar company. You'll be in New York at the United Nations prosecuting an international criminal in front of hundreds of people. Or you'll be in London acting in a play that is sold out five days a week, forty weeks a year.

But just know that, whether your secretary leaves your room for a second to grab the latest market predictions, or whether you're driving home from the UN with less hope for the world in your heart than you had the day before, or the curtains close after your big monologue and the applause dies down, you're going to be alone. And for a brief moment you won't have anything to think about. So naturally, your brain will pull out a file you stowed away from the past, a question you haven't thought of since you're senior year: What defines me? Am I Alexander or Homer? You're neither; you're Aristotle again, thinking. But the question reminds you of how you shared the problem with an entire class. And for a second you remember that beautiful school half-way across the world and you think to yourself: What did I do to contribute to it? How did I help it realize its vision?
Wow. Thank you Talal...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

unpredictable marks in a land of grace


Last night, well, we had a gully washer! Gully washer…I was trying to think of the turn of phrase that might embody the unpredictable, torrential downpour we had last night in Jordan. I know—you in the United States get epic storms pretty regularly, but we don’t here. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise anyone at all here if we didn’t see rain again until November. In fact, it would be pretty normal if we only saw rain once or twice or thrice until 2014…so last night was a surprise, a delightful surprise. The usually blue and clear skies gave way to a really slick almost silky gray, and then, boom, down came the rains…the smell was divine. The cracks of thunder and the webs of lightning gave our gully washer almost a biblical feel!

Yes, the unpredictability of that storm.

As I watched the storm from the comfortable confines of my apartment, it reminded me, in a very strange way, of several phone conversations I had this last Sunday on Mother’s Day…hmmm…what in the world could this be?

On Sunday I called several of my most favorite mothers in my life, from Gastonia, North Carolina, to Dallas, Texas, and to Fort Mill, South Carolina. All three asked me, “So aren’t you finished in Jordan yet?” At first I thought they meant the school year since we do begin and end before everyone else I know. But as each memorable mother pressed me, it was not about the 2012-13 school year but my tenure in Jordan over all.

I responded to each of them, “Well, I know it has surprised everyone, hasn’t it, how long I have stayed! I certainly couldn’t have predicted this when I arrived in 2007!” Each of these matriarchs asked me about my safety, what is going on near the borders of Jordan and Syria, and each expressed worry for me.

So during the gully washer, 24 hours after these Mother’s Day calls and my attempts to put their respective fears to rest, I was staring out at the rain, surprising us all with a May visit, enjoying the awe and excitement of the thunder and lightning, and chuckling at the unpredictable nature of the storm and the length of my tenure at KA. This was one of those storms you really enjoy on a US summer day when you don’t have to go anywhere and you can sit on the front porch and just enjoy the rhythm and grace of the rain.

I recalled a sermon title by a pastor in Boston whose writing I adore—she entitled her meditation, “Marked By Water in a Land of Grace.” I don’t remember much about the sermon except it dwelled on the nature of surprise. Surprise and water, and something to do with when one is baptized one is marked by water and then the surprise is the transformational feeling of grace.

So, here I am, standing at the window for minutes on end, biblical-like rains falling in the actual Bible lands, thinking about some of the mothers who have nurtured me in the last 25 years, who have prayed for me in my time in the Middle East, and how this experience continues to nurture and surprise me even six years into it. Today after lunch I walked with two of my favorite colleagues, Emily and Annabel, for just a few minutes. They are preparing to depart KA after four years each in service here. They are ideal colleagues and in many ways we all surprised ourselves how long we have stayed. I reminded them how we are forever changed from having been here, and the marks of this place and this project will always be on our hearts. They have grown so much as educators here—they are simply outstanding. They have left their marks on the students who have benefitted from their teaching. It wasn’t a long walk and talk, just another chance to think of those marks we make and the marks we enjoy.

Last week after the dinner with Peter Yarrow I happened to talk with a colleague who had run the Boston Marathon once we mused for a moment about long-distance runners and teachers. She reminded me of the running and the running and the lack of water. She cracked a joke about how at the end you get a drink of water and she said, “Finally! It’s like a gift of grace!” We chuckled about how runners and teachers are willing to endure pain for the sake of their practice!

Today I had four hours of different meetings from 8:00 to 12:00, and 90% of the time was spent on clarifying things for the future here. So many things are tighter, better, stronger, clearer, more effective…over these six years we have endured some pain as we work on the practice of schooling and assimilating and administering.

So the gully washer eventually petered out last night. For a country that experiences drought regularly it was a welcome surprise. In those worst moments of the droughts of our souls and when we think our spirits have turned to dust, a surprising rain can come and lift our spirits. The unpredictability of the rains, of tenure, can lift the spirits.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

An incredibly brief Mother's Day tribute

I saw this on Facebook today on Mother's Day. It is by an unknown writer:
“Your mother is always with you. She’s the whisper of the leaves as you walk down the street. She’s the smell of certain foods you remember, flowers you pick, the fragrance of life itself. She’s the cool hand on your brow when you’re not feeling well. She’s the breath in the air on a cold winter’s day. She is the sound of rain that lulls you to sleep and the colors of a rainbow. She is Christmas morning. Your mother lives inside your laughter. She’s the place you came from, your first home, and she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s your first love, your first friend, even your first enemy, but nothing on earth can separate you—not time, not space…not even death.”
Your family misses you Mary Martha Griley Leistler--you touched our lives and continue to influence us always. Much love and gratitude for our mother's work.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Postcard from Doha


Ever since the Museum of Islamic Art opened in the autumn of 2008 in Doha, Qatar, I have meant to make a weekend trip and check out this celebrated new museum. One former colleague, Yasser Tabbaa, attended the opening of the museum, and ever since his arrival in 2009, my colleague Charlie and I have talked about a weekend jaunt to Doha. As can happen, other trips both home and abroad popped up, and the plans shuttered time and again. Ten days ago, as we looked towards a long weekend due to Orthodox Easter, I almost went to London for another weekend rendez-vous with New Yorker Christy. But I thought, gee whiz, Charlie is leaving Jordan after four years and we have yet to make this trip to Doha. So Charlie planned the trip to Doha.

Part of what was exciting about this trip is that it is the first time in a while that I would go somewhere new! I also liked the glam aspect of the trip that we were going to Doha mostly to see a funky, exciting building. That seemed so jet-setter to go and check out the new Museum of Islamic Art.

Off we went a week ago Friday, admiring again the stunning new airport in Amman as we hopped over to Bahrain and then a flight to Doha. Charlie had been there before so he could fill me in on some things about Doha. I am not sure if I knew anything about Qatar before moving to Jordan, but like many other areas in this neck of the woods, Ottomans and British kept up a tug-of-war throughout the 19th century with this coastal country and then after the first world war did in the Ottomans, the Brits took Qatar as a protectorate.

As we landed and taxied to our hotel, it was interesting to begin to try and make sense of Doha. It has shades of Dubai and Las Vegas, but has yet to make tourism a major goal (so, hmmm…maybe there is little in common with Duba and Vegas!)  Charlie is a wealth of information and gave some background about the explosive growth in Doha in the last 10 years. Having been to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh, it was easy to see that the last 10-15 years have been exciting ones for architects in the Arab world. As we travelled along the Corniche, the picturesque roadway along the bay in Doha, one is astounded by the flashy, twisty, silvery buildings and also the amount of construction going on. Charlie reminded me that Qatar has perhaps the highest per-capita income in the world—they are sitting on a natural gas goldmine. I know that HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the Emir of the State of Qatar, has spearheaded a number of academic and cultural projects in the last decade. The Emir has lured a number of American academic institutions to set up satellite campuses in “Education City,” so that Qatar may become a regional and international center of education. Along the same lines, the Emir has funded new museum projects, all with the idea of showcasing the history and culture of the Gulf. That is of course the background to the creation of the Museum of Islamic Art—the stated aims of the Museum are to provide the citizens of the tiny country of Qatar (the population has doubled in the last 7 years to about 1.6 million, and interestingly, Qataris are in the minority of their country) a key means to appreciate and understand “their rightful legacy.” The opening day speeches dedicating the Museum spoke of how important it is to show “Muslims worldwide the historic global connections of the Islamic lands, and through art, the excellence of their intellectual and economic life.” Another important message that echoed in the opening of the Museum was that the Museum might demonstrate for non-Muslims “throughout the world today…how Islam has continually been a tolerant and progressive force, adopting, adapting and passing on ideas within and across its borders.”

Friday night we after we settled in we walked to a well-known Souk or bazaar, in search of a good meal. Charlie and I had studied the “Time Out Doha” magazine in the Movenpick hotel. We only had time for a few meals in town and we wanted them to be good. We debated Thai, Iraqi, and Italian food, settling on Italian—the description in the magazine was just too good to pass up. As we walked to the Souk the construction around town is a little overwhelming. Doha is pretty humid, unlike Jordan, so the subtropical temps made you feel the dinner was really well-earned!

The following morning, after the breakfast buffet, we headed out to the Museum. It wasn’t far from the hotel, well, except, all the construction made it tough to cross the street and have an easy go of it. “Time Out Doha” had said the Museum opened at 10, so we opted for an early entrance in case we stayed a long time. Oh, the perils of humidity! By the time we go to the Museum, I had already soaked through my short—yes, how attractive. We also learned that the magazine was wrong, and the Museum didn’t open until noon. The unforgiving sun made it a very unattractive option to sit and wait 90 minutes until noon. So we trudged back to the hotel and decamp (and for me to change shirts and start all over again).

We decided to take a cab and visit the Arab Museum of Modern Art first since it was already opened. The cab ride was pretty long, but it did afford us the opportunity to see more of Doha and get a sense of the “Education City” project. I think we were the only ones in the museum, but it was designed so well that they are focusing on five Arab artists at the moment and do mini-retrospectives on their work and how their work fits into the continuum of art in the last 60 years. We then hopped the free bus to the Museum of Islamic Art and tried for round two of getting inside the Museum.

I gotta say, it is an impressive building. It is designed by the legendary I.M. Pei, the Chinese-American who grabbed the world’s attention with his glass pyramid in front of the Louvre in 1989.When Pei won the commission for the Museum, he demanded that there be a better piece of earth than what was originally earmarked. He didn’t want the Museum swallowed up by the rest of flashy Doha. So the Museum stands on an artificial island on the Corniche, the walk-way by the bay, facing the new downtown. It is a stunning accomplishment. Staring at the building it is exciting to remember Pei’s own history. Born in China in 1917, Pei moved to the US to study architecture in the mid-1930s and worked with some legends (Gropius and Van der Rohe) at both MIT and Harvard. Here he is decades later, still trying make sense of light and space.

As you approach the building, going over the bridge, you note how simple the design seems, but the more you take in the building, the more it takes on an increasing complexity. First of all, on my third viewing of the building, it had changed colors slightly every time. We drove by it on the way to the hotel near to dusk, and then we saw it in the sunny morning, and now in an afternoon thunderstorm (Yes! We had a thunderstorm in the Gulf—who would’ve thought???) The façade planes come to life in the strong Doha sun, and each time I noted a change in the division of light and shadow. Hmmm….I had read about how Pei had visited a number of mosque sites—Cordoba, Cairo, Damascus, trying to better understand the heart of Islamic architecture. What I enjoyed seeing is how Pei designed an almost Cubist-expression of geometric progression from the octagon to the square and then the square to the circle. Pei had worked to figure out how to make the severe sun work for him with the shadows and the shades of color on the white stone.

When you walk in-oh, the space! The interior space is incredible as it soars up to the top of the Museum, and the glass wall facing you that faces the skyline of downtown Doha. As you leave the Museum and walk to the Education Wing you see the arcades of the courtyard that remind of many mosques. The austerity of the exterior contrasts with the use of decorative patterns and forms inside the building and one is confronted by the surprising, sculptural double Grand Stair. As you ascend you notice how you come out of the grand matrix of geometric interlaces, so well-known and beloved in Islamic art. Each level of the exhibition floors is spanned by glass bridges completing the path of the U-shaped balconies cantilevered around the atrium.

That is just the stunning building! The collections are fine, perhaps no finer than the Metropolitan in New York, but this collection is showcased by the most fascinating glass cases I have ever seen! The rooms are lit in a mysterious way, allowing the objects to emerge from the darkness, lit to underline a particular aspect, theme, or fact, allowing the works to appear to float in space. The intentionally oversized cases (floor to ceiling!) have the most astounding non-reflective glass—it doesn’t seem like there is glass at all. The mostly small items in these cases thus impose their own scale on this vast Museum. Ahhhh…geometry and light follow you through the whole Museum as you ponder the examples of ceramics, manuscripts, rugs, jewelry and paintings. The walls of the galleries are unusual too—an exotic wood that has a natural, visible grain. They must have brushed and gilded the wood to give it an alluring metallic appearance, serving the objects well.

What were my favorites? I love the panels, the stuccoed or wood panels that go back a thousand years with the ubiquitous arabesques. I am a sucker for the gorgeous tiles, the kind I fell in love with back in 2003 with my trips to Spain. Then some ordinary doors to a secular building—but with inscriptions to still guide us: “The wise one is he who has learned a lesson from experience; and the ignorant one is he who does not think of the consequences.” The calligraphic virtuosity is always beautiful, whether a page from the Quran or from the signature of a ruler. I loved the works from Islamic India—there are some stunner paintings reacting to European artists like Bellini and Durer, and the manuscripts always open with a page of radiating illuminated decoration known as a shamsa, which comes from the Arabic for ‘sun.’ There was an excellent exhibit of astrolabes going back 1300 years showing how they understand astronomy, the sun, Mecca, and their place in the world. It was a great afternoon with Charlie as the Pei building kept gifting us with exquisite objects.

We celebrated that night with wonderful Indian food in the Cultural Village and early the next morning we took flights back to Amman, quite happy with the long-awaited pilgrimage to the Museum and the enchantment of I.M. Pei’s building. A colleague of ours will be moving to Doha at the end of the summer. Maybe it won’t be a five-year wait before I am back to watch the play of light and shadow on the building.

Friday, May 10, 2013

"Quite a Journey"

In my 69 months in Jordan, I have eaten at a place in nearby Madaba easily 100 times. Haret Jdoudna is our go-to place for an evening out, with guests, with new colleagues, or simply to have the best in Arab cuisine. Last Sunday I found myself at Haret Jdoudna, which we call “HJ” affectionately, but this time I was sitting across from Peter Yarrow. That certainly makes this visit to our favorite haunt even more special sitting across from Peter of, yes, indeed, “Peter, Paul, & Mary” fame.
Last summer Peter Yarrow presented at a conference for young leaders, as he has many times, near his home in Telluride, Colorado. Eight of our students from KA attended this leadership conference, and evidently when these students told him, “You know, you should come to Jordan and see our school!” he took them up on the offer!

So last weekend Peter Yarrow arrived, spent time with a group of faculty at a Jordanian teacher’s house, spent time visiting people in a refugee camp and community center, went out to dinner with some history teachers, then spent a day doing assemblies and speaking with, and singing for, the KA community. While the assemblies were exciting, sitting across from him at dinner and watching him ask questions and answer our questions was perhaps the most thrilling.

A few weeks ago I realized that adult Jordanians did not know who “Peter, Paul, & Mary” were…in a senior staff meeting we discussed Peter Yarrow’s upcoming visit and virtually none of the adult Jordanians knew of them. It surprised me since I don’t know of a time that I didn’t know about “Peter, Paul, & Mary”! Sometime in probably 1971 my older, quite sophisticated and worldly cousins Barb and Deb in Chicago had the Peter, Paul, & Mary: Ten Years Together album and when I returned to Cincinnati I insisted that I have the album as well. As cliché as it sounds, I nearly wore out that album playing the “Peter, Paul, & Mary” songs! But I had also kept up with the group over the years. I remember their activism and work against apartheid in South Africa, especially in the 1980s during my college years when apartheid was the most explosive political issue of my college generation. I remember watching them in PBS specials, impressed that they did not just peddle nostalgia for the 60s, but worked with children and created new generations who would sing folk songs.

But mostly I remember seeing the footage of “Peter, Paul, & Mary” performing at the historic March on Washington for Jobs on the Mall in August, 1963—before I was even born. So when I got invited to dinner at HJ with Mr. Peter Yarrow, yes, I was excited!

Peter Yarrow will turn 75 this month, and while he could easily be a name-dropper (it seems every rocker for the last 50 years has been his friend or wanted to be his friend!) he was supremely interested in the work we were doing at the school, what we hoped his visit might achieve at the school, and also about plans he has to highlight and perhaps heal the problems of the Israeli-Palestinian tension. Peter Yarrow, like many celebrities, knows that people don’t know what to say to him, so he simply asks questions to break the ice. He asked about why we came to Jordan, how long we have been there, how had we seen the situation change. He spoke about the KA students he met in Colorado, how impressive the campus is, how much he loves the food in Jordan. After he had asked questions and made each of us feel very important, he asked us about how we teach history, about if we discuss the power of music in history, how we saw ourselves as agents of change in the evolution of this school. He emphasized, “My mother was an English teacher for 35 years in the New York City schools. I love teachers. I like to think I am a teacher too. I just travel a bit more.”

By this point we were all so comfortable talking with him, it was then easy to pepper him with questions about his activism, about what the “1960s” means 50 years later, about presidents and leaders has met and fought with, angered, supported or inspired. It was clear this is a charismatic man, but not one who needs a stage or wants to be a ham. He simply enjoyed sharing his stories and our handful of dinner guests felt a keen mind and a kind heart. I told him about meeting Unita Blackwell in 2000, an activist from Mississippi, and about how our afternoon together gave me a whole new understanding about the 1960s civil rights era and the effect of music in that movement. He said, “John, I say this all the time, but it is so true—when you hear people united in music, you feel you are not so alone.”

As we walked out to the parking lot, he said, “You know John, we are a lot alike. After hearing you talk about your passion for history education and teacher, it is clear to me, we are a lot alike. Can I have a hug?” Yes, of course! As we walked to the car, I spoke about the 1963 March on Washington and the other times I had seen him at work, tirelessly promoting causes of peace and justice, and he looked at me, and the nearly 75 years of life on earth looked a little ragged on him, and he whispered to me, “It’s been quite a journey.”

I have enjoyed dozens of dinners at HJ with wonderful guests, and this was certainly memorable.

The following day at school he did an assembly with our students. I was nervous about this since I had no idea how our adolescents would react to an aging hippie and his guitar and collection of stories. I needn’t have feared—even though this was perhaps their first time to hear about “Peter, Paul, & Mary,” the issues of inclusion, justice, peace, harmony and love still have their charms. The Palestinians know of oppression and injustice. He doesn’t have to tell them they still exist.

Peter Yarrow began with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and asked the students to analyze Bob Dylan’s poetry. Several students offered wonderful interpretations of what the words mean, and one of my favorites was, “The answers are there, but we never seem to be able to grasp them—we need to outrun the wind and grasp the answers for ourselves.” He asked the adults over 30 to stand and sing the song. One student felt we sang the song with a deeper appreciation of injustices we have witnessed. Peter did remind us not to sound so sappy about the song. He warned us, “Don’t’ just sway and enjoy the song! This is a song about action! It has an urgent message!”

How many times has he sung this song in the last 50 years? He spoke about a foundation he heads about working in schools against bullying and rattled off some statistics of the number of schools and school children he has met since founding “Operation Respect” in 2000. He sang a song about it and explained the song and looked at how we might curb bullying. Of course we also sang “If I Had a Hammer” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.” He talked about writing that tune over 50 years ago on his Cornell University typewriter and what the song means. “It is about unity and fighting the dragons.”

Throughout his assembly, and then later that evening at another assembly and sing-along, he just was. He didn’t pose. He didn’t try and simply live in the past. He also loved to connect with people. When I came into the auditorium to speak to him before the concert, he was there with a coterie of students around him. One he was showing something on the guitar, with others he was asking about their college plans and their plans for how the skills and tools from this school would shape their choices for the greater world.

It is easy to access to footage of “Peter, Paul, & Mary” on Youtube, from all over the world, especially on that day in August, 1963, but I loved this moment where he was connecting with our kids, and they enjoyed his sense of calm and ease and crisp, resonant guitar. I couldn’t help think that if “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then memorable music is worth a thousand memories. Pure power.

Peter lovingly spoke of Mary and Paul – inviting us to “sing their parts” (a most ingenious suggestion to those who ever fantasized sounding like “them” during playback sessions of Ten Years Together.

At dinner Peter spoke about his mission to create a two-night concert event, one night on each side of one of the Israeli settlement walls to highlight, and try and heal, the tensions and divisions between Israelis and Palestinians. This is the one time he did a little name-dropping. He said, “I am speaking with President Obama about this, because I need to get him behind this and then it will be easy for Sting and Bon Jovi and Bruce to join in.” He didn’t say this in an inflated way—he said this simply like an excellent teacher planning for the execution of a great lesson. He knows what has to happen, his people can make other people do things.

He had been in Jordan before, he said, in 1989, but now that he knows our school is here, he says he wants to come back. It’s hard to explain why he was so moving to sit across from at dinner. It’s not just the proximity with history he has had, but rather his desire to greet everyone with a smile and end every conversation with a hug. Sentimental hogwash, some may say. Not me. I will treasure that dinner at HJ, treasure the smiles and comments and hugs. This was so much more than a “concert” or PR event: it was a reunion of familiar strangers united by music louder than words.



Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Where is Bohemia for you?

They’re in there! Right now, they’re in there! My 2013 crop of AP Art History students are in the AP test right now, probably just finishing the 115 multiple choice questions in one hour, moving into the two thirty-minute essays, and then sometime about 40 minutes from now they will begin the last section of the six ten-minute essays. Oh, I love this day even though right now it is a little nail-bitingly anxious wondering how they are faring as they navigate 5,000 years of the world’s history and art…
Since the first year I taught the course I have chosen Anselm Kiefer’s painting, Bohemia Lies By the Sea  as the coda for the year and the course. It is a difficult painting—exactly how one should conclude—but one rich in metaphor and meaning. The image can be seen above—and the title is written in German across the top. In William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, the bard sets Act III, Scene 3 off the seacoast of Bohemia. Wait! Any superior geographer will know that Bohemia cannot have a seacoast!  It is landlocked! Shakespeare’s Bohemia, therefore, is an imaginary place beyond our ordinary sense of geography and understanding, a vision in which the extraordinary becomes possible. An Austrian poet, a friend of artist Anselm Kiefer, borrowed this theme from Shakespeare and wrote a poem which in turn inspired our artist Kiefer:

If Bohemia still lies by the sea,

I’ll believe in the sea.

And if I believe in the sea,

I can hope for our land.

The very last of the students’ journal sheets were due at the conclusion of last week’s classes and two students wrote insights about this painting that I thought were worth sharing with you. One student chose Bohemia for her “Masterpiece of the Week,” and another chose it for the category of my best insight. Enjoy these thoughts from these young scholars:

Here is insight #1:
“Bohemia lies by the sea.  I thought that this painting was the best way to end the last day of learning. Anselm Kiefer’s painting instilled a sense of nostalgia within me; this painting brings together past, present and hope for the future. He is a reflection of the stew of history and the atrocities of his history. He was a German born at the end of World War II; through his art he is attempting to deal with the aftermath of WWII. The poppies in this painting remind of those poppies placed over the graves of the Greek soldiers that symbolize that their death was not in vain that their potential was not lost or in vain. These poppies became a symbol of cherishment of those who died in WWII. Moving on to the phrase: “bohemia lies on the sea” it is a phrase that does not make sense because bohemia is landlocked. It is a phrase from a Shakespearean play, this phrase is symbolic of the hope that we will reach utopia that this heaven on earth exists if you believe in it. That if you believe that it will exists than you have enough hope for it to exist. It is an interesting reaction to WWII: it reminds me of The Raft of the Medusa that was also reacting to a modern event, by conveying to the audience that there is always that speck on the horizon for those that have the endurance to reach it. Similarly Kiefer is telling us that this utopia or ironically named “Nowhere” in Greek is only for people that have the ability to believe and trust in the future. It was the perfect way to end our course by instilling hope within us, that if we believe that we will do well on the AP then we will, or on an even broader scale, that if we believe that we will be great, successful then it will be true. Then Bohemia or anything is possible if we want it to be. We have infinite potential to do anything in the world, nature, religion, society; do not hold us back anymore. All what people have done in restricting us can be removed through our beliefs. It is an extremely powerful statement. After contemplating the statement I think I do believe that bohemia lies on the sea.”

Here is insight #2:
Mr. John’s Heart-Wrenching Comment of the Year
““Do we know where it ends?”
Mr. John,
We do not know. And perhaps it never ends. The idea of art never ends, the concept of evolving ideas never ends, the search for the meaning of life never ends. Because that’s what art is, isn’t it? It may be a “reflection of the values of a society or person” but it extends beyond that. Art has always been attempting to grasp an idea that may change the world, to make sense of it. If life made sense to anyone, art wouldn’t exist. Artists and all of humanity use art as a means to grapple with issues that they cannot understand.
I must admit I was disappointed with the art work you had chosen the end the year with. I had contemplated and anticipated what you had chosen for us and was so underwhelmed. When you changed the slide and Anselm Kiefer’s Bohemia Lies by the Sea came into view, I couldn’t even tell what it was. Why was I expecting some Renaissance piece or some expression work? Why was I expecting to know what it was that I saw? I had let my ignorance cloud my judgment.

Of course you weren’t going to project a work with the meaning written across it in bold letters. We have to analyze and make sense for ourselves what the meaning is. I cannot think of a better artwork to end the history of art with. Mr. John, I love it.

Why? Because as you asked, where does it end? It certainly doesn’t end with this piece. Although this was the last work for the class it’s not the last work for us. Kiefer’s road is a metaphor for all that is to come, all that we are to learn and contemplate. Not only is it going towards something, it is coming from something. The road comes from the dawn of man, when someone took rock to the walls of caves in England and drew the natural world as he saw it. The road winds through all of art history and leads to us—the viewer. What are we to do? How are we to continue the road? What can we do to create new ideas and to invoke change? This idea of the capacity of humans reaches through history to the Greeks who viewed man as the measure of all things. The Renaissance was based on this idea. This is apparent in the work.
But Kiefer is keener than that. Born in the aftermath of World War ll, he was in the midst of the consequences of humanity’s heinous intentions and consequences. The twentieth century consisted of artists who documented this and so they warped art to reflect the twisted human nature they felt around them. The meaning he projects is created with thick, passionate brushstrokes.
On either side of the road are fields marked with the crimson blood of poppy flowers. Each flower is planted in the spot of a fallen soldier, marking his death with honor, love, remembrance, regret and hope. All those feelings weren’t typed for dramatic affect. They are actually in the painting because each one represents the feeling of the eras in history that Kiefer merges into this work. In your words, “this is a work which constitutes a rich blend of references including recent history, ancient history, the distant past, poetry, literature, and the future.” “


So last night was the final night of study sessions. We looked at architecture, sculpture and painting. Then, just as I have done for the last 20 years the night before my AP test, we screened the moving “St. Crispian’s Day” speech from the 1989 film of Henry V. Oh, the fear and anxiety of those Brits as they look on the stronger, more powerful French! But then King Harry rallies them with the mantra that for years after this day they will remember this struggle and what they did the night before St. Crispian’s Day! He calls those rag-tag soldiers his “band of brothers” and wistfully notes that “we few, we happy few” will triumph!! The scene always works!
Then, after the scene, I remind them that they are indeed preparing for battle! And we should go outside and have our own battle. And with a flourish of drama, I grab a sack of pre-prepared and filled water guns from hiding and urge them to go outside and do battle with each other! I have been doing this for 10 years, and it also never fails to please and pop some of the bubble of anxiety hanging over them!
After we laugh and enjoy the play, they go home.
It is always a humbling and wonderful experience to teach this course and teach students like the two whose insights are represented here. They got the gist of the course. They got that it is about struggle and that “the struggle and the dance are the same,” and that if we hope enough, if we look deeply enough, Bohemia can indeed have a seacoast.
I look forward to greeting them as they bound out of the exam in a bit. I am hoping that they are understanding that there is no progress without struggle (thank you for that, Frederick Douglass!) and that they are enjoying the sea air and the breeze along their Bohemian seacoast.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

We’ll never tell them…

I will admit that very often I have a rather strange soundtrack in my head playing to my life. But then I have purposefully created strange sound tracks as well for lessons and plays. When I teach World War II, for example, and I have the occasion to show the landing on to Normandy Beach from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan I have turned down the movie sound and played the 1940s Vera Lynn song, “We’ll Meet Again.” It is a chilling and jarring juxtaposition, to be sure. But, it makes some sense. Those soldiers, making the daring landing onto those French shores before dawn, perhaps just a few hours before, had been chilling out in an English pub and probably heard a recording of Vera Lynn’s iconic song (and by the way, just a quick tangent, Dame Vera Lynn is still alive! She still makes appearances and smiles and looks great for 96!) But that sound track also allows me to set up for the students the World War II song, “We’ll Meet Again,” so that when I play the ending of the Cold War-era film Dr. Strangelove, and as the world-ending bombs go off, the students have a better sense of the insanity of the bombs and Stanley Kubrick’s decision to pair those images with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”

Oh, I digress from my sound track in my head observation of this week. In the last few days I have had the words and music of a World War I song playing through my mind:

And when they ask us, how dangerous it was,
Oh, we'll never tell them, no, we'll never tell them:
We spent our pay in some cafe,
And fought wild women night and day,
'Twas the cushiest job we ever had.

And when they ask us, and they're certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them, oh, we'll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

Now here might be why that particular song keeps reprising in my head: in class I am discussing a curatorial project that stellar student Alyssa Sclafani offered in AP Art History way back in 2005. Her presentation was entitled, Oh, What a Lovely War, a play that I had taught and would soon direct at Hackley, and this song does appear towards the end of the play. But I think the real reason the song has been on a loop inside my head has to do with the teaching profession itself. I love talking about education, studying it, trying to dissect it what makes it work or what makes it flounder, but in a way, like those soldiers singing about the front in “The Great War,” I don’t know if I can tell what really makes it great or what makes it excruciating.

The other day I spent about 10 hours grading mock exams for the upcoming AP Art History test. A mock exam is exactly what it sounds like—an exam the same length, breadth, scope and challenge of the real test. It allows students to tackle entire course for the first time. All year, either in monthly tests, or exams, the scope is never the entire course. Until the mock exam! So my students gathered last Saturday afternoon , and for three and a quarter hours, examined the history of the visual arts against the landscape of the world’s history.

As I graded the exams, some were great and some were lousy. I know, I know, it was just a mock exam! Who cares! It could be a great chance to simply see where you stand, get a grip about the whole course. I mean, it doesn’t count for anything!

But grading bad tests is so soul-wearying…and the way the grades went, really pretty bizarre. As you may know, the College Board grades the AP tests on a curve, and assigns numbers 5 down to 1, a 5 being the superior score. As in a typical bell curve, the middle, the 3, is where most of the scores fall. As I finished grading my class exams, I noticed a very strange phenomenon: there was no middle! Using the scoring system from the AP, I had 5s, 4s, 2s and 1s. There was no middle! I analyzed the scores. All those 4s were very high 4s as well, so a chunk, almost half the class doing quite well. But then the other half, presumably in the same class doing the same work studying the same art. A quarter of the class got the grade of 1, the grade you get for signing your name.

No, I am not new to the game of grading. I have long been aware that there will be bad grades. There will be students who don’t study, gasp—even don’t care, and it has nothing to do with me. But as I grade bad exams, it is harder to explain why they wound the soul as much as they do. I don’t teach to assign bad grades. I teach so that students may be empowered to go out into the world armed with skills and attitudes and values that might transform and improve the world around them!! As I read through some of the answers, oh, the weakness of the prose, the illogic of their reasoning, the insipid word choice…a little chipping away of the soul happens! So that is where the World War I song started playing in my head—I mean how could you tell someone not in the teaching biz what grading bad exams feels like. “Oh, you’ve got it rough, do you? Yeah, tell me that while you are lazing around in July!” It is as if all the hopes and dreams you have for humanity pale and fade as you read an essay with no historical context or precise evidence.

Don’t tell me I’m just being dramatic! If you don’t teach, you just don’t know the pain of bad exams. So, the song loops through my head, and I decide again, “No, we’ll never tell them…”

I teach Art History at the end of the school day on Mondays, so I had to wait until the last period to teach them, return the mock exams, and without revealing my full disappointment help them understand the challenges they had for the next week, hoping that my expectations and the promise of achievement and empowerment would motivate them. They, too, were shocked that just because they enjoy class they hadn’t all done magnificently. One girl, someone who has grown so much this year as a scholar and has worked very hard and done all of her work, saw her 2 on the exam, began to cry quietly, looked at me with wide eyes and whispered, “Maybe I’m just dumb.” Oh, we’ll never tell them what a comment like that does…

So I went from the Art History class to a faculty meeting where we had the pleasant and arduous task of choosing a winner for the most prestigious award at graduation. There were many nominations and for the next 75 minutes faculty members tripped over themselves trying to explain why each nominee was so worthy and outstanding. I knew almost all of the nominees, but chose not to speak that afternoon. In part, as I reach the end of a year, I can get emotional about some seniors, and you know, we never want to reveal how deep our affection and admiration might be. Not a single negative comment during the whole meeting was uttered. Never did someone interject and say, “Well, that sounds fine, but that’s not how I see him (or her).” For over an hour my colleagues articulated the leadership skills, the improvement in English and Arabic, the attachment to the school, the love of learning, the examples of respect and responsibility—each nominee reflected perfectly why this school exists.

I sat and smiled throughout the meeting, marveling at the wonderful examples we witness of change and transformation. And in a sneaky way, that World War I song crept back into my mind and my soundtrack. “We’ll never tell them…” This time it wasn’t about how a bad day, or  bad exam can shake the psyche—this time it was we couldn’t begin to tell non-teachers what those good days are like, what those moments of epiphany feel like as it dawns on someone about a painting, a movement, a moment in history, their own moment in history. That “A” essay isn’t just good—it’s enlightening, exciting, invigorating in a way that I couldn’t explain to a non-teacher.

I can’t decide or remember if there are more high and low moments here than in my previous three schools. I don’t think it matters. Each week has those moments, I guess, the highs and lows I couldn’t really explain. I’ll just have the music swell as the World War I ditty proclaims that no matter how hard we might try, we just couldn’t explain what it is like, so we’ll never tell.

About an hour after that meeting ended, and after I had met with some of the jarred students about their mock exam grades, I walked past the plaza in front of our Dining Hall. On this sunny late afternoon was a little girl, the 5-year old daughter of one of my colleagues. There she was, totally delighted and enraptured that the pinwheel she was holding was moving all by itself. Such wonder she enjoyed! Could we re-capture that same wonder? Could we explain it? Will we meet again with such joy and wonder?