Monday, September 30, 2013

The kind of September

As the last seconds of September, 2013 whizz past us, I am reminded of the iconic and wistful song from the Mad Men-era theatrical fable, The Fantasticks, in which “El Gallo” sings,

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.

Wait a second! (I slam on the brakes in my mind and scream mentally again) Wait a second!!!

Slow and mellow??? September?????

In my always increasing days on earth, I don’t know if I have ever experienced a slow and mellow September! I know, I know, it’s not a reality-based show, and it beautifully sets up the line to come: when you were a tender and callow fellow. But as I was driving into Amman for dinner with lovely former colleague Annabel and her husband Tim, I hummed the tune, thinking about the end of this month, and the image of a slow and mellow September just made me laugh. Thinking about Septembers past then made the 30-minute drive go a little faster!

In my lifetime, four of my Septembers have been in a brand-new school for me, eagerly trying to adjust to a new building, new policies, new children, new colleagues, new curricula, new sets of politics and lingo. A first month in a new job setting is hardly slow and mellow!

In my lifetime, two of my Septembers have been as a brand-new student in graduate school, both stuffy Ivy League universities which are not by nature terribly welcoming, even though both schools have officially been welcoming students for nearly 300 years each. The graduate school life is intense, and each time I had to adjust to missing the teaching-school life. You feel 8 again as you look for new friends with whom to eat lunch and hope it will turn out as well as life in the 8th grade did.

In my lifetime, 26 of my Septembers have been the first month of a new teaching year. September is always like “New Year’s” for teachers, but that first month is crucial as you diagnose each student, attempting to gauge exactly what each one needs from you so that the rest of the year can be spent tailoring every single thing to meet particular needs and help each child soar beyond where they were on that first day of said “slow and mellow” September. Exciting? You bet! But fraught with the painstaking work that something major is at stake—September is the crucial month of the year to earn trust and respect in the classroom. Slow and mellow??? Ha!!!

In my lifetime, well over 40 of my Septembers have been spent in school, in general, going from pre-school all the way up—and while “back to school” always means new clothes and new possibilities, think of what it also means: the loss of old friends or old colleagues, new settings where you just don’t know every nook and cranny, the resumption of old habits and old grudges, the very real possibility that 6th grade might be demonstrably and impossibly harder than 5th grade, the fear that those 9th graders really do beat up the 7th grade boys every day, the fact that as President of Studio Choir in 12th grade might be more than you bargained for, the fact that each year you assume a little more responsibility….hmmm…slow and mellow…in what universe?????

In my lifetime, 19 of my Septembers have witnessed the beginning of plays I am set to direct. Ahhhh…directing of plays, one of the most delightful and tense things I have done as an adult. The thrill of picking the perfect play, planning the rehearsal schedule, casting those very fragile egos, fretting over the sets, crunching numbers to try and buy enough costumes, hoping against hope the theatrical stars will align, and watching your baby unfold…a nail-biting and thrilling exercise, and the antithesis of slow and mellow!

In my lifetime, 31 of my Septembers have meant being away from my home base of Cincinnati. I have not lived full-time in Cincinnati since graduating from Western Hills High School in the Reagan era, but I am never spiritually far away from my family. Each September is a reminder that after a beautiful summer, there is that jab of pain to leave my family and go to Denison or North Carolina or Brown or Columbia or New York or Jordan.

In my lifetime, four of my Septembers have been in a position in charge of the faculty at a young school. Sure, it is like the beginning of sleep-away camp as you plan for their excited arrival, but then that first month with the ex-pats, as they adjust and speedily or not unpack from their long journey, they chafe and assimilate, and no, it is not mellow hoping that they all fit in and do well and figure out the life of a KA teacher.

Even in childhood, which of course as the song plays in your head is supposed to be rosy, the words sing,

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.

But even in childhood it wasn’t that wistful. Each September brought about new lessons and new situations and new hardships. But…but…but…while the words to the song promise that
Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow

there are so many exciting things about this first month of autumn. For one thing, September is full of important birthdays for me, from childhood friends on upward, but two notable birthdays are the days of my iconic teachers, Miss Wilson and Mrs. Schneider. Each September, just two days apart, are the birthdays of two of the greatest teachers I have known. Miss Wilson taught me in the 5th  grade and Mrs. Schneider taught me choral music in high school. I called each of them this past month, on their day, thanking them for the millionth time for their influence, their gifts of precision and care and deep meaning, and their legacy. Thank goodness for a September for the opportunity to thank them.

I don’t know if a September has passed in the last quarter century when I have not been thrilled and grateful to get to be a teacher. I think it is the fact that it is decidedly not slow and mellow that makes me enjoy the process. The other day at sit-down lunch, a senior asked me if since I have been at KA for a long time, am I bored here now?? "Never, my dear!" School and the process of figuring out school is never boring, and never slow and mellow…

Soooooo, if the Schmidt and Jones ditty from The Fantasticks is totally wrong about September, then what song might fit? What is the mood of September? How should we regard September? Is there a good song for September? As I drove back to campus after my wonderful reunion dinner with Annabel and Tim, I thought about what my mother would say about September. She would probably have mentioned the importance of harvest, that we are in the season of harvest before a long winter (hints of the “Deep in December” line from “Try To Remember”).

But everything with my mother was deeper than just the surface. Every lesson was more than an expedient end of a moment---everything was setting up a better way to live. No wonder I learned so much from her about the beauty and ephemeral nature of life itself. So I am driving back to campus thinking of the concept of harvest, of the fruits and bounty of harvest, and I can hear my mother asking, “So what have you harvested lately? What kind of September is it for you because of your own personal harvest???” Oh, she would definitely have asked that one! And she would have launched into the beautiful metaphor about harvesting and reaping, nodding in a wise way about how we “reap what we sow.”

Instead of the plaintive “Try To Remember,” my mind darts to another song, much less slow and mellow, but the upbeat, old 19th century gospel hymn, “Bringing In The Sheaves.” So as I drive down the airport road from Amman to campus, I am humming and singing the old words:

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

That is a more fitting song for September! Nothing slow and mellow about sowing and reaping. The writer was inspired by the words in Psalm 126:6, "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

That’s a pretty good kind of September…

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Knitted to the world

“So what’s it gonna take, Ken, to get your boy outta there?” asked a well-meaning acquaintance of my father last week at the Tuesday night buffet gathering at The Farm in Cincinnati.

A week earlier my father coyly commented to me during our telephone visit, “Lots of people are asking about you and hope you are okay.”

I know the news reports are dire about the situation in Syria. Yes, the situation is bad in Syria, that ongoing humanitarian catastrophe that has claimed perhaps 100,000 lives and forced almost 2 million Syrians to flee the country. And yes, Jordan borders Syria, so every time one of the maps flash across the news screen, it looks as if we in Jordan must be in imminent danger.

However, it is hard to convey how normal our lives continue here at KA, just a couple of hundred miles away from the not-so-simple civil war in Syria. It must make us look blasé when we say to our families that no one is worried here. I hadn’t written anything about the ferocity in Syria since I didn’t want to fan the flames—the news agencies in the United States do enough of that for us. But I thought it might be important to look at what some of the things in the last week have been like, and that, for those of us in Amman, and south of Amman (Syria is to our north) we see no evidence of these struggles, no one speaks in guarded tones about their fears for the future of Jordan—and it really is normal school life going on.

Wait, a minute that is not entirely true! Last week a glimmer of my old life visited me. As many of you know, in the last chapter of my life, the New York chapter, I saw on average 2 theatrical productions a week, seeing up to about 150 productions a year all told (I can do the math, on average it was 2 in many weeks, and a glut at some other times). So since I moved to Jordan in 2007, outside of the theatrical events on the campus at KA, I had seen one lone theatrical event in the kingdom. One!!! One—EVER!! It was a dance story about the founding of Petra, in Arabic, but opulent costumes and projections of Petra. So when a colleague said that a West End touring production was coming to Amman with The Sound of Music, I could hardly believe it!! A show, a Broadway show coming to Amman??? And, to top it off, it would be presented in a great location, al fresco, at the oldest site in Amman, at the ruins of the Roman Citadel high on a hill overlooking downtown Amman. A show???? And I don’t have to fly to London or New York??? So a group of faculty (mostly new faculty—they have no idea, this might be their last show here for years!) gathered to go and see the fun.

It hardly mattered that I know the show forwards and backwards. If one of the nuns had fallen ill at the last minute, I could have gone on! (“Gloria patri et filio, et spiritui sancto!” and of course, “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?”  A flibbertigibbet, a will-of-the-wisp, a clown!”) or if Rolf, or Georg, or Max, or heck, even Baroness Shrader had gotten delayed at the airport, I could have filled in!

They built a temporary staging with seating for several thousand outside, right on the site of where the Romans had built a temple a couple thousand years ago, and they had cameras projecting onto a big screen intimate images of the stage production, and then right to our right, down from the Citadel is the Roman amphitheater. The gods of the theater must have been happy!

The production was efficient and well-done. Actually two of the Von Trapp children were from Amman and did a fabulous job. The book still gets laughs in all the right places, and Maria did her best, although how can we ever erase Julie Andrews from the performance? Captain Von Trapp was appropriately a fuddy-duddy, and Max was almost dull, but the children—all they had to do was march on or off stage and the audience cooed and applauded. The show worked well. I relayed one of my favorite memories from seeing this show over the years when I saw a semi-professional production but the Mother Abbess couldn’t quite reach the notes. As the notes ascended in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” the actress began to pull at her habit, and tried (in vain) to pull the notes out of thin air and her costume. As she reached those long-held, high notes at the end, she grabbed on to a nearby column from the set, hoping against hope that the stability of a fake column might lend her a little traction in holding those notes. Alas, as I recall, the audience just looked down, almost in prayer, that the actress might end the song with a little dignity left in-tact.

But the Amman night was beautiful. Above and below the actors, all around, were the lights of Amman, and it even looked a little like Salzburg, the setting of The Sound of Music. The abbey in the show is on top of the Festung in Salzburg, and overlooks the Austrian town, and it looked a little like the twinkling lights of Salzburg. And of course, seeing the show reminds me of my time in Salzburg, in my junior year of college, lo those many years ago.

So that was on my mind last weekend—enjoying the show and hoping the Von Trapps could keep away from the Nazi menace. That’s about as close as I came to the Assad menace of Syria.

But this past week was just one of those serendipitous weeks of school pleasure—probably not the stuff of blog entries, but enjoying teaching about the Greeks (I mentioned in one class that I was glad I lived another year to get to teach the Greeks again…I think they thought I was a little batty!) and the potential of the Greeks and their fascination with the human project. I shared with them the wisdom of Maxine Greene, who when I had her as a teacher at age 80 [her age, not my age!] said she loved the phrase, I am what I am—not yet. How Greek of Maxine!

This week my colleague Lilli and I embarked on our annual fall blitz-tour (I probably shouldn’t use a German word this close to the Von Trapps!) of visiting 80 classes in 16 school days. As the Deans of Faculty, Lilli and I visit classes, offer some feedback, and take the temperature of the school academically. It is always fun (and a little exhausting) to see so many classes. I started with English classes and I was treated to a lesson on topic sentences and what one should expect from a good topic sentence. Another English class scrutinized thesis statements (did she know I love this???) and how we can write more effective thesis statements. Another English class asked the class to respond to this quotation from C.S. Lewis: “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He thinks he is ‘finding his place’ in it, while it is really finding its place in him.”  The class had trouble with some of the vocabulary words, so the teacher skillfully helped them understand the words so they could understand the meaning of the quotation, and wondered how, and by what we are knitted to the world.

Another day I visited two of the big guns at the school as they taught: Julianne, the Dean of Students, and John, the headmaster. Julianne is teaching the “History of Freedom” course that we created at Hackley, and she does a bang-up job exploring the nature, vagaries, and changing nature of freedom. This day she was looking at ancient Rome, and the apostle Paul, and gauging the freedom found in the Empire, and in this new Christianity. The class looked at issues of control and freedom, and freedom and slavery, studied Paul’s words to the Romans, and compared Zeus and Jesus. John had his class discussing a piece by Malcom Gladwell about how one measures excellence.

You see, just a thrillingly mundane week here at a school that is working hard to prepare students to read and write and speak well and maybe, maybe solve some problems in the world.

Yes, there are problems in Syria and I do not deny that. But none of the Jordanians that I know is worried about imminent danger. We have close to 50 students from the USA here and not a single one has been asked to come by a parent. It is life as usual, business as usual, education as usual here at KA.

But for the entire world the Syrian issue is worth pondering, whether action or not against Assad is advisable. Ask 20 people, you’ll get 20 differing responses. What is certain is that the rival rebel groups are turning on each other and Assad has a “rump” state left to him around Damascus. As my wise friends wonder, if President Bashar al-Assad clings to power, will this civil war lead to a major conflict between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Muslim world, and then that might divide Lebanon, destabilize Turkey and Iraq, and empower Iran.

Still, the world can’t afford to passively await the outcome—should we negotiate with Assad to accept a transition from power? It does seem likely that Syria will become a “failed state” and we do not want the al Qaida-affiliated rebels to get the chemical weapons.

In what ways are we knitted to the world? Each of us is knitted to our surroundings, to our routines, to our place in the world. I appreciate my father’s friends who worry, but I think too much of their worry is more partisan, or it seems that way from the Fox News reports about the debacle of the situation for President Obama. As I explained to my father that I think the news reports of the danger for Americans is fear-mongering, he did say, “Shall I tell them to stop keeping you in their prayers?” Indeed, just as Maria needed it, those prayers are crucial.

Life is never as simple as the plot of The Sound of Music—and indeed, some of the historical inaccuracies of the movie make the Salzburgers cringe (the little trip over the Alps at the end would lead right into Hitler’s German “Eagle’s Nest,”) but there is that wise moment when the Mother Abbess reminds Maria that when God closes a door, he opens a window. How are we knitted to this world? Do we do the knitting or does the world? How do we find those windows? When my window opens, will I be waiting in the hall???

Wonderful things to think about as this perfectly wonderful and mundane week comes to a close.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"Johnny Steak-head"

A month ago today I landed back in Jordan and then immediately set to work: two weeks of meetings and orientations, and as of yesterday, 13 real school days. September is a glorious and exhausting month—back to school, but also soooo important to diagnose all the needs of students and colleagues.

September is a month to think of all the changes: departed colleagues out, new people in, changes in status and job—oh, so many adjustments every September! I remember at Hackley, one colleague would say every single September: “Oh, this is the hardest September ever!” I would always remind her that she had said the same thing the year before, we just forget how hard of a month it is. Don’t forget I said ‘glorious’ as well.

As I said, one of the things September requires is an adjustment to a change in jobs. In some ways, this year is so similar to last year for me. I am the Dean of Faculty again, reside in the same apartment, have the same courses to teach—but there are some changes for me. There are three things I am giving up, and while each was a voluntary and sensible thing to hand over, there is always that transition of not doing some of the things one has done and adjustments. I am no longer head of the History Department. No, there was not a coup, although a colleague last spring hoped I would be all right after the take-over! For seven years I was the head of the History Department at Hackley, and now for the last six years here. But our head last year suggested that it would be wise to let someone else lead since I needed to spend more of my time on the whole faculty and not just my favorite, pet department. I didn’t want to run the risk of department members feelings I didn’t give them enough time, nor did I want the rest of the faculty to feel I spent all my time with one department. So that made enormous sense. Lyman, a terrific colleague, is doing a great job running the department. I get to go to meetings, and for a change, I don’t have to run those meetings!

I am no longer doing the choir at KA. For two years I did my best with an enthusiastic bunch of students who hadn’t benefitted from the wonderful background I had with the music program of the Cincinnati Public Schools. We met only once a week (try building a program with 45 minutes a week! Ha!) but had a fun time. I tried some Handel, some gospel, some 80s pop love songs, some Broadway, and some choir and flute music. Their favorite piece was the 1940s hit “Sentimental Journey.” We hired a great young man from Yale to teach Philosophy and run the choir. He is very talented and will do a grand job, I am sure. But it is an adjustment from what I have done to pulling back from that.

And perhaps most notably, I have retired for the time being from directing plays. When I visited Chuck last month in Charlotte, he could hardly believe that statement since it has been such a major feature of my educational identity for 25 years. Yes, but I travel a good deal attending job fairs, hiring faculty, and the pressure of time and money, appropriate scripts, inadequate set and costume possibilities, it all seemed like a good time to let someone new and younger take over. In the spring I directed a play called, The Exam, but since the students knew of another, far-inferior play with the same name, I re-named our work, The Final Curtain. It made sense on several levels: a ghastly character called “The Exam” (the embodiment of every fearful exam you have ever taken) sang part of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and taunted how this exam might be those students’ final curtain. It was also the last play of some lovely seniors involved in drama last year, and secretly, I knew it was my ode to my semi-retirement. I told Chuck for the first time ever I wasn’t burning to direct a play. He didn’t believe me. I confirmed that it was true. He still didn’t believe me, and I conceded, well, maybe I just thought I would take a break, and he made me name a play I might just burn to do. Okay. Okay!  I would like to direct (again) Defying Gravity, this great play I remember seeing in 1996 in a small theater in New York and I knew I had to direct it. Actually, that was my swan song directorial effort at Hackley, 7 years ago this autumn.

So there are some changes. Three things that have been a part of my identity and brain space have been let go to three new people. The new drama director is a recent college grad with whom I had an exciting conversation and interview last spring. He is beginning with one of my favorite plays ever, the Steve Martin comedy about Picasso and Einstein, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. All three of these “successors” will do fine work, but it is always a little strange to think about how much input they might want, but I want to give them the space to their work, make their own mark, and improve the school still further.

Just in case you are worried that I don’t have anything new, well, my dear colleague Julianne made sure that I had something new to sink my teeth into. It’s different. Yes, it is a stretch. As Julianne worked on her assignments for the after school co-curricular program, she wrote me a note that she had a doozy of an assignment for me. In her email to me, she wrote, “You are slated to assist during the weight training minor for three terms. I am sure you will poke fun at me for this for a long time, but I appreciate you being a great colleague and agreeing to do this. After 25 years in the school biz, I finally get to be a jock!! I am in charge of weight training!

I don’t think of this as a punishment, and Julianne didn’t intend it as such. She gives me a whole new persona! She concluded her email, christening me with a new nickname as well! Your new nickname is “Johnny steak-head” (a steak head is bad name for a dumb jock)!"  So there you have it, out goes the History, Music, and Drama, and in comes the Weight Training Johnny Steak-head. I want to make Julianne proud!

This is a year in which I decided I need to decide if I truly love managing faculty. The appraisal system will get into place, my work with the Teacher Fellows is entrenched, and my challenge is to inspire the faculty adopt a growth mindset. And I get to be Johnny Steak-head! In spite of my new jock name, I am reminded of a Emily Dickinson quotation that I think is appropriate at the start of this important year: “The sailor cannot see north—but knows the needle can.”

Sometimes the project of school, and well, life, feels like one is lost in a sea of complex challenges, conflicting expectations, and vexing problems—compounded by the expectation that I am always supposed to know what to do. But just as I felt that first year when I came to Jordan in 2007 and clarified so many things for me about education, it is about finding your own compass. I may not always remember every policy in school, but I do know that treating people with respect is an excellent start. My job is very much about listening (whoa!!! What other changes for me the Big Talker!?!), being a good listener with new teachers, with veteran teachers, angry and unhappy teachers, and noticing and appreciating the good deeds being done around me. The tide of stories I hear in a given week, sitting on my couch in my air-conditioned office, is an astonishing array of human stories of pain, bewilderment, exhilaration, pride, loneliness, fear, and hope. Somebody angry may at the root be simply afraid of changes or diminishing status. Someone whose move has rendered them overwhelmed in spite of years of teaching under their belt might create someone both arrogant and helpless. There will be a student whose troublesome behavior is a mask for sadness or the anxiety that school is a nightmare for them. Everyone has a story to tell, and one of my jobs is to listen and respond meaningfully to these stories.

This might be why the blog posts are fewer than in days of old. There is hardly a shortage of things to share or reflect upon—I am in the middle of a region fighting for whatever “The Arab Spring” might have positive left in it, working at a school whose mission is so noble and captivating that it provides daily inspiration, teaching students so enthusiastic and willing to work that it is never boring, mentoring young teachers who have graduated from the best colleges in the US and now are working to figure out how to engage adolescents. Never dull. And, by the way, never scary…well, not in the “scary that many of you might worry about.”

The lack of “scary” is due to several peerless colleagues, the headmaster and Julianne, and hey, there is always a new duty, a new nickname. This year I get to be Johnny Steak-head! I wonder where that will take me??! And while Dickinson’s words ring true, “The sailor cannot see north—but knows the needle can,” I also have the assurance, as Julianne mentioned in her email, unveiling my new name that “We joke about being here all the time, but we both know that this is where we are supposed to be.”  We joke about it only because we wonder how in the world we ever got here!! Oh, yes, that’s right—our friend Anne Siviglia! When our car is stuck behind a herd of goats or sheep, or goats and sheep, Julianne raises her fist in the air and exclaims, “Thanks, Anne!!”

But Julianne is right—this is where we are supposed to be. Here’s to that crucial, diagnostic month of September!


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Convocation 2013


It has been three weeks since I left Cincinnati—and not a single blog post? Oh, dear readers, if you are a longtime blog follower you know that coming back to Jordan and the resumption of the duties and meetings is a juggernaut! But, seriously, in this beginning of our seventh year at KA, things have been smooth and well-run, from the first senior staff meeting, to the workshop with heads of department, the new faculty busy-ness, returning faculty, and finally the student orientations, both old and new. There might have been blog posts, but when things run smoothly, somehow it seem less interesting! I have re-read some old blog posts from the beginning of the school in 2007—when it was all new and untried. Admittedly, those make for more compelling reading. But while things are sharpened and tightened and more stable every year, I should not fail to discuss the wonder they still provide.

Anyway, here we have the first blog post of this school year. I am cheating a little bit since the bulk of this prose is not a blog post but a speech I gave last week. The speech came last Wednesday afternoon, at the conclusion of our first real day of school. And by real I mean that on Wednesday we have a complete day. The day before we have mini-classes where we run through a school day with 10-minute classes so that everyone can have a good dry run at the dress code, walking the halls, finding rooms, having intros to classes, and get an overview picture of the day.

John Austin had asked me to speak to the school and formally inaugurate the school year. What a pleasure! While a little daunting and scary to speak to the school, I do love enjoy exploring what kinds of things might help us better frame the next nine months of work. So when I stood in front of the 481 students and 100 faculty and administrators, here is what I offered them:


"Way, way back in June, just a few days after I got back to the United States from Jordan, I went to my college for a reunion. One night, some friends and I stayed up late, and one wondered, “What was it that was so great about our time in college?” Another friend quickly said, “There were no rules!” My group of friends decided that after a couple weeks, that really wasn’t that big of a deal anymore. One wise friend said,“It was so great because we felt empowered! Our teachers helped empower us to tackle hard projects and do incredible thinking and work.” As we savored the nostalgic memory of those college days of feeling empowered, another friend turned to me and said, “Hey, John, you teach grades 9-12. Are those kids empowered? Can it happen in high school, or do you have to wait until college for that kind of empowerment?”

I loved the question. And having taught for a quarter century now I can say, it can happen in grades 9-12. It doesn’t always happen. But it can. This concept of empowerment, of you seizing control of how you learn, and mastering a subject is possible in high school. And it is so very important for you all to know that empowerment is the key to success.

I want to show you an art work that I teach in my course around the end of February, but this is a great image for each of us to ponder today. Let’s look at this painting… [above the blog post you will see Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above The Fog]

When this comes up in my course, we discuss how it fits into the historic time, but my favorite thing about teaching this painting, is promising my class something: I promise them that if they work hard, study, and take risks, on the day of the AP test, and more importantly, for many days after, they will feel like this man! Take a closer look at him. He has just trudged up a mountain. He is standing at the summit, taking in everything around him. He is above all the work, the labor, the hard times he endured to get to this peak. You know, we can’t see his face, but I would imagine sweat drips off his face. He has just trudged up a mountain—he probably has sweat stains! This has not been an easy task. But I promise my class that if they seek ways to grow and learn as scholars, they will earn the right to be on top of the mountain.

Last year when I taught this painting, a student said something quite remarkable. I have taught this art work for 10 years, but students who try hard are always saying things that I still haven’t heard before! The class commented about this man’s accomplishment and how he had empowered himself to get to this point. The student last year said, “But look, even as he takes in all he accomplished—he sees there are more peaks yet to conquer!” Think about this—this man is going to go back down the mountain and do it again, and rise even higher at another peak.

On our first formal day of class this year, I not only encourage you, but I urge you to work for your empowerment this year. And I am talking to the faculty as well—when your teachers feel empowered to seek excellence, to seek more effective techniques and strategies in the classroom, and if they continue to seek their empowerment, you will only do all the better.

I have an office in the math wing upstairs. I encourage you to come by and talk to me about your own personal empowerment. Come by on days when you feel empowered and tell me how and why you feel empowered. And come by on days when you don’t feel empowered and tell me how and why you do.

And all this talk is not just about grades. One could say that the fate of the world is in the balance of your empowerment. That’s a dramatic statement, I know, but His Majesty founded this school so that you might solve the problems of Jordan. The only way you will ever do that is if you feel empowered, if you can climb up those mountains of yours and then set your sights on reaching another, new peak. If your teachers are empowered, you will be more empowered. If you are more empowered, you will find those other peaks around you in Jordan, and I daresay the world, and your empowerment might solve some very real problems.

I want to share a few lines of a poem that I like a lot. Here are the opening lines:

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted and endured…

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.

Are those not the most depressing words ever???????

Suffer! Torture! History says, life will be bad! But it is reality isn’t it? We don’t have to travel very far to find suffering and torture. Okay, here is the next word of the poem:



What kind of a word is that?? What does that ‘but’ do????? That word can turn everything on its ear. That word can change the course of suffering and history’s proclamation of despair.

Let’s read four more lines in that poem:


But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

There it is! That last line is what His Majesty wants in us. He wants us to look at the world around us, see all the disasters that there are, and he wants us to say, “But!” and when we are like that guy on the mountaintop, that empowered man, standing with the world at his feet, we might accomplish what the King wants. We might in that beautiful phrase, we might be empowered enough to make “hope and history rhyme.”

Let this be the year when each of us works harder than before and each of us trudges up a mountain. Nine months from tomorrow, on Graduation Day, I hope each senior can feel like that guy in the painting. Let each of us work for that empowerment this year. Let us work so that we not only endure the year, or passively do work, but that we have empowered ourselves, triumphed, and look excited for the next peak. Let’s take the next 9 months and seriously work on that empowerment."