Sunday, January 12, 2014

One Week In Bangkok

This blog entry title is obviously a play on the strange 1980s pop song, “One Night in Bangkok,” written by ABBA guys and from the concept album for the musical Chess. I remember coming back from studying abroad in Salzburg, Austria, and everyone played the song that summer. Since I have never really had my finger on the pulse of the pop music world, I never really got the song at the time. But oh, in the summer of 1985, it was hot!

It was hot last week in Bangkok as well. In fact, the original title I planned to use for this blog entry was “Hot in Bangkok,” since that works on several levels, but as strange as it may seem, while my friends and family in the USA were shivering in sub-zero temps, I felt quite strange with the mid-90s temps of Bangkok. And frankly, it would be strange on several levels.

Anyway, I spent a week in Bangkok working two recruiting fairs for teachers to come to KA. We have been going to these fairs for four years in Bangkok, but they don’t yield many signed-on-the-dotted-line teachers. In fact in Year 1, we gained no teachers from Bangkok, in Year 2, we gained 1 teacher eventually from that fair, and last year, even with about a half-dozen offers made, again, we came up bupkis. I should have done a blog entry last year, “Bupkis in Bangkok”!!

So it was with somewhat less enthusiasm that I got on a plane on January 2nd in Cincinnati headed for Bangkok. Actually, the most amazing thing is that I got on a series of planes at all ending up in Bangkok. As my father and I drove to the airport on that second day of 2014, we had several inches of new-fallen snow on the ground, and a pronounced white fog around us. I am amazed that we left Cincinnati at all. We landed about an hour late in New York; however, that was late enough for me not to make it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as I had planned. Anyway, Gary and Christy and I met at our favorite pizza place in New York, Patsy’s on the Upper West Side, and we laughed and laughed and worried and worried about the storm invading New York. I got on the subway to get back to JFK—again, just as the prognostications of a major blizzard were coming true, we took off bound for Amman. I landed in Amman and had three hours to get back to campus, unpack, shower, re-pack and head back to the airport for the 10 hour flight to Bangkok. All except one suitcase—who decided to stay in New York for a few extra days—made the connections, and I landed in Bangkok with the temps in the mid-90s. Within my first hour at the hotel we had our first interview…bam! Land, Shower! Interview! The interview was with a kind, energetic, involved teacher. I liked him more than my team. Bangkok was off to a rousing start!

I guess the week is so strange in Bangkok because we rarely leave the hotel. I had a great view from my room of the river winding through town with the tour boats and bus-ferries and fancy hotels on the banks of the river. It is tropically warm with thousands of heat-seeking tourists. But we were all suited up, wound up, and interviewing/scheming/planning/reconnoitering inside all day. It’s not a prison, but it’s not a vacation either.

One of the problems is that Bangkok is not among my favorite towns, or rather, a town that I have felt I have “owned.” I visited Bangkok for the first time in 1998 when I took my first trip to Asia, visiting college chum Sharon in Singapore and Malaysia. But Bangkok is a big city, hard to navigate, get inside your head. London, Vienna, Salzburg, Boston, and New York—now these are my towns.

Perhaps another reason why Bangkok remains hard to love is that it has now become a signal for the next school year. We have just rung in the New Year, and we jet off to Bangkok to hire teachers for next August! And by hiring new teachers, we are, naturally, bidding adieu to teachers we have worked with. I am still a little new at the administration game that this doesn’t bother me a little. Saying good-bye—such a part of teaching teen-agers, and in an international school, a big part with adults that cycle in and cycle out as well.

So, let me look back at one day of the week and just explore what we did that day. I met with our school head John at the breakfast buffet at 8 (8?? What a luxury! It is usually much earlier!) and I told him of our plans to interview people that day. Now what we have learned in our fair-going years is that you want to have as many interviews as possible before the interview sign-ups begin. Now, does that make sense? The way it works—by the time of the interview sign-ups, if you haven’t met with your first choices, they will probably have already snagged a job and signed a contract. So we have learned to interview before…whatever! So we read the newspaper, looked at the schedule—we had six interviews scheduled and hopes for several more.

Our first interview was with an Asian math candidate who grew up in Canada and has taught in Korea. She interviewed well, but afterwards we didn’t hear from her, and it turns out she didn’t reply to emails. Our next interview was with a sad-sack of a curmudgeonly man who teaches English in Guatemala, and has little tolerance, it seems, for the students he teaches. He is very much into technology, but there was just little joy going on there. Next we go out for lunch—outside—and find a little dive and have great curry and pad thai with a head of a school in Saudi Arabia and we discussed professional development activities in our schools. I have met her at other job fairs and always enjoy talking with her. She and John rattle on about “head” things and I marvel at what all they have to control as the head of a school.

After lunch we have four interviews in a row. Renee is young and perky, almost too perky, in fact, but we have a great discussion about her teaching of history. She is green, however, she may be very coachable. She is our best interview discussion so far. Next we meet Melinda, a woman my age, who left everything in 2010 to teach abroad. She has taught seemingly every course in history, and worked with drama and speech groups. This is a wonderful interview about her command of pedagogy and love of history. We are interested. Then we meet with a young man who surprised me how gentle he looks given his six years in the army in Iraq. Dan is a great interview as well. He grew up in North Carolina, went to Colby in Maine, has a new baby, but the conversation is so organic and unfolding…great conversation.  Our last interview of the afternoon is with a couple who teach in Kuwait. They are young, bohemian types, but strangely, the more we talk with them, the more serious they seem, the more willing to tackle all that we have on our school plate here. Another good conversation.

After the interviews I go back to spend time on the computer writing the various heads of departments, asking them to look at the files on line. I study the files as well, reading the reference letters, checking to see if I think the candidates have the grit, resilience, intelligence and compassion to make it work here. I look through the emails sent out for more interviews, send notes out to those we had spoken to, and plan second interviews the following day with three of the candidates. I write notes to about 7 candidates who don’t look like good fits. I check and re-check with John. Actually, a fairly easy day in the job fair world. I take a spin on the stairmaster in the fitness center, and then head to the recruiter social.

I noted this mostly to look back at what we do at these job fairs. I schmooze and stalk when not huddled over a computer screen reading reference letters, or interviewing. When we like someone I stalk around the main areas of the fair, “bumping” into our favorite candidates, and then schmoozing them for awhile as we talk about the school. I like the stalk and schmooze angle! It’s fun.

Over the next two days I stalk and schmooze with Dan—we probably talk for about two hours about the school, teaching. I answer his questions, he makes notes. I like him enormously. He would make a great colleague. When we finish he calls his wife back in Shanghai. We offered him a contract, and after a few more talks with us, he accepted. Whew. That was our one week in Bangkok. I think he’s a good one.

While we signed Dan, yes, we also learned about five other colleagues who had been on the fence about their return (we don’t have to sign a contract for another week or more) who decided to leave to Jordan. So we gained Dan. And we lost a few more. It’s the nature of the ex-pat life in the international school. You lose some teachers. At this time of year, in Bangkok, it also looks a little dark, even with all the Thai sun.

At the First Battle of the Marne during World War I, French lieutenant general Ferdinand Foch sent out this communiqué: “My center is giving way, my right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.” Kind of funny that even in that tough situation, Foch saw hope. His willingness to remain hopeful eventually led to victory for his troops.

Sometimes in Bangkok we can feel as if we are losing teachers right and left. However, last year at this time we hadn’t signed anyone. Last month we signed four new people, and now Dan’s name will be on a dotted line. We just have to plug away, interview away, and find a way to conclude: “Situation excellent.”

That 1980s pop song, “One Night in Bangkok,” sarcastically juxtaposes the heady night-life of Bangkok with the game of chess. In the original London production of Chess, the setting for the song is an interview in which the candidate states a preference for what he sees as an intellectual purity in chess, in stark contrast to the seedier aspects of Bangkok's night life. Hmmm…all right, we had our week in Bangkok, the chess game continues, and I will conclude, “Situation excellent.”

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

On this quiet, cold New Year’s morning, somehow I am thinking of an old bit in Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy act of the early 1990s. Seinfeld waxed nostalgic about the old days when your family’s TV Guide came in the mail. Jerry reminded us of the excitement and how we would revere the NEW TV Guide and all the promise it held for the upcoming week….ahhhh…the newness of the new Guide! You kept it as pristine as you could for as long as you could. Then as the week went on, it lost its luster, and by the end of that week, the dog-eared, old, worn-out copy, well, you couldn’t wait to get rid of it! I remember laughing knowingly with Jerry’s bit about how a family treated a TV Guide and the cycle it went through.

Well, don’t we treat a new year in much the same way? We welcome a new year with such promise and care, and 364 days from now, we will be happy to bid this year a good riddance. Is each year like the old TV Guide of the old days????? Hmmm….

And of course, just thinking about that begs the thought about how every arrival portends a leave-taking. Every birth portends its own death.

Oh, great! And Happy New Year to you too, some blog reader will grouse!!

Every birth portends its own death. Why does that thought leave us so uncomfortable?

The Christmas story has this thought about birth and death around its edges. Thousands of portraits of Madonna and the Christ child show a wistful Mary—she is aware of her young newborn son’s impending death. Every arrival portends a leave-taking. Every birth—even Jesus’ birth—portends its own death. The Magi knew it. When the wise men, or magi, or kings, or astrologers, or whoever they were, arrive to see this special child, they arrive with old men’s gifts: frankincense and myrrh. Spices with which to prepare the body for burial. Yeah, great. Happy Birthday, Jesus!

So on this New Year’s Day, this first day of the crisp, newly-minted new year, what a strange thing to think about death. I mean, let’s face it…we will die. Each of us. All of you. Every single one of you.

The death rate among us: 100%.

The death rate among us, including Jesus: 100%. We know it: this hard-as-steel-truth. But it’s not easy to face. Not easy to bear. Not easy to talk about especially, God help us, with our own families.

So let’s return to Mary, the teen-age Palestinian girl who bears the Christ child. How was she able to understand this certain transition from life to death so well? She is tuned in, even seemingly reconciled to the hard-as-steel-fact of passing on. Mary figures out the secret to being reconciled to death: Mary links the fact of passing on (the fact of her own passing on) with the art of passing down ... of bequeathing.

Think of Mary’s song, her “Magnificat,” as her last will and testament. In it she bequeaths her son to the ages.

As if the gift of her son is not enough, there is more. This young woman, this girl-child, gifts us with a song – a song that is itself a kind of kaleidoscope: with shifting and overlapping glimpses and fragments of past and future, of ancestors and descendants, of remembrance and inheritance, of a promise that shimmers and shifts in the light. A promise passed down and taken up: generation by generation, taken up, parent to child, teacher to student, down through the millennia. A promise taken up here as we conclude the season of Advent. A promise carried in white lights and fragrant greens, in memorial poinsettias, in carols and in candles to pierce the night.

Every birth portends its own death. Every arrival portends a leave-taking.

But, listen now! With every leave-taking, there can be a leaving, a bequeathing, a gifting, a passing down.

What will we gift? What will we pass down? On this beginning of 2014, this may take the sting out of death?

I suppose I am thinking about this on this new year’s morning since in 2013 there were some unexpected deaths of friends and friends of my family, and some close calls with sickness and cancer. I also turned 50, a half-century of time alive, and surely a time to wonder about mortality and our purpose.

Since I am a lover of music, comedy, and history, and I have already discussed Seinfeld and the Magnificat, let’s take a little look at history. Let’s remember Benjamin Franklin, that exciting man of the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin, was like Mary, reconciled to his own dying and marvelously and wondrously tuned in to the way the generations are linked. He linked the fact of his own passing on to the art of passing down. Let’s listen to him through some of his last will:

I, Benjamin Franklin ... do make and declare my last will and testament as follows:
I have considered that, among artisans, good apprentices are most likely to make good citizens, and, having myself been bred to a manual art, printing, in my native town of Boston, and afterwards assisted to set up my business in Philadelphia by kind loans of money from two friends ... which was the foundation of my fortune ... I wish to be useful even after my death, if possible, in forming and advancing other young men, that may be serviceable to their country ... To this end ... I give one thousand pounds sterling to the inhabitants of the town of Boston ...

The said sum ... shall be managed under the direction of the selectmen, united with the ministers of the oldest Episcopalian, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches in that town, who are to let out the sum upon interest ... to assist young married artificers in setting up their business ... It is my desire that this institution should take place and begin to operate within one year after my decease ... In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and Seal this twenty-third day of June, Anno Domini one thousand Seven hundred and eighty nine.
B. Franklin.

The institution Benjamin Franklin imagined, and named and provided for in his will is located a few blocks from Copley Square in downtown Boston, the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology that educates young men and women of every nationality and ethnicity…educates and equips them with practical skills and technologies.

Benjamin Franklin has passed on…but not before passing down, not before gifting to the next generation a part of his own self and soul.

While we cannot all pass along large sums of money or property, we can pass along a legacy of integrity, of truthfulness, of humor, of good cheer. This Christmas season I am remembering the legacy of goodwill from my father’s friend Dick, who recently passed on. Dick died suddenly. When his son went through his father’s kitchen pantry, he found a surprising number of cake mix boxes. His asked my father about them. His son didn’t know his dad liked to bake. My father told him that Dick baked a lot of cakes—especially for people who might not get a cake. He baked for birthdays when he worried people might forget the birth of a new year for someone, or when he wanted to celebrate someone a little bit in his orbit. This big, strong-as-steel man with immense practical skill and knowledge gifted the people around him with a legacy of crumbs and icing.

We are reluctant to acknowledge the one truism: we will die. This embodied, earthly gig, this sweet, sweet gig—the one that comes with the taste of Graeter’s mint chocolate ice cream and the aroma of fresh ground coffee and the sound of an infant’s squeal—it is temporary.

I know you know it. But I also know it’s not easy to face. Not easy to bear. But again, let’s reflect on the Christmas story before we put everything away in boxes and out of sight for another 11 months. Let’s look at Mary’s story and her reconciliation of the hard-as-steel fact of passing on with the strong, imaginative, generative, affectionate art of passing down, of bequeathing.

Every arrival portends a leave-taking. But we get to make choices about what we will pass down, what we will bequeath. I suppose that if we take up the art of passing down, it will soothe the sting of passing on.

So Mere Mortal, let me put the challenge clear on this first day of the new year. How might your dying beget a birthing? How might you gift the generations to follow? How might you take up the strong, imaginative, generative and affectionate art of passing down? Happy New Year!