Friday, February 28, 2014

Dropped Names

December, January and February are always the three months of the year, it seems, when jet lag insomnia is never far away for me. Those are the months in which I do the most jet-setting: Jordan to the USA to Bangkok to Jordan to London to Jordan to Boston to Jordan…lots of flying, and lots of opportunities for the nettling jet lag to set in.

But I thought I would look back this week on a book that was among the most delightful reads of an insomniac middle-of-the-night. I never want to read anything too weighty, too important, too life-changing, just in case I fall asleep! So I picked up at the Cincinnati Library, my beloved Westwood branch that I have frequented my entire life, and checked out a copy of actor Frank Langella’s memoirs, called Dropped Names.  In the preface, Langella, the former Dracula of the late 1970s, writes:

“Oh, I’ll never forget when the Queen Mother turned to me and said…, “I couldn’t resist. I picked up a piece of silverware and sent it clattering loudly to the floor. “Oops! I dropped something!”  I declared. And a ritual was born. Like a pack of wolves let loose on a defenseless critic, the gathered predators got the joke and began to drop names and toss silverware in a frenzy of competitive hilarity….So get out your silverware. I’m about to drop a whole bunch of names on you.”

I was telling my friend Dawn while we visited over an early-morning reunion breakfast, about the book and how fun it was to read at 4:00 AM and Dawn said, “You know, you could drop some of your own names. You have met some interesting people!” So, when the insomnia dropped in again, I thought I would make a list of some of my own names I can drop…okay, here begins a mini-overview of my life and the names that come back to me:

Helen Hayes               The earliest celebrity that I remember meeting is the actress Helen Hayes, often referred to as “The First Lady of the American Theater.” She was on a book tour in the late 60s, promoting her memoir, and my mother took me downtown to one of the department stores to meet her. I was maybe four years old or so. You are supposed to buy a copy of the person’s book and then you stand in line for the celebrity to autograph the book. My mother bought Ms. Hayes’ book, and bought a copy of a Dr. Seuss book for me. Helen Hayes autographed them both, and as we watched her sign the book, my mother said, “My son likes drama very much—perhaps if you need a young boy in your next play, I am sure he would be happy to join the company!” That tells you a great deal about my mother! And I may be the only one in the world with a Dr. Seuss book signed by the great Helen Hayes!

Charles Taft              The day I met Charlie Taft when I was in the 3rd grade is one of the most exciting days of my childhood. I was in full-blown American History mode by the 3rd grade, gobbling up every book I could find on the Presidents of the United States. The spring before my family had made pilgrimages to the Lincoln homes as well. One day my grandmother mentioned that she was acquainted with a man whose father had been a President of the United States. I could not have been more excited! She explained how she had done some volunteer work and met William Howard Taft’s son, Charlie Taft, who had been a mayor, and long-time councilman in Cincinnati. I begged her to introduce me to her. My grandmother asked, and Charlie Taft agreed to come and speak to my 3rd grade class at Westwood School. No way! I was beside myself with excitement! In those days I had memorized not only the Presidents names, forward, and backwards, but also their wives’ names. (Truth be told, I can still perform this feat, if wver you would like either list!) I couldn’t get enough Presidential trivia! And then the day came! He arrived and I met him! This nice older man, who came and told stories of running around the White House with Teddy Roosevelt’s rambunctious sons, hurling spitballs at the portraits of the First Ladies, and generally being nuisances for the entire staff charmed me greatly. He talked about his father’s work, then his father’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally encouraged we 9 year-olds towards a life of public service. I beamed throughout. My mother called the newspaper who came and did a story on the day I met Mr. Taft. Too excited for words! I doubt anybody else in the grade was remotely as excited as I was. My mother took me on a tour of William Howard Taft’s boyhood home across town, and I must say, I was devastated when I volunteered to be a tour guide of the Taft home, and they said one had to be 16.  I had to wait 7 years?????? Oh well, at least I met a President’s son!

Joan Allen and Peter Friedman       I think it is too hard to try and go in order, so now I will jump 30 years and mention an evening I attended the movie Shakespeare in Love, in Manhattan. I loved the movie, and about halfway through I noticed that the couple in front of me were actors I had seen in plays and movies. Of course I enjoyed the movie even more, knowing I was a couple feet away from actors that I just adored watching in action. As the movie came to a close, I decided I needed to tell them how big a fan I am of both their work. The wife, multiple-Oscar nominee Joan Allen had teared up by the end of the movie, and seemed to dawdle, so naturally I had to dawdle as well so I could casually meet them and recognize them. As we both exited our rows of the theater, I gave that dumb-founded surprise look of recognition, said their names, and exclaimed, “You know, both of you are so marvelous. I teach school and I have taken classes of mine to see both your work! I took my U.S. History class to see The Crucible, with you Ms. Allen, and oh, Mr. Friedman, I took my seniors to see you in Ragtime. Extraordinary performances!” They thanked me, seemed touched, although I guess I did intrude on their reverie after the film, and then lamented, “And why you haven’t won many Oscars is beyond me! And, oh, your work as Tateh, deserved a Tony, Mr. Friedman.” They smiled, and I kind of hoped they might invite me over for tea and coffee. No invitation proffered, and no, I didn’t even follow them home!

Sissy Spacek               This celebrity sighting is perhaps my dumbest moment with a celeb. It was spring break of 1993, and Casey Brown and I had driven to New York from Charlotte for the vacation. I was in FAO Schwartz, the famous toy store, and I had my radar on for celebs. I see someone who looks like the actress Sissy Spacek…hmmm….I follow her around, quite discreetly, then follow her up the escalator, and then over towards a cash register. At one point she turned right to me, and I say, with such poise and brilliance: “You are Sissy Spacek! Wow, you have so many freckles!” Argh!! I might have said, “You starred in one of my favorite movies, The Long Walk Home and I thought your performance was masterful.” No, I gawk at her freckles. She looked a little sorry for me, sighed, and went about her business.

Carol Channing        This may be my ultimate celebrity encounter—or, well, at least one of my favorite stories about my mother too. When I was 12, Broadway icon Carol Channing came to Cincinnati in another tour of Hello, Dolly! and my mother decided the whole family should go see the show. We knew the score of the show actually, because every Wednesday, on cleaning day, my mother would turn up the Hi-Fi cast recording of Hello, Dolly! and dust away to the infectious Jerry Herman tunes. Well, all four Leistlers go to the show, and after the show ended, my mother asked me if I wanted to meet Carol Channing. I said “Sure!” and my father quietly said, “I’ll go and get the car.” My mother and I started to walk toward the stage door, and I saw a guard, but my mother just nodded, smiled, and kept going. The guard smiled back at the nice lady walking regally with a cane. No one stopped us! When we got backstage we figured out there was a party for a cast member from the tri-state area, and then we see Carol Channing, she of the saucer eyes and expansive smile, and my mother edged to the front of the line, and asked for an autograph and extolled her luminescent performance. Carol asked, “And who are you?” My mother said, “I’m Aunt Mary.” Carol obliged, and my mother indicated it was time to go. On the way out I said, “Mama, you lied to Carol Channing.” She replied, “I did not. I’m somebody’s Aunt Mary!” Years later, in 1988, Hello, Dolly! became the first musical I directed. Somehow, my mother contacted Carol Channing and got her to call me and wish me well on my opening night! ”Dolly has always been very good to me,” Channing rasped. I thanked her, told her I had seen her performance a dozen years earlier, and wasn’t sure if any performer could equal her star power and magnitude. She hoped I would break a leg!

Al Pacino        This is one of those classic New York celeb moments—I was at a play, Ralph Fiennes in Hamlet, I think, and during the intermission I went to the Men’s Room, and at the urinal right next to mine was Al Pacino. He turned to me, nodded, and I gave that cool, man’s-man, nod back that tacitly says, “Hey, dude.”  As we zipped up, I said with that New York ennui about everything we get to do, “I loved Looking for Richard—that was brilliant.”  He said, “Thanks, man.” And we returned to our seats.

Well, now that I am waltzing down memory lane, I think I will turn “Dropped Names” into a bit of a series of blog entries. I have some more stories, so come back in a day or two, and here will be some of the names I “drop” in the next blog entry: Barbara Cook, Sarah Jessica Parker, Whoopi Goldberg, George Clooney, Fred Astaire, Jean Stapleton, Tina Fey, Barbara Walters, Elaine Stritch, Daniel Day Lewis, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Bernadette Peters, Dan Rather, and Susan Sarandon.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Kensington Laddie and Boston Brahmin

Every year now, January and February pretty much become a blur to me—oh yes, the jet-setting life of a recruiter leaping from job fair to job fair has its exciting elements, but it still is a little bit of a blur since the job fairs are so consuming.

So five weeks since my last post, and I am finished with the job fairs for the 2014 season…and I can look back fondly and reflect on the London and Boston job fairs. (Bangkok, as you will note, was my previous blog post, five weeks ago).

London and Boston are my favorite spots for the intense job fairs—not least because I just love the cities of London and Boston, love walking around the areas around the job fair, and because I know people in these cities and at night, after the resumes are put away for a few hours, I can go and visit with some peeps.

The London fair that we attend is in the neighborhood of Kensington—oh, my, I love Kensington! The hotel is in a real neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from a tube stop, near some good restaurants (like my favorite, a farm-to-table English place, and yes, there can be great English food, at a place called Bumpkin’s) and book stores (just catty-corner from the hotel is a great little nook of a bookstore called “Slightly Foxed,” and then a little ways further the great Daunt Books) and then the wondrous Victoria and Albert Museum just about 10 minutes away by foot. So whenever there is a lull in the job fair—out we run for a gastronomic experience, a book experience, or an artistic experience.

But, the bulk of our time is spent in the Millennium hotel. As I have explained in other blog entries, there is the pre-interview stage when you search through the website of candidates, noting and sending out missives hoping they will come by our table at the sign-ups; then there is the interview time, when half-hour interviews run from 8:00 AM to about 6:00 PM; then there is the reception/schmooze time at evening socializers. Between the London and Boston fairs we interviewed about a hundred people—a little fewer than last year (we decided to be a little choosier).

The day begins with breakfast at 7:00: you stuff your face at the breakfast buffet; then you interview; then you fall into bed exhausted at night. You wake up the next morning ready to go and smile and interview again. And you wear a suit and tie—essentially, your school uniform. The job fair world exists in fancy ballrooms and suites and hotel breakfast buffets, and then at the end of the fair, you go back to your real world.

As I have explained before, there is a sign-up time at the fair—essentially a cattle call, and rather exciting to behold. There are about 200 schools at each fair, with anywhere from 400-700 candidates, all wondering where they might end up. You stand behind your table in the ballroom, all 200 schools, and an official of the fair clangs a bell, and the candidates are let into the ballroom. They move around, looking at the schools from A-Z (seriously, from Angola to Zimbabwe!) and what jobs are available in each school. They form a line, you meet them for about 60 seconds, set up an interview time, then research the candidates, trying to decide who will be the best match with your school. From that initial meeting you learn about them, meet them by the elevators, exchange smiles at the breakfast buffet, put notes in files, wait for the interviews and try and develop a relationship in 36 hours. In the interviews and reading the confidential reference letters, you learn about their emotional lives, dreams, ambitions, and disappointments. In the interviews you piece together their back story. I often go on “stalk and schmooze patrol,” which means that I try and “bump into” our most desired candidates, chat them up, and remind them of the school, hoping they will be as interested in us as we are in them.

And yes, it really is about those relationships forged. The highlight of these job fairs is meeting the interesting people. It would fill many pages of the blog to chronicle the people I have met—ex-pats working in Burma trying to find the right school fit and mend their marriage; the woman who has had some job problems and hopes some school will look past her ‘misunderstandings’ with other schools; the young man from Edinburgh who dazzled us with his accent and command of history and political theory; the young man who sat there opining that “I don’t think I want to work in a school”; a couple with an engaging husband and a severe-looking wife who wants the adventure of Jordan without any of the duties (!!); the bohemian polymath that left the fair headed for a hike in India; the college seniors who are enthusiastic and bright and announce they are ready to tackle the classroom. We met couples who were lovely, couples who seemed demanding, math teachers like the Hungarian man who said, “I would like to work with the boys in the gym to have muscles like me,” and people like Frances who bonded with us, but in the end chose a school much nearer to her home in Florence, Italy. There are thank you notes in the folders, and reminders of etiquette and protocol.

The fairs in London and Boston were with the LJJ team: Lilli, Johns Austin and Leistler. We three have done the most fairs together, and we laugh a great deal during the down-time of interviews. We head out for a great meal, head to the book store, or even one night of serious theater in the West End, seeing The Weir. What bonding you do when you are together non-stop at least 12 hours a day!! The best part of the job fairs comes when you are trying to close the deal, and hoping they will join us in Jordan. Inevitably, at that point they begin to interview us. Is it safe? Do you like it? What challenges do you face? John lets us answer these important queries, and I have been known to mist up when I talk about my nearly seven-years at the school. It is as if all the blog entries are right at the tip of my tongue and I try and articulate what has been so important, challenging, life-changing and inspiring about being at KA.

It always boils down to this observation made last year by Reem at one of the fairs: “So many lives changing here in this hotel.”

This year felt a little more relaxed at the fairs, maybe because we know the territory well, and maybe because we did have a little more time away from the fair to see alumni and/or friends. In London, at night, I would take a little jaunt around nearby Hereford Square and imagine what life might be like for me if I taught and lived in Kensington. Lilli and I always commiserate that the only place for which we would abandon KA is London!

And then in Boston we had the good fortune to interview an alum of the school for a teaching job. Our first graduates of KA are seniors in college now, and what a beautiful coming-full-circle it was to interview Ghassan Gammoh. Ghassan is a senior at Harvard, and while we have been in touch ever since his three years in Jordan, and seen each other every year while I was at the job fairs, he did not know the current headmaster, John Austin. I had filled John in that Ghassan had been my advisee, my student, my actor in plays, my stellar student in the first two AP history courses at the school. But Ghassan still needed to interview, like everyone else. It was a delight to listen to Ghassan share why he would feel comfortable and ready and challenged and inspired to come back and teach here. John offered him a contract right then and there and told him to think about it for a few days.

I met with Ghassan a few days later and he couldn’t have been more excited about returning to Jordan, teaching high school students. Besides the fact that Ghassan is a brilliant learner, he is also compassionate and funny. What a great testament to the school that he would return—Ghassan will be a great role model that one of our students can go to Harvard, dream of being  a doctor and yet come back to teach, serve the school well, and compel our students to reach high and aim big.

On the last day of our time in Boston, John set out for a meeting in Philadelphia, and Lilli and I found ourselves with a free day. A free day??!! We shopped around the stores at Copley Square, but we also made a phone call and invited our former boss, the founding headmaster Eric Widmer, to come up and join us for lunch. Now a retiree, Eric said his big job that day was to empty the dishwasher, and figured he could spare the time and move that task to the evening. Eric joined us, and we had our last meal in Boston at Legal Seafoods, recounting our memories of the founding year of the school, the ups and the downs of the “toddler” years of the school, and the great joy at our friendship over the years. As I said earlier in this blog, “It is as if all the blog entries are right at the tip of my tongue and I try and articulate what has been so important, challenging, life-changing and inspiring about being at KA.”

The photo above is of the lunch reunion last week with Eric before Lilli and I set out for the return to Jordan, for the return to our regular work-a-day school world here. I waited a few days to write the blog entry so I could confirm that Ghassan will indeed join us next year on the faculty, the first alumnus to return and teach a new generation at KA. I am certain that that will ensure some more blog entries in the fall. But anyway, the fairs have ended, the traveling finished for a while, and more blog entries soon to come about the life here at our school.