Monday, April 28, 2014

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 97!) 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!

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. And I had scores in each category (in case you like to know: 7 were 5s, 4 were 4s, 11 were 3s, 2 earned a 2, and one poor chap earned a 1--the same grade you get for bubbling the circles in for 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…”

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 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 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 now 6-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?
What is interesting is that last year I left the same meeting, after the return of those mock exams, and spied the then-5-year old wonder child. So glad I get to bump into her and remember the child-like wonder of it all!



Thursday, April 24, 2014

2014 Postcard from Jerusalem, Part II


…as I was saying, Irene had this great idea to go to Jerusalem and wave the palms on Palm Sunday! Tom, Irene and I journeyed across the border, along with Tricia, another colleague, and her son. We didn’t plan anything with Tricia and her son, since as she said,

“Well, you know, he’s a teen-age boy, and he wants to lounge around the hotel!” But we did tentatively plan to meet up in the procession on Palm Sunday.
Irene did all the planning for the trip, and I was happy to go along for the ride. Irene picked a hotel that turned out to be an interesting choice. It seems that our hotel is a place where many local Jewish families go on Fridays to celebrate Shabbat. These are more conservative families who do not wish to do any work or activity around the Sabbath, so they go to a hotel, where of course a staff will wait on them, make meals, and they even have a synagogue in the hotel. The last time in Jerusalem I stayed in an Arab hotel, so this was a different perspective. There is even a Sabbath elevator, that opens and stops at every floor, and one does not have to press any buttons. The lobbies and dining area were crowded with the families eager to celebrate their Sabbath.

Anyway, on Saturday for lunch, we ate at the Christ Church Guest House near the Jaffa Gate. Jerusalem abounds with Christian hospices, most originally built in the late Victorian age to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims. Inside the beautiful compound there was a little museum, so we went there after our lunch. We got to talking to the volunteers there, and one man from the American South offered to take us down below to see some of the architectural wonders. We eagerly agreed, walked through the coffee shop, down into a basement, and then went below into a sub-basement. The volunteer showed us a cistern, photographs, and told stories about the subterranean caverns below and how they have been used through the centuries. We realized that practically every structure in Jerusalem would have a similar story and underground tunnels and cisterns, dating back to Roman days at least.

Later that afternoon we made our way over toward the Lion’s Gate to St. Anne’s, a beautiful, 12th century Crusader church, erected in honor of the mother of Mary. It is built next to the Bethesda Pool, the site where Jesus is believed to have healed a paralytic. There were many quotations about the healing power of the pools (I was born in Bethesda Hospital in Cincinnati, so especially enjoyed the points about Bethesda) and Irene and I walked around looking at the Roman-era pools and waterways (enjoying the fact that we had just had a private tour of another structure all the way across town). But the wonder of this spot is the acoustic brilliance inside the church! The church was built for Gregorian chant, and it may be the most perfect acoustics I have heard anywhere. Anyone can come in and sing—religious songs only—and the sound and the echo are divine.

Just down the road begins the Via Dolorosa, traditionally believed to be the route followed by Jesus from the Roman Judgment Hall to Calvary, the scene of crucifixions. There are 14 stations of the cross, and it is not uncommon to see pilgrims carrying large crosses in procession and prayer as they make their way down this street. We followed some of the stations, making our way back out of the magnificent Damascus Gate. On the way toward that Gate, we stopped at the Austrian Hospice for some apfelstrudel. This is a great spot, a great view, and a place I want to try and stay on my next trip to Jerusalem.

Near our hotel in East Jerusalem, outside of the Old City gates, is a place marked as “The Garden Tomb, a 1st century tomb discovered in the modern day in 1867. In the 1880s, a very “Kiplingesque” General Gordon (the same one later killed in the siege in Khartoum in Africa) visited this tomb on his way to Egypt, and had an epiphany. Gordon didn’t believe the evidence that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was indeed the site of Jesus’ tomb, although since the 4th century Christians had worshipped at that site. By the late 19th century various Christian sects argued over this, and the Orthodox simply banned Protestants from worshipping at their site. General Gordon helped fund better excavation, and so this is a “competing” site for Jesus' tomb. What was interesting was the tour offered, the scriptural reminders of Jesus’ burial, and also how this site meets many of the specifications of what the site should be (among them, outside the walls of the city, hewn from a rock, a tomb made for a rich man, situated in a garden, and near a hill that does indeed look like a skull—remember according to the New Testament, Golgotha, “the place of the skull.”) What most impressed me was the guide was not zealously trying to turn anyone’s mind that this was indeed the site. This gentle Anglican, John from England, emphasized that the actual site is of far less importance than the spiritual significance of what really happened. “In the end, the crucial point is that the tomb was empty on the third day. That point—that part of God’s loving plan to bring us forgiveness is what matters.” We joined a group from San Diego, here in the region to do some Medical Missions, for a communion service and prayer. The beautiful garden was indeed a perfect spot to ponder the shifting histories and claims in Jerusalem. One of the leaders from San Diego concluded, “While we can debate the place where this happened, for us there is no dispute that ‘Jesus Christ’ was declared with power to the be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead,’” as he read from the book of Romans.

That evening we walked far and wide in the much more modern, hip section of Jerusalem, going into the famed King David Hotel, and then eating a wonderful meal at Focaccia, a place recommended by a local hipster.

The following morning we tramped all through the Old City again, hoping for a viewing of the Dome of the Rock. But, as happens, the tours were cancelled just minutes before we would have gone in. So we looked for palms to wave in the procession. We didn’t have much luck, but then I saw some huge palms and decided to buy them. The palms cost about $6.50 each. Expensive palms! We gathered some lunch from a bakery in the Jewish Quarter and then headed up to the Mount of Olives.

On our way across the Kidron Valley we saw an enormous Muslim cemetery below the Dome of the Rock, and then as we crossed the valley we saw one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world. It was this cemetery that religious Jews had in mind when they came to die in the Holy Land through the start of the 20th century. You walk by the Tombs of the Prophets, believed to be the burial place of Haggai, Malachi and Zechariah. Many Jews have believed, and perhaps still do since I saw a family mourning a recent loss in the cemetery, that from here the route to heaven is the shortest, since God’s presence is always hovering over Jerusalem; others have held that here, on the Mount of Olives, the resurrection of the dead will occur.

There are six churches right in about 500 feet of each other, marking sites such as where Mary is believed to have died, where it is believed that Jesus instructed his disciples in the Lord’s Prayer, and a spot that marks where Jesus wept over a vision of the future destruction of Jerusalem. We allowed a couple hours to hike up the hill, visit the churches, and claim a spot for the afternoon procession. We walked by the Garden of Gethsemane, the spot where Jesus prayed the night before his arrest. Another church adjoins the garden, the Basilica of the Agony, from 1924 that shows a gorgeous gold mosaic of God looking down from heaven over Jesus and the peoples of the world.

We knew that the procession began in Bethphage, the spot where Jesus and the disciples received a donkey and made their way down the Mount of Olives for the jubilant welcoming into Jerusalem. It was a stiff hike up the hill, but a beautiful day, and we carried our palms up the hill. Once we got there we saw some folks who had more stunning palms and asked where they had gotten them. Oh, I see—they had gotten them just down the street and paid only about 75 cents for them. Oh well!

As we settled on a spot to wait for the procession, guess who we see directly across the street, but our colleague Tricia and her son! We got together and told of our exploits around town, and then at 2:30 the procession began. I had no idea what to expect—while I have spent my life waving palms on Palm Sunday, it always lasted about 30 seconds in our family’s church, although at my church in New York City we did process around the block.  But here, in those last minutes before it began, it was clear that hundreds and hundreds of people had gathered to process down the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem.

The Arab Christians traditionally begin the procession with a very Orthodox banner and folderol. And then it seemed that national groups had formed. We stood in line near a group from Poland (“Why have you never visited Poland?” my new BFF inquired). Across the street was a group from Ukraine. As the procession began, the excitement built. We joined in the procession right behind a colorful, jubilant Brazilian group, and right in from of a group from France. The procession down the hill (probably about a 2 mile walk) was mixed with waving, singing, and since we were behind the Brazilians, much dancing! The hosannas and the singing and the smiles and the celebration were indeed an interesting and moving sight. The procession came down the Mount, crossed the Kidron Valley where hundreds of years ago Jesus had come back to Jerusalem for Passover later that week.

As the procession continued with all the exuberance and enthusiasm, it was interesting to think more about the Kidron Valley, also known as the Valley of Jehoshaphat. The Book of Joel records that the judgments will be rendered here on resurrection day: “Let the heathen be awakened and come up to the Valley of Jeshosaphat, for there will I sit to judge…” Muslims hold to a similar belief: they believe that Muhammad will sit astride a pillar under the wall of the Dome of the Rock. A wire will be stretched from the pillar to the Mount of Olives, opposite, where Jesus will be seated. All humankind will walk across the wire on its way to eternity. The righteous and faithful will reach the other side safely; the rest will drop down in the Valley of Jehoshaphat and perish.

We ended the procession, looked down at our watches and made a beeline back to the hotel to get our bags and make it for the last taxi to the border that day. Timing could not have been more perfect—the trip back took only 2 ½ hours—much shorter than the 6 hours to get to Jerusalem.

What a wonderful and moving way to spend Palm Sunday—a thrilling procession, pondering the mysteries and joys of faith, and time with exquisite friends.

Monday, April 21, 2014

2014 Postcard from Jerusalem


About six weeks ago, my dear colleague Irene suggested to me, “Why don’t we go to Jerusalem for Palm Sunday?!” I had been to Jerusalem once before—March of 2009, and one can look back to the blog entries of that month and find four separate blog entries about that trip—but given that the time at the border is so long and often frustrating, I had not made the effort to return yet to Jerusalem. But given the idea of joining a procession on Palm Sunday with one of my favorite colleagues ever, I jumped at the chance.

So 10 days ago, Irene and her husband Tom and I left early in the morning for the border crossing. Now, as the crow flies, Jerusalem is probably about 50 miles away, but given the Israeli-Palestinian tensions, it takes a long time to get there. Just so you know: from my doorstep to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, that Friday morning trip took six hours! And it is not a cheap trip, although given that one doesn’t fly there, it feels as if it should cost just a little bit. Given the taxis to and from the borders, the busses across, the exit fees to both countries, it mounts to almost $200 round-trip to make this little trip just 50 miles away beyond the hills where Abraham and David roamed.

But the trip was glorious—although there were setbacks at every stop it seemed. One should avoid Fridays and Saturdays in traveling to Jerusalem since there are closings or delays due to the Sabbath. Some things close early, some restaurants not available for 48 hours, sometimes a line going in all-of-a-sudden closes…that’s just the nature of touring Jerusalem. As stated, the trip was glorious—in part because of the beautiful spring weather, in part because of the company of good friends that ensure long, leisurely meals with laughter and good food, in part because of the tremendous historical burden of Jerusalem itself, and in part because of visiting religious sites at the time of Holy Week. Irene and Tom like to travel exactly as I do—up early, good breakfast, running around town enjoying the physical delights of the hills, savoring the moments, peeking around old, old, old spots, wondering about the various eras of Jerusalem history…

Oh, the history of Jerusalem! Walking through the four quarters of Jerusalem (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian) one cannot help but get swept up in the religious fervor and dynamism of this city. To millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this city is an omphalos (a cool Greek word I teach my students that means the navel, the very center of it all!) where Solomon reigned in all his glory, where Jesus taught and performed miracles, and where Muhammad visited during a miraculous night journey. While this is a tourist haven, it is just so much deeper than any place I think I have been. Roaming around the ramparts of Jerusalem on a beautiful Saturday afternoon with Irene and Tom, one cannot help but wax philosophical about this omphalos.

On Saturday morning we visited the magnificent Tower of David Museum, built right into Saladin’s 15th century citadel. This is one of those museums that helps put everything in perspective, and shake up everything you think you know about a place! We spent a couple hours as the audioguide took us from exhibit to exhibit, noting the changes and upheavals over the centuries to Jerusalem. The creators of the audioguide often included several of the curators arguing in the audioguide over what Jerusalem has meant over time, and the discussions and tensions over how to convey and display the history of Jerusalem. The structure of the citadel itself allows for breath-taking 360-degree views of the city and environs and the audioguide carefully allowed you to take in the sweep of the majesty of this city. Right below the entrance is the Jaffa Gate. Just a little bit of history allows a deeper understanding of the city: a breach in the city walls beside Jaffa Gate was made for the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his entourage in 1898. It was in that same space that General Allenby, leader of the British forces, entered Jerusalem in 1917, liberating Palestine from Ottoman rule. Every degree of the 360-view held such historical forces as you slowly spun around the history of the ages. Again, the historian in me just cries out!

Jerusalem is the house of one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions, and she is the only city to exist twice—in heaven and on earth: the terrestrial and the celestial. Wow. Prophets and patriarchs, Abraham, David, Jesus and Muhammad are said to have trod these stones (although you and I both know that modern-day Jerusalem is probably 40-50 feet above the city’s roads of 2000 years ago). Over the centuries—wow, millennia, Jews and Christians and Muslims have conquered and altered her history. When the Bible was translated into Greek and then Latin and then English, it became the universal book, and it made Jerusalem the universal city. Every great king became a David, every special people were the new Israelites and every noble civilization a new Jerusalem, a city that belongs to no one and exists for everyone in their imagination. I guess this is the city’s tragedy as well as her magic: every dreamer of Jerusalem, every visitor in all ages from Jesus’ Apostles to Saladin’s soldiers, from Victorian pilgrims to 21st century tourists and journalists, arrives with a vision of the authentic Jerusalem and then seems bitterly disappointed by what they find, an ever-changing city that has thrived and shrunk, been re-built and destroyed many times. But since this is Jerusalem, property of all, only their image is the right one—everyone wants the right to impose their ‘Jerusalem’ on Jerusalem—and with sword and fire, they often have.

Jerusalem is a spine of world history—it has been for millennia, and continues to be. But much more than the newsworthy political force, I witnessed again that it is far more about the nature of holiness. The phrase ‘Holy City’ is constantly used to describe the reverence for her shrines, but beyond the remnants of these physical places, it is really the essential place on earth for communication between God and man. I teach my students the root of ‘religion,’ early in the year in AP Art History, and the root is, ‘religio,’ which means, to bind together, and oh my—and that concept of groups bound together  is never more evident anywhere else on earth than in this city. You see it in every quarter of the Old City. A colleague of mine, claiming to be atheistic, said she is rather “repelled” by this holiness, seeing it as superstition in a city rife with “righteous bigotry.” But our profound human need for religion, at least by many, many global citizens, makes it possible to begin to understand Jerusalem. It is not Tel Aviv, a cosmopolitan beach town on the Mediterranean—it is the meeting place of God and Humanity, and where, according to many, the questions of the Apocalypse will be settled: the End of Days, where there will be a war between Christ and anti-Christ, when the Kaaba will come from Mecca to Jerusalem, when there will be judgment, resurrection of the dead, and the reign of the Messiah, and the Kingdom of Heaven, the New Jerusalem. All three Abrahamic religions believe in the Apocalypse, but the details vary by faith and sect. Secularists dismiss all this as quaint and old-fashioned, but on the contrary, go to Jerusalem and it is obvious the Apocalypse is a dynamic force in that world’s politics.

The sanctity of the city grew out of the “Chosen People” exceptionalism of the Jews. Jerusalem became the Chosen City, Palestine the Chosen Land, and subsequently, Christian and Muslims inherited and embraced this exceptionalism. And of course the “obsession” of Jews and Muslims to control Jerusalem means that in very real 21st century terms—Jerusalem is also the essence of, and the obstacle to a peace deal.

In the last 20 years or so, the glib manifestation of the media as “Jerusalem: Holy City sacred to three religions and 24-hour news show” is never as simple as we try and make it out to be. Canaan, Judah, Judaea, Israel, Palaestina, Bilad al-Shams, Palestine, Greater Syria, the Holy Land, are just some of the names, used to describe this country, with varying borders. One volunteer in a museum told me there are said to be 70 names for Jerusalem. There are multiple names for each temple or house of worship. Every street has at least three names. But that also shows the continuity and co-existence of peoples in the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a hybrid town with layers of overlapping, interlinked cultures. I have seen no other place that evokes such a desire for exclusive possession, but it is rather ironic, since most of Jerusalem’s shrines have been borrowed or stolen. Virtually every stone once stood in the long-forgotten temple of another faith, the victory arch of another empire. In Jerusalem, the truth is often much less important than the myth. “In Jerusalem, don’t ask me for the history of facts,” says the eminent Palestinian historian Dr. Nazmi al-Jubeh. “Take away the fiction and there’s nothing left.”

Uh-oh…the historian in me took over the blog entry! I had planned to tell you about our weekend…instead, as it always does, Jerusalem cannot be contained in a single blog entry or perspective. While I do not think it will be four entries like in 2009, I will have to send another postcard of the actual Palm Sunday Procession—the reason I started the blog entry to begin with…

To be continued… 



Monday, April 14, 2014

Just a slice...

So what have I been doing in the last month since I last checked in with a blog post? Just daily life, really: going to school, grading papers, watching Downton Abbey (finishing Season Four, but I checked in with another group in Season Two), enjoying the onset of spring. I returned home to Jordan a month ago after spring break in Cincinnati. It was a perfectly normal trip in a breezy, quotidian manner. But I did return with a special visitor: my dad. My dad visited once before, in the fall of 2008, the second year of the school, and many things have changed since then. Obviously all of the student body has changed (a student body that has doubled in size since then!), the headmaster has changed, the dean of students has changed…half the faculty… We now have alumni…but I am still in the same apartment and frankly, I’m not sure if anything in my apartment has changed. And I write fewer blog entries. In those days I wrote blog entries twice as often…I suppose the daily life is very much the same.

But back to the point! My dad came to Jordan for a return visit! I had worried a little about his travel-ability. Last spring he had a blood-disease-scare for us, and he is over 80 after all. But I had wanted him to come visit Jordan mainly to spend time with the colleagues that I enjoy so much. Last visit we took to the road quite frequently, tramping through Petra, wondering at the Roman ruins in Jerash, contemplating the Crusader castle in Karak, exploring the Baptism site at the Dead Sea—lots of places in Jordan. This time, it was mostly meals and small talk. My dad came for an 8-day feast of fellowship and food.

This afternoon as I sat down to reflect on his recent visit, I looked back to what I wrote in 2008 about his visit (which yielded four blog entries!) and here are some of memories of 2008:

Toward the end of my father’s big visit to Jordan, I asked him what my mother might have thought of this trip, and he smiled, speculating, “She woulda been on cloud nine the whole time!” He didn’t really need to explain why his Mary Martha would have been so ebullient—I mean if you know our family lore, she was famous for emphasizing any time any trip was in question: “I’ll go!” But my dad went on, “the only thing I think is that she would have wanted more time everywhere”—“let me sit here a little longer in this history class; let me linger a little more at the baptism site; let me ponder a little more about re-tracing the steps of Moses or those Old Testament Moabites; let me hold the hand of my new Jordanian friend a little longer; let me try one more Arab sweet; let me process one more time through that Roman arch; let me ask one more person about growing up in Palestine; let me hear the call to prayer one more time; let me talk to one more faculty member about being a pioneer at this school; let me thank one more student for their refreshing vigor; let me contemplate a little deeper about the possibilities for peace in this Holy Land”—I can almost hear the entreaties she would have offered up.

My father has been home in the United States for six days now, and I am sure he has regaled the denizens of the Imperial Diner with the stories of his sauntering in the Holy Land, but I imagine that the most revealing, most illuminating parts of his trip don’t translate well for mass consumption. I mean, it is fun to talk of the camels, and the lunatic drivers, and the mystery meat, and yes, they do have stores that sell things, even P&G products—but I think one memorable element of his trip, and elusive to relay, was his visit to my classroom seeing the KA students in action.

My father came to class everyday on this visit as well, although to a different course than when he visited in 2008. Now I teach AP Art History, and he arrived the week that a group of disaffected youth gave birth to Impressionism, a new attitude about the slices of daily life that no one had painted or lionized in their quick, fast-paced, non-judgmental way. This slice of daily life as art offended many at the time, but eventually has become beloved. Again, one of the things he enjoyed the most in the visit was listening to the students (I think he enjoyed watching me teach, as well, but one day he did shake his head and say, “You sure gesture a lot as you teach!”) He marveled as they debated the work of Monet and Manet (“it’s not the same guy?” he wondered!)

As we walked around campus one afternoon he wondered, “Do you think anyone taught like this when I was in school? I mean we never studied any of these things, and history was just about battles and dates. Do you think anyone was doing this exciting work back then?” He then launched into his observations about the students’ friendliness, and willingness to work and become more effective students—the very things I have been telling him since the end of the first year of the school.

I wrote this in 2008 after his visit ended:  It still strains credulity that my father made the trip—after all he hasn’t left the United States since 1953. Then he was with the US Air Force and he crossed the Atlantic with his mates in a ship that took 17 days. His entire travel time today—even with the requisite two hour arrival, and the layover in New York, is under 20 hours!
I mean this is a man who doesn’t like to go across town for dinner!

But this sphinx-like man with the heart of gold, ability to talk to anyone and the gentlest/firmest grip I know came, to Jordan and did what he does best: went out to dinner and talked to people in his leisurely, caring way. I think he was a hit.

There were a couple of lovely moments just this morning, as his visit came to an end. We had packed up the car with his suitcases about seven, before breakfast. I would drive him over to the airport at 10, after my first classes. I had to stop over and make a few copies before class, so I sent him off to the Dining Hall—I knew he would be fine. Food and conversation are his calling cards. As I rounded the corner, I saw that my dear student Hamzeh had come up to him, and they walked into the DH together—busily chatting. I heard my dad say, “Anza, how are you today?” He is a good man—not a natural Arabic speaker, but a friendly man. There they were, two of my favorite people together.

One of the constants in my father’s two visits to Jordan is his botching of Arabic names! The man is so talented, in so many areas, but yet…he does not have an ear for names in Arabic! We had spent an evening with my dear friend Mazen, and as we pull into the school parking lot, my dad says, “Is this where you park every day, Marvin?” I said, “His name is Mazen, and he repeated, like I had erred: “That’s what I said—Marvin!” And when he met with Sharifa, well, that name didn’t come close to the real one. But it was fun, in this post-Oscar Idina Menzel world to have someone Travolta-ize a name! And my father can do that well!

So this trip was not about visiting sites and spots in Jordan—it was about the people in my life. We had dinner out every evening, and here is a rundown of our gastronomic itinerary: 

Saturday          Lubna picked us up at the airport, and I knew my father would remember her from our last visit. We went to our go-to spot, Haret Jdoudna in Madaba. I reminded Lubna of her marriage proposal to my dad before: “If you convert, I’ll marry you!” She reminded me that she thinks my dad is still the more handsome of the two of us!

Sunday          Tonight we went to Madaba to have pizza with Hamzeh. This young man is another constant in my life since 2007, and my father liked seeing him now as junior in college since he was, in 2008, a sophomore in high school.

Monday          On this night Moamer whisked us into Amman for an evening at Burger Shack. Since Moamer and I have been conducting “science experiments” for the best burger in Amman for years, my father should definitely have a hand in gathering some evidence.

Tuesday          Tonight’s invitation came from Shaden, a dear colleague who is the head of our world languages department, and the mother of one of my prize students. Shaden made a feast for kings, course after course, from soup and salad, to fruit and cake. Every dish seemed better than the last. What a magnificent meal!

Wednesday          On this evening we went to the headmaster’s house, and we spent the evening with Monica, Chris and Ruba, and Peter. John grilled steaks, and tonight my dad regaled them with stories from the Imperial Dinner. Another evening of merriment and full tummies.

Thursday          The school week ended going out with Mazen and his wife, or of course, Marvin, as my dad hears it. We invited Mona to come along and we went to a place in Amman famous for traditional, grandma-like meals.

Friday       During the day we visited the Royal Automobile Museum in Amman. This was our one tourist-y thing of the trip. This worked so well for us: my dad loved staring at the engines in the wide variety of great cars, and I loved how the design of the museum told the history of modern-day Jordan through seeing King Hussein’s cars. We had lunch with Annabel, a former colleague, and her husband. Then we finished the day with a lingering conversation and flank steak with Julianne. I had looked forward to watching these two in deep conversation, and they didn’t disappoint. They talked about construction and tools and a host of other things. I did the dishes for a long time, leaving them to talk shop happily. Watching their amiable coziness was a delight. In so many ways these stoic two are like siblings. 

Saturday     For my dad’s last day in Jordan we enjoyed a grand luncheon on Mona’s terrace in Amman. This was the feast to end all feasts for a dozen of my friends. Since meals and conversation are at the heart of many of dad’s favorite activities in the USA, it was a delight to revel in the spring Saturday afternoon with loads of great foods, from the salads to the desserts…oh, Mona, you spoiled all of us.

So, it was a month of just daily life, of enjoying the poetry of the quotidian. I finished the last season of Dexter, whose boat by the way is called, “Slice of Life,” a little joke on his being a serial killer that I love. My dad has been ensconced back in his daily life for three weeks now, but he is still enjoying telling the tales of the visit, assuring them he never felt unsafe.

I wanted my friends here to know this man better, this tower of strength and charm and kindness. Both worlds probably have a better sense now as to why I love to visit both worlds.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson!

It has been exactly one month since I published a blog entry...just slices of the pie of daily life going on! While this is a remarkably brief blog entry, I will come back tomorrow and catch you up on what has been going on in this past month. For now, let's celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, born April 13, 1743, with this wonderful quotation by TJ:

I had rather be shut up in a rather modest cottage with my books, my family, and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.

See you tomorrow and I will offer you a slice of daily life, spring 2014.