Monday, October 31, 2011

My Greatest Accomplishment?

I have accomplished several things professionally that I am very proud of, and I plan to accomplish many, many more.  I should say now that most of these have been done within teams, with other dedicated peers.  Occasionally though, I have been singled out for recognition, and I have been very proud.  When I am asked what I am most proud of in my career, one deed always emerges and I have difficulty articulating it as it was off almost everyone else's radar, and now resides squarely in that good part of my heart I selfishly hoard.
Six years ago, I went to join a former student and friend, Dr. Khaled Aldhahri in his efforts to resurrect a struggling school in London.  It was an incredible challenge laced with complex issues and politics, but so important to the future of several hundred children and a caring Islamic community.  I visited twice before I committed, drawn to the kids and their parents more so than the ego-tempting notion of "saving" the school.  After evaluating the school and its needs in context to its resources and challenges (one being a very large group of new and relatively inexperienced faculty) I joined Dr. K. in large part eager to work with the wonderful teachers and staff I had met there (new and old). 
We were facing a gruelling national school inspection, trying to transition from the UK and Saudi curricula to the International Baccalaureate Program, and faced massive physical renovation demands. All of this with a faculty and staff that had experienced a 60% turnover that year.  But there were stars in that place - Dr. K., Nariman, Tony, Bayan, Asha, Aseel, Naima, many others waiting to step up and take care of the school and the children they loved.  I was in the right place at the right time maybe for the first time in my life.  We did fantastic things: We passed the exam with very good feedback, we started changing the atmosphere, appearance, and safety of the school, and we made great strides in our curricular changes. We started a special needs lab and program, and we created a wonderful, supportive environment where we all pitched in working weekends and evenings together laughing at the most difficult tasks.  They were the most wonderful group of people I ever worked with.  And as impressive as these achievements were, none compare to the one we quietly took care of that year, the one I could never be prouder of.
The school had been advised by a consultant firm the previous year to segregate a group of younger students whose language skills were lagging behind.  Most of the children in the school were not native English speakers, but there were many who were new to the country and were struggling. The consultants hired several language teachers and created a stand-alone program that removed them from the primary classes for large parts of the day. The classroom teachers were working hard, as were the language teachers, but the children were not progressing adequately.  I learned this the day early in the term when I went in to teach a class on a day we had several teachers out ill.  It was a fourth grade class of girls I think, and on that day, the children were all together, not separated.  I had a wonderful time teaching them about the basics of letter writing, and I admired the young language teacher who came in to help me out. Despite the fun, a young face near the front row still haunts me today.  This young girl had just arrived from Saudi Arabia and obviously had no English at all.  She sat there helplessly through the lesson with the sweetest, sad smile on her face almost in forgiveness for the awkwardness I was imposing on her.  I wanted to hold her, to take away the terrible loneliness I had created for her.  I knew I couldn't, and I was so relieved when the language teacher came up to her, put her hand on her shoulder, and took away every bit of the sadness in that beautiful little girl's face.  I made my mind up at that moment.
The next morning I called Bayan and Tony into my office telling them they would get together Bayan's classroom teachers and Tony's language specialists and we were going to reunite those children in classrooms in a team teaching environment.  There would be partners in the classroom, not teachers and assistants. We would also create some very specific pull-out activities for some students at critical stages, but the kids would learn together with two professionals weaving a constructive and compassionate curriculum that would challenge and support them all.  With very little guidance from me, Bayan and Tony and their wonderful team created this environment in a matter of weeks! I have never been around a group who could have accomplished this, and I am very honored to have witnessed it.  At the end of the year, almost all of those thirty or so young ladies who were destined to repeat a grade, and maybe degradation, had passed.  And when the classes had an international fair replete with posters and demonstrations, it was all I could do to hide my tears when I saw a familiar face standing beside a colorful array of Saudi cultural items on a small table, slowly and carefully describing them in English with the most beautiful smile.
So this is it, what I keep in my heart, what I will show my God when he asks me if I ever did anything good.  Although the work was done mostly by others, under Dr. K's solid leadership, I had seen the need and trusted the right people with this task that was more important to me than any inspections, curriculum change, property renovation, anything. The details and results are mostly lost now, at least in the minds of most, but not in my heart.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rest of My Life

I am at that stage in my life where I have turned some corner and retirement and/or death are placed before my headlights at every turn.  I  have a few friends who have retired, I have far too many who have died.  I have suddenly become old, no longer the youngest and the brightest in the room, and on occasion, reminded that I am too old for some posts and positions.  I am admonished to take medical tests right now, for if I don't live to be eighty-five, it will be at this stage I am likely to die.  Life and I are at an awkward disjuncture right now, and I am fighting an uphill battle.
It is an uphill battle precisely because I want it so!  I am not ready to slide downhill into anything.  I don't want to go on cruises, take trips to see things, or to drift comfortably off into the sunset. The other day I was honored by my high school with what a friend labeled as a "career capping" achievement.  I saw it differently -  I am just now peaking, cresting as it were.  Things are coming together, my skills have developed, my knowledge increased, my patience established, and most importantly, my focus sharpened for the first time on a future directed to the service of others with calculated efficacy and effect. So if it is one year or twenty-five, it is forward and it is mine.
I think about the various stages of my life, how I never was caught up to the circumstances and the context of my environment - I always recognized those who were, those who easily navigated these realms that I struggled against and sometime fought.  I envied them partially, but knew there was a price for that knowledge that I wasn't ready to pay.  God had granted me tremendous gifts, and I squandered a bit surviving these stages, these transitions.  I also gathered things through these journeys that are just now coming to fruition - empathy, a broader perspective on the world, a sense of ethics centered on others, strength that has evolved past ego and hubris to humility, a consistent malaise for things material, and the deepest desire to help those less fortunate chase their educational dreams.  I may have missed many opportunities, but I am leveraged to take that which has survived in me and to utilize the tools I have for as long as I have. There will be no retirement.
I have just emerged from my latest stage, a six year cloud that has dampened much of the world around me in a beautiful but false dream.  It did take me places though, and as always, I accumulated experiences and contacts almost accidentally that have allowed me to make modest but significant contributions. Most of all, this half dozen years has taught me that if I am focused and not distracted on my world, my work, my impact can be so much brighter, so much more substantial.  This heartens me, gives me so much hope and promise.  I want to maximize every minute, every effort, every thought.  Perhaps I will spend the next two decades here in the States working with at-risk students while making the occasional jaunt to the Middle East to work with teachers there - perhaps I will find myself back in the Third World sooner, working in a humble environment giving every ounce of myself to people who deserve so much more, driving me to work harder, to find new thresholds of my energy and passion.  Whatever my situation, I will find myself in the right place finally tuned in, finally at peace.
*I was asked recently in a job interview what I did to maintain balance.  My response began with "balance smalance!"  - I am betting that won't be my next job :)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Nowhere Man - Initial Musings on a Vexing Question

One of the perils of meeting new people is handling the question, "where are you from?"  There is always a fifty-fifty chance that they really don't want to know where you are from, and I can pretty much assure you they aren't ready for, nor will they  appreciate "nowhere!"  For one, no one is from nowhere, and an answer of "nowhere" begs unwanted inquiry. I am never sure how to respond to this question - whatever I say feels wrong, and "nowhere" is no longer intriguing to me.
I have been thinking about being from somewhere a great deal lately. I had always supposed it was meaningful to be from somewhere, but I am not sure I ever wondered why. Does being from a place provide comfort, pride, satisfaction, or stability?  I don't know.  I sometimes say I am from Garrett (where I spent two and a half of my formative years), but feel somewhat guilty as I am not sure I earned the right to call it my hometown. At other times, I say Akron as I spent twenty years or so off and on there.  I have a house there, and I raised a family in the city - but I arrived there a grown man, it doesn't feel like I am "from" there. I guess I could as easily claim Oklahoma, Indiana, Michigan, Oregon, Jamaica, Yemen, Tanzania, and London as well, if simple occupancy qualifies as a patent of possession. 
My response of nowhere most likely comes from the realization that I don't really wish to return to any of these places just to return - I am still moving forward, maybe even away from these locations that have been very good to me.  Someone from somewhere returns, or pines to. But no one ever asks me where I want to got to, only where I am from, where I started. Perhaps I would be more easily understood if I was from somewhere, perhaps there would be a more stable core, a concomitant set of values or behaviors that would make me more predictable, more approachable.  Maybe I am afraid of where I am from - a set of ugly   circumstances rather than a geographical place that would be solid, secure, steady. Maybe by looking forward, by looking to new circumstances, I will be ready one day to stop and stay - to be worthy of a place, worthy of the legacy and virtues of a true community.
For quite awhile, I have longed to be with someone regardless of the place, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the stability of location and home. I believed that I would be from where ever we were together, that my home, my heritage would be at the union of our two hearts, each other's arms.  That is where I would be from. That vision is no longer viable, and it is time for me to start thinking of place rather than relationship. I still don't long to be in a particular place, but now maybe to be somewhere where I can make someone else's place better, someone else's life easier - maybe I will adopt a community and it will be mine, and I will be honored with the dispensation of a location, a community that provides me with a retroactive "from."  Until then, I won't have a good answer to that pesky question, and I will have to settle for a half-hearted lie, a considerate gesture to a inane inquiry.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What I Do

I have just returned from a three day, thousand or so mile workshop journey, presenting in Akron, Ohio, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio.  Each leg of the trip was a four hour drive, so I had plenty of time to think about things. A constant theme that arose between sessions and exotic dinners with charming women (Sindi, Lena, Trish) was that I am so, so blessed. Every second of that trip spent with others was wonderful, every second was engaging and exciting, and every second was spent in the presence of people who appreciated my talents and enthusiasm.  I am so, so blessed but I do have some things to catch up on.
My daugher Sindi is often asked what it is exactly that I do, especially after she extols one of my trips or projects.  I think for awhile the she might even have wondered if I was a spy or a secret agent. She hears stories about Africa, Palestine, London, Jordan, Yemen, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Jamaica, even Oklahoma.  No wonder she is confused.  But at the end of the day, I am a man who is desperately trying to expend the tremendous gifts God has given me, not wanting to leave an ounce of it here when I leave.  Not an ounce!
This past week through the second week of this coming January is a good indication of my profession - scattered, diverse, and wonderful. 
Tuesday night, I taught my developmental math course and we were working on factoring trinomials.  The class is composed of mainly older, non-traditional  students who were not classically prepared for college.  There is a group in the class that has been working hard, and are likely to be successful if they keep working hard.  This particular evening, I had them alternate and come to the board to work problems in pairs.  I loved watching them scramble, laugh, scratch their heads, try to predict the next question in the book they would have to do.  I love too, to tease them, give them a hard time, push them.  There is one young woman in particular that I am concerned about. She is maybe thirty, a married mother of three who is really trying.  But what intrigues me is that she is on the verge of emerging as a college student, and it could still go both ways.  I prod her, support her, call her out, keep her alive every second I can - it is so clear to me for some of these students, how such a small difference can determine everything. I pray she will make it, and if she doesn't, it won't be for my lack of efforts. I love this work, and I really feel God's grace in the classroom!
After a four hour drive the next day, I found myself in my daughter's International Baccalaureate class in Akron, Ohio lecturing about memory and advanced study skills. This was a far different environment: twenty five kids destined to do well in life, but probably bogged down in temporal problems - a bit of awkwardness, nerdiness, interest contrary to the sensibilities of a common seventeen year old, etc.....a wonderful group for me though.  As I proceeded through my presentation, they interacted willingly, and I had a lot of fun coaxing them towards answers, teasing them gently.  The light in their eyes, their cautious but eager smiles lifted me as I moved through material I had presented a thousand times before, literally making the session unique - all theirs and mine. There was a blind student in the front row, perpetually smiling and typing on some sort of machine as I went on. I worked hard to create as many visual images as I could, and i was very happy as he participated often.  The class was a concert, and I was directing it - I moved about, trying to strategically involve as many as I could, rewarding the brave, cajoling the reluctant.  I was tired after two hours, but honestly so.  I walked away smiling, wondering how many middle aged men get to have so much fun with a room full of teenagers!

After another four hour drive, I found myself in Northeast Indiana doing a workshop for a group of professionals working with Junior Achievement in the area.  I sat through their board meeting, smiling at their dedication and the fun they had together.  When I got up to present, I was in a great mood probably because I knew they were a close group and I could have some fun with them.  I was in the enviable position of being able to show them some cool stuff (lots of memory techniques) in a friendly environment (sans exams) and we had fun.  Over the years, I have learned to discern quickly those I can tease and have fun with, and I did.  And they gave for what they got!  We spent two hours in a quixotic mix of laughter, intrigue, wonder, mock indignation, excitement and ease.  I felt like a modestly attired middle-aged rock star, diving into an audience ready to catch me, ready to learn and share - I am still amazed I get paid to do this sort of thing honestly.
I am back now, teaching that math class for the next month or so, battling with them, their futures at stake.  Between classes I will work on policies and programs designed to impact larger numbers of students, giving them the chance, or semblance of, to succeed despite their challenges.  I will present some of this at conferences, at other schools, with other peers.  I will do research, review data, talk to colleagues in an effort to magnify the effects of our individual efforts - not sexy work, but I feel the connection to this and the individual students I see day to day in the hallways.
In a few months, I will fly to Jordan to work with Palestinian teachers working in the camps there and in Palestine.  It will take everything I have (always does) to keep my composure, to direct and teach the sessions, for next to every thought I have is the faces of those children these wonderful people serve, their hopes and dreams, their living conditions, their neglect by a world pampered in its own sense of philanthropy.  It is hard to teach someone who you respect more than yourself, someone who sacrifices more than you, someone who has to fight ten times harder to afford themselves the basic right to dignity - hard to teach.  But I will, and I will feel that grace of God every second I am there - the chance to share with these teachers who will travel back to the camps and quietly go about the business of salvaging any bits of hope for a future for hundreds of thousands of children.  It tries to overwhelm me, never does in their presence, just late at night, early in morning, anytime I remember my two years in a camp, anytime my heart aches to change the world.
Despite the solemnity involved, we will have a great time - we will laugh and we will work hard.  I will smile knowing the exponential effect anything we accomplish will have in the country. UNRWA (the United Nations Relief Works Agency) provides such a important and critical service to the Palestinian children in the Middle East, that any humble contribution I make feels so good, drafting as it were, on their good work.  I was so honored to learn they appreciate my work, and welcome me back.

Somewhere in the middle of my Middle Eastern trip though, I will take a break for myself and stop off at a modest apartment near the Second Circle in Jabal Amman.  There I will "borrow" three children from their mother for the day.  Amani, Sara, Yazan and I will go to the mall, walk everywhere, race up and down between stores, disrupting the far too dignified Ammanis, and the kids will tolerate my pathetic Arabic and pretend that I really won't take them into the toy store before we leave.  I will work hard to dislodge Amani's perpetual grace, to elicit that ever reluctant smile from the serious Sara, and to make sure that Yazan never, ever exits the bottom of the escalator before I do at any cost. We will stop at McDonalds and explore happy meals, my main objective being to get Sara to eat it all.  Finally, we will go by the FunPlace where they will scramble over big plastic obstacles, jump into seas of small rubber balls, and scoot down a twisted slide dozens of times.  Yazan will fight his way to the top of the slide then wait till I acknowledge his sweet smile before he launches down.  I will do all of this for me - just for me.  Whatever benefits these beautiful fatherless children glean is gravy.

This is me, this is what I do.  My bank account is not enviable, the viability of a comfortable retirement always in jeopardy, and my resume is a bit loose and scattered.  Many have suffered though - well if losing part of me to this journey is punishment, then yes, they have suffered. I took my oldest daughter Kesho on a date a month ago, working to restore a decade lost relationship and it was very nice.  On my way out the door to drive up to see her, I grabbed a few of my trophies I had been given in service to others and gave them to her to share with her sister Sindi, realizing how much they had been neglected while I helped the rest of the world.  It felt good to pass them on, a partial atonement if any is possible at all.
If I neglect some of these lessons of my life, when I die I suppose the world will remember a very selfish man who squandered a good part of his heart, not realizing that it wasn't a limited commodity reserved primarily for nameless strangers scattered over the world, but that there was also enough there for the people who loved him, the people who financed his career of caring with their love and unrequited patience.  I don't want to leave this fragmented legacy, I truly don't.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Humbled Again...........

I received a letter today, got it a month late as I hadn't been by the house for awhile.  It was a lovely letter from my former principal who had heard about my induction into the school's Alumni Hall of Fame.  It is an incredible document, reflective of the character of the man who wrote it:

A visit from one of my children began with, "Dad, I brought a copy of The Star; I knew you would want to read about Mike Morsches."  Emotions flowed through my body as I read of your accomplishments.  Wow! Mike learned from his breadth of experiences and utilized the experiences to serve mankind.  I felt honored to have observed you during those formative years.  I recalled meeting with a young man unaware of and uncomfortable with himself.  Tears welled in my eyes, as I read of your journey. You had freedom of destiny --You chose to serve.

Your were blessed:           
with "experiences" only realized by a few.
to accept, understand, and utilize those experiences.
to use your experiences as basis for your personal value system.
to recognize the needs of others.
to recognize the universality of mankind.
to recognize your gifts and develop skills necessary to meet needs of others.
to recognize your responsibility to serve.
to act upon your responsibility.

When approaching writing something important I return to my well worn book of quotes to act as a catalyst for reflection and introspection.  I'll share a few:

"It is by acts and not by ideas that people live." - Anatole France

"Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant" - Horace

"The wise man reads books and life itself" - Lin Yutang

"I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time". - Jack London

"The span of life was lent for lofty duties, not for selfishness, not to be willed away in aimless dreams, but to improve ourselves and serve mankind."  Aubrey Thomas de Vere

Congratulations on being the recipient of the award, but more importantly congratulations for being the man you are.  God Speed for your continued life of serving.


Paul McFann

*This letter had an incredible effect on me, incredible.  I did not know Mr. McFann well, other than the few occasions he had to suspend me my senior year in high school.  Yet when I came back that day for the award, he was one of two people I had hoped to see all these thirty four years later!  I didn't get to see Mr. McFann, but I did get to see Mr. Capin (another post, another day soon).  So today when I got this letter, I was over the moon.
Mr. McFann doesn't know that I ask my "adopted parents", the Bartels, about him each time I come back to Garrett.  He also doesn't know that I talk about him all the time, most recently at an international ESL conference in Jordan, where I was the plenary speaker.  I was talking about motivating students, particularly "knuckleheads" - those who you cannot reach immediately, but who you can influence over time by planting seeds of faith.  I was a knucklehead back then, and Mr. McFann planted some seeds that did not germinate for many years, but that changed my life.  So when he speaks of observing my formative years, he is incorrect - he influenced them. 
I find the depth of his comments to be sensitive and amazing - probably not exactly what I took away from my interactions then as he quietly informed me of my involuntary vacations from school.  Who could imagine that the dignified disciplinarian could be thinking such complex and subtle thoughts, language the troubled young man would not understand for several more decades?  I may not have appreciated these words then, but I understood the graciousness of his actions, the stern but kind affect that bled through his obligatory duties - that is what has stuck with me all these years, that no matter what I had learned to think of myself, others could recognize and acknowledge something better, something hopeful.  Simply sewn seeds.
So, although he thought he was writing this letter to me, it could have been to himself.  I may not have previously read all the quotes above, but they could have been written about Mr. McFann. 
How wonderful God is to have blessed me with his kindness and understanding then, and this heartfelt communion thirty years suspended (an apt but largely unintended pun)!  And I would be very dishonest if I did not add that I am particularly honored as a Muslim that a man of such integrity could compliment me on my actions and deeds!