Friday, August 31, 2012

Changing the World

I have changed the world on many occasions, more often than not unintentionally and not very positively. But there have been times when I got it right, and those epehemeral instances can be strung together to constitute my personal sense of grace, my private redemption. I realized today talking to some young dreamers in my office that they too will change the world, but probably not the way they will intend to, but most likely in positive ways. I am not a big fan of the butterfly effect, or other whimsical six degree of separation serenades to the synchronicity of synecdotal gestures. The world got bigger and bigger for me for a long time before it returned, small and far less significant. My world now is a fictive variation of individual thoughts, kinesics, and impulsive communions with people thinking they are flowing in a coordinated, cohesive lebenswelt leading somewhere where sense and intent finally culminate in a crescendo of identity and purpose. My identity and purpose are reified and consummated a hundred times a day in the simple acts I learned as a child, once I washed and freed them from my education from books and pithy mentors. Simple acts, simple declarations against the continuity of time and contiguity of decorum and the calculated inculcation of those wiser and ultimately more cynical than I.
I acquired this sense of a brief and terse recurring universes from the two women above, although it took me a long time to put it together. For a while, I held them as contradictions, even writing a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun Times to the effect. I contrasted their lives and deaths, equating the difference to a fundamental divide in the American psyche of benevolence - Where most of us have the lottery kind of kindness, fantasizing about winning a large sum of money then making grand gestures of philanthropy, instead of an unyielding series of small mercies practiced over a lifetime. I was alluding to Princess Diana's charity work after having been born into affluence and subsequently launched into influence, and Mother Teresa's humble succession of hugs and comfort. As usual though, I was wrong.
I look back now at Diana's grace and demeanor, and I realize that was the manifestation of her humanity, not some sort of penance for prosperity. I think she understood the sanctity of the moment, that the instant shared between two people no matter the disparity of station or providence, was a lifetime in and of itself, and the concentrated love and reverence passed between was genuine and eternally refreshed in the forgiveness of another juxtaposition. I didn't see that then, but I do now.
I played basketball today with a friend in the school gym. We invited two students to play with us who were shooting baskets as well. One was very small and told me he would like to but that he was visually impaired and we probably wouldn't want him. I told him nonsense and invited him over and to be on my team. We played hard and Mike (he was a 20 year old student majoring in video game development I think) did his best to keep up. He was almost totally blind, but could see shapes. He guarded his opponent voraciously, and when he went after a ball or tried to dribble it, he usually lost his balance, spun around almost comically and fell down. Each time he crashed, we both laughed, and he would scramble to his feet to continue his pursuit of the ball and his adversary. We didn't win but we did ok. And each time I made a basket or he got a rebound, we would bump fists just like two NBA superstars. For forty five minutes, we changed each other's worlds moment by moment, tumble by tumble, basket by basket, laugh by laugh, rebound by rebound, smile by smile.
There it is, the culmination of my career, my life, in a basketball game today, a tutoring session next week, a chance encounter in the check out line of the cafeteria next month, or a small argument over the best kanafa in Jordan next January. So yes the projects and presentations and awards are nice, but the prospect of ten thousand more instances of grace excite the heck out of me, truly.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


It wasn't until my last employment stop that I learned where bullying begins. I watched in a weird kind of horror and fascination as a 300 pound obnoxiously loud teacher terrorized her students with the blessing of the President of the college. She battled with nearly everyone else around her as well, including a short fracas with me that ended in an  complaint after the third time she told me "you know how you Muslim men are" and the tenth time she called a fellow Muslim "Chemical Ali the terrorist." I lost the complaint (evidently these things are ok in that part of the world or with the school or both), but she steered clear of me from that point on.
I saw her humiliate the young people she was charged to educate and protect, and her colleagues told me she liked to reduce her students to tears. As a single woman with no children, she was an expert in everything including marriage and child-rearing. She took great pleasure in leaving her classroom door open as the bellowed at her students, knowing that nearly everyone in the building had to hear her. Nearly every student complaint was stifled by her friend the Dean, and those that reached higher fell on deaf ears - the same mouths connected to those ears told people like me that students came first and that they were upset that legitimate complaints never made it to their ears (ears that were only a few hundred feet away physically but a few hundred thousand compassionately).
And no, this post isn't about her - she is just a recent and stark example of a bully tolerated in the one place she should be shunned. Teachers teach us to bully. Not all, not  most, not many, but enough. It is bad enough that these bullies exist in places like this, but the real sin is the number of peers who duck and thank someone the animosity isn't directed at them. Presidents, PhDs, Provosts, and Professors turn the other way while secretaries and part-time staff seem to be the only folks around with the courage or fortitude to stand up and protect the students the rest of us use as literary license for our own petty provincial desires. Not very glamorous, this industry of intimidation of ours!
I have been a bully too, at school and at home. I have used the inequity of my power in ways that were not ethical and did not benefit my students or my children. I suppose I have bullied staff too, but those lines are far more clear, and oddly much better defended.
As teachers and parents we are to lead this war on bullying perhaps a stage too late in its development. And its territory is expanding into politics and religion - combatants on the same side downing out each other in animus and abandoning collaboration for strategic collusion. We bully with volume, we bully with intellect, and we bully with the exploitation of fear. I am not sure where kids aren't learning  how to bully anymore.
I will work on my own house - understanding that I have more power and influence than I have ever had, and I hope to balance it with wisdom and compassion. I have the ability to touch thousands of lives in my job, and to perhaps draw up a different kind of blueprint. I will fight the bully in me, and like those brave staff members I have known, will fight those bullies who frighten me as well. I just don't have the stomach for this kind of cowardice anymore.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Breaking Bones And Hearts

As I sat tonight nursing a slightly torn tendon, I started to think about injuries, remembering a recent Facebook post by a friend asking if it was worse to break your heart or your bones, and I started to count the bones I have broken or have had broken by others. I thought also about tears, gashes, and dislocations. I don't think I have lived violently, but there are internal and external legacies that stay with me like old friends gossiping in the night, dull and consistent.
I started early on this physical odyssey, pulling a skillet of hot grease off of the stove onto my head and arm when I was two or three. I broke my left wrist for the first time in the sixth grade. I was with a group of older boys who had tied a rope to a tree branch that extended out over the beach on the shore of Lake Erie. The tree was on the side of a hill, so you could race along its edge then swing out over the beach and reach the water (at a height of ten feet or so) if you were daring. I watched as they propelled themselves in perfect arcs, letting go just in time to land well out into the lake. I supposed I was taunted to try, and I got a head start and flung myself as hard as I could over the small cliff. I must have held on too long, for I went too high and too short. When I did let go, I came down on the beach with my head smashing my wrist. Afraid of my father, my colleagues let me walk the half mile home alone broken wrist in hand.
I broke a smaller bone in the same wrist in High School, and went six months before telling anyone, not wanting to miss any sports. When I finally told my mother we had to go to a specialist who drilled the two ends of the bone hollow, scraped a little bone from my hip, and put it all back together hoping the bridge would spur more bone growth. I never gave it a chance though. I had been told I would get a special cast that would allow me to play football, but when I got home I found out that my plain plaster cast would not be allowed. That night, a few weeks after the surgery, I got my father half a dozen beers or so, got him to sign a waiver I had brought home from school, then went out into the garage to cut my cast off. It took me most of the night, and I broke my wrist the next day in practice. I never told anyone again, and it has been broken since.
I have had several surgeries on my knees from football and motorcycles, and I guess they will need to be replaced sometime in the near future. While recovering from my first ligament surgery, I told the nurses that my leg hurt and I wanted to see the doctor. They teased and mocked me a bit when I continued, telling me they thought football players were tougher than that. When the doctor came and was dismissive, I raised such a fit that he agreed to take the cast off and take a look. When the cast popped open I could smell the infection. Today, instead of a nearly invisible line, I have a nearly inch wide scar.
A few years later, I fell asleep driving to the oil rig I was working on. When they found me the next day wrapped around a telephone pole, I had broken all the ribs on my left side, my elbow, my tibia, dislocated my hip, and ripped open my forehead. After a week in intensive care, the doctors told me that I must have broken several ribs earlier in my life as they could tell from the X-Rays. If my mother hadn't been in the room I would have corrected them - my step-father had broken them. He also had given me a few scars back then, a neatly curved one on my upper lip where he had waited until I wasn't looking and punched me while I was drinking a beer. The inside of the can cut my lip deeply, and it bled all over. He got angry and told me to stop bleeding or go take care of it. I sat and stared at him, and for the first time he backed down while I finished the beer bleeding all over his sofa.
There have been the diseases too, though they leave no visible record. Malaria, typhoid, and hepatitis were my reward for living and working in a refugee camp, and I would go back in a second if I could. I had malaria three times, and came back to the USA with yellow eyes and Hepatitis A. Each instance was a week of fever and delirium, carrying little recollection or significance now.
Over the years, I have broken my knuckle a few times, dislocated my thumb on a perilous, drunken tumble down a dozen concrete steps, reopened a nasty cut over my right eye a few times, tore cartilage, broken my nose three times, and have enjoyed a periodic bout with gout (possibly the worst of them all). There are a half dozen other minor scars, too negligible to call out. And now as my tendon talks to me, I wonder if it hurts or if I can no longer tell the difference. I am constantly aware of some part of my body complaining about something, though I can usually tune it out. I haven't lived a violent life, but my body does bear witness to a bit of abuse. All in all, I am thankful I haven't been infused with titanium yet, and that I lived my life without a great deal of fear. As for the broken heart though, that is a different story.........

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Friends of the Academy

I have been so blessed this year that I am embarrassed to even mention it. Allah has brought so many beautiful people into my life that a hundred years of gratitude would pale in the bargain. Many of those folks came from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Academy we began in Jordan last December. I have also changed jobs this year, and the environment now is so much more challenging and healthy, I continuously check to see if I am truly awake. I have the best boss I have had since I began my career, and a wonderful faculty and staff. My daughter Sindi comes to live with me in a few days, and I am very grateful for that. Her sister Kesho and I are getting along better by the day, just another lesson that our children are more loving and forgiving than are we.
I left behind some very good people in West Virginia though - Rhani our frenetic secretary; Rich or eeyore as we call him; Dr.Curry the smartest guy on the planet; Matthew his son who does not share my fasion sense; Shirley the most active 75 year old I ever met; Rachel the stalwart of the Lewisburg campus; David the serious and playful IT guru; Mohammed, Karima, and Ryan my adopted Moroccan family; Steve my golf commiserator; Dr. Faulk my golf partner; Grace and Dan my gracious hosts on many occasions; My students who made me laugh and thank God I was still allowed to teach; and many, many others.
Of course there are the academy members who I have tried to highlight this month, fittingly so. There are three children, Amani, Sara, and Yazan who make every trip to Jordan fantastic for me. Muath my cub reporter friend who will one day own a German newspaper just because it is German. There are friends in Akron and Salem who know who they are. And there are other friends gone from my life but not my heart. Never has a man had so many good people in his life!
Finally, there is a very important small group of other friends who I am fond of and who I respect very much - these are people from around the world that have adopted our academy and become part of our family. The did so without all the benefits we had, and they have been just as loyal. To name a few: Yusuf Adarbeh, Eiman Abu Obied. Rasha Awad, Liza Tamargo, Eiman Al Kiswani, Murad Saeed, and so many others. They really amaze me and make me proud to part of their group. Rasha and her friend Nesreen have gone the extra mile and attended some academy functions and even toured Rachel and Shirley around in Amman. One is about a meter taller than the other, much quieter and serene. The other is a bit shorter and full of energy. Both have been great assets to the academy.
I am laughing a bit as I write this, thinking of these wonderful people knowing I could keep writing this post forever. Eid is almost here and I can't wait. I can't wait because my heart is full of the love of so many friends, of my God, and the security that I have helped thousands of young children in Jordan simply by bringing these wonderful people together. Alhamdulilah. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Tahani 1 & 2

This is a tale of two Tahani's. Two very quiet and thoughtful women from the academy who I respect a great deal. I like quiet, dignified people (probably because I am not), and these two women are that. I think they are quiet in different ways though. Tahani 1 is older and more lighthearted, while Tahani 2 is  younger and more serious. They both smile quietly too, which I find very charming.
Tahani 1 is a wife and mother, and it amazes me that she has time to take care of her family, teach, and participate in this academy (like many other amazing mothers in the group). She always wears a patient and kind smile, and is very bright. She did her research on culture in language training and it was very insightful. I didn't get to know her very well during the academy, but I am quite sure she is an active, loving teacher. I can imagine her in front of her classes, gently guiding her students into this crazy language of ours.
Tahani 2 is younger and shorter, but very serious and determined. I got to know her a year before the academy as she participated in a workshop I gave in Irbid. She was very diligent, and was a good sport when I called her to the board to spell the word diarrhea (an example of the technique of invented spelling). I was very thrilled when I learned she was attending the academy as I had learned how passionate she was intellectually, and I looked forward to having her drive and motivation in the group. She did an excellent thesis for her Master's degree in Translation, and I was honored to be able to read it before she finished it. She is an amazing young woman that I am proud to know.
These two Tahani's are wonderful examples of teachers who have the ability to teach a group of students for a year - kind, patient, and intelligent, they have all the right tools. I am so glad I got to know them both.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Mubarek: Castle Master

I met Mubarek last year on a visit to some very cool castles just outside of Amman, Jordan. I was happy to get out of the city and visit these local landmarks, even more so understanding it might be the last time I would be able to travel and spend time with an old friend. We had a lovely time, and it was a nice trip to mark the end of many such journeys. Despite the fact that I was focused on the precious time I had left with my friend, I had the great pleasure to meet a new one - guide extraordinaire Mubarek.
My friend had organized the day trip and had recruited a colleague, another English teacher, along for the trip. The teacher introduced us to Mubarek, who was a student in his ESL class by night, a talented castle guide by day, and maybe, just maybe, Joe Pesci's long lost cousin. He was a whirlwind from the moment we met him, and he didn't go more than a minute or two without disparaging his own English, which I found charming in its own staccato, eccentric rhythm. By the end of the day we were fast friends, and I smile broadly each and every time I think of him.

Mubarek took us to four places; two castles, an ancient road house, and to lunch. Through it all, he was in charge. Gracious and polite, he barely contained his enthusiasm as he took us from place to place, and introduced to other guides and acquaintances. He regaled us with facts, details, and hokey jokes that I adored. His energy was boundless, and we followed him around waiting for his next surprise. He narrated the journey perfectly (despite his constant apologies), even took us to places that were cordoned off and marked "dangerous." We felt honored with the access, and he knew it. He chuckled, made more jokes, spelled our names in Arabic in the dirt, refused to let us pay for lunch, and even introduced us to a group of his colleagues having dinner. Short in stature only, he was the man everywhere he went.
Later in the afternoon, after learning I was a Muslim, Mubarek invited me to pray with him at the ancient road house in the middle of the desert. He was very patient with me as we made our preparations and then prayed. I was touched by his tenderness and concern, something I still struggle with being raised in this culture as a strong, distant male. I have so much yet to learn from men like Mubarek, men able to live their lives honestly and emotionally. Despite our short visit, I will remember him the rest of my life.
I am indebted to Mubarek for more than these lessons too. On what seemed destined to be a bitter-sweet day, more bitter than sweet, he gave me a very pleasant and kind memory to ameliorate the loss the day would eventually come to represent. And as the imbalance slowly shifts, the pain softens with each return to that adventure with my pal mugging in stunted doorways and forbidden vestibules.  He will never know any of this of course, but I do. I do.

Ramadan 1433 - Amira, Khadijeh, and Hanadi

Three more wonderful Academy sisters!  And like a broken record, I will note how valuable yet different these ladies are. When I think of the 30 plus members of the academy, I realize that most are my favorites in one way or another. No exceptions here. If these were the only three exceptional members of this team, I would have still considered this academy to a great success. I am just so amazed when I think of the depth, breadth, and soul of this wonderful group.
Hanadi is a very serious and compassionate teacher. She is soft spoken but very intelligent and active. Says a friend: "Hanadi is a warm-hearted, dedicated, and motivated teacher. She loves her work as well as her students to whom she is like an elder sister - she is also a good leader." I suspected that Hanadi was dealing with a lot of things outside the academy while she was with us, yet she did a great job and was one of the first to finish her research. I respect her greatly for this :)
Amira is the owner of my favorite smile in the academy. She is almost always smiling; it is very genuine and sincere, and a bit playful.  I think it is just a refection of the kindness in her heart. From a friend in the academy: "Amira, a great mother and teacher.... She is very active and loves what she does.... eager to learn and never misses a course or workshop.. I really appreciate all mother teachers who would always find time to develop themselves and never quit.  She always draws a smile on your face, as she is always smiling when talking to people around her, I bet people like being in her company.."  I couldn't agree more! Mothers like  Amira really exemplify what is best about this academy - balancing work and home life, yet maintaining  a vital and passionate curiosity about their profession, their students, and their peers. Amazing really.
Khadijeh has my favorite brain in the academy. She is an intellectual with a big heart and true passion for her faith. I chuckle sometimes as her earnestness, it is very refreshing. I enjoyed discussing academic subjects with her - someone who can equal or even surpass my own fervor for such things. I had the great opportunity to observe Khadijeh in the classroom, and I was very impressed. She was perfect in that place, working with older girls that could appreciate her intelligence and benefit from her quiet energy. She motivated them easily, and I could tell she had cultivated a very good relationship with them. It was a pleasure to watch them moving through the lesson together.
When people ask me why I started this academy, or why I put a great deal of my own resources into, my answer has changed over the past year. Originally, I thought the love and care I felt would find its way to the thousands of Palestinian students spread across the region in those humble schools. Helping their teachers was just my an indirect, pragmatic way to make my own contribution there. But after working with these teachers and administrators, I realize how much I care about them too. All of them impress me, all of them inspire me. And as funny as this might sound, I get so much out of this experience, it may even be approaching a selfish level. Whatever the case, I thank Allah that I was lead to this academy, and the wonderful people there, like Amira, Khadijeh, and Hanadi.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Nihaya and Khawla

Nihaya and Khawla are absolutely two of my favorite UNRWA administrators! Both are wonderful leaders, but in very different ways. That seems to be a theme with these folks in the academy - great people, diverse personalities. Perhaps that is why the experience has been so fantastic for me. I would work for either of these two ladies in a heartbeat, and would feel very fortunate to do so. UNRWA really doesn't know how lucky it is I think :)
Khawla was a late entrant into the academy, and I am so glad we had room for her. At first glance, she looks like what we call in English, a "schoolmarm" - a serious and strict teacher, who, if she was a Catholic, would have a ruler in one hand perpetually ready to whack a knuckle or two. But this of course is a facade; Khawla is a very strong and determined, but also very kind-hearted and simple. She has a very interesting sense of humor, and has been described as "very spontaneous and sometimes charmingly child-like" by her friends. I enjoy her wit, and it catches me off guard at times, which of course I like even more. I am told that she has very good relationships with her colleagues and teachers, and I don't doubt that at all. I think she would be a great professional to work for and with.
Nihaya is the inside-out Khawla - Very soft and gentle in appearance, but serious and quite capable on the inside. She too has a wonderful sense of humor, which again surprises me because of her quiet and calm demeanor. Nihaya is very caring and supportive, a compassionate leader who instills a lot of faith in her teachers and peers. I have seen her interact with teachers, and I am sure she does a fantastic job. She is very conscientious and takes a lot to her heart, and that must make her job difficult at times, but she does it all very gracefully. I couldn't imagine an administrator I would trust more than her.
I have visited very large school systems that didn't have two leaders as competent and caring as these two women. As I have mentioned before, these Palestinian school children in Jordan have angels watching over them, perhaps these two marvelous women are their guardian angels. I think of them often: I think of Khawla's slowly spreading smile and the joke behind it, and I think of Nihaya every time I sit down - she gave me a very lovely wallet, a gift from her husband and the Islamic International Arab Bank :)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Tremayne

I met Tremayne tonight as I came back to my office. He was sitting in the lobby with his head low looking very dejected. One of the coordinators asked if I would talk to him and I agreed. When Tremayne came back with me to my office, he told me that he knew me, well, at least he had received a letter from me. I recalled his name instantly. I have been sending out emails to students that teachers have nominated for working hard in their classes - I call them attagirl/attaboy letters. I remember Tremayne's because his teacher told me he had no Internet access and I needed to send a hard copy to his home. Evidently he received it, as he was happy to meet me.
Tremayne had recently lost his job on the railroad, as he had no high school degree or GED. He had come tonight to register for more GED courses so that he could take the test soon in order to get his job back. He is a very tall, nice looking African-American about 40 years old or so. He shared with me that he had been in learning disabled classes as a kid, probably because he had been a victim of lead poisoning. He was from the worst part of Youngstown, Ohio, the worst town in Ohio. Now, after having done his job faithfully and well for ten years, he was unemployed. Tremayne had worked for a contractor that was bought out by the railroad who has strict background requirements. The good news is that the railroad values him and will rehire him once he passes the test. The bad news is that it might take awhile.
He cried several times as the frustration poured out of him. He didn't want to take unemployment, he simply wanted to provide for his family. We talked for a good while, talked about just focusing on the immediate tasks at hand, the support he will have here at the college, and having faith in God as we do all that we are meant to do. Because Tremayne is working  hard, my college will provide psychological testing for him at no cost that will most likely allow him to have accommodations on his test that will help him a great deal. He will continue to take classes as  he prepares, and he will come and work with me regularly for some tutoring. Tremayne will make it, there is no alternative.
He left about an hour ago feeling a bit better, and appreciative for the help the college is providing him. This is why I came to Chicago, came to Moraine Valley Community College. We will marshal all our resources to help this good man as he fights to help himself. This always reminds me of how much I love this country - I can't think of anywhere else on earth where a school, a community, a country would not have given up on this man by now. We will not.
Tremayne is grateful, I could see that behind his tear-filled eyes. What I haven't told him yet is how grateful I am to have talked to him. Tremayne inspires me like few others can - a decent human being in unfortunate circumstances keeping his dignity even as he imagines his world crumbling around him. I would pray for this kind of humility and grace, but I am not sure I deserve it just yet. Maybe in ten more years working with a few hundred other souls like Tremayne. Maybe then. Alhamdulilah.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Abeer, Sara, and Sabreen

Sara, Abeer, and Sabreen are three lovely ladies from our Academy. Two of them could be sisters, and the third perhaps but from another marriage. These three never failed to make me smile, and I can't imagine three more kinder hearts anywhere in Jordan. And when I think back to when my girls were small, I can't think of any other teachers on the planet I would rather have teach them than Sabreen, Abeer, and Sara.
Sara and Abeer could not only be sisters, they could be twin sisters. When Abeer introduced herself, we knew she was a very motivated teacher who always works in silence, behind the scenes. She is also decisive and very rational.  I have found this to be true. Abeer was one of the first academy members to turn in her research, and also one who privately reached out to me with comfort when she thought I was struggling. She has a very kind soul, and I am sure she is a wonderful teacher.  Says one of her colleagues: "Abeer attended the academy with great passion ready to start the challenge...She is wise and always careful about the words she uses in her speech as she tries to do things perfectly...She always has something good in her mind to say about the academy." Being so quiet, I didn't get to know her as well as I would like to, but I smile each time I think of her.
Sara is also quiet, and also very passionate about teaching. I had the honor of observing her classroom and I had a wonderful time. She taught in an impossibly small and cramped space, but she did a marvelous job with those little girls. She moved gently and expertly through her lesson, lovingly reassuring them as they eagerly participated. I was amazed, knowing I could never teach like that under those conditions. I sat there and watched her teach, realizing how lucky those kids were. I have never seen a better teacher anywhere, even in places with unlimited resources and support. UNRWA is very lucky too.
If Sara and Abeer are the quiet twins, then Sabreen is the overactive, rambunctious younger sister. Her passion, unlike that of her two sisters, does not stay in its banks, and overflows regularly with an almost mischievous glee. She is very bright, and all that energy and intelligence just cannot be contained. I loved having her in the academy (most of the time :) and could tell she was often trying so hard to restrain herself, but ultimately could not. That is probably why I put a big roll of tape (plaster) down in front of her. Seriously though, she is very refreshing, and I would love to see her in classroom. Children respond wonderfully to that level of honesty and energy, and I bet there is a lot of fun in her lessons. Sabreen too, was ready to charge to my defense, something I will never forget.
When I think of these three ladies (and the other academy members) I am reminded of God's grace. Man has made such a mess of Palestine and displaced so many innocent and good people. God has not turned His back to this horror, choosing instead to make angels and dress them up like teachers. 

Five angels pretending to be teachers: Sara, Abeer, Mervat, Inas, and Sabreen (Left to Right)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Sisters

It is Ramadan, and I am very thankful for all the blessings Allah has bestowed on me recently and through my life - I have been incredibly fortunate (if for nothing else knowing the people I have profiled here and will continue to profile this month). Despite all my fortune, I am humbly reminded of those who have so much less in so many places. And in those places, too many faces belong to women, my - our sisters.
I think about all the women I have met fighting to make a life supporting children with half the privileges I am granted daily. I think of the men who have abandoned them to chase a life already so much simpler. I think of the women I have hurt, and I pray that I will hurt no more. I think of the cultures, governments, and perversions of religions that take so much from those who give so much. I pray for my sisters, their mothers, and their daughters. And finally, I pray for myself and my brothers too stupid to know that we squander God's gifts too easily, and that He knows not to task us too greatly, as we are so much weaker than our sisters, and that the burdens they bear would break and destroy us. Too many prayers perhaps for one night.

Ramadan 1433 - Mongoloid

I don't remember what he looked like, nor do I know his name. My mother told me he was a Mongoloid, and that would be all I would know about him, other than he died a few days after I met him. I met him in a hospital shower when I was in the eighth grade on a cold winters day. We played together for a half hour or so forty years ago, and I still think of him often. It was the first time I had interacted with someone that different, the first time I learned that being raised without a culture had certain advantages.
I was playing basketball earlier that day when I was inadvertently kicked in the stomach. I went down with cramps and couldn't stand up. An ambulance was called, and I was wheeled out on a gurney in the frigid January winter. As we rolled out into the cold, one of the paramedics pulled the blanket up over my head to keep me warm, the very same moment a loquacious teen aged girl looked out her classroom window to see what all the commotion was about. By the end of the day I was dead, at least as far as the junior high school student body was concerned.
I don't remember much about the emergency room, or the treatment I received while there. I do remember the doctor's words when he visited me in my hospital room a few hours later though, remember them like it was yesterday. He explained that I had a small tear in my stomach and that it had contracted, sort of like a woman in labor. I thanked God I wasn't a woman that day. I ended up staying the night, and later in the evening felt good enough for a shower.
When I got to the shower, I saw a small figure in the corner in a small wheel chair. A male nurse was washing the boy in the chair, and I self-consciously went about my business. A few minutes later I felt something hit my right foot and I looked down to see a small wind up car on its side, its tiny wheels spinning in the steady down pour of the shower. I heard a small grunt and I couldn't tell if it was good or bad, but I knew where it came from. I looked over across the small room and saw that the boy was now sitting on the floor, looking over at his toy at my feet. I took a long curious look at him before I reached down to retrieve the car. He was shorter than his age, his skin was a very unnatural color, and his head was very misshapen. He didn't speak as I could tell, and I became aware that the nurse was apologizing and was approaching to take back the car. I picked it up and gestured that I would bring it over.
I stopped about six feet away, and sat down gingerly against the rigorous protest my stomach launched against my entire body. It didn't feel weird to be there naked on the floor with someone I couldn't understand. I was curious, and I sensed that he must have been very lonely. Once down, I wound the car, aimed it at my shower partner and let it go. He squealed and I could make out the silhouette of a smile despite not knowing exactly where his mouth was. As the car raced towards him, he slapped at it clumsily and it spun around once and came right back to me. Odd I thought, so I caught it and again sent it across the old, wet tiles towards him. He repeated the strange utterance that I now knew to be excitement, and again swatted the car expertly back to me. We repeated this curious commute for twenty minutes I guess, only stopping to wind the car every fifth circuit or so. Finally, the nurse told me it was time to go, and I got up and towelled off. I would never see the boy again, never know how old he was, never know why he was in that shower with me that day.
My mother was in the hallway when I came out and asked me what had taken so long. I explained I was playing with a kid in the shower. She asked me if it was the child in the wheel chair and I nodded. She smiled and we went back to my room. I asked her later that night what was wrong with him and she answered simply "he's a Mongoloid." Her certainty dampened any further curiosity I had about his condition, and I shifted my attention to the dinner tray on my bed table. A few days later, when we returned to see the doctor, my mother had learned somehow that the boy had died. She told me matter of factly, and I remember feeling a twinge of sadness in my stomach, probably as my head was not ready to process such things.
I returned to school, from the dead, and enjoyed my short lived notoriety. I didn't tell anyone about my friend in the shower, not because I thought it strange or I was ashamed, only that it was a nice moment in time with someone who appreciated my company. As a matter of fact, this might be the first time I have articulated this story in the intervening years. A few years ago I learned that Mongoloid was a common word used for Down Syndrome back then, and it was nice but not comforting to know his actual condition. Now, as a man, I am still not afraid of getting down on the floor, down in the dirt, down anywhere to work or play with someone. I love this part of me that seems to put off others, and I thank God for this one bit of humility I have, perhaps taught to me on a shower room floor by a young, mute man with just a few days to live.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Moonlight

I never equated the moon or moonlight to romance when I was younger. It wasn't until I heard the Neville Brother's Yellow Moon that I equated it to heartbreak ( There is a full moon tonight and I am not sure what to make of it. I guess there are times you can choose to be lonely or sad or heartbroken or even happy as you gaze upon it. Maybe you only look at it in one particular state, ignoring it in other conditions? I wonder if the moon looks different with those options. Tonight, when I eventually leave work I will look at that moon, maybe from those various lenses. I wonder if the moon minds how you look at it, what you do with the gift it shares of the sun's reflection?
It wouldn't be hard for me to take a lonely look at the moon as I drive home towards it. I am going "home" to an empty apartment with an emptier refrigerator, a big screen tv I don't watch much, and a lot of unfolded laundry that needs to be put away. The most complex task I will have is matching my socks, which taxes me even on my most buoyant days. So yes, the moon can be lonely tonight if for no other reason than its strong, singular presence in the sky; by itself stealing its strength vicariously from the sun - this isolation resonates comfortably with me, as the soft muted light cascades gently over my shoulder.
I can imagine the moon as a sad thing too; not for its loneliness but for its beauty. I have known several beautiful and sad people in my life. I think when you are beautiful (no direct knowledge here) you know how to give to others, but maybe not how to understand or accept their adoration or praise. A million years ago, I adored a beautiful woman and I could do nothing but bring her sadness eventually. I tried to pour everything I had into her, for her, never able to conjure the actions or words to rival her loveliness. It was a doomed proposition from the start. I suppose we try to possess beauty not knowing how to share it - no quid pro quo when you aren't beautiful. Love seldom coalesces in such imbalance. So a sad moon I think, giving and never being loved. What could I offer the moon tonight in exchange for its satiny luminescence?
I don't think the moon is heartbroken, but I do think it bears solitary witness to a million broken hearts as it traverses the heavy-hearted hemispheres relentlessly illuminating the pain that should remain nestled in the darkness. I will stop tonight before I get to my truck, turn and catch a glimpse of the moon sliding through the trees, its filaments landing here and there softly contrasting and etching a sleeping landscape. And it is in that instant when darkness is splintered by oblique light that I feel the scar tissue in my own heart - realizing that somewhere, continents away, she is sleeping and that same moon playing with my path is filtering through a bedroom blind and caressing the catenary of her cheek, that place I once stroked tenderly with the softest part of my folded index finger long before the birth of planets and stars and imprudent satellites.
There is happiness too, to be found in the playful, refracted cordiality of the sun. The merciful protraction and addendum to the day hearkens to the romance in our hearts - to finish in the night the dreams and dared visions left unattended in the day given one more breath of life in the forgiving bath of twilight. It is a time to stroll and suffer the pleasantries of our hidden passions, the moon a silent and strong surrogate for our guilt and nagging obligations. She could walk under a beckoning moon with anyone, anywhere and be happy - I understand and appreciate that now. Moonlight is like that, unbiased and unavowed; a place to be free and blessed with the promise of a coming day.
I will leave in a few minutes, smiling, wondering what will greet me when I step out into the night, into the patient moonlight that knows I am coming. I will stand in the middle of the parking lot and turn back to the cresting moon with my eyes closed, waiting for the pleasure of its temperament.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Small Gestures

I live about a half a mile from work, and I drive back and forth each day in my old beat up pickup truck (will start riding my bike soon when my Achilles tendon heals from the basketball game....).  I have found that the most direct route is through a small neighborhood, and I enjoy cruising through at 20mph or less down the tree lined street. Once the public schools got out in early June, I noticed a small group of Arab boys perpetually perched on a particular corner, playing near the stop sign.  As I coasted to a stop, I noticed the smallest of the kids looking at me - an old man in a suit in a very rusted truck. I smiled and waved at him, and he took a quick glance towards his friends then kinda gave me a half a smile and cool nod. Over the next month we repeated this small ritual several times and his smile broadened and became a bit more friendly, but he was still cool.  Yesterday, after not having seen him in a few weeks, I drove back down the street. I had the radio on in my truck (the same radio that gets only one channel no matter where I am) when I pulled up to the familiar stop sign, and I didn't see the boys. As I began to pull away I heard a high pitched noise that couldn't have come from my radio and I looked off to my right.  That little cool kid was in his garage jumping up and down, waving and me and screaming. I smiled and waved. He regained his composure and gave me the most sincere, least cool salute an old man ever got.

Inas and Mervat

Yet another dynamic duo, Mervat and Inas are great friends and have been great additions to the academy. Like the other pairs in previous posts, they are quite different women - perhaps that is the magic in their relationship. They get along like sisters, and are a wonderful support for each other. One is stoic and one is not, but both are fantastic teachers and friends.
Mervat is the taller of the two, and the philosopher. She doesn't talk a lot, preferring instead to sit back and listen.  I suspect she is a very deep thinker. When she does have something to say, it is honest and positive. She is always very thoughtful of others, perhaps even to her own detriment I suppose. Most likely, Mervat was a mother before she was a mother. She is very quiet but caring, a great foil for Inas.
Inas is the shorter of the two, the doer I think. She has a disproportionate amount of energy for her slight frame, and she bubbles with enthusiasm. She was a late entrant into the Academy, and I am very glad she made it. I heard she went to Wadi Rum lately, and I guess that would be appropriate as there are a lot of whirlwinds there anyway - she must have felt at home :)  Seriously, I really respect her energy and positive outlook - her enthusiasm is infectious!
Two very different women who exhibit their passion and hearts in very unique ways. They are a lot of fun to watch together, each feeding off the other's style. I think I would love to be a fly on the wall if they ever got to team teach a class together, it would be a great deal of fun.
Sisters Mervat and Inas