Wednesday, November 20, 2013

On Writing

A few weeks ago, I was invited by an old friend, Theron, to stop by his university in Southwest Texas to talk to his students about writing, and how it is taught and learned in other places around the world. It was a serious symposium and an excellent chance to catch up with a Peace Corps buddy. The presentation followed another I had just completed in San Diego (also on language, but from a far different perspective), and the bulk of my preparation had been for the earlier gig. I gave the Texas topic little thought, figuring I would put it together once I got there and chatted with Theron. As the trip unfolded, I ended up getting very little sleep before the symposium, and I simply relied on a dated cache of anecdotes, nostalgia, and a rare bit of introspective honesty. Here, in essence, is what I said:
Good morning, my name is Michael, and I would like to talk to you about writing and how it is taught and maybe conceptualized in other parts of the world. To be fair though, I should probably share with you how I have used writing in my life. I am sure you know that writing is cultural, and I am also very sure you will be surprised when I tell you that I come from a very unique culture, probably the rarest of sorts. You see my parents met in a mental institution, and they weren't working there. My siblings and I were raised in a never ending environment of chaos, transition, and violence. When I finally left home at 17, I had a wealth of pain and confusion that I had no notion how to deal with. Eventually, I found poetry.
I had a very ambivalent relationship with poetry, and probably still do. I remember working so hard learning to read as a child, often finding it hard to grasp concepts and main ideas. Suddenly, around fourth grade, at teacher taught us poetry and that this crazy new thing could have any meaning, any at all. I considered it a trap and dismissed the genre, not wishing to suffer any additional literary humiliation. Later, that very ambiguity brought me back to the freer form of verse. I found that I could express some of my pain in my bad poetry (and it is bad, but mine) with a good degree of "plausible deniability" if I cloaked it properly. I needed to share those things, but to do so with a degree of safety. The obfuscation not withstanding, I was learning to let go of old demons and older yet guilt.
Now I write freely in my blog, facebook, and elsewhere. I still don't write well, but I write to consecrate my thoughts. I find a good bit of my intellect and language cursory and cheaply purchased. I see a lot similar prattle around everywhere. When I choose to write, I discipline those thoughts and emotions in order to purify and preserve them. Anything I hold precious, I eventually write about. The ability to capture these often fleeting feelings and ideas still alludes me generally, but I am trying.
That is enough about writing and me anyway. I have also had the marvelous opportunity to teach writing and to supervise writing programs in Yemen, Tanzania, Jamaica, London, and a few other places. Given my contentious relationship with the skill, I was curious to see how it played out in other cultures, how other children used it. My first realization though was that it wasn't the same at all, particularly those countries that had been British colonies or at least, been influenced by British culture. I found that there had been a premium on finding the right sources, citing the right experts, and feeding the teacher exactly what he or she expected. There were no thoughts about finding one's voice or creative expression, only "getting it right." This, by the way, explains for me why these students so often find themselves in trouble when they come to American schools, particularly in issues of plagiarism. They had never had their own opinions valued at school, let alone in print. Now, suddenly asked to create ideas or worse yet, to produce commentary on subjects with limitless experts in existence, they often run for shelter and resort to the "correct" sources. They know it isn't right to do so, and this is not offered as an excuse. But I understand, for they are running into the same trap I had eschewed all those years earlier, with far more serious consequences to suffer.
Despite the fact that the students I encountered overseas had never been exposed to creative writing, or much fiction or poetry for that matter, they used writing in their own fashion. I spent two years in an Eritrean refugee camp in Yemen, teaching orphans of the Eithiopian civil war. They had no electricity, running water, or basic school supplies - but they wrote. They found chalk and wrote passionate political messages on the wood siding of their shacks. They practiced writing everywhere they could, particularly in English. I would find scraps of old newspapers with crowded letters circumscribing the margins. But the most powerful literacy I witnessed was in the sand. Often, the smaller children would congregate near my tent and play with my books and personal effects - and my long brown (then) hair. Occasionally, they would call me out to draw and write in the sand, as they chanted diligently as I composed. I had never felt that kind of connection to other humans with words before, and still haven't since.
I had one more lesson in life and literature to learn from these little kids though. One night as a small group of girls were rummaging through my things, one of them knocked over a few of my books. They stood there startled and I thought that it was an odd reaction to the small faux pas. They hadn't been too conscious of their rambunctiousness to that point. I looked over and they had formed a little circle in that tight space, staring directly down at the back cover of Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah. The momentary pause in commotion and dialogue was supplanted by a loud stream of excited Afar (their native tongue that was not a written language). In the next half hour we negotiated urgently in three languages as I tried to unearth the cause of their plaintive inquiry. Eventually, I learned that they were completely shocked that a woman would be allowed to write a book, let alone a black women who looked liked the mothers they had once known. They had no schema for such things.
They asked me if I knew the writer and I tried to explain that I had met her. My feeble translation became that I knew her and the girls immediately rehuddled. They whispered for a minute or two and vowed to return the next evening. The next sunset brought the contingent back to my tent with a cloistered package. The bravest one stepped forward and demanded that I send the parcel to the woman on my book, my close personal friend. I stuttered, not sure what to say other than ok. They had scrounged all the decent paper they could find and made her six lovely cards with pictures and suras from the Koran. A week later, I travelled a few hours to the nearest post office and sent the gift to the University of Virginia, care of Rita Dove. The experienced had humbled me.
Three months later, the reply from America came to the camp. Rita had sent them a letter thanking them and detailing how she had put their cards on display in her office. The girls skipped and sang for a week. When I left the camp, they kept her letter and the back cover of the paperback that had started their correspondence and another bit of my salvation. Years later, I would find myself in Tanzania, working with young Peace Corps volunteers hosting Girl's Empowerment workshops, continuing the simple lessons learned in a small tent on the Red Sea.
Years before Yemen, I had also been a volunteer in Jamaica. I taught 17 boys from 7-17 in a one room school for orphans in Montego Bay. The orphanage had once been a quaint tourist hotel overlooking the airport. The boys, the headmaster told me, "were too spirited to appreciate the benefits of a public school education." I soon appreciated the euphemism, and spent a year with them, not teaching them too terribly much, but learning a great deal. When the three Rs turned to writing, I had little success. They weren't at all interested, and half barely had the capacity to spell. Eventually though, I found a little headway as I began to connect their love for music (Reggae and Dance Hall) and written lyrics. I wish I could say that we eventually turned those lyrics into profound English lessons, but we did not. What we did do was to recognize and legitimize their language in a way that had not happened before. I am sure that any contribution I made to their self esteem was manifested in the long erased verse scribbled on the small blackboard in the corner of that small makeshift classroom in that small converted hotel.
And there have been so many other ways I have seen writers write - from my Muslim students who labored lovingly over the caligraphy of their faith to the gracious notes and cards I have received from grateful students on four continents.
So, as you can probably tell, writing still amazes and confounds me. Those things that escape me come naturally to others in so many ways. I don't know if there is any great lesson here other than for you to find your voice, exercise it, share it, and do so creatively and freely. You have so many great resources here, as witnessed by your presentations and the spirit of this symposium. I wish you luck.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Winning the Lottery

I had always known that I had been the recipient of many fortunate things in my life, particularly as I ventured out and saw what others did not have in the world. But it wasn't until the eve of the new millennium that I put it all together realizing I had hit the lottery a million times over. I was doing a site visit at a small school a quarter of a mile or so from the shores of Lake Victoria in Northwest Tanzania. Oddly enough, it was after watching a Peace Corps volunteer do a biology lesson with a small class of sixteen year old girls. It covered reproduction at the cellular level, and the sudden epiphany that followed was probably about fifteen years late. That single thought refocused my life to that point, my ideas about my children, and my drive for the future. One little thought - one little sperm cell.......
I had never before considered the sheer impossibility of my existence. I suppose I naively thought that I was somehow in  some queue in my mother's womb waiting for the next fertilization cycle. It had never occurred to me that I was the by product of one frenetic sperm cell hitting one particular egg at a given moment. Any other combination and I don't exist. That traveller turns the wrong way and someone else is writing a blog somewhere else in the world at this moment. If something had been different in that day and my parents delayed their romantic tryst even momentarily, this post isn't here. Not to beleaguer the point too much, but birth is the first lottery win, probably the most improbable.
Likewise, I supposed, the creation of my two daughters was equally miraculous given I couldn't imagine wanting them to be anyone, anything other than they are. Oddly, this second thought put a permanent damper on my fantasy life (no, not that kind). I no longer wanted a time machine, realizing that if I would go back and change anything at all in my life, the two wonderful collisions that produced my beautiful daughters likely would not have happened. The moments, minutes, hours I might have indulged in contemplating varied previous realities have been redirected to proactive, future oriented capital. Two little sperm cells.......
If all that weren't enough, I was born a white male in the United States of America with good health, a decent intellect, and an innate desire to help people. No odds maker could calculate this sort of probability. And no decent man or woman could ever tally the debt I owe for this fortune, the incredible blessings I have incurred and endured in my own unthankful way. I haven't bought a lottery ticket since that day fourteen years ago, haven't needed to - any result would have been silly and not too particularly seemly.
I have a lot to account for, preferring that choice of words over a lot to be thankful for. In the expanse of the universe (will stop there for perspective only) I am an incalculable presence with a lot of work to do, a lot of work to do. It is no burden, only recompense; for even more recently I have learned to balance those infinity long odds with the faith that dissipates the randomness and senselessness of the unfathomable sequences. There is an account due, and I have realized to whom. My final blessing is my capacity to do so by relentlessly working to even the odds around me for others, in small yet meaningful ways. I am not alone with this, and each day I meet more people who have learned these lessons and are working on their own ledger sheets.
I am lucky.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

With Respect to My Christian Friends Who Support Israel

First off, I am not an expert in Israeli politics or culture, but then again, neither are you. I am not an expert on Christian doctrine and I concede that you might be. However, I don't understand where you have found the justification in your two Testaments to support a nation unilaterally when you fail so miserably (as do most of us) to do so in your own. To watch you, I would think you hate some of the men and women who lead this country and you would do what you could to take them out of power. Once again, this is not unique to you in this country. You are critical, you exercise your democratic responsibilities, and you judge the politicians around you justly, based on your faith and convictions. But you have it your mind (maybe not consciously) that Israel must exist, and your intellect and sense of values seems to stop there, or at least in St. Croix (technically the easternmost point of the USA). For you also seem to be oblivious to the diverse nature of the entity you support unconditionally. Israel has had conservative, somewhat liberal, and even socialist leaders; it has been led by great thinkers and courageous men, and it has been led by cowards and even rapists; it has stood up for itself valiently at times and it has victimized men, women, and children in other times. You don't seem to be aware or to care. From the outside it looks as if you need this "thing" to exist and that you are willing to overlook monstrous acts and decades of deprivation to tuck your faith in to bed comfortably each night. I personally do not believe it is that simple, but you sorely mystify me when your sensibilities and logic disappear so apparently conveniently. I don't recall any verse in any holy book that says "defend Israel in any form it takes, for any action it puts forth, with closed eyes and hardened hearts." I do not want this nation tossed into the sea or wiped from the earth. I do believe it can exist and flourish without the carte blanche you would afford no other government on earth. I once heard Jerry Falwell encourage Christians to purchase Krugerrands to support the White regime in South Africa fearing Apartheid would be replaced by a Godless socialism. If you don't give the situation in Israel/Palestine the same critical examination you give your own country, I believe you are promoting yet another form of Apartheid, and I am not sure which Prophet you would need to quote to support yourself.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ramadan Kareem

Ramadan is here, alhamdulilah, and I am not sure I am prepared - I never am sure. Ramadan slowly overtakes me though, and it is an incredible feeling. I will grow stronger each day, more focused on the profound gifts Allah has bestowed upon me, first and foremost his love. Two years ago, I used this blog to reflect on each of the Surah in the Holy Koran. Last year, I spent a good part of the month remembering the precious people who have touched my life. This year, I think, I will spend my energy on the ideas, concepts, and truths I hold dear. The fasting, praying, and good will of those around me motivates me and perhaps I will be able to dig into these notions with some clarity and a respectful diligence that often eludes me. I am ready to begin..................

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

GED Graduation - My Favorite Night of the Year

Good Evening

My name is Michael Morsches and I am the Dean of Learning Enrichment and College Readiness. I am just now finishing my first year here, and I am as excited to be here with you tonight as I was last year at my first GED graduation!
I would have to say that tonight is my favorite night of the year – we (students, staff, faculty) plod along all year long doing the day to day work that makes tonight possible. Finally, a night to sit back, smile, relax, and take stock of things.

I find myself grateful for four things tonight, forty years after watching my mother earn her GED – those points of gratitude are our country, this school, the families of our students, and our students themselves. I would like to share a few thoughts about each:

Our Country – I am so grateful that we live in the most forgiving educational system in the world. No matter where and when we stumble, we can always come back to our path. The system here forgives us when we falter and it forgives itself when it fails us. It places no limitations on our dreams, and waits patiently for that time when we can exploit it. I am very proud to be part of this process.

This School – In many places in America, GED programs are housed in HS, community centers, or libraries. MV recognizes its role as a true Community College and has made a substantial commitment to our GED students. The dignitaries on the stage behind me are a strong example of this commitment. There are also literally hundreds of staff and faculty here who make this journey possible for our students. I would ask that the staff and faculty in attendance please rise so that we can show you our appreciation, thank you. Once again, I couldn’t be prouder to be in the company of these wonderful professionals.

The Families – That is you J This day would be woefully incomplete without your presence here. Families too are forgiving, we forgive each other and ourselves and keep fighting to stay together and to support one another. Along with my traditional duties as Dean, I have spent the past year teaching GED math courses and I have come to know many students and their friends and families. Sometimes these networks are complex and even a bit crazy, but the love behind it all amazes me. You should be very proud of what you have made possible here tonight. I am.
Our Students – Finally, the reason we are all here tonight. In this day and age, it is amazing to see sixty adults sitting together that have made such major alterations to their lives. Disrupting our routines, reallocating our time, rearranging our commitments are not things we typically like to do as we get older. Our students on stage have done these things and so much more – they have changed their lives for the positive, and most are only just beginning. Tonight is an important watershed in their lives, but just one of many to come. There are future nurses, business owners, engineers, teachers, and leaders sitting before you tonight, taking one night off to celebrate with you. Tomorrow, they will be back chasing those careers and all of us will continue to be here for them. We are so proud of you ! So for the class of 2013 – I wish you all the best, revel in your accomplishment tonight, and sometime later fall asleep knowing you have faithfully purchased your next set of dreams.

Thank you.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Surah Al-An'am 6:59

With Him are the keys of the
Unseen, the treasures that none
knows but He. He knows whatever
there is on the earth and in the sea.
Not a leaf falls but with His knowledge:
There is not a grain in the darkness
(or the depths) of the earth, not anything
fresh or dry (green or withered), but is
(inscribed) in a Record clear (to those
who can read).
Surah Al-An'am 6:59
I love this Surah, it reminds me that Allah knows me, knows my heart and my mind. I do not worry about the suppositions others make about me, beyond the reasonable conclusions they my draw from my actions which are my responsibility. A consistent set of good deeds should be enough for those around me; I will answer to Him for my thoughts and intentions. And I continually challenge myself to apply these same just standards to others - leaving the unknown things in others' hearts for Him to know and Him to judge.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Atheist Logic

Having just heard that there will be a group of anti-gay folks exercising their constitutional rights on my campus Monday, I am preparing myself for the inevitable arguments my personal reaction will engender from the atheists and theists in my lebenswelt. For the purposes of this post, I will stick to the atheist logic I will endure.
As a Muslim, I might surprise some by need to support our Gay and Lesbian students on campus Monday against these bullies. Yes bullies! The same sort that hang out at abortion clinics and "protest" the most vulnerable. Years ago, driving down a street in Akron I saw a small protest near a non-descript building. I saw a group of men encircling a woman with signs and what I perceived to be threatening gestures. I stopped and pulled over and sprinted over to the scene. Half-way there I realized it was the Planned Parenthood Center, and who the protesters were. I squared off with the first one that made eye contact with me and called him a coward. This seemed to startle him. He attempted to engage me in a discussion (much less animated however in the presence of someone who might be able to defend himself). I kept my composure and repeated my slander, asking why he and his brave friends didn't go down the street to picket a crack house. By that time his comrades had joined him and we had some more words. In the meantime, the woman (a nurse, doctor, patient, friend, I didn't know) had left. I didn't rush into the scene to defend abortion, or even the woman being badgered by the men - I reacted to a decades old loathing for bullies, a disdain I had earned with blood and broken bones.
When I show support in these type of circumstances, the non-believers I meet are quick to point out the discrepancy between my stance and the tenets of my faith. I have two reactions to this: first, I am not sure how my faith, or any other, would allow for the victimization of the vulnerable or less powerful (at least in the context of the moment) for any reason. This vituperative bullying belies any compassionate belief. Two, I look into the eyes of my questioner and realize that this person believes I cannot hold a faith or philosophy unless I subscribe to every detail, every commandment, every principle perfectly. Looking deeper, I realize why they demand this concrete concordance - the only doctrine they worship is their own, and of course, they form their own solipsistic solidarity. To them, anything that doesn't make perfect and constant sense, or that doesn't fit their current or long-term goals is rejectionable. Their selfish logic makes the possibility of a shared faith impossible, and they ride cheaply on the moral back of a society built by faith and selflessness. I make sacrifices for my faith, and my faith is patient with me as I sort things out.
So Monday, as a Muslim, I will look to support my colleagues, friends, and students against a hate group that would prey (not pray) on them in the very sanctuary I would give my life to defend. I haven't spent my life teaching and advocating to turn a college campus into a place where good people fear to go. Call this Jihad or The Good Fight, I really don't care.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Conspiracy Theories

The other day an Arab friend of mine opined to me that the floodgates  would open soon in the Arab-American community and a spate of conspiracy theories about Boston would come forth. After all, he said, "Arabs love conspiracies."  I smiled remembering similar attributions by and about African-Americans, Jamaican, Brits, Africans, and virtually any group of people I have lived with and known. His casual observation sent me on a weekend journey processing what I know about conspiracies.
I think we all love, or at least, understand conspiracies given that we have participated in countless numbers of them in our lifetimes. We conspire against friends with other friends, family members with family members, teachers with classmates, the strong with the weak, the weak with the strong, opponents with teammates, political parties with political parties, on and on. Winning, surviving, thriving, seem to depend often on these secretive enclaves. We laugh at the elaborate conspiracies we hear long enough to suspend the current conspiracy we are practicing. The naive and almost magical possibilities of luck, chance, and serendipity have been replaced with the petty and cynical notions of more comfortable and familiar notions like collusion, envy, treachery and deceit.
We are a sophisticated generation, so we think, therefore our personal conspiracies must be elaborate and must be detectable only to like minds. Minds that are as intelligent, intuitive, or experienced as our own. There is no prize in detecting and identifying a conspiracy, only the self-satisfaction of possessing that particular form of exclusive enlightenment. I have Facebook friends who post the evidence of conspiracies constantly - and I am not sure if this is to lead to change in the world or simply the world recognizing their exceptional insight. It must be lonely having this much inside knowledge of such cruel and suspicious realities. The notion of "wonder" for these folks is no longer the amazement in the discovery of new and beautiful things, but the pedantic loathing of a world full of dupes and dummies.
My favorite people lately though, are those wise friends who don't subscribe to the smaller and focused conspiracy theories created by minority groups or those "less educated", but who endorse gigantic, world-wide cabals involving billions of people endorsing a faith other than theirs. With all the complex racial, ethnic, cultural, economic, political, and religious components responsible for the psyche of these two brothers from Boston, these pundits will focus on the faith of these two misanthropes, then will extrapolate this one convenient splinter and gleefully extrapolate it to the Islamic world. Islam thus becomes the conspiracy. The Chechnyian piece will be ignored as it produces too much dissonance for us - Chechnya was victimized by the evil Russians, and we sympathized with them. Now if these boys are Chechnyian and not Muslims, we have a problem. Or if they are outcasts, or political fundamentalists, or racial extremists, those things ring too close for comfort. So we take the small sliver and indict a good part of the rest of the world for the sake of our convenience, laziness, or our often suppressed desire to be openly bigoted and hateful.
The greatest conspiracy of all, of course, is that nearly 2,000,000,000 hate America and are its greatest threat. That two billion people think the same, share a preponderance of weaknesses and evils, and are more cohesive in effect than any other populace on the face of the earth. This is ludicrous and frightening in the same breath. I try but am unable to understand this thinking - instead, I spent some time creating a few conspiracy theories of my own to explain this hatred aimed at Muslims. It was easier than I thought, as human nature may indeed be lazy and self-serving. I don't think I really believe these somewhat playful contrivances, and I would not speak them seriously. But, as an exercise in pure speculation, here goes:
  1. Why older Christians are threatened by Islam - Take a tour of Catholic and Protestant churches around this country; enter from the back and look out over a sea of grey and white. Perhaps they notice the legions of young Muslims quoting religious text as well as teen aged non-sense and they worry about the future of their diminishing congregations. As they lose their youth (their own and their children), they despise a faith that stays connected.
  2. Why politicians use Islamaphobia - Politicians need votes, and often end up endorsing things that will win favor with their constituency - They recognize that they have a large group of people in their district who are stupid and hateful, and who have had to run from their enemies so fast in recent decades (Jews, homosexuals, Blacks, Catholics, etc.), that they are desperate to lay their ugliness on something, and to do so publicly, loudly, and proudly.
  3. Why American women are so eager to proclaim the oppression of their Arab counterparts - Simply, Beyonce'. Women in this country are still oppressed and don't even understand the mechanisms involved. In fact, they contribute to their own oppression. No matter how successful, how talented a singer is, she still has to perform half-naked and spew sex-laden lyrics. Using her sexuality gets a woman further than her intellect. Instead of examining this complex dynamic, it is easier to look elsewhere and to point at something they don't like, that looks simpler to their dissonant minds. It must be disheartening to realize though, that your daughters' most successful role models are Beyonce' and Madonna.
  4. Why people in Kansas are so afraid of Sharia - Because they live in Kansas - enough said (fill in your own conspiracy here).
I don't believe these things, but I do recognize that I have dug them up from tiny seeds of prejudices and poorly constructed patterns. I do not profess them publicly, not because I am afraid of condemnation, but because I know they would indicate a weakness in my own intellect and in my humanity. These things are handy sometimes when I don't want to think or even possibly reconsider my stance on a subject. They are also useful when I get in the right company and I want to feel the false affirmation of brazen bravado bounced off of thick skulls. As I said though, I understand conspiracy theories all too well, just trying not to love them so much.

Monday, April 15, 2013

No Apology, No Condemnation, No More

I was horrified today to see the events in Boston transpire. As horrified as I find myself too often these days. But there has been a change in me, another response is rising. I am no longer worried that the perpetrator of this atrocity labels himself/herself Muslim or not. I am no longer worried about Islamic/Christian, Islamic/Whatever relations in the United States or elsewhere. I feel no need to apologize, condemn, defend, or explain anymore. As a responsible citizen of this country and this world, I have transcended these second-class accommodations.
Honestly, I do not ask NRA members to apologize for or condemn the nuts who take those guns and shoot school children (although to some of them guns don't kill, Islam does) - I understand that the bulk of their membership are like me, decent human beings who abhor such actions. I do not look to my American or European Christian friends when people like McVeigh or Breivik pervert their faith to justify their hatred and blood lust. I do not crawl through sacred religious text with a contemptuous lack of context and good faith looking for cheap under girding for my venomous soul. I don't demand consistency from some liberal media experts who think that an American male who murders dozens isn't a terrorist, only a mentally ill individual, probably bullied and harassed as a child. I don't track down the few racist rednecks I meet occasionally to tell me what they think when one of their brethren ties a Black man to their pick up for some fun. They don't owe me anything. And although I don't owe any of them anything either, I can think, I can reason.
I love the Christians I see everyday living their faith - the differences in my belief do not demand that I seek out the exceptions among them to diminish what is all around me, what I can see with open eyes and and an honest heart. I have wonderful friends who own guns - I don't need to point out the terrorists who hold pieces of my country hostage periodically with automatic weapons as somehow indicative of these citizens who practice their constitutional rights. Finally, I don't need to practice the folly of attempting to educate the innumerate around me that extrapolate the actions of literally hundreds of "Muslims" to the billions who loath those violent actions and who illuminate my faith perfectly, daily. I am done with this. I am a Muslim, I am Michael.

Scrabble Rabble

They are really not a rabble, although the game was a bit spirited and disorganized at times. For the past seven months or so, we have been hosting a English conversation group every Saturday at Moraine Valley Community college from ten a.m. until two p.m.  Volunteers like Kipp, Manal, Justin, Mohammed, Sara, and Carmela come in and we spend a very unpredictable four hours immersed in the language. We talk, play games, go over vocabulary, go out for lunch occasionally, and always, always have fun. Today we played scrabble after a vocabulary lesson, and it was an interesting glimpse at culture, international affairs, and human nature.
I often marvel that so many students come week after week for these four-hour sessions. Kipp and his crew have succeeded in making a safe and trusting environment where they feel comfortable and supported. There is a lot of spontaneous hard work that happens along with a lot of laughter. They listen and they participate and their English skills are improving, but there is so much more happening there. They have made friendships and they have taught us so much about the human condition as they chase down their dreams in this new country. It is the most quietly amazing thing I have witnessed in some time.
We have quite a collection of folks coming to these weekly meetings - fraternal twins who are very competitive and both want to be doctors; two Syrian women, probably on either side of the conflict who put that aside and share a ride in on Saturdays; another Syrian woman displaced by the war, finding herself here with her daughter as a refugee trying to forge her own path forward; kids from Pakistan, Jordan, and China, not afraid to have a little fun with us older folks; Palestinian and Yemeni women whose English skills are slight but whose hearts are big and courageous; a couple of best friends from Brazil who are polar opposites; pragmatic but fun Eastern European students who keep us honest; and of course, the wonderful volunteers who give up a significant part of their weekends just to share some time with these special students. I am very proud to be a part of this.
So no, not a rabble, but a spirited group of people that could teach or reteach a lot of us about the dignity and poise of immigrants who make this a better place to live.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Awkward Interviews

I have had my share of interviews, and I have won some and lost some. The one conclusion I have drawn from those experiences is this: There is no preparation for interviews other than interviews! My career has peaked with my current post, and I have had the time and security to look back and think about all those interviews, all those discussions with a bit of introspection. I was reminiscing the other day about some of the memorable exchanges I have had during these often awkward encounters (perhaps because we are interviewing several people for jobs here at my school lately), and a few stick out clearly in my mind. For lack of a better introduction, I will label them in impromptu categories:

Toughest Question: I had been working at the University of Akron for several years when I was approached by a co-worker who told me her husband had heard about me, and my experiences, and wanted to interview me for a position in a new unit he was creating at the local children's hospital. It was to be a Recreational Therapy unit on the psych ward. His wife had shared with him some of my work in orphanages and refugee camps in Jamaica and Yemen, as well as my educational background. Given that I was still piecing together my family's existence on a series of part-time jobs, the opportunity intrigued me.
I had no experience in Recreational Therapy, nor had I recalled hearing of the program before. It did turn out to be a relatively new field, and I benefited from the low number of applicants with the specific degrees. When I arrived at the interview, the first real panel style interview I attended, I was very intimidated. The panel consisted of the three psychiatrists who supervised the psych unit: An East Indian man with a vest sweater and an unlit pipe in his mouth; A Korean woman who sat there sternly with no expression: And a White Male, fiftiesh or so without a hair out of place, a wrinkle anywhere in his immaculate outfit, and the most rigid posture I had ever seen. They started right in without introductions with a scenario: What (pronounced Vat by the Indian doctor) would you do if you came into the sleeping room of four boys and one was masturbating? I paused for a second and just answered it honestly. They continued with traditional questions and odd scenarios for about 45 minutes. I eased up and just did my best, knowing that I didn't have to have the job and that I wanted them to know who I was and how I thought. In the end, I was rated the best of the three finalists and was offered my choice of the shifts. My boss was a bit disappointed when I didn't take either of the two full-time positions, but instead opted for the two ten hour shifts on the weekends. It was one of the many good career moves I would make, not leaving education full-time. I did well in the position, and learned a lot more about human nature from the milieu of talented professionals I worked with. I was never taken back by another interview questions again either.

Simulation Drill?: Often, in interviews, you are asked situational questions where you can simulate your responses and they can get an idea of your affect and behavior. Sometimes this is done as a role-play. Well, I had the mother of all role-plays in 1985, but I don't think it was scripted. I had arrived in Jamaica as a Peace Corps Volunteer without an assignment (long story, other posts) and had heard about an orphanage that needed a teacher for a year. I contacted them and scheduled an interview with the director the next day. When I arrived at the school, I was surprised to see it had been an old tourist hotel overlooking Montego Bay. It was quaint and dated, and the boys lived in the old guest rooms (four boys to a room). There were only two floors, one central area, and an abandoned pool. I made my way upstairs to meet with the director and casually looked down the railed hall of the second floor. I could hear activity at the end of the balcony and I figured classes were going on there. I went into the office and began what was to be a half-hour interview - it didn't last nearly that long.  We exchanged pleasantries, and he explained the nature of his need: The regular teacher was pregnant and needed to take a year's leave. She presided over a one-room school with seventeen boys ages 7-17. In his words, these were the boys "too spirited to appreciate the benefits of a traditional education." I got his drift.
He seemed pleased with my answers and was in mid-sentence with another question when we heard a very loud scream from outside. I knew it came from the end of the hall I had passed, and my instinct led me to bolt up and run down to the room. I emerged first, with the director close behind, and saw a very large, very pregnant Jamaican woman against the wall with her hand over her mouth. My eyes followed her gaze and I looked over to see a small boy poking a homemade knife into the belly of a much larger boy. Once again, I acted without thought and tackled the larger boy sensing he was the cause of the problem. The director caught the smaller child and calmed him down and I held the older boy until we could take him down to the office. He had only superficial cuts to his stomach. I survived the interview (new meaning to that phrase now) and I got the job, and after a year and a half, I did make some progress trying to reach David, the older bully. The kids were wonderful and I learned so much about education in that little room without resources.

Completely Clueless: After finishing my undergrad degree, I went off to Stillwater, Oklahoma to study Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations at OSU. I spent a year there before travelling off to Jamaica, and the experience taught me that I no longer wanted to be a college professor. I enjoyed the coursework, but I couldn't see myself trapped in a small office pounding away at minutiae, old minutiae at that. While there, I needed to work and I was determined not to go back to construction or fast food enterprises. While scouring the want ads, I came across a short listing for a night auditor at a local hotel. I had no idea what that was, but I sent in an application anyway, one of a few dozen to places that didn't produce grease.
To my surprise, I got a phone call and an invitation to interview at the hotel. Once there, I met a very congenial, very large fellow named Jimbo. We sat down in the restaurant and he interviewed me over lunch. He asked me all kinds of questions as we ate, and I tried to remember what I had read about lunch interviews - not salting my food too quickly or something to that effect. I left the interview in a good mood, full, but not having an earthly idea what the job entailed. Two days later Jimbo called and asked when I could start. The job turned out to be perfect for my school schedule, and I eventually caught on. After about three months when I was sure of myself, I asked Jimbo a question that had plagued me from the moment he offered me the position: Why did they hire me with no experience at all?  His answer was short and logical - "We had hired several business students from OSU but found that they thought they knew what auditing was but did not and they couldn't adjust. We figured you were halfway bright and knew nothing about auditing and would learn whatever we taught you and accept it as auditing." I shrugged my head and turned back to find the $135.68 charge that was missing from the night before.

Incredible Venue: I have interviewed in many places - airports, schools, hospitals, restaurants, job fairs, etc., but nothing will ever top an interview I had a few years ago. Without going into too much detail, I will cut to the itinerary: I was flown to NYC and picked up by a limo driver with my name neatly printed on a large card (not the first time, but it never gets old). He drove me to a very nice hotel downtown where I had a few hours to freshen up. He then returned and dropped me off at one of the largest buildings overlooking Central Park. After checking in with security, I took the express elevator to the top floor penthouse where I was greeted with a properly attired British maid. My soon-to-be employer appeared and ushered me into his office. It was hard to concentrate as I talked to him; the office had full-length windows on one side overlooking the park. We chatted for about 20 minutes or so then he sat me at his desk and had me take a logic test. It was hard to concentrate as I wondered about the scope of business that might have been transpired there. After a half and hour, he returned and told me he would be in touch. On the way out, he gave me a baseball cap (a new one of the major league franchise he was in the process of purchasing) and wished me well. I walked the 15 blocks back to the hotel, trying to understand what had just happened. It was a very surreal but pleasant experience.

Ignoring My Gut: There is an old cliche that you interview the job while it interviews you - I have learned the hard way that is very true. I once flew to another coast to interview for a position at a college, having outgrown my current post. When I got there I was very impressed with the hospitality and interest they showed me. They gave me presents, and the interview process went well until the final stage when I spoke to my would be boss one-on-one. To this day, I don't recall having said two words in that hour, and I do recall this person laughing and saying "I have done all the talking." I left the office to drive back to the airport with a funny feeling about the whole thing, but I didn't have much time to process it all as I got the job offer before I got off campus. I accepted and it turned out to be a difficult situation for me. I found out later that I was the only candidate and that they had run off the last three incumbents. Since I have left, they have been through a few more. I have learned to pay more attention to the subjective nature of these processes.

I have been on many interviews, and have interviewed more folks than I can remember. In the end, it boils down to a simple proposition - show them who you are, and take a good look at the place, the people, and most importantly, the person you will report to. A job interview should be the beginning of a joint, informed decision. I have learned from my experiences, and I believe I have finally leveraged them in my current position - it was a long road but well worth it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Love in the Lifetime of a Teardrop

Tilting my forehead into yours
tangling my fingers in your long silky black hair
raising my gaze to your sable eyes
trying not to notice
the single tear welling there
the last I will ever see
the last ever shed for me.
Yet I am aware that
the slightest nudge will free it
and with it, the final bit of your love
that piece you have hoarded jealously
in deference to my pain.
Still I can't leave it there
I need to take it too,
lightly caressing your nose with my cheek
until it spills forth racing drunkenly down your face
destined for extinction.
And as I have done
the thousand times before having hurt you
I bring my lips to yours as it crests there
catching the last part of you I will ever know,
closing my eyes and concentrating on
the sweet salt dissolving rapidly in my mouth
fighting to keep the memory of it,
ruthlessly reminded that
it dies as quickly as a lifetime of love is lost