I spent half my childhood trying to be like my dad. True for most boys, I think. It turns with adolescence. The last thing I wanted was to be like my dad. It took becoming a man to realize how lucky I’d been. It took a few hard knocks in life to make me realize the only thing my dad had ever wanted or worked for was to give me a chance at being better than him.
There was a time we laughed at the old guys up on the hill. The ones who graduated a couple of years before us, and who would hang around the school and the ballpark still, and would sit on the hoods of their cars and tell us how when they were seniors they did it better, faster, and further. We laughed, because we were still doing it, and all they could do was talk. If our goals were not met, there was next year, but it never occurred to us that one day there would not be a next year, and that the guys sitting on the hoods of their cars at the top of the hill, wishing they could have one more year, willing to settle for one last game, could one day be us.
In large part, we are teachers precisely because we remember what it was like to be a student. Someone inspired us. Someone influenced us. Or someone hurt us. And we’ve channeled that joy (or pain) into our own unique philosophies on life and learning and we’re always looking for an opportunity to share them—with each other, our students, parents, or in our communities.
The task of teaching has never been more complex and the expectations that burden teachers are carried out in antiquated systems that offer little support—and yet, teachers are finding success every day.
I thought, Dad.Could I go to Vietnam for you?Dad, I could do it. I could do it for you. I could go to the places you fought. I could find the bits and pieces of your heart and soul left behind. If I bring them back, would it heal your pain?Dad, you gave me life. You made possible every good thing in my life. Why do you insist on fighting your nightmares and memories and monsters alone?You don’t have to do it alone, Dad. I could help you fight.Dad, you know what?I’ll be back before you find out so you don’t have to be afraid. I’m going to Vietnam.
The only thing I knew for sure is I hadn’t slept in ten years. Not really. I’d been fighting my own monster since nine months after 9/11. I had regrets. I had pain that I still can’t find words to describe. But sooner or later you have to make a choice. Maybe fate or luck or God had a plan for me in Jakarta that was greater than an educational leadership conference, a few papers and a book deal. If Vietnam was for Dad, then maybe Jakarta was for me. Indira says I shouldn’t discount that it was Allah’s plan. The way I see it, Allah’s plan is what started my war.
As long as you know 'to let' means to rent and not a place to pee, you’re all set to travel in the UK. The lifts and the boots and everything else don’t really matter.
The Delta agent saw my itinerary and said, 'You’re flying to Jakarta via Atlanta, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur? You must have really pissed off your travel agent.
I said, “Je parle français.” Indira gave me a weird look. Or a look that said I was weird. Whichever. The point is, I don’t really speak French, but it’s a useful phrase for confusing people you don’t wish to speak with. However, it’s apparently more useful in Europe, where no one enjoys speaking to the French.
The night skyline was stunning. I could see the Monas and Istiqlal Mosque bathed in brilliant white lights and a dozen other places of cultural and historical significance. It’s an amazing, beautiful world we live in … despite Uncle Google’s abysmal view of American schools, the security checkpoints and vehicle inspections that seem to be everywhere, and the need to be vigilant because of the things we do to each other.
I’d see the arrow. I’d think about attitude and perception. Maybe the green arrow on the ceiling is to Muslims as the KJV in the Motel 6 nightstand is to Christians.
All over the world there are students, teachers and parents that face serious challenges every day. They need help with real problems that have life-altering consequences—and a group of intelligent professionals brought together to advise and educate stakeholders in need of help ought to be able to do so without behaving like a middle school drama queen.
People have been fighting and dying over religion for thousands of years. I could understand that fear. It creeps up on you a bit more when you’re alone in a foreign land. You certainly worry about it more when you walk the same streets as violent people that harbor a clear hatred of your beliefs and values. The reality is some Muslims in the world would kill me for being Christian, just as some Christians in the world would kill Maya, Gita, Farid and Ridwan for being Muslim. Nowadays news outlets and social media have reified that fear. It keeps some people focused and aware. It paralyzes others. It blinds some of us. That’s what happened to me. It’s why I felt the whole world shake. Twice.
I knew a teacher that kept a calendar on his desk. He didn’t use it for lesson planning though. Instead he was marking time until summer. That’s what prisoners do on walls. They mark the days until they go free. But if you’re marking time as a teacher, you aren’t redeeming the time with your students. A parent drops a child off at the beginning of the year and it’s your job to redeem the time and educate that child. It’s your responsibility to see that child progress throughout the year. The child should be a better student as a result of being in your classroom. You are responsible—for successes and failures—and you have an obligation to students and parents to redeem every precious minute you’re given as an educator.
I’m not sure I ever met an American teacher in Korea that hadn’t volunteered at an orphanage at least once—even our resident idiot could be surprisingly decent on occasion—but I’ve also visited foreign countries where children are taught hatred. I’ve seen it up close and personal. It’s antithetical to everything I believe in as a teacher. The mandate for all teachers is to instill hope, not fear and hatred.
It’s not that I had more important things to do or that I didn’t want to help with whatever problems were interfering with her students being successful—rather, it’s this horrible truth that life has taught me: misplaced hope is the most devastatingly painful thing you can give someone.
The sun appeared between the twin spires of the cathedral as its light reflected off the crescent and star that rose out of the dome on top of the mosque. It was beautiful, and surreal. In one instant, the bells rang out from the cathedral and if I closed my eyes then I could easily imagine that I was back home in Europe, but in the next, the call to morning prayer sounded from the mosque, and it was a stark reminder of how far away I actually was from my true home.
Educators are in the news, too. Usually that’s bad. I had a favorite college professor. He used to tell us, 'If you make CNN as a teacher, you’re probably going to jail.
Indira was surrounded by people who had given up hope, who blamed their own misery on the influence of Christianity and western cultures, and yet, literally in the midst of squalor, her family had created a place of real beauty. It really makes you stop and think. Uncle Google should be spitting out eight hundred million things American schools have done right. The fact things are so screwed up makes no sense. If you believe Uncle Google, then we’ve done the exact opposite from Indira’s family—in the land of hope and plenty we’ve created a place that’s ugly. We have so much. Can things really be so bad? Maybe we can’t fix our schools because as individuals we’ve never truly been broken. Or maybe Chinese lanterns make everyone wax philosophical.
The first ring glowed in the distance, lit up by consumerism that was brought to Jakarta courtesy of western cultures and Christian nations, and it influenced impoverished Muslims in the third ring, who wore Manchester United tee shirts with 'Rooney' on the back, twisting further the attitudes and perceptions of those who were bent already toward radicalism.
It was only a couple of chickens. Real chickens. The kind that walk around clucking and pecking. Which is what they were doing. Only no one else seemed to care, or even notice. This is normal? Obviously I had a little hiccup reading my notecards. Understandable. I was talking to forty orphans who had to share a dirt floor with two chickens. No one in college had ever prepared me for this scenario.
An individual school can handle a resident idiot from time to time, but an entire school system is only as good as its weakest leader.
Farid asked, 'Do American teachers care about every student?'I thought about a humanities teacher I’d worked with in Korea and more recently a science teacher I’d worked with in Germany. I said, 'I think most schools have a resident idiot.
Cope? Adapt? Uh, no. These are military kids. They roll with it. I once asked a new student, 'See any familiar faces?' She pointed out various kids and replied, 'Seattle, Tampa, Okinawa, New Jersey.' For military dependents school is literally a non-stop revolving door of old and new friends.
Sami and I had exactly one day together in the old world. On Tuesday the jihadists came to our front door and knocked down our buildings. Our new world was hijacked planes, anthrax, and Afghanistan. Then we had snipers inside the Beltway. Then came Iraq. With every military action we were told reprisals were not just probable, but a foregone conclusion. An intelligence officer with a fancy PowerPoint briefed teachers on ‘our new reality.’ He called us ‘targets.’ He said ‘get used to it.’ He told our Webmaster ‘get off your ass’ and remove bus routes/stops from the school’s website. Johnny Jihad would find that information especially helpful if he decided to plow through our kids one morning as they stood half-asleep waiting for the school bus.
For the first time in a decade I felt a voice rising from deep inside my soul. It cried out ‘what will you be today?’ and I heard ‘relentless’ booming from the rafters inside an old gym as Sami and a group of young men chased dreams and trophies while their fathers went to war.
It feels like last week, but in fact we’re now closing in on five thousand days at war. I always picture Sami as a nine-year-old soccer stud ... and yet there are soldiers in Afghanistan today who were in fourth grade on 9/11.
I’m sure the driver was a great guy and all he wanted was to drive me to my hotel—but he was a complete stranger to me and the truth is that being vigilant isn’t a part-time job, it’s not about being nice to people, it’s about reality. I made a terrible mistake once, believing the monsters that want to hurt us are easily labeled and identified, rather than walking and hiding amongst us. That’s my reality.
Service members will only stay on active duty if they can provide for their families—and DOD schools provide a world-class education that has proven time and again to be an incentive for sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines to reenlist. Military dependents that attend DoDDS schools are highly regarded by prestigious universities the world over for a number of reasons, but there’s one that you’d have a hard time replicating in a stateside school system: they’ve lived overseas, traveled the world, seen and experienced other cultures, learned foreign languages through immersion, and they’ve gained an understanding of the world that you can’t get in a traditional classroom. Add a rigorous curriculum and a long track record of high test scores throughout DoDDS, and it’s pretty easy to see why military kids are in such high demand.
As calls rang out the world over for new treaties and organizations to be established with the intent of preventing future wars, America and her allies took a more realistic approach to the problem—we maintained allied military bases across Europe and Asia and we stationed troops in these foreign territories on a permanent basis. We weren’t invaders or conquerors and for sure we had no intention of being an empire. We were liberators. That’s all. But having fought and sacrificed so much and for so long, the pragmatic thing to do was to follow this simple philosophy: it’s great to have dialogue, it just works a lot better when you have a strong military strategically placed and ready to act around the globe.
They were worried about keeping military families strong. They were worried about the stress and strain of prolonged military service and how it would affect our military readiness the next time a Hitler-wannabe reared his ugly head. As they made a list of pros and cons for sending families overseas, they never imagined that DOD schools would be the best possible solution to nearly every problem they could envision. The most unpredictable phenomena occurred. The DOD literally created a culture of kids whose life experiences were so rich, yet so different from where they’d come from, that as they grew in years the people they most related to, the people they most wanted to be around, were other military kids who had the same shared experience. Military kids became military members—and they’ve kept us strong, our families, armed forces, our country, all of us.
I’m clinging to one last thought: pain is the harbinger of hope. You have to be alive to feel pain. If you are alive, then you have purpose. If you have purpose, then you have hope.
It’d be easy to blame everything on 9/11 or the wars that came after. It’s really about the choices we made. By necessity we adapt to the realities of the world we live in, but if we forget that how we live shapes and influences the world around us, then we’ve already lost.
In total this journey will take five flights and fifty-five hours, but in reality it began four decades and two generations ago when my uncle died in Vietnam.
The last two days I’ve been on long bus rides, driven through the countryside on the back of a motorbike, and crossed rivers on wooden boats, traversing currents into a different century. It’s late and dark, but I’m so close now. My uncle died five kilometers from here.