Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why Egypt?


In October, when I bought a new (fancy) bed, I thought to myself, “I’ll sleep in this bed for the entire 20-year warranty. How convenient.”

Last April, when I relocated from one apartment building to the residence next door, I thought I would stay in this apartment until I finished my doctorate.

A year-and-a-half ago, when I started my fourth year of teaching, armed with due process rights and non-probationary status, I was convinced I would retire in this district.

Two years ago, when I applied to the Ph.D. program at the University of Kansas, I had a five-year plan that included an advanced degree and a big salary increase.

Five years ago, when I started teaching at Nieman Elementary, I thought I would teach there for 30 years, like my predecessor.

And six years ago, when I left Oberlin, I decided to move home and start my life as a Kansan. I did not question that decision for a minute.

But when I was a child, I dreamt of history. I read books about the Titanic, obsessed over the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and imagined a magical, biblical land where all my favorite Broadway Musicals were rooted in reality. I read The Egypt Game and wrote letters with my hieroglyphics stamp kit. I created historic fantasy in my mind, and considered time travel more than once.

Actual international travel only intensified the effect. My parents sacrificed so much so that I could perform, study and teach outside of the United States. At the Schonbrunn Palace, while others admired the ornate décor and Austrian culture, I stood in one place and kept thinking, “Mozart could have stood here…right here!” I closed my eyes in La Catedral de Sevilla and tried to experience the worship of those centuries before me. While sitting at dinner with my family in Japan, I could only think of how the table might have looked with my ancestors 100 years ago.

When I tell the story of Egypt, it sounds rushed and spontaneous. Early November, I only considered the option and two weeks later, I had accepted a job. People ask me, “Why Egypt?” And I reply nonchalantly that I felt drawn to The Middle East, that I just let my heart decide for once and gave my mind a break. I act as if it were unplanned and in my usual theatrical fashion, I shrug my shoulders and respond with the cliché, “Why not?”

While I felt inclined to flippantly deny an answer to the pressing question of “why” to my peers, I was prepared to over-explain to my students, focusing on the “Not why” instead. I designed a whole slide in “The Big Announcement” Powerpoint listing all the reasons they might think I’m leaving that actually are not true. “It’s not because I don’t like my job,” and, “It’s not because I don’t love all of you,” and “It’s not because I want to leave you.” I further pressed, “It’s like having two things you really want to do, and one of them you’ve already done for five years. What would you choose?” They looked at me blankly, some with obvious annoyance on their faces and exclaimed, “The other thing,” (leaving out the “duh!”).

My students were plenty sad that I was leaving (and I cried enough for all of us). But their sadness stopped at a reasonable, healthy, unselfish place. And, as always, they just continue to amaze and surprise me. Because they understood “why” more than anyone. More than me. If I hadn’t included that slide, they probably wouldn’t have even asked the question. Their reaction perfectly summarizes “why”…

“We learned that Cairo is the most populated city in the world,” Ally said, who just finished a country project on Egypt with her friend, Kayla. “It will be cool to see all those people.”

“When you meet the Sphinx,” Jon explained, “She will ask you a question, and if you answer correctly, you may proceed.”

“Hey, isn’t that where ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ takes place?” Greg asked, remembering our three-week lesson on the musical earlier in the year.

“That river looks HUGE!” Jenn exclaimed.

“I wonder what it’s like to see something 2000 years old,” Anthony pondered.

“You mean there are dead people in those pyramids?” Olivia gasped, slightly horrified.

“I want to learn another language, also.” Carlos said, “I already speak two.”

“Isn’t that in Africa?” Tyler asked, “That’s a whole different continent!”

“I think I’m going to ask my parents to come with you,” (Jon again). “Because that school you showed us has a swimming pool and I don’t have a swimming pool.”

My kids see this for the adventure that it is: The fascination that comes from learning a little about something and then yearning to know more. The awe that comes from experiencing history. The chills that come with knowing there is something so much bigger out there. The pyramids, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Nile, the Sphinx, the Mosques, the Coptic churches, the language, the food, the culture, the experience.

OF COURSE I am going to Egypt. It is a quest that has been developing inside me since I was my students’ age. And I plan on having a fabulous time.