Saturday, August 13, 2011

Transitioning from training...

By all rights, this should be a very long entry—but it isn’t.  As I finish 10+ weeks of Peace Corps training, I’ve been very fortunate in a number of ways:

1.     I’ve learned a lot about myself and 40 other friends/trainees.  Each of us had to adapt to the environmental, social, and cultural realities of our new home and determine our own individual route to success and fulfillment.

2.     I’ve stayed relatively healthy—except for some awkwardly located mosquito bites—and, overall, feel great.

3.     I’ve learned that there are really three important support groups over here: the Peace Corps staff (training and service), our fellow trainees, and—importantly—the current volunteers who know the finer points of both survival and daily living far from home.

Frustrations?  Of course—especially in approaching a new language with an unfamiliar alphabet.  In trying to frame negative sentences starting with “Yes” (“I” in Armenian).  In blocking on a particularly important Armenian word—and having a German word (randomly left over from a high school language class 45 years ago) crowd out the needed one.   Yet we survived.

As I prepare for the Swearing-in ceremony Tuesday and the ensuing two years of service (teaching 14-to-17 year-olds English in a northern province of the country), I realize that every person over here has her/his own unique rationale for choosing to leave the U.S. for 27 months’ training/work overseas.  I also realize that, no matter what my official job assignment is, that—6,000 miles away from home—my music will always serve as a gateway to teaching, as well as a primary means of communication, entertainment, and—when all is said and done—sanity.

Here’s to the next part of the ride. : )

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Peace Corps/Armenia—the first two weeks

Well—after counting down the days till departure, it’s finally happened:  Armenia.  The one-day staging (orientation) in Philadelphia was enjoyable, allowing us to meet our cohort group, the A-19’s (the 19th group to work in Armenia). 

As would be expected, the actual process of getting there was somewhat of a blur, though it was fun strolling down K√§rtnerstrasse and eating schnitzel during our half-day stopover in Vienna.  The flight to Armenia took a little over three more hours and we arrived at 4:30 a.m.—dog-tired—to a well-organized reception from the Peace Corps/Armenia staff.

After loading in our bus and baggage truck, we were taken for an unexpected initiation of sorts—the majestic and historic site and ruins of Zvartnots Temple, a 7th-century cathedral (  With the plaintive melody/drone of a pair of dudeks (an Armenian double-reed instrument) in the background, we were introduced to various members of the instructional, technical, and support staff for Peace Corps/Armenia.

Ascending the steps, we were treated to an unforgettable spectacle: the sunrise over snow-capped Mt. Ararat.  Apart from the biblical relationship with Noah’s Ark, the peak is an imposing sight by any standard.  Looming nearby over the landscape of modern Turkey, it is still revered in Armenia as an important symbol of past history and national pride. (

We spent the next three days in a Soviet-era hotel/retreat, attending introductory lessons and preparing to meet our host families.  Finally, on June 7th, we packed up and moved to our training villages.  Our class of 41 trainees (ranging in age from 21 to early 70’s) is housed in five villages surrounding a nearby town in the north-central part of the country.  We currently have a class schedule that roughly approximates taking 12 university credit hours during a summer term.  It’s heavy on Armenian language training (3-4 hours/day), but also includes classes in cross-cultural experiences, security, I.T., and medical/ “resiliency” considerations, since we’re here for 27 months.  Additionally, we’re being trained in Peace Corps approaches to TEFL (English as a second language), while others in Community Business Development are studying approaches to business and NGO’s.

Summing up:
  • The training is tiring, but effective.
  • The other members of A-19 are an interesting, talented, and very pleasant group.
  • There is little doubt that I’ll use my musical background and skills as an asset during my work here.
  • Armenia is a beautiful and fascinating country.  I look forward to learning more in the ensuing weeks, months, and years.
I’ll try to keep this up-to-date, as time and circumstances permit.  Meanwhile, I wish each of you an enjoyable summer.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

I don't know why you say "goodbye" (I say "hello")

There’s a certain danger in writing while tired—you tend to ramble and lose your inhibitions. But you write anyway.

This has been a whirlwind, fatiguing two months since the last post.  During that time, it's been a dizzying succession of concerts, end-of-term class preparations, grading finals, and generally considering the import of these past 24 years of teaching at Georgia Southern.  It’s easy to be introspective when cleaning out your office for the last time, watching a living, breathing space revert into its original four bare walls (and knowing that—very soon—it will take on a different life for a new inhabitant).

Parallel with this, however, is the world that over 40 of us are about to enter.  Peace Corps pre-service training is imminent: our path to Armenia will be accomplished by next weekend. If it’s really true that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” then its opposite—my personal road to 27 months of exploration and experience—is paved with my pursuit of random bits of introductory Armenian phrases, a growing recognition of most of this new and fascinating alphabet, and acquaintanceship with a variety of historical and cultural references.  I am under no illusions as to what I've actually learned thus far: this relatively tiny amount  can’t possibly compare to that which we're intended to absorb during these next three months of daily training and related experiences.

Returning to the present: I am pretty much overwhelmed by the kindness of my friends, colleagues, and students (and these are by no means mutually exclusive).  These past weeks have seen a steady parade of “good-bye” dinners, receptions, concerts, and media commentary—roughly like being a spectator at your own funeral.  Yet every “good-bye” was special, since it contained the seeds of excitement for this new and worthwhile endeavor—and, frankly, I can’t wait to get started!

P.S.: As I write this, a whole new group of our undergraduate students is on the threshold of experiencing its first overseas study/performance tour.  Closer to home, students—and organizations—are pondering the consequences of prior actions and decisions.  And in the midst of all this, my “good-byes” start becoming “hellos” two days from now.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Beginning the goodbyes

Crunch time—with five weeks of classes (plus exams) remaining in the academic year, I'm beginning the "end game" of my current academic career.  At the same time, I'm still chopping away at the list of things that must be done prior to leaving the country for an extended time, realizing that I'll have only about 10 days after University Commencement (both my students’ and—in a sense—my own) before I actually get on the plane, bound for Peace Corps training and service.  

My teaching goal remains the same: to finish our classes in a more-or-less relaxed, non-panicky mode.  Most of my students understand and respect this; it's only a few malingerers that still prove occasionally irritating. Fortunately, I'm able to reconcile this, having learned some valuable lessons over these past 40 years of teaching.

In these last frantic weeks, each local/regional performance takes on its own "final" character, e.g., “last performance with a school ensemble,” “last banquet,” “last student recital,” “last professional orchestral gig,”...the list goes on. At the same time, each event allows me the opportunity to thank those who have so positively contributed to so many people's lives, mine included.  

While, in an ideal world, I'd be at complete equilibrium with all my students, colleagues, associates, and friends, I nonetheless leave with a preponderance of really positive memories.  In the case of the few disappointments, especially those dealing with unfulfilled student or organizational or institutional potential, I'm gradually—and gently—cutting the cord of responsibility.  Things take time to accomplish; perhaps the people/groups with whom I'm most concerned will see a much brighter future than can currently be imagined.

On a lighter note:  In an odd way, I'm enjoying the absolutely straight-faced jockeying of a few colleagues for my office space when I move out (mildly reminiscent of Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come).

I'll update this as the month goes on.  Meanwhile, congratulations to the survivors of March, which has, once again, “come in like a lion and gone out like a lamb”—regardless of John Belushi's alternate meteorological theories.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

“Man macht, Gott lacht”

Loosely translated, “people make plans and God laughs.”

Last time, I talked about two different worlds—those of school/professional and Peace Corps preparation.  Perhaps I may have given the impression that these could be neatly separated, in a sort of ordered alternation of roles.  Certainly, I thought so, at least for a brief period of time.  Wrong.

This past week has been a jumble of music theory and composition teaching, solo and orchestral keyboard performing, and continued slow absorption of the Armenian alphabet and beginning phrases [for example, I recognize the Armenian “t” because it looks like an upside-down tuba resting on its bell].

Therefore all is well—until reality rears its head, in the form of student choices ranging from mature and insightful to childish, desperately serious to virtually catastrophic.  This week, my focus has somewhat shifted  away from my usual pleas that individuals—and groups—respect their fellow students (and would-be members) as human beings.  Rather, I find myself shifting between two personas: one attempting to persuade bright students not to beat themselves up over specific imagined shortcomings, and another putting pressure on vaguely apologetic underachievers to produce up to their capabilities.  Add to the mix an unexpected post-midnight, return-to-the-university visit with a student whose suite-mate had just attempted suicide, and you begin to understand the futility of compartmentalizing different aspects of one’s life.

Yet, in following the Peace Corps’ “common wisdom” of enjoying and experiencing every familiar thing possible before shipping out, I realize that navigating this wonderfully discombobulated world of teacher/performer/advisor is precisely what I've been doing this past 40 years.  So why should I act so surprised that it’s simply accelerating in pace during these, my last three months at the university?

Somewhere in the ether, I think I hear the faint voice of my very old mentor, A. S. Neill (the late founder of England’s Summerhill School).  He seems to be laughing his head off...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The transition begins

With a little over three months remaining before I move into the newest phase of my work, I find myself experiencing two distinct lives. 

The first consists of my usual teaching and professional commitments, each made more significant by its finality, as in “this is the last time I’ll…[insert activity].”  At the University, this manifests itself through commentary from two extreme groups of people:  those who overly dramatize my leaving and those who calmly assume I’ve already left (and are surprised to see me still around).  In the middle, one finds a lot of amazing, sensitive individuals—which is why I’m spending an unusually good deal of my free time in one-on-one conversations with students, university employees, staff, and colleagues.  Through their respective narratives of day-to-day trials, travails, and triumphs, I continue learning, even as I begin the necessary process of separation.

At the same time, I’m experiencing a genuine—not virtual—“second life” of philosophical musings (even more than usual!) and practical preparations.  Away from school, I’m reading everything I can get my hands on about Armenia and surrounding areas, I’m making slow, steady progress towards a rudimentary vocabulary, and I’m pursuing all the legal, domestic, and Peace Corps-related tasks preparatory to living abroad for 27 months.  While I have resigned myself to “expect the unexpected” (and 40 years of teaching does help equip one to do just that), I am under no illusions.  The vast part of my future is still unknown; the story yet to be written in a slow, steady manner over the ensuing days, weeks, and months.

Meanwhile, having briefly discussed the concept of “flowers for the living” with two freshman classes today, I will—closer to term's end—reinforce to them a core belief: that one of the ultimate purposes of a teacher is to make oneself obsolete, in the sense that the student no longer needs them to teach a particular skill or body of knowledge.  While some sense of dependence may be necessary at first, I’d ultimately prefer that my students stood on their own two feet. 
I do hope it happens.

Meanwhile, the energy, exuberance, and kindness continues to flow from most all quarters…

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It's Armenia!

The placement suspense came to an end on the evening of the Martin Luther King holiday, when I received the Peace Corps package, replete with booklets, forms, and—most importantly—my placement details.  I will be serving for 27 months in Armenia, leaving in late May after a two-day staging (orientation) in Philadelphia.

I couldn't be more pleased.  Armenia is located in a fascinating part of the world, one I seem to have bypassed in travels to Western Europe, South Asia, and China.  Boasting a rich historical and cultural history, it presents a special attraction to me as a teacher and musician—not to mention a special challenge in learning a new language with a unique alphabet.

A mountainous country, Armenia shares a northern border with Georgia (and after 24 years of teaching in the U.S. at Georgia Southern University, I'm afraid I've already worn out my “Georgia On My Mind” joke).  Additionally, it shares borders with Turkey, Azerbaijan, and—to the south—Iran.

As I struggle to learn some basic conversational Armenian phrases, I'm making contact with the A-19 group on Facebook, as well as compiling a 30+ item list of things that need to be accomplished— pedagogically, professionally, domestically, and legally—before I leave.

Oh, and did I mention that—through the chaos—I‘m probably having more fun during this final semester of university teaching and performing than at any other time in my career?  Perhaps it’s due to the particular group of young and older students I’m working with this term, or possibly the graciousness of my friends, colleagues and audiences, as they share in this impending adventure.  Or—more prosaically—maybe it's just the grateful realization that the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” doesn’t appear to be an oncoming train...