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...