Chairman Mao, Thriller

As a high-school principal in the 80s and 90s, I sought a global perspective on issues of education, childhood, the future, and an increasingly technological world. I have always been disturbed by educational injustice (the knowledge haves and have nots). I wanted to remove barriers and borders in order to level the learning playing field. I was antsy. I looked outside my window and, frankly, I was both bored and claustrophobic.

Bored by the tyranny of the urgent (yet, in perspective, not urgent at all), and claustrophobic about not being able to reach beyond the boundaries of my school. I told myself that I really had very little to complain about.

After all, I have had the good fortune of running the finest schools in two major cities, each with an innovative and caring faculty. I was even ashamed of myself for feeling comfortable. Perhaps too comfortable. Having lived in China and the Middle East, I wanted to be challenged by new ideas. My parents once told me a story about Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner. When he came home from school each day, Dr. Wiesel’s parents did not grill him about whether or not he got good marks. Instead, they asked: “Did you ask any good questions today?” I had plenty of my own, and I have always felt that curiosity is the soul of education. I wanted to ask good questions. I longed to be in and of the world, rather than a distant bystander.

After several conversations with the faculty, I was supported in my quest to earn my doctorate. I decided to study the qualities of an educated young person for the 21st century and so began to reach out to teachers. To get the conversation going, I asked teachers around the world to describe what they saw outside their windows. I asked them to abstract a little and reflect on their views of education. I knew the question was a bit abstract. I feared that nobody would respond. I was, simply, curious. Somehow, the word got out. With humility and grace, teachers flooded me with generous, insightful stories about the views outside their windows. They changed me. They still do. I realized quickly: brains truly are distributed throughout the world.

To understand this, one only need ask an intriguing question! On one particularly pivotal day, a teacher from Norway and another from Nicaragua described what they saw outside their windows. The Norwegian, feeling trapped by dark northern days ahead, longed to bask in the sun. At the other end of the world, a Nicaraguan teacher, having suffered through weeks of unbearable heat, expressed her longing to see snow for the first time. I connected the two teachers, and what followed was a set of interactions so rich, so filled with humility, hospitality, and friendship, that I announced my resignation from my comfortable job as a principal in 2000 and launched Teachers Without Borders (TWB), a global non-profit designed to connect teacher development with global challenges.

The vision of the organization has not changed. Teachers remain the true catalysts of change, the acupuncture points of our society, and the glue that holds our world together. At 59 million, they represent the largest professionally trained group in the world…and our only hope for a sustainable future. Thirteen years later, with a tiny staff and an army of volunteers, Teachers Without Borders has been embraced by members in 184 countries. When something happens in the world, I contact a teacher who lives there. And when I do, I’m never disappointed. TWB is an organization comprised of teacher leaders, worldwide. All TWB programs are conceived and led by teachers. It’s an inspiration. I often tell stories of teachers who don’t have time—but somehow make time—for students, their parents, and their communities. Teachers who don’t have much pocket change, but who make change anyway.

Teachers may not have resources, but they fashion them from local materials, their own creativity, and from the expertise of colleagues. Teachers do not have publicity firms, yet are somehow capable of transforming thousands, regardless of who is looking. Teachers know who is sick or missing or orphaned by AIDS. Teachers are the ones with their ear to the ground, listening for a community’s pulse. Teachers know that they cannot wait for an act of Congress before they can perform; rather, they perform acts of conscience every single day. Unfortunately, the voices of teachers are rarely heard. More often than not, they are demonized as the problem, rather than the solution. And in far too many cases, teachers have been one of the first victims of outright attack.

Those who seek to tear a society down go after its pillars – the teachers. In many settings around the world, the view outside one’s window may appear bleak: natural and national disasters, communities at risk, and countries in turmoil. But we’re teachers, and so we’re back at it every day. We simply have no time to waste. Some day, I hope to meet the Nicaraguan and Norwegian teacher who inspired me to start Teachers Without Borders, but it matters little; I still hold them close.

I suppose I could point to any number of beginnings—those first stirrings in my soul that ultimately drove me out of my professional comfort zone and found Teachers Without Borders.

Although from the present vantage point, it seems to have been more of a professional discomfort zone.

I was enjoying considerable success. I was the principal of the Oakwood School, an exclusive private school in Los Angeles, populated by students who came from hugely privileged backgrounds. We would hold fundraisers at which Hollywood elite would show up, checkbooks in hand, ready to provide every resource we needed.

And as much fun as it was—I still remember finding myself, astounded at my unbelievable luck, sitting between Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger one night at a bar, at a celebrity birthday party.  And moments later, as I walked back to my table with a glass of wine for my wife, Jack Nicholson approached me, trademark sunglasses on, and gave me a bear hug, apparently confusing me with the doctor for the Lakers.

Yet more celebs were fawning over me because I held the key to admitting their children to Oakwood. I couldn’t stop asking myself: “What kind of difference am I making, really? Am I making even a little bit of difference—a difference that matters—in anyone’s lives?”

I could never forget one episode from my pre-principal days there, when I was still on the faculty. I was holding parent-teacher conferences one day when the parent in question strode in. He was a rock star—he came in wearing black leather and sunglasses, approached my desk, sat down, and got right to the point: “Mister…can my kid read?”

“Sir,” I answered, “your daughter’s in eighth grade.”

This just wasn’t working for me.  I decided to quit my job and take a look at life and education outside the United States.

I suppose I was looking for a fresh perspective, or a wider one, or at least for some new ideas about how to go about the business of pedagogy. In any event, my wife and I ended up in Kaifeng, China, in 1984, having signed up to teach for a year at that city’s Henan University. She would be responsible for undergraduate English “Speaking and Listening,”  I would teach graduate students finishing their teaching certificates.

Kaifeng is the capital city of Henan Province, considered to be the “birthplace of Chinese civilization,” and was the seat of the Song Dynasty—China’s Renaissance (960-1279)—noted for the flowering of culture and such achievements as movable type, chain drives (like those that power bicycles), gunpowder, and the compass.  Kaifeng stretched back 5,000 years (give or take a century), and has served as the capital city of seven dynasties.

Interestingly, it also once housed a small Jewish community, possibly of Persian origin during the Song Dynasty years. The community built a kosher butchering facility, a synagogue, and a study hall.   (Those managing the synagogue were called “mullahs.”)  The Jews intermarried over the years, wore pigtails, bound their daughters’ feet, but also circumcised their male children, observed the Sabbath, and carried on the tradition of not eating pork.

With our passports stamped “Jew,” my wife and I entered China under the aegis of The Ministry of Education, which had been authorized to import English speakers as part of China’s new push toward “The Four Modernizations” of industry, national defense, agriculture, and science/technology. “Foreign Experts” such as my wife and I would fit the bill of providing first-hand experience with native speakers and a unique, up-close look at American or British life.  A national re-engineering was newly under way, and Kaifeng was doing its best to modernize itself.

China was very much a Soviet-style state in 1984. In Kaifeng, holding hands or dancing in public was forbidden.  Incoming and outgoing mail was opened and read.  Our cassette tapes were confiscated and returned with dirty fingerprints and missing cases.  Friends were “assigned” to us.  Field trips were orchestrated. Conversations from officials were scripted.  Someone was always taking notes. Privacy was either symptomatic of loneliness (unacceptable) or a tip-off for suspicious activity.  We were rarely left alone.

In the evenings, students would stand under street lamps, memorizing the textbook and teachers’ guide, and when the lights went out at 10pm, they filed into the classroom and were issued one candle each.  When the candles melted onto their desks, the party monitor would order everyone to scrape the wax from the tables and sweep the floor.

Life was disciplined.  At 5:00 am, the loudspeakers blared “The East is Red,” along with such exhortations as  “Comrades, it is now time for exercise” or “Comrades, clear the snow from steps in order to avoid injury.”  Ever dutiful, the students began with “Chairman Mao’s Four-Minute Physical Fitness Plan,” followed by a jog, “en masse,” around the track.

For all its restrictions, life there was changing fast. When we first entered the gates of Henan University, loudspeakers were playing “The East is Red,” originally a simple folksong written by a farmer about the glory of seeing a sunrise.  The loud, tinny version we heard from the corners of every building was a propaganda anthem extolling the virtues of Chinese communism.  It had become the mandatory soundtrack of 800,000,000 people.  Only a year later, we were allowed to hold hands as we strolled the campus grounds. Our cassette tapes (having been copied “in order to practice” speaking and listening), were playing a Pointer Sisters song, “I’m So Excited” over those ubiquitous loudspeakers. I remember observing groups of Chinese pondering aloud the lyrics  “I’m about to lose control and I think I like it!”

In class, however, little changed.  Four communist party members always sat in the back at a separate table.  Students sat on top of each other, four to a tiny bench, in order to stay warm, the snow often drifting in through broken windows.   Upon the command of a class monitor, they would rise when I entered the room and sit down when my hands grasped the lectern.  During breaks, four male students would hold my arm and say:  “Laoshr (Teacher) Fred, it is time for us to urinate,” accompanying me to the trough.

The textbook was divided into a set of unrelated, pilfered selections of American and British writing.  I had to explain every word, parse every sentence, act out all cultural idioms.  My students asked no questions at first, preferring to answer in unison.

The first chapter went reasonably well, though soliciting feedback was close to impossible.  The subject was not exactly literature (a procedural text from a manual on house-painting), but I made do. I was the wall and they were the painters.  We prepared the area, dipped in our brushes and rollers, and pantomimed subjects, nouns, prepositions, and active and transitive verbs.

The second chapter, however, represented a dramatic shift. It was random selections from Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. How as I supposed to teach this English? “Are you kidding?  A musical is like a sexual desert—unless you’re a fag.  Dickie is having a ball with all those chorus boys—it’s like a smorgasbord.  The leading man is straight—handsome, too—but he has a wife who looks like his mother, and she sits around and watches him every second.  The guy who plays opposite Terry King is bald without his rug.”

Cross-cultural pollination kept serving up similarly incongruous offerings. Opening the door unannounced one night, our interpreter ushered in a group of Uyghur women from Ürümqi. (Considered part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the group is comprised of diverse nationalities and ethnicities.) This was billed as a demonstration of China’s new cultural openness.  We were savvy enough not to ask questions.

Though they were bejeweled and their hair expertly braided, the dancers clearly looked uncomfortable, stealing glances at our interpreter for clues about what to do.  They stood in the center of the room, awaiting instructions, busying themselves by smoothing out their orange indigenous dresses and straightening out their feather caps.  The car following them, carrying instruments and musical accompanists, was stuck in a snow bank.  They would have to dance without music.

Having just gotten our cassette tapes back, I decided to furnish them some accompaniment, choosing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It was all they needed; following the beat, they twirled about—dervish, sultry, Thai-like, naturally gravitating toward each other and knowing just when to link arms during the refrain, like Eastern line dancers.

That this is thriller, thriller night
‘Cause I can thrill you more than any ghost would ever dare try
Thriller, thriller night
So let me hold you tight and share a
Killer, diller, chiller, thriller here tonight

Ürümqi dancers in our apartment, in their traditional ethnic ceremonial garb, working it to a Michael Jackson hit, in China, in 1984.  Where was the New York Times photographer when we most needed one?

My wife and I came away from that year having learned that the most fundamental, enduring core of international development was, in a word, friendship: a currency of reciprocity and dignity, respect and forbearance, sacrifice and humility, that buys a kind of magic.

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