Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Re-entry

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I hadn’t seen Professor Johnson since grad school. But when a friend called me up needing advice on conflict resolution programs in the Middle East, I knew he would be the expert to consult.

I met him at the Starbucks across the street from my office and he was waiting very gentlemanly near the door without even a thought to join the line snaking in switchbacks towards the back door. Professor Johnson was not worried about getting coffee and he wasn't in a hurry. He was here to see me.

My momentary befuddlement about how to greet my old professor was swept away when he raised his arm and drew me in to a small hug and light kiss on the cheek. Tall, in his late 60’s, with a head of white hair and an honest friendly smile that stretched across his face with relaxed purity, he looked like the ice cream man from a Norman Rockwell painting.

I noted almost immediately that he now had two hearing aids, as opposed to the one he used to adjust during his lectures when his voice would begin to drop to an almost inaudible softness. You know how sometimes when someone lowers their voice; they duck their head like they are telling you a secret that they don’t want others to hear. Well Professor Johnson’s voice would lower, but like you had just turned down the volume on your favorite news program, his mannerisms and gesticulation would be unaffected. He would just keep on giving the news.

“So good to see you Ms. Jane. How have you been?”

And unlike so many people that ask you that question, he really wanted to know the answer. I could feel it.

We joined the Starbucks line. We found a table near the front door. I gave him the quick career run down. But there was something so genuine about him that I didn’t bother to throw in all the hyperbole and exaggeration that often accompany you telling someone from grad school how far you've made it in the real world. There is just something about his easy going and non-judgemental manner that instantly makes me feel safe. Safe, respected and appreciated.

I like that I can tell him the truth.

“And what about you? What’s this I hear about you working in Ramallah?”

With complete lack of ego, professor Johnson begins to tell me about his work negotiating with the PLO. He’s had an incredible career and an exciting life of meeting heads of state, living in the caves with Bedouins and helping resolve conflict amongst a nunnery in Iraq. It was his career path that first inspired me to study conflict resolution. I read his bio when I was selecting classes for my first year of grad school and I knew that one day I wanted mine to contain at least one of the stories I knew he could tell.

“Well, I asked you to meet with me because I thought you might be able to help my friend with a current project he is running in Gaza. He’s got Israeli and Palestinian kids playing basketball together to overcome their differences. He’s thinking about adding an educational element to the program and I think you could help him.”

I tell him a little about the program. And somehow he knows exactly what I’m avoiding trying to say are the weaknesses of the organization.

“Sounds like you might have a little trouble with re-entry. You can take these kids away from their communities and their parents and introduce them to kids that they learn to appreciate as being just like themselves. But when you send that child back home, he has to survive. And in order to survive, he has to assimilate. How do you get him to retain what he’s learned. How do you affect his re-entry into society?”

Then he looks me straight in the eye.

“What’s your attachment to this project Jane?”

And I know that he wants to know where I’m coming from before he answers so that he can only give me the information specific to help me solve my problem myself. That was how he would teach. I would wander into his office hours wanting answers and he would ask me questions. He would qualify my questions and try to help me figure out what I was really asking. Even if I didn’t know.

“Because when I heard this man speak, it inspired me. It reminded me of what we studied. What you taught me. And he’s making a difference. He’s doing it. What all of us talked about. He’s doing it.”

A smile spread across Professor Johnson’s face.

“Well that’s a good reason Jane. I think I can help.”

And we talked and he encouraged and offered consult and made me look at things in ways I never really thought to frame them. Or at least ways I hadn’t thought about in a long time. When we were all finished, I had established next steps and Professor Johnson wasn’t rushing to throw away his coffee cup or looking at his watch. He was really, truly listening to me. He was being of service.

“How did you get into this stuff?”

I asked him because I really wanted to know.

“That’s a good question. Let me tell you.”

And he told me about his brother-in-law being taken hostage by the Lebanese. He told me about moving to Cyprus and commuting illegally to Beirut for six dedicated years to negotiate with terrorist and arrange his brother-in-laws release. He told me about being passionate, being in the right place at the right time, letting things fall into place. And I could see that he loved what he did, and that his path had found him. He was combining what he was good at with the circumstances in his life.

And as if he knew that hearing all of this made me doubt my career path. He leaned across the table and gently encouraged me.

“I think you are going to do great things with your life and career.”

“Too bad you are not a fortune teller.”

“Jane. Look at all you have done with your life. All the different areas where you have gathered expertise. Those experiences are always applicable and can always be pulled forward. You just have to take the opportunities as they present themselves.”

He went on. But his voice dropped. I could see his lips moving and observe his tender and thoughtful expression as he carefully chose words that I couldn’t hear. But it didn't matter, I was lost for a moment in my own head.

I sort of felt this little sting in my eyes. The sting you get when you read Hallmark cards or watch the Lifetime movie of the week. I felt a little, well, emotional. In broad daylight, in the middle of my work week, on a lunch hour mere steps from my office, I actually felt something real.

Professor Johnson was demonstrating for me what it meant to make a difference in other peoples lives without ever having to fly to Bosnia and live in the middle of a war zone. Without even having other people understand exactly what you were trying to say.

“Thanks Professor.”

“You know, you don’t have to call me that anymore. The name is Bill.”

But we both knew, he was still my teacher.

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posted by Pop Culture Casualty @ 5/31/2006 11:59:00 PM |

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