“Anytime you hear the number of children who come forward in an abuse case with this much history, add a 0 to get the real number of victims.”
That’s what the district attorney told me in 1994 when I was a witness set to testify in a case much like this one.
If the formula holds true for former Penn State University football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, long-time friend and one-time heir apparent of fired coach and chief enabler Joe Paterno, we’re talking not about 8 victims, but 80.
Maybe more. Maybe many more.
Because in just 4 days since Sandusky’s arrest, the number of known victims has more than doubled, from 8 to 17. (Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly is urging other unidentified victims to come forward.)
You do the math.
Considering Sandusky began coaching at Penn State in 1969 and established his own “charitable” foundation 8 years later, he’s had more than 40 years of unfettered access to ‒ and unquestioned authority over ‒ 1,000s of young boys.
The Second Mile Foundation, whose ironic tag line is “providing children with help and hope,” is a state-wide organization serving 100,000 children.
It’s clear from the grand jury testimony that Sandusky used his foundation to meet and cultivate victims, who he then betrayed in the worst possible, permanently damaging way.
Sandusky feels “terribly depressed, terribly distraught” by the situation in which he’s found himself, claims his attorney, who’s drinking the Kool-Aid already because the only thing child abusers are ever distraught about is getting caught.
Penn State president Graham Spanier, who’s just been fired (and frankly that seems insufficient punishment), called the allegations against Sandusky “troubling.”
It’s well documented that pedophiles choose careers that give them access to kids. It’s a bonus if those kids are disadvantaged and vulnerable, seeking love and approval from a father figure otherwise missing in their lives.
In 1977, Sandusky founded The Second Mile Foundation, first as a group foster home ‒ another favorite career choice of child molesters ‒ to help “troubled boys” from troubled families.
A cruel recipe for disaster.
Because being a “beneficiary” of The Second Mile Foundation’s “generosity” cost these boys their bodies and hearts and futures. And the best Penn State officials could do was to take away Sandusky’s locker room keys?
And report the crimes to…Sandusky’s own charity?
This timeline of events and cast of characters amply demonstrates how many missed opportunities there were over many years to put Sandusky behind bars. For preying on victims as young as 7 or 8.
2nd and 3rd graders. Foster children, who drew the short straw in life to begin with.
People who shield predators try to characterize ‒ in an attempt to minimize ‒ child molestation as just “bothering,” or “overly affectionate,” or in this case “horsing around,” which implies the child consented to “play.”
Probably ill advised, but not devastating. Kids are resilient. Prioritize the family man whose career and reputation I risk if I say anything.
It’ll probably get messy. I’d rather not get involved.
This all causes seriously psychological damage to the child. But add extreme violence and you add even more crimes, especially if the child is under 13 (in some states under 14, or 14-15).
An adult male pinning a child 1/3 of his weight, only 10 years old, against a shower wall and sodomizing him is brutal RAPE.
Here are the penalties in Pennsylvania for sexual assault. Jerry Sandusky should’ve faced these charges almost 10 years ago. Given the timeline, much longer ago than that.
Joe Paterno and his wife Sue have 5 children and 17 grandchildren. If any of them had been rape victims, every police officer and FBI agent in Pennsylvania would’ve descended on Happy Valley within minutes.
But this was somebody else’s child, a nobody who didn’t matter. And of course he would never tell on his idol, or if he ever did, wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Thus, Joe’s precious football program, precious corporate sponsorships, and precious coaching legacy were safe.
It’s telling that Paterno continues to talk about My Goals and “one of the greatest sorrows of My Life.” Me, Me, Me. Or, Me and Penn State.
“I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University.” No sincere wish to help the children whose lives he knowingly let his protégé ruin by his selfish silence.
Maybe “we ought to say a prayer for them (the victims).” If I can take time away from worrying about what’s going to happen to Me, now that I’m no longer coach of Penn State’s illustrious football program that I built, and that made me untouchable.
As for the 2 Penn State officials, athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, senior VP for business and finance (and holding on to his $70 million plus annual revenue for dear life), who are now charged with failure to report a crime and committing perjury before the grand jury, you’re despicable. You should be charged with criminal conspiracy, along with Paterno and everyone else who knew about these crimes against children and did nothing.
And, worse than doing nothing, covered it up.
Sandusky, Curley, and Schultz will find out in prison exactly what it feels like to be the one pinned to the shower wall and brutalized, helpless and alone.
But the person I hold most in contempt, though, is Mike McQueary, the man on the scene in the Penn State locker room in 2002 ‒ an eyewitness, rare in rape cases involving children, according to this same district attorney ‒ who didn’t intervene to stop the crime in progress, didn’t call the police, didn’t even have the decency to get medical attention for the young boy afterwards.
According to his own grand jury testimony, McQueary walked in on the attack in the showers and both the victim and the rapist saw him clearly.
McQueary looked the 10-year-old boy right in the eye and, rather than help him, allowed the rape to continue and ran away in a panic…
…then, instead of 911, called Dad for advice?!
So what if McQueary was a graduate assistant with no power, terrified of Joe Paterno and the consequences of ratting out Joe’s friend Jerry. He was a 28-year-old man! He wasn’t a boy in elementary school, like the victim.
(Why is Penn State letting McQueary coach next Saturday against Nebraska? FIRE him already.)
Adults have rights in this world. They have money and resources. They are believed by the authorities.
They can drive!
Even if no-one calls 911 during the assault, adults at least have the chance to get away from their attackers and drive themselves to safety at a hospital or police station.
What happened to this young boy afterward? Did he have to wait outside the gym by himself for someone to come pick him up, while Sandusky walked by on his way to the parking lot and laughed at him?
Or did he, like another victim we’ve learned about, have to ride in the car while his abuser drove him home…
…acting like it was just another ordinary day?
It’s fall quarter at Stanford and time to get back on the bicycle. (Only if you’re in Egypt or the Gulf is it time to get back in the camel races.)
Because if, between coursework and independent study, you’re already a fair way through Volume I of Al-Kitaab, the standard series of university textbooks for Arabic language and literature, it’s time to embrace the trinity.
The Three Vowels.
When I first learned that Arabic had only 3 vowels, I rejoiced…for about 3 seconds. I’ve learned the hard way that when it comes to foreign languages, there’s always a catch…that catches you sooner or later.
That’d be sooner, if you’re reading aloud.
Reading aloud in Arabic is much like sight-reading a new piece of music: at some point, you have to stop tentatively tip-toeing around sotto voce and have the confidence to pick a note, any note, and commit to it.
Let’s consider the name of the city of Homs, Syria. I’ve already written about Homs, the home city of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad’s family and one of the epicenters of the freedom and democracy movement that began on March 15. Sadly, I can also name the top 10 most dangerous neighborhoods ‒ dangerous for protesters ‒ in this city of over 1 million.
(As I write this, the Syrian military is pounding Homs, with nail bombs on the ground and shelling from the air, to punish them for demonstrating ‒ 20,000 strong ‒ after Friday prayers, in favor of a no-fly zone they never wanted to have to ask for. But Assad just keeps on killing them, as military aircraft hover low over the Baba Amro neighborhood, terrorizing residents and randomly striking their homes.)
In Arabic, you write Homs with 3 letters, all consonants: حمص (ha, mim, sad). On maps of Syria and in the media, you’ll see this transliterated as Homs, Hums, or even Hims.
Which seem to me 3 very different vowels, but what do I know?
Examiners in Arabic, trying to place your level of proficiency, inquire whether you can read in Arabic, no matter how slowly (you have no idea), if the words are “properly voweled.” Those pronunciation notations, called diacritics, are commonly left out and eventually you’ll know what’s missing (doubtful, but OK).
But once I began to pronounce Arabic myself, with meaning, not just as a mimic of proper diction, I got the same sense as when I first learned French and Italian: the world’s most beautiful and poetic languages unfold like flowers.
So, you can be content reading Arabic silently in the Stanford library, or eavesdropping on other peoples’ conversations in Middle Eastern cafés…
(Except for the café down the street, run by these Egyptian guys who told me, when I tried talking to them: “Oh, Arabic is too hard for us. We prefer English.” I’m going to tell your mothers you said that.)
…or you can take a breath and give it your best guess. Once you do, 2 things will happen: you’ll get immediate, positive feedback and you’ll wonder why you didn’t say something sooner.
Because Arabic speakers love to talk. To anyone and everyone. About anything and everything.
For ever and ever.
One of the funniest stories I’ve heard in a long time was from a friend who does business in Iraq. Where 1-hour conference calls turn into 4-hour marathons, what between the ancient communications infrastructure – you think AT&T constantly drops calls! – and the apparently national compulsion to go on and on about…feelings!
This, from political appointees in the Iraqi Ministries of Health and Commerce!
“Feelings, oooooooooohhhhhhhhhh feelings…” Makes perfect sense that insufferable 1970s ballad would be a hit in Baghdad, but even their fellow Middle Easterners draw the line at Perry Como.
I don’t think I have any feelings in Arabic yet, except deep appreciation for native speakers and their (very kind but) undeserved compliments, which I gladly accept about anything except my cooking.
Inevitably, by this time somebody’s already cooked something for me, so when I’m grilled about my feelings, I can claim for at least an hour that – so sorry – I’m chewing.
Pronounced “mmmmmmmmmm,” no vowels required.
Everybody gets extra credit this year…in politics.
In Tacoma, the 3rd-largest school district in Washington state, USA, 1,900 public school teachers are on strike and have defied a court order to return to work. They’ve delayed the start of the new academic year for 28,000 students over unresolved contract disputes including pay, class size, and seniority-based job reassignments.
The teachers union may or may not have the right to strike, said a judge today, but the public generally agrees that teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated. Class size is a problem nationwide, despite us continually voting to tax ourselves to fix this. (Am I the only one wondering where all that money went?)
While some parents and students support teachers to continue negotiating while school is open, teachers aren’t getting universal sympathy for an all-out strike this time around.
From reading the local press lately and knowing how prior Seattle-area teachers strikes went down, it’s much the same conflicted thinking. Some are sympathetic to teachers and feel like they’ve been pressured and ignored one too many times. Others think teachers should be thankful they have jobs in this recession and need to share the pain of state budget cuts. Some worry about classes cutting into 2012 summer vacation, disrupting family and child care plans.
Meanwhile, no learning is happening, except learning that some adults, after having the whole summer off, don’t have to go back to work in September if they don’t feel like it, and they’ll probably still get paid. Hey, I want that job!
Teachers counter that if they cave in to school district demands, their complaints will never be resolved. Could be true. But if they make the strike long enough and painful enough, they will be. Hard to say.
Some students think teachers should grow up. Teachers think the school district should grow up. Here’s a thought: maybe you both need to grow up.
Tacoma teachers, it’s worth thinking globally: are your issues are so important to you to voice publicly and demand change that you’d still be willing to go on strike if you knew it meant risking being fired on by security forces? Or attacked with tear gas? Or imprisoned and tortured?
Then imagine you’re not an adult teacher. Imagine you’re an elementary school student striking in front of your school in Ghutta, Homs, Syria, with siblings in high school doing the same thing, and your parents wholeheartedly supporting you all, striking like this.
Telling observation from a Homs activist: “We grew up repeating every morning in school the famous slogan ‘Our leader forever, the comrade Bashar al Assad’ (or his father when he was alive). Most of us used to say it automatically without even realizing what we are saying. It was a form of indoctrination. Today, the students chanted ‘Freedom’ in many schools across Syria.”
(Students in Hama are taking it one step further, as Hama is famous for doing, and burning the indoctrination books.)
Unlike democracies, where different points of view are welcome, even encouraged, dictatorships ‒ with which Americans in our generation thankfully have no personal experience ‒ rely on fear, plus a potent mixture of hero worship, humiliation, mutual suspicion, and inability to picture things any way than how they are today…until the Arab Spring comes along in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and not-quite-Yemen and you began to realize the freedoms and opportunities you’ve been missing out on all this time.
Fast-forward to Homs in September 2011 and there, as in Damascus, Hama, Idlib, and Deir ez Zor provinces, this familiar student refrain is driving Bashar al-Assad and his Dictator of Education completely crazy: from Zamalka, Damascus, “No studying and no teaching until the fall of the President!”
Now that’s what I call an intractable union demand.
Demographics drives this reality. While birth rates in Europe have dropped off precipitously and the American Baby Boomer generation is set to retire, causing Social Security and Medicare costs to soar, over 40% of the Syrian population is under 18.
That’s almost 9 million young people who certainly aren’t going to vote for anybody named Assad. So best to make sure they never get a chance to vote.
On the first day of school, September 18, schools were nominally open, but attendance across Syria was sparse, to say the least. Some teachers didn’t show up at all. Kids who weren’t protesting were being kept at home by parents as a protest against the regime, or for their safety.
No argument about class sizes here.
Instead of cracking the books, look at what Syrian school kids were doing instead: stomping on a photo of Bashar’s face, burning it, then tearing it up and throwing away the pieces!
Same sentiment in Kanaker, where students shout right into the camera, “No studying until the regime falls!” Then, without warning, the security forces fire on the school children (in Qusayr, SW of Homs).
Sigh. This is going to be a long, sad school year.
Ironically, students might end up at school another way…because their classrooms are now prisons for protesters who’ve been arrested. Children, their teachers, and their parents might end up in class together.
In Al-Kiswah, about as pastoral as it gets 13 kilometers/6 miles south of Damascus, students’ banners read: ”This is my school. Its chairs became confession chairs. My father, brother, and cousin, all of them were beaten here.
How can I go to school before we topple the regime?”
Those same fathers, brothers, and cousins ‒ 3,000 in all ‒ who’d demonstrated the day before school started.
Including one father who said, “We want freedom even if we have to keep our demonstrations going for years, not only 6 months. We have nothing to lose if we are ready to sacrifice our lives…
(notice, not our salaries, our seniorities, our work environments)
…the most precious thing we have.”
Up until recently, I’d only ever heard of parents going on strike against their own kids.
In the war over chores, it’s who wants certain household chores done and sees the value in doing them vs. those to whom chores are assigned, who hope they’ll miraculously get done by elves or…hey, how about those cute little I-think-they-were-mice singing “Whistle While You Work” in Cinderella?
Or, by dragging my feet so long the chore hopefully gets “overtaken by events”?
Parents’ statement of labor action: until you clean your rooms (under the bed, too), take out the recycling, and walk your dog ‒ on which basis we got him in the first place, remember? ‒ no dinner will be cooked in this house.
Your choice: step up or eat cereal…every night, for as long as you can hold out.
Because, however long that is, we can outwait you.
Meantime, be thankful we’re not asking you to cook for us! (But for kids like me who go to Le Cordon Bleu when they grow up, this is FUN FUN FUN and we’ll volunteer for this “punishment” anytime.)
But parents picketing other people’s kids? To keep them out of school?
Worst yet, the object of this protest is only 6 years old and has done nothing other than develop an exceptionally life-threatening peanut allergy. Serious enough not only to ban peanut products at school, but also to bring peanut-sniffing dogs into the school to identify peanut residue on surfaces.
Here’s what students in this girl’s class at Edgewater Elementary in Volusia County, Florida were asked to do to keep her safe:
Task #1 Wash their hands. (Call me crazy, but I just can’t see any downside to extra hand washings for 6-year-olds.)
Task #2 Rinse their mouths. (Here’s to fewer expensive pediatric dental visits!)
Claims that students were made to wash out their mouths with soap turned out to be hype, but if they’re asked to use mouthwash, that is an issue…because it contains alcohol and most kids that age haven’t quite mastered the not-swallowing part.
Me, I’m allergic to mint ‒ I even wear gloves to handle mint leaves in the kitchen ‒ and organic/“natural” mouthwashes all contain peppermint oil.
Imagine you protect one child from a potentially fatal allergic reaction by doing something that seems healthy and helpful, but in fact causes anaphylactic shock in another child, for a different reason!
Proof that it’s important to chase down unlikelihoods before setting broad school health policy, even when complying with state or federal law.
However, the picketing parents’ main objection is to the time it takes to comply with these safety procedures.
True, takes time to get 25 1st graders to do anything, let alone thoroughly and let alone something they’re probably not excited about doing in the first place. Let’s say 1 hand washing and 1 mouth rinsing plus the round-trip to the bathroom take 15 minutes to accomplish.
Twice daily? 30 minutes. (The parents say it takes 100 minutes. The kids aren’t scrubbing for surgery!)
However, that is 30 minutes per day shaved off classroom instruction time when school districts nationwide are declaring bankruptcy…
…and California’s austere 2011-12 education budget, for example, might well require a $1,000 reduction in spending per child and 30 fewer classroom days per academic year.
The Edgewater school administrators rightly state that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are required to accommodate this student’s peanut allergy and no-one, least of all other parents, has any legal right to insist that she be home schooled.
(However, under pressure from the parent picket line, the school is “relaxing” its peanut policies, saying they may have interpreted the ADA requirements too broadly.)
Thinking outside the box… Remember past budget cuts that eliminated most health education from the public school curriculum? Why not use these allergy prevention exercises to recapture some of that learning?
You could teach hygiene, which every 6-year-old I know could stand to learn a little more about, and how the human body works: age-appropriate reasons why some people’s bodies can’t accept certain foods and other things and what those people do to stay safe (and how we can help).
There’s one more elephant in the room.
Little kids slip up. They forget. They don’t do things perfectly.
What if one of those kids accidentally takes a sibling’s backpack to school and in it is half of a forgotten Snickers bar? The allergic child goes into anaphylactic shock and has to be hospitalized, or dies.
That’s a tremendous burden for a 1st grader, putting the life of a fellow student in his or her hands. Every day.
Nobody would ever forget a tragedy like this: not the parents of either child, nor the staff, nor the school’s other parents, who’d be all over the media saying, ”I told you so.”
Least of all the child him- or herself.
“6-year-old’s innocent mistake takes the life of a classmate.” Imagine that headline hanging over your head your entire life.
Ironically, it’s often the parents beating up the teachers ‒ or, rather, the teachers unions ‒ for not wanting to give life-saving assistance to a child who might die before 911 help arrives.
Stated reason: we don’t want to be held legally liable. (You’re already not.)
Real reasons? Because it’s inconvenient. Because it’s not my job. Because sometimes it’s yucky.
(Nobody enjoys administering Diastat ‒ rectal Diazepam gel, in FDA-approved packaging pre-dosed for use by any layperson ‒ to stop a child’s potentially brain-damaging seizure while paramedics are still en route. As you continue to fight Senate bill SB 161, please ponder: what if it was your child?)
While my dog in this fight is epilepsy, the same dilemma applies to young children with diabetes, asthma, and other serious chronic health conditions.
School is probably one of the few public places that can be made safe enough for this Florida girl, until she’s quick enough with her EpiPen. Meanwhile, she can’t sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch next to thousands of baseball fans eating peanuts and Cracker Jack. She can’t watch a movie, in case other movie-goers are eating Reese’s Cups. She can’t even go to a public pool…because there are peanut-laden candy bars in the snack machines!
No, no, no.
Since this child’s world is so unfairly limited right now because of her allergy, why not be kind and flex a little? Unfortunately, the picketing parents’ world is limited by choice, because they’re thinking only of themselves.
Nice role modeling.
You can be sure that if it was their son or daughter with a life-threatening allergy, they’d never consider voluntary home schooling for other families’ convenience. They would’ve already filed lawsuits against all kinds of people for harassment and discrimination.
These parents argue that this 6-year-old needs to learn how to keep herself safe from nut allergens in the real world, so she might as well start now. I argue that these parents’ children need to learn how to deal with disabled people in the real world, so they might as well start now, too.
If they don’t think so, then they’re nuts.
Jamais je ne t’oublierai
(I will never forget you)
Long before we ever had to bury a 9-year-old fellow citizen who was collateral damage in an attempted political assassination, long before I moved to France and learned the chorus of that classic French children’s song À la claire fontaine, which maybe beautiful little Christina Green would’ve liked to sing, I taught a summer class in creative writing at a local high school.
It was an optional class for some students and mandatory for others. And it was obvious who was who.
Most creative writing classes teach kids to write short stories and poems, both of which are wonderful…if you’re good at writing those kinds of things, which I’m not.
So I decided to teach what I know: first-person essay, same as this blog.
(Educators often refer to “disadvantaged” students, a euphemism for minority students with low language skills − even if their native language is English − in living situations not conducive to academics, growing up in poverty.
Or some combination of these factors.
Nobody’s arguing about how important, and challenging, it is to help these kids lift themselves up, and keep going strong through graduation. Public school volunteers can be part of that village. If you can and aren’t, please step up.
But think, too, about the poverty of prosperous but inattentive parents, who don’t read term papers and thus are the last to catch on that their “advantaged” children get decent enough grades, but can’t write well enough not to struggle in a competitive university.
There’s also the poverty of overwhelmed or ambivalent teachers, who pass these kids to the next grade without challenging them with harder material.
Finally, there’s the poverty of a voting public in denial, still willing to believe that deep, ongoing funding cuts in public education are unfortunate but somehow not disastrous.)
Good writing is some about talent, but mostly about practice. Same as learning a sport, or a musical instrument. You get better by doing a lot of it and you do a lot of it by taking a creative writing class from me.
So enough already with the complaining.
First writing assignment: who will you never forget?
To head off the prom night sob stories, which for teenagers – living by default in the present tense − forebode decades of loneliness and hopeless misery, I suggested a range of ideas:
No matter how long it’s been, whose voice, if he or she called you out of the blue today, would you recognize immediately? Who used to be in your life and isn’t anymore, but you think of every day?
When someone says, “You remind me so much of…” who do you wish they’d say? …or not wish?
Who did you meet by chance and meant something important to you? Who did you observe, even if you never met in person, who made a lasting impression on you?
Whose voice do you hear in your head?
Their responses ranged from hilarious to heartbreaking. The topic summaries impressed me so much that I kept a list of them and found it again among my documents in storage.
Here’s a sampling:
My step-brother who is a lot older than me. I was so excited to finally have a brother! He visited us once and never came back.
The President. He came here when he was campaigning. He shook my hand and told me to study hard. I’ve been doing that except for chemistry.
My mom always tells me I’m fat and I don’t want her to be happy with her boyfriend. I hate his &#%*@ ^<#(*%!!!!!
My coach because he kicked me off the team for fighting and bad grades. Then our team went to state and I didn’t get to go. I hated him for awhile and learned my lesson.
I have a twin brother and I really wish I didn’t look like him but I can’t help it.
My grandfather died on a weekend and I had to go back to school on Monday. I know he’s watching me from heaven, though.
The baby I had summer of sophomore year that nobody knew about. My parents made me give it up for adoption.
…which brings to mind the first line of that chorus:
Il y a longtemps que je t’aime
(I have loved you for so long)
Here are just a few of the many people I’ll never forget:
My dad, who taught me to work hard, prayerfully form my own convictions, and have a tender heart for people who are lost, broken, and alone.
My high school calculus teacher Mr. Howard Swanson, who unknowingly gave me the 1 “B” that prevented me from being one of our class valedictorians, who made sure every student got as much individual help as he or she needed, for as long as it took, to succeed. He provided at the same time a safe haven from bullying, long before that term ever made headlines, by keeping his class open after school and during lunch.
General Colin Powell, who spoke at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC one Veterans Day and made me realize that, regardless of politics, we’re among giants.
…and my friend Nee in Thailand, who lost her sister-in-law in the tsunami and spent a terrifying night on a mountain on Phi Phi island with her infant son. Nursing other women’s babies, too: now orphans, hungry and crying for their mothers.
Last but not least, 2 little girls on the LIRR.
I was in New York for a few days on a humanitarian project and was staying with friends on Long Island, who are reading this. (Thanks again for your hospitality.) One day on my commute on the Long Island Rail Road, I sat with a mother and her 2 young daughters. She was taking them to grandma’s on her way to work.
The mom sat across from me and the girls on either side of me, close, their arms in mine.
(Few white kids I know would ever react this warmly to a parent-approved acquaintance, however friendly, and even fewer white parents would allow it. How sad.)
The girls asked me my name. I told them. They repeated it. Their mom said, “There’d better be a Miss or Mrs. in front of that!”
“Yes, ma’am,” they said, in unison.
We talked all the way into town. When we parted ways, the little girls jumped up and each kissed me on the cheek, their braids bouncing.
“Be good!” they said.
A man sitting near us said, “I guess you’d better.”
We learned the real facts of life from Dr. Seuss’s ABC.
“Big B, little b. What begins with B? Barber, baby, bubbles, and a bumblebee.”
Admit it: all these years later, you still know it by heart. It’s imprinted on your brain, right there next to the lyrics of You Are My Sunshine.
There’s a reason why we learned the English alphabet this way, and why it worked so well (for most of us). It also explains why the only way to learn a new alphabet − for me right now, the Arabic alphabet − is the same way: from the beginning.
As painful as that is, being drop-kicked back 4 decades into illiteracy.
Speaking is easy for babies and toddlers because adults hang on your every word. Any sound you make can keep a group of grownups occupied for hours, guessing what you just tried to say and how cute it was and a big prize to anyone who can get you to do it again.
Just when you’re on the top of the world and can say way too many things, including swear words you weren’t supposed to be hearing, school starts and mute-ness is goodness. After gabbing endlessly with your adoring public for your entire life, you’re being rewarded for silence now?
“Be quiet and write on your paper. Trace the letters by following the dotted lines up and down. When you’re done, go to the next line and copy the same letters again. Don’t bother the other kids while they’re trying to work.”
Wow, is this the opposite of fun.
Just when you really get the hang of it, you’re graduating with a Masters degree. Perfect time to enroll in Beginning Arabic at Stanford.
“Baa, baa, baa, baa. What begins with Baa? Bayt (house), baab (door), balad (country), bint (girl).
Baa baa baa.”
See? You’re speaking Arabic already.
There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet, but most appear in 4 forms: standalone, initial, medial, and final. Thus, there are 100 written possibilities, some of which look remarkably similar without a magnifying glass.
Here’s my decision tree to read ONE WORD in Arabic script:
Do I recognize any letters that connect only to the letter before it but never to the letter after it? There are 5 and I already know which ones these are. Check.
Next, do I recognize the first letter of the word (in the initial form)? Usually I can narrow it down to 2 or 3 possibilities, even more if I know the context…meaning, show me a picture of something.
Now I look at the letters that follow. This is harder, because all of them will be in the medial − appearing in the middle of the word − form, meaning they connect to other letters on both sides. (Was cursive really this hard?)
If the text is online and I enlarge the font to 46 pt., I usually can figure this out. I can also type the letters I think they are, in Microsoft Word with the Arabic on-screen keyboard enabled, until I can replicate the shapes.
Just like kindergarten: I know my letters perfectly as long as they’re printed VERY BIG and not touching each other AT ALL. Change the font and you lose me. Unfortunately, none of that is real life…in English, either.
Finally, I look at the final letter of the word, which is in − just like it sounds − the final form. Unfortunately, some final letters look suspiciously like other letters in other forms, so I make an educated guess based on what I know so far.
OK, I know what all the letters are. (If I don’t, I need to go back to Step 2 and repeat.) Let’s look at any vowel diacritics or other symbols that I know change the sounds of letters, or add sounds that weren’t there before, to my ears.
(So here’s where the French got that idea!)
Added together and sounded out, what is the resulting word in Arabic? Now what does that Arabic word mean in English?
If this is the process for one word, imagine one sentence, by which time we’ll all be collecting Social Security.
Suddenly I’m working in this confusing new kitchen where coffee pot begins with A, corn with Th, and beet with L. Dinner might be awhile, folks.
The cheater’s road is to hear an Arabic word, write it phonetically using the Roman alphabet (complete with numbers, as described in Arabic to the 3rd Power), then transcribe it to Arabic script when I get around to it.
Unfortunately, I’m pretty good at transcription. I have to stop giving in to temptation or I’ll never learn to read and write in Arabic properly, doomed to do what I do Japan: let’s see, this little picture in the email you sent me looks sort of like that little picture on the destination list of the train ticket machine, so my guess is (wrong)…
This is exhausting. I’d rather just talk, if you don’t mind.
There’s this café near campus, run by some Jordanian guys from the beautiful, ancient − 6th century BC − city of Petra (in Arabic, البتراء Al-Batrā).
I never asked them if they were Jordanian. I didn’t need to. They have a photo of the king and queen displayed prominently behind the cash register.
“MarHabaa (hello),” I say one night, stopping by after class around 21:30/9:30pm for kibbeh – the ground lamb, burghul, onion, and cinnamon meatballs to which I am addicted – to go. You can count on Middle Eastern restaurants to be open late. Who even starts eating much before that hour?
“Kayf al-Hal? (How are you?)” Caught off-guard, but realizing immediately that I’m learning Arabic from a book and so it’s probably best not to reply too creatively, the owner says, “al-Hamdu lillah.” (Fine, thanks to God. In Arabic, you never fail to give God the credit.)
Then he says in English, “What happened to you?”
“3aweduni,” I say. They got me used to it.
3aweduni is a song by Egyptian pop singer Amr Diab. The music video was shot in the beautiful country of Sudan, which looks nothing like you probably imagined.
Call me rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrRasmi − and please oh please roll the R, French speakers − and tell me whether you’re “huna” (here) or not.
First-Year Arabic, Stanford University, ready for takeoff.
Immediately thereafter, when the sum total of what our professor knows about us is our names and GPS coordinates, comes that eternal bottom-line question that catches everybody, except the Greek and Iranian students and me, completely off guard: are you married?
The simple answer is either “na3am” (yes) − read on for the story of 3s − or “laa” (no). However, if it’s the latter, you don’t get away with simple. You’d better have ready a good explanation − in English, for now − of why and what steps you’re taking to remedy that sorry situation.
In Arabic, apparently there’s just no way of saying “no comment,” or “it’s none of your business.”
So, says our new professor, amused by the shocked silence…which of course is exactly why he did it…I’m telling you up front that everything is everybody else’s business in Arabic, whether you want it to be or not. If you’ll notice, that’s the very first item in your syllabus. Especially university professors who you met less than 5 minutes ago and are intent on grading you partly based on your match-ability, or matchmaking success rate, as the case may be.
Fair warning: you’ve got 10 weeks. Better start “studying” for that “final exam” now!
After an overview of the Arabic Marriage Commandments and firm deadlines to comply with them, the next topic of importance is Arabic for Smart Phones: what 3 stands for! The Arabic alphabet includes numbers, too?
This is getting worse by the minute.
It’s Arabic for the 21st century. When you’re texting your friends in Arabic, 3 stands for the letter ‘ain, sometimes spelled ‘ayn or even cayn, there being no Arabic transliteration standard equivalent to, say, pinyin in Chinese and thus no consistency between our texts, the dictionary, and the Stanford Arabic Department itself.
This letter looks like a backwards 3. (Although “backwards” is accurate in this particular case, I’m careful not to use that word to describe anything else.)
How useful, you’re thinking…until you realize that sound doesn’t exist in English. It’s sort of an “ah” way back in your throat, or down in your stomach, or somewhere from which, for English speakers, consonants simply cannot come forth.
Unfortunately, that sound is everywhere in Arabic, starting with the name of the language itself, so you have untold millions of opportunities to make this same basically uncorrectable mistake. If I was a spy, I’d worry a lot about this.
Our professor is quick to clarify that you may not say 3 to avoid pronouncing it. Nice try, though.
Besides the elusive 3 (ع ‒ oh, and let’s not forgot a 4th possible spelling, ein), he cleverly doesn’t volunteer that this numeric alphabet isn’t done with us yet. We not only have more numbers, we have more numbers with apostrophes:
2 is ء hamza (a’a, which goes with alif, the letter a); 3′ is غ gheen (gh); 5 or 7′ is خ kha (kh); 6 is ط ta’a (t); 9 is ص saad (s); 9′ is ض daad (d).
…and finally, 7 is ح ha’a (h), as in ha-ha-ha, he says, laughing.
He tells me in the first class that my pronunciation is “mumtazah” (excellent, feminine form of the adjective). “Ooooo, it gives me the chills,” he says. In a bad way. Your terrible-ness is surprisingly less terrible than it could’ve been, but I can hear already that you’re going to make twice as many mistakes, being a native English speaker with French already.
If you try to sneak Italian in there, too, I’m going to make you stand in the corner all by yourself − wearing a dunce cap, he mimes − until you start listening better in class.
Since Arabic has only three vowels, they get a serious workout. Since Italian is a language in which Every Single Vowel Must Be Pronounced No Matter What, the phonics sort of make sense to me. However, in Arabic, each vowel has two settings − short and long − and precision is critical to meaning.
For the long vowels, the longer you hold the vowel, the more you mean it, he says, demonstrating with great flourish. (Ever heard the mosque call to prayer? That’s one word.) To learn how to do this, he times us with the second hand, as if we were training to be opera singers. Right away I see how this system works in my favor, buying me lots of extra time me to figure out what to say next.
Actually, I’m not sure there’s any real need to figure out what to say next, because if our professor is any indicator, Arabic speakers, like Italian speakers, have this chronic On-and-On Syndrome. So, as long as you smile a lot and keep eating, you’ll never have to say much of anything.
You knew you could trust me, 5 years post-Le Cordon Bleu, to maneuver my way into yet another academic food situation.
It took our professor only 1 minute to start talking about food and 1 week to start bringing food to class. “Senna helwa ya jamilah…” and he’s hoping that everyone in class has a fall birthday, or we’re just going to have to start making some UP, since birthdays in Arabic involve no fewer than 3 cakes each.
So, going on and on (about how delicious it all is) and eating more and more (while your host/professor continues to feel offended that you’re not doing your part) will get you straight As in Arabic and a health club membership.
Next basic: the fine art of Arabic one-ups-man-ship. If somebody says to you “sabaaH al-khayr” (good morning, or literally “morning the good”), you reply with “sabaaH an-nur” (“morning the light”). From there, the greetings naturally escalate to mornings wonderful, spectacular, magnificent, etc.
I can be more flowery than you and I can’t wait for you to give me the chance to prove it to you.
Similar methodology for welcomes.
When somebody knocks, we usually say, “Hi! Come on in.” It means “Hi! Come on in.”
The Greeks and Iranians in class are wondering what’s wrong with us that we think that anemic welcome is at all welcoming.
Welcome to Welcome Overdrive:
In Arabic, “ahlan wa sahlan” means welcome, but let’s break it down: “ahl” means family, “wa” means and, “sahl” means easy.
(…unless you’re in Lebanon, where “wu” must also mean “and,” which I figured out by listening to the sad and beautiful song Sabah wu Masaa − “Morning and Evening” − by Fairuz, the Lebanese diva of all time, beloved throughout the Arab world and in the West. Listen to Fairuz on National Public Radio!)
So, “ahlan wa sahlan” really means “Welcome! Please come in! You’re family! We love you! Are you hungry? How’s everyone? We’re so glad you’re here! Our house is your house!”
Trust an Arabic-speaking person to turn a 3-word phrase into some big long flowery thing. But admit it: if you still don’t feel welcome after all that, it’s your own fault!
Think back to ancient times. You’re duty-bound to offer food and shelter to strangers. But are they friends or foes? Sure, they’re carrying swords, but they don’t seem to be pointing them at us.
If you say “as-salaamu 3alaykum” (peace be upon you) and they reply “wa 3alaykum as-salaam” (and upon you be peace), there’s a gentlemen’s agreement that they mean it. Otherwise, they’d just say give me all your belongings and be done with it.
We’ve ripped through the past 3 weeks: Verb conjugations in the present tense. Pronouns, possessives, and prepositions. Adjectives and adverbs. (The latter are particularly important in such an expressive language, unlike in English, known for its sparity and noun-heaviness and thus ideal for technical explanations.) “Easy” translations and interpretation.
Effective immediately: script only, you slackers. You either know the Arabic alphabet by now − I’ll give you a little leeway on your calligraphy − or this isn’t the class for you.
Next week: more verb conjugations and midterm oral presentations. Please bring your PowerPoint slides on a flash drive.
We also look forward to learning 14 new verbs − 6 of them about cooking, eating, or drinking − insha’Allah (God willing, a nice way in Arabic to get out of committing to maybe or maybe not).
This is Stanford: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!