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Volume 40, Number 4July/August 1989

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A Teacher Remembers

"The mountains looked different every day. It gave a lift to the soul; it let you know that you were in a universe… not created by humans, but by the Creator."

Written by Bill Blakemore
Photographed by Fred Rogers

William Tracy interviewed Bill Blakemore in New York about his years at ACS. The interview consisted of one question: "What was it like to teach at ACS in the late 1960's?" Blakemore replied....

I arrived in Beirut at the age of 21 in the autumn of 1966 and I've been thinking about Beirut ever since I first got there - and even more ever since I left. I'd been teaching school for one year already, and I wanted to go overseas. I heard of the International School Service, and in the middle of a snow storm I went down to their office in New York City. Mrs. Yasamura - I remember her name - took one look at my dossier and said, "You know, there is just the school for you in Lebanon: ACS, the American Community School." I thought to myself, "That's great; I always did want to go to South America."

After a while I realized I didn't exactly know where she was talking about. So I went home, looked it up, and thought, "My goodness, this is the last place on the face of the earth I ever would have thought of going." They had a fascinating language that goes from right to left, with scribbles and dots, and Mrs. Yasamura had told me that in Beirut you could swim and ski within an hour of each other. I was intrigued. I applied and interviewed, got the job and went. And I was amazed: it was the world's best-kept secret.

On my first day in Lebanon I walked down to the suqs. To me the Beirut that I came to know existed as long as those suqs existed, because that's where everything was, out front: the bodies of slaughtered animals in the butchers' suq, fruits, vegetables, all kinds of goods, the smells, the sights, the sounds, everybody mixing it up together. It was Phoenecian, Arab, Lebanese; it was beautiful and full of color. I cannot separate the experience of being at ACS in the late 60's from the glory of Beirut in those years.

ACS is right there on the sea, and what is unique about Beirut is that the sea, the mountains and the sky are always, all three of them, right there all the time: the amazing sea, which turns four colors of green after a rainstorm, the sky with its changing clouds, and the operatic mountains looming over the city, always drawing the eyes into the distant valleys. You could look across the bay up the river gorge of the Nahr Ibrahim from ACS on a really clear day and almost see the very boulder you had stood on the previous weekend with your students, even though it was a good 16 miles away.

The mountains really were an opera to the eye, and where better to have an eighth-row center-section orchestra seat for that performance than Ras Beirut, looking across St. George's Bay every day at the richness of the changing light from those clouds and that sea, so that the mountains looked different every day. It gave a lift to the soul; it let you know that you were in a universe that humankind had not created. When you live in a city like Manhattan, or most big cities, you forget about nature, you forget that the world is not man-made. Beirut is a city where it is impossible to forget that the world we live in is not created by humans, but by the Creator.

We had more fun at ACS than I've ever heard of anybody ever having. Part of it was that our students were only four, five, six years younger than we were. Why did we have so much fun? We were intense teachers; we meant to teach well and we were excited; we'd just graduated ourselves, that was certainly part of it. We were newly out of our old restricted world; we were in an expatriate experience which was nonetheless not a hedonistic, escapist experience. Teaching at ACS gave it perfect structure and discipline. ACS was such a happy place - expatriate experiences aren't always. It opened us up with much more rigor to the riches of Lebanon.

Everything was kept in balance, a highly complex balance of all elements of life: mental, spiritual, social and physical. No one thing was overbearing. The Levantine culture had a lot to do with this, and the Arabs certainly had something to do with this "Beirut phenomenon," because of what they know about hospitality and about kindness, quite the opposite of the image that most Americans seem to have of that part of the world.

Beirut gave us an introduction to the world. It was not like going anywhere else overseas, because when you go to Paris, you go to France; when you go to London, you go to England; when you go to Hong Kong, you go to China - even Hong Kong. But when you go to Beirut, you go to the world. It is the crossroads of the Old World, and we all knew it. Whether we knew it or not, we knew it. A few summers after I first went there I discovered one of those old Denoyer-Geppert maps that have been used for centuries in American schools, and this one was called "Trade Routes of Ancient Times." It showed from the eastern end of the Mediterranean all the way over to India, all the ancient trade routes -but at Lebanon and just south of it, suddenly it was a thicket of criss-crosses.

The 1960's were the days when Lebanon was the opposite of what it is now: It wasin the days when Lebanon was selfconsciously trying to be a witness to the world of how complexity can live in peace. There was an ideal alive which people were trying to live, the witness of Lebanon, which Fakreddine, the Druze leader, talked about four centuries ago. The late Charles Malek, the Lebanese Christian philosopher who was president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1959, talked about it. Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders I got to know later, as the civil war was first beginning, would talk about it. Peace and conflict are two sides of the same coin. So in a time when everybody wants to live in peace, and outside forces are not being too cynical, Lebanon is the most wonderful place. And it's the worst when the opposite holds.

They say the power of a genie is in its confinement, and this is also sometimes said to be the reason that some of the richest culture in India is down at the tip, because you can't go any further, or in Manhattan because you couldn't build out further, or in Beirut, because all of the different cultures that came to Lebanon from the whole Arab and Mediterranean world around had their roughness filtered out as they came through the mountains, then spilled down more peacefully into Beirut. And if you want to follow the metaphor all the way to the end, it was Ras Beirut, the "head" of Beirut, the peninsula, which took the best of all those cultures. And we at ACS felt it on the tip of the peninsula.

It was a healthy community, because there were all of these interconnections on a scale small enough that you could know what you were a part of. We had five universities of all kinds; we had little or no idea in those days what religion many people were; churches and mosques were neighbors on the same block. On one side of ACS we had the American University and on the other we had these little houses and garden plots of people who had owned that now-valuable land for decades or centuries. There was a lot of crossover from the ACS culture to the AUB and Ras Beirut culture around us. We were mixing up East and West, and I don't think East and West ever more happily met.

Take a small community like ours at ACS: We were all different and we showed up there, coming from a number of different places around America. The boarding students were also coming from a number of expatriate cities around the Middle East for starters, and each of their parents had come from many different places in America. So we were a boiled-down - no, not boiled down - a lovely tight little salad bowl of American variety. And then you put us together in a beautiful little community at the very tip of a city which is the capital of a country which - throughout history - was about differences having to live together. You had in ACS a concentration within a concentration within a concentration of the happy ideal that "since we've got to live together, let's have fun." Which is, after all, a paradigm for nothing less than the Utopian globe we all hope for, and that many of us even believe in.

As Martin Gostelow, a brilliant young teacher from England who taught physics at ACS, pointed out, in ripple tanks - which he used to teach kids about wave theory - you learn that when a number of different little waves, each coming from a different direction, all happen to meet at the same moment there is suddenly one great big wave. Then they all disperse again into little waves. That's what it was like to be a teacher at ACS in the late 1960's, or to be a student there, or to be there. We had a great sense of happiness.

Yes, it's true that in the dormitory there were the natural signs of American teenagerism. We had the social revolution of the late 1960's in different forms. There was rock music of the new kind; but you know, the privilege and the pain of being an expatriate teenager was that you could have the fun of those signs of the cultural revolution which were coming from the United States, but you didn't suffer all their causes, because you didn't live in the US. Those signs of change were partly due to the isolationism of America, to the belief that if you lived in America, that was it: America was the world. Those students of mine had just as much a broadened perspective as we teachers did. They could see, they knew in their bones, that the world existed beyond borders and beautiful oceans and you didn't have to be in the US, full of self-vaunting chauvinism and patriotism, to believe you were in the right place: The whole globe was fascinating. We heard from students that after their years at ACS they went to college in America and felt they were going backwards.

Beirut was the most complex society you could imagine, yet it was small enough that you could feel the edges of it; you didn't feel lost and anonymous. So was ACS - small enough that we knew what the society was. We felt it as teachers and as students. Although the boarding department was the core of the school, half of my classes were day students, with parents and homes in this wonderful society. So we richly belonged to Beirut; we were Beirutis. To be a Beiruti does not mean to be Lebanese. To be a Beiruti means to be an expatriate or the descendent of expatriates, to be a refugee or the descendent of refugees, or their customers or their descendents. By that true definition - forget nationality and all of that - anybody who lives in Beirut is Beiruti. So we were. True, we expressed an American culture, but still, we were Beirutis.

Beyond that there is something that I've called the Beirut phenomenon. In an expatriate life in which you lived in many different places, it was nonetheless the friends you made in Beirut that you kept for life. I had heard this when I first went there, then forgot about it. But it keeps cropping up again. I became a journalist in 1970 and I lived in Beirut until the end of 1976. Then I moved to London and Rome, but I kept going back, the last time in 1980. Over the years I kept hearing, and still keep hearing every now and then, from people in all walks of life - diplomats, businessmen, scholars, artists - that though they have lived an expatriate life in say four or five places, for some years in each place, it was really the people they met in Beirut who became lifelong friends.

There was a happy society for us faculty outside the classroom. Because we were on the edge of the AUB campus we naturally had friends at the university, or access to cultural or social activities going on there. You'd find yourself invited to wonderful parties where there would be a delicious spread of mazzah and you'd meet people of every religion and walk of life and age. You'd run into folks who were businessmen or diplomats or scholars. That was all part of teaching those students at ACS.

There was something exceedingly healthy about the social life of Beirut, quite the opposite of what people often think the expatriate experience is like. People think that it's to go to a land of lotus-eaters, or a hedonistic paradise; the old cliche "the Paris of the Middle East" got it wrong too. Ras Beirut was the most enlightened and healthy society I ever hope to live in, without any question.

One of the great things about being a teacher at ACS was thinking up yet another wonderful place to take all of your students on a picnic. Any weekend we wanted - and it was most weekends - Ian Sellar, the bursar, would hire a wonderful rickety old bus with a roof rack and no glass in the windows, and we would bundle our students onto it and rumble up the mountainside. Lebanon is the world's best hiking country. We'd go walking through the mountains to Roman or Byzantine ruins or to swimming holes in the valleys. We'd have class picnics up on beautiful high places with all that sunlight; the sunlight was everywhere. We had a ball, sniffing the aromas in those spicy hills.

There were places of pure and authentic magic, like Masalaha Castle, in a little box canyon, standing on a rocky pedestal as though it had been drawn by a German romantic artist, with a little stream going by it under a Roman bridge. We all jumped into the water beneath it and invented a little game called "King of the River"; if you got wrestled off the slippery stones you just fell into the water and floated under the bridge and came back again.

The fact that there was so much outdoor physical happiness was the perfect complement to the intensity we had in the classroom. We often wondered, those of us who were there in those years, why we had so much fun. We knew then that we were having an extraordinary amount of fun and that increased it.

For me, the ACS reunion in Boston last autumn was pure, natural inebriation from beginning to end. It was pure joy: not pleasure, not happiness, joy. Why? We saw those faces that we had so much fun with and who meant so much to us. It's not that we lived so intensely together, we lived so happily intensely together. We were always taken out of ourselves, not worried too much about our own concerns and desires, kept in balance with the outside world. But to see those students again - it just all came alive.

The amazing reunion experience is that you see people you haven't seen for 20 years, and you pick up as if it were just yesterday. I found myself talking to my fellow teachers Hank Rigler and Kerry Johnson and we were just standing there chatting as if, wait a minute, it wasn't just half an hour ago, outside the classroom I was chatting with you; it was 20 years ago on another continent! It was extremely joyous; that's exactly the right word.

Doing what I do now as a journalist is a continuation, in many ways, of what I did at ACS. My last year there I was teaching at both ACS and AUB and a friend of mine, a television cameraman, said, "I need a sound man for a couple of weeks; we're going to go with some guy named Jennings to Jordan." So I fell into the world of journalism; I knew nothing of it and suddenly there I was doing a lot of reporting. But it is a continuation of what you try to do as a good teacher: trying to express things, discover them and make them clear, then pass them on and make yourself unnecessary. It's the aim of every good teacher to make himself unnecessary.

I started doing sound and then I was doing my own radio spots. And suddenly I was watching this world I'd known as a teacher blow up. By 1975 and 76 I was watching, week by week, block by block, the dismantling of the wonderful world of my own early 20's.

People who follow news of the tragic developments in Lebanon from abroad might naturally assume that the kind of life I was so fortunate to experience there as a young teacher is gone forever. But Lebanon is an ancient land, a land of continuous change and flux, and it is coming back; I know that from history. We can read every week in the papers that the moment the guns stop, it comes back. It's like a lovely, tenacious flower. Lebanon is always coming back; coming back is part of the spirit of the place.

Whether Beirut will be exactly as I remember it again in my lifetime is an almost irrelevant question, because it's always there: it's a product of the mountains and the sea and the sky. For now the human balance has been upset, but the fact is that Lebanon and Beirut are witness to the fact that the world has to stand together, and if there are events in the region that unsettle the balance, Lebanon will bleed. To experience ACS was to experience Beirut, and to experience Beirut in the 1960's was to discover how wonderful the world can be.

Bill Blakemore, on the ACS faculty from 1966 to 1970, is now education correspondent for ABC News in New York.

Fred Rogers ('68) is a vice-president of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. At ACS, Rogers took pictures for the student yearbook; Blakemore taught him English.

This article appeared on pages 32-37 of the July/August 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1989 images.