Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Backstory

Last summer, David (my college age son) decided he wanted to start learning a new language.  He’d already mastered Spanish in high school, declared German to be one of his college majors, and was biding his time until his departure for a year abroad in Berlin.  One day he came home with Rosetta Stone: Turkish.  “Well THAT is completely random,” I quipped. 

David was undeterred.  “OK, everyone,” he instructed Hugh, Erin, Philip and me.  “Merhaba.  Say it.  It means ‘hello.’”  Over and over again he drilled us and corrected us.  It literally took me a week to remember this one word that I would NEVER have use for in my entire life.  What was David’s fascination with this language that I could not connect to anything in my brain?

As summer turned to fall, I tearfully said goodbye to both college students in my family and released them from my clutches so they could take hold of the adventures that come at this stage of life.  Erin moved into her freshman dorm at American University, started a college career, and fell in love with Washington DC.  David flew east to Berlin and became an exchange student at Humbolt University where his classes were taught exclusively in German.  Oh…except for Turkish, which was taught in Turkish.  Hugh accompanied David to Berlin last August, then hopped over to Switzerland to visit his brother, Guy.

That left Philip and me all by ourselves when school started in Acton.   Adventures for Hugh, David and Erin.  Same old stuff for Philip and me.

Not long after school began, a curious email came to my inbox at work.  It was from our district’s curriculum specialist who always forwards professional development opportunities.  It simply said, “Want to go to Greece next summer?  Click on the link below.”  I didn’t have to think twice; of course I clicked.

That click took me on quite a cyber-journey.  I found myself at a Department of Education website describing something called the “Fulbright Hays Seminars Abroad Program.”  Hmmmm.  It looked like “study-abroad for teachers.”  Who knew something like this existed?  I certainly didn’t.  The Greece/Turkey program looked to be 5 or 6 weeks long, with an impressive list of sites, many of which appear in the curriculum of ancient civilizations that I teach every year to my sixth grade class.  Oh, and did I mention it is an all-expenses-paid program?  Hmmmmmm….

I began teaching just four years ago; I’ve taught sixth grade the entire time.  In my district the sixth grade social studies curriculum includes the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.  From the time I began teaching, I joked with Hugh that my new job would end up costing him a fortune.  I was falling in love with these ancient civilizations and knew I would have to add Egypt, Greece and Rome to my list of must-visit vacation spots.  Up to this point there was only one must-visit location on my list: Florence, Italy.  Way back when (college years), my sister, Jenny, spent two terms in Florence.  I still have the letters Jenny sent to me during that time.  In one letter, she described the statue of David in such detail that she literally brought the stone to life for me.  I have longed to go to Firenze ever since.

Back to my computer screen in early September….

It took me an entire week to work up the courage to show the DOE website to Hugh.  Six weeks away from home.  The school year wouldn’t even be over when the seminar began.  The Aegean is so far away.  But it was Greece and Turkey!  “What do you think?” I asked.  I trust Hugh’s advice implicitly.  Not only that, but he is my biggest supporter--in all the years I’ve known him, in all I do.  His response was simple: “You are the perfect candidate for this, and you have to apply!”  That was all the encouragement I needed.  From that moment on, I was “all in.”

The application for the Fulbright Hays grant looked daunting.  But the lure of the Aegean proved to be stronger.  I shared my plans with two colleagues from work who supported me unconditionally.  Catherine (a Rotary Fellowship recipient herself) and Margaret (who has a background in journalism) endured my only topics of conversation during the month of September (Greece and Turkey!), critiqued countless versions of my essays, and offered thoughtful advice about my application.  I am utterly indebted to them!  Back at home, Hugh also drained the red ink on multiple versions of my application, until I was finally ready to hit the “send” button.  Now I know how David and Erin felt when they submitted their Common Application for college!

I hit “send” on October 5th.  Notification would be sent via U.S. mail “sometime in March."  With no communication in between.

What’s a teacher to do while waiting for five months?  Teach, of course!  During those particular five months I became hyper-aware of all things Greek and Turkish.  Only an hour into my first day of school (and before I had even heard of Fulbright Hays), one of my new students, Zeynep, mentioned that her family is from Istanbul.  Well isn’t that the most amazing coincidence, I thought.  I have a chance to try out my one Turkish word!  So I said, “Merhaba!”  Zeynep turned her head just a bit, as if she wasn’t certain what she heard.  I repeated the word, concerned about my pronunciation. Then Zeynep smiled and chirped, “That’s Turkish!”  From that point on, every time Zeynep uttered “Turkey” or “Istanbul” (which seemed to happen daily), I practically went into a trance and wondered about the status of my application.

As the months went on, Greece and Turkey flooded my consciousness like never before.  References to these places were everywhere!  Place names like Troy, Çatalhöyük, Peloponnesus, Athens, Delphi, Ephesus jumped off the pages of our social studies textbook, teasing me.  A friend’s college-age daughter made plans to study abroad in Istanbul.  In class, Zeynep tossed out remarks about the “old buildings falling down” that she visited in Turkey or an excursion to the Grand Bazaar…torture!  The Hagia Sophia was featured in an IMAX movie that I saw during a field trip in February.  And two weeks after that, David posted photos of himself, taken in that very same church/mosque, on Facebook with a note to me that said, “Mom!  You have to get that study tour to Turkey; Istanbul is fantastic!”  The torment was overwhelming.  There were just a few people I shared my hopes and dreams with about traveling to the Aegean.  After all, if I wasn’t selected for the program, there would be nothing to share.

I’m usually too lazy to walk down our [decidedly short] driveway to retrieve the mail from our mailbox.  That’s Hugh’s daily ritual when he gets home from work. 

But starting on the afternoon of March 1st , and every day after that, all kinds of energy propelled me toward the mailbox after work.  A week into this process a thick brown envelope appeared in my mailbox.  Return address: Washington D.C.  For a moment everything went out of focus, and my heart began to race.  Back in the day, when I was applying to colleges, it was the “thick” envelope that gave away its message long before the contents were actually read by the recipient.  This was definitely a thick envelope.  More heart racing.  But I had been advised that the DOE would send feedback on every application, whether accepted or denied, so the thick envelope, in and of itself, was not a slam-dunk. 

I was all alone as I gently slid my finger beneath the flap of the envelope, releasing its grip on whatever the DOE had to say to me.  I pulled out a thick stack of papers, the embossed logo of the DOE glinting in the upper left hand corner of the top sheet.  I couldn’t stand the wait any longer, so I quickly glanced through the first paragraph, hunting for the words I longed to see: “…are pleased to inform you…” is all I needed take in before I erupted. 

“I got it!”  The kitchen walls echoed my voice.  “I got it!!” 

Merhaba! I got it!


  1. Thanks so much for a wonderful story, Katie. I can hardly wait for your updates!
    Güvenli bir yolculuk! (I hope that translates to Bon Voyage!)

  2. Katie, even though we know the outcome of your application, your telling of the story built suspense like an engaging novel! Looking forward to future mini-chapters of your adventure.

  3. Now you have to teach us how to say "Congratulations" in Turkish!


  4. I can tell that I'm going to love reading your are a wonderful story teller & oh the stories you will have to tell....

  5. What a story! I can't wait for the next chapters.
    Stay safe.