Tonight George Washington Academy holds it annual Commencement ceremony. In addition to marking the graduation of our senior class, we feel like it marks a graduation for us as well. The GWA Class of 2017, having achieved great things and accumulated much knowledge and experience during their time here, will go on to colleges and universities from Morocco to the Middle East to Europe to Asia to America. In our own way, in our first year at GWA and – more broadly – living in Casablanca, we have achieved great things and accumulated much knowledge and experience that commences a transition in our perspective on our lives and professions here. Despite our stateside status as seasoned educators and school administrators, as international school folks we entered as apprentices and – learning the craft quickly by necessity – came of age through this year as journeymen. Now, looking ahead to Year Two in August with great anticipation, our training has readied us to move past this journeyman status to lead.
GWA’s graduation preparations this week have reinforced two things we have learned and relearned through our years at previous schools.
First, no matter where we are, graduation is graduation. As with all our previous schools, running seniors through commencement rehearsals makes herding cats a dream job by comparison. Phones away please. The band practices playing Pomp & Circumstance. Learning how to process spaced evenly, how to walk to a point and cut corners instead of veering sloppily toward stairs or chairs, and how to shake with the right hand while grabbing a diploma with the left are ubiquitous challenges. Phones away please. Sound check. Nod to the obvious: make sure you wear something under your graduation gown because you are on stage with people looking up at you. Phones away please. Let’s practice standing and sitting together one more time so each row does it together! (For those schools with outdoor ceremonies…) Pray the rain stays away while making contingency plans in case it does not. Phones away please. Emotions run high as graduates start to realize their hour is approaching, time with friends around them ticks down toward goodbyes, and then life will change forever…Not better or worse; just different, with angst over departed friends and unfamiliar futures jumbled with excitement looking ahead to new friends and new beginnings. Remember to SMILE when you process and when you freeze-frame shaking Dr. Menard’s hand so the photographer snaps a good pic for your parents. Phones away please.
Second, one ironic truth at every school is that graduation also is different at every school. GWA is a rarity in Morocco for holding commencement ceremonies (a very American tradition), so it is a big event for which tickets are highly prized in the greater Casablanca community. We have dignitaries and luminaries attending. So it becomes not merely a campus undertaking but a cultural statement and cultural education endeavor for our local community. As such, it is also a high fashion event. Upon the recommendation of Moroccan friends and school staff, because this year’s graduation falls during Ramadan, Audrey had a traditional Moroccan kaftan made for the occasion, acknowledging implicitly our simultaneous pride both in being an American School and being in Morocco.
And then there is Ramadan. The Muslim holy month of fasting having started last week, most of our graduates, their families, and guests cannot eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset. Because Ramadan tracks on the lunar calendar, it shifts about ten days earlier each year, so this is the first year in a long time that graduation falls within Ramadan and no protocol existed at the school for how to make adjustments. Considering that most people attending will fast – and also that many people will not go to sleep until 4:00, 5:00, even 6:00 in the morning after breaking the fast at the preceding sunset and celebrating with family all night long – GWA moved the start time of graduation to night hours to begin at 9:30 pm. Not only does delaying to a nighttime event avoid having a daytime graduation during which the majority of people in attendance are hungry, thirsty, and on a spectrum somewhere from less-patient to testy to combustible (an adult trying to get on campus this week before pickup time cold-cocked one of our guards, then blamed his behavior on Ramadan…to which GWA’s awesome Director of Operations responded to him, “Yes, it is Ramadan, so God is watching especially closely!”), it also lets people join family at home when the sun sets for the traditional meal to break the fast (iftar in Classical Arabic, ftour in Darija, Morocco’s Arabic dialect). Our festivities will run late tonight, with post-graduation refreshments probably continuing past midnight; but we will enjoy a happy event where people stay and celebrate instead of skipping out as soon as possible to wait for ftour.
Thinking more broadly about our first year winding down, for us this graduation tastes bittersweet. While proud to move toward our Year Two with excitement and great plans, like the seniors preparing to say goodbye to their GWA friends as life takes them on new journeys, graduation reminds us that in a few short weeks we must bid adieu to David Welling, the Head of School who recruited us in December of 2015 to come to Morocco and GWA. We will miss very much David and his wife, Marian, who nurtured us through our Living-in-Casablanca orientation and was always available to lend a helping hand or patient to answer “How do we…?” questions. Through six years as GWA’s Head, with a rather pastoral manner and an even keel that let him navigate through a host of challenges that would capsize those less-equipped, David has moved the school forward along its master plan to the point today where it stands poised to do great things. Most important for us, he constructed a special leadership team of which we have relished being a part, and that will continue his legacy of ensuring that the school’s vision statement drives all that we do as we seek to engage minds and build character. His tutelage in international school leadership has prepared us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for the hard work ahead, and we appreciate that David’s return to a stateside school will leave him still just a Skype away.
We find that especially reassuring as GWA’s Board found David’s successor right here on campus. Brian is particularly proud to announce that beginning this summer, Audrey will take the reins as GWA’s next Head of School. In the transition, because Audrey will (at least initially) remain as the Upper School Principal, Brian will also take on a broader array of administrative responsibilities to fortify our institutional advancement program under the program development side of his Director of Curriculum & Program Development role. Along with the rest of the great team David constructed, we look forward to leading together. Yet, we know from our previous runs as heads of schools that the job is a lonely one. You must balance the desire to be friendly with your faculty and staff with the reality of a barrier that walls off from various school stakeholder groups things meant only for the Head of School. With our previous schools that we have led always being distinct enough that they never really competed for students or faculty, we complemented each other as free consultants when as school heads we did not have many others with whom we could confer. We look forward to bending David’s ear about GWA – and letting him bend ours about his new school – as both colleagues and friends when he assumes his new post westward across the Atlantic next month.
Between now and our start of Year Two, we have the last few weeks of this school year to finish – overseeing exams and grading, planning and executing year-end professional development, checking out teachers before they depart for the summer, and getting Charlotte’s residency paperwork advanced to the next step (as nothing more has happened on that front since our post on Moroccan Bureaucracy a few months ago) – and then we disappear to France for a few weeks where all three of us will spend the month of July in a language immersion program to beef up our French. We are building some actual vacation in there as well, heading to and from our Dordogne locale at a sauntering pace to allow for overnight explorations of Gibraltar, Valencia, Barcelona, San Sebastián, Santiago de Campostela, Porto, Lisbon, and Sevilla before we flip back into GWA mode to welcome new faculty in August and launch Year Two and the 20th Anniversary celebration of GWA.
While we have seven weeks before marking our one-year anniversary of arriving in Casablanca, in truth our journey began stateside, weeks before, during our preparation for the move. Our first post in June of 2016 showed us filled with anticipation for what would lie ahead on our intentional adventure. A year ago, as we readied ourselves for the start of this Expat Expedition, we could not foresee all that would come in our first year. In July, August, and September, each day brought new things and new learning experiences that we had to absorb and consider with extra focus as variables added to the Calculus of our daily personal and professional lives. We had newbie eyes, wide with wonder over the most basic things. Each day, each activity, and each baby step seemed momentous…because each one was momentous. We felt very much like the new arrivals from the U.S. that we were (and that, no doubt, we very much looked like to Moroccans and experienced expats around us). A year later, while by no means experts with the wisdom of years living here (or anywhere abroad), to us tonight’s graduation also marks our progression from newbies learning the expat life to genuine expats in our own right.
Onward to Year Two in the intentional adventure of this Expat Expedition…
On your mark…get set…here we go!