UNDERGRADUATE DEGREE/UNIVERSITY: B.A. History/Near Eastern Studies, UCLA
GRADUATE DEGREE/UNIVERSITY: M.A. Arab Studies, Georgetown University and
Ph.D, Modern History, University of Oxford
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Professor in Istanbul, Turkey (3 years), Professor in Madrid, Spain (3 years)
CURRENTLY: Assistant Professor of Middle East History, California State University San Marcos
I am writing from an apartment in Rome on a humid August day in 2014, where I have just finished teaching summer school at an American university here. I spent this morning walking the Appian Way, the Roman version of Highway 68 that we all had to take to get to York. In 10th grade, I would have never thought that Mr. Sturch Latin’s lessons would have any relevance in my adult life. The Latin I studied not only helps me to navigate through time and space in Rome, but it helped me pick up Italian and Spanish with relative ease, proving a dead language can help one to learn live languages.
I am a history professor today because I was inspired by my instructors in York. It was Dr. Henry Littlefield, the former Head of School, who encouraged me to major in history, and as a professor I imitate Mr. Borrowman’s teaching style to this day in my auditorium of close to 100 university students. My inspiration to become a history professor was not just from my history courses at York. The critical history scholar inside of me was born in Thomas Murray’s senior year English class, inspired by his interpretations of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, A Clockwork Orange, to the various poems he assigned us from the 20th century.
Ms. Aronowitz, my European history teacher, told us York prepared its students to be Renaissance men. (That was back in 1987. I’m sure today York prepares its students to be Renaissance “people.”) Had I gone to any other high school, I would have not had the opportunity to develop into a Renaissance person. Ironically, I now have the opportunity to directly experience the Renaissance in places like Rome and Florence, but also try to inculcate a strong appreciation for the humanities in all my university courses to a 21st century generation of students who are more and more seeing an education as just a means for employment.
This summer, I have been commenting on the recent crisis in Iraq to the media. The most often invoked narrative in U.S. media as this crisis unfolds is how painful it has been for American veterans, who fought to keep Iraq together after 2003, see it fall apart in 2014. Every time I hear this comment I think of one veteran in particular who was also studied at York. I wanted to include the words I wrote for my York alumni update back in 2007. They are even more poignant to the events in Iraq in 2014:
The strongest memory I now have from York is of one of my high school friends, Kylan Jones Huffman who was killed in Iraq. Kylan and I shared several similar interests. We both ran track and field and were members of the Junior Statesmen of America. He was the only member of his graduating class to get an acceptance into the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. During his time there, he studied Arabic and Persian, just as I had done at UCLA. He went on to serve as a naval officer with a Marine unit patrolling post-war Iraq. He was in the passenger seat of a vehicle caught in traffic in the town of Al-Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, when a gunman approached and opened fire on him. I was in Kuwait, about to travel to Iraq when I learned of his news. I searched for his obituary in the online version of a local California newspaper. It wrote that he was a budding haiku poet. The last haiku he ever wrote was:
body armor shifting
on the car seat.
More poignant words, I could not imagine. Art reflecting reality. I pictured Kylan, my friend, sitting uncomfortably in his car seat, sweating under his body armor in the last moments of his life. It left me with the unsettling feeling that my friend died cleaning up a mess that he did nothing to create. I felt an odd sense of responsibility and even a tinge of shame. If someone had asked the students at York which one of us would be the first to go to Iraq, I would have named myself. If someone had told me that it was going to be Kylan, I might have even been a little bit jealous. Imagine that.
After his military service, Kylan wanted to become a teacher. His life paralleled mine on so many levels. We went to the same high school, we taught ourselves Middle Eastern languages, and we both wanted to be teachers. Something I read in my high school friend Kylan’s obituary came back to me. His father Jim had said, “It’s a terrible waste. As a teacher he could have impacted thousands of lives.” Kylan would never have the chance to become a teacher, and I try to continue his legacy today.
One of my most popular university courses is called “War on Modern Society,” where we analyze how American society creates the image of all-testosterone, gung-ho soldier in popular media such as videogames and films. In my course, I invoke Kylan to demonstrate the anti-thesis of that image. York gave him the environment to develop into a true Renaissance man. The town of Al-Hilla, where Kylan passed away, is situated in ancient Babylon, a fact that I was reminded of by an Iraqi student from there who I taught this summer. Al-Hilla is now in one of the more stable parts in Iraq, and the stability there allowed this student to travel and take my course and learn from me about Kylan and his sacrifice for her town. That is York’s legacy. It allows me to spread the humanistic education that Kylan and I benefitted from for students, both in the U.S. and around the world, for generations to come.