Dhahran Diary®

Title: School in Beirut


As with all international schools, the American Community School (ACS) at Beirut, is tasked with educating and helping the whole child by being teacher, mother, father, confidante, and friend. Each year there are a host of new social frontiers to engage. For most teachers and students this is a very human task with immense future rewards. One only has to look down the list of ACS graduates to see how successful this school has been over the years.

ARAMCO had great schools but they stopped after ninth grade and the expatriate's young population had to seek new digs from which to matriculate. As I understand it, the Kingdom did not wish expatriate male youth with worldly attitudes to languish in the oil camps with nothing to do. That makes sense. In the early 1950s the most opportune international boarding schools were in Beirut, Rome, and several in Swiss cities.

This was a traumatic time for parents and students alike. Some of these students were barely 15 years old and off they were going to school in the Middle East and do who knows what! Beirut was the most opportune location. It was just 1,200 miles up the Trans Arabian Pipeline (TAP Line) from Dhahran. ARAMCO had offices in Beirut and a pumping station in Sidon, just south. TAP Line maintained a hospital in Beirut, not far from the school. The company's aircraft frequented Beirut almost on a daily basis. Middle East Airlines (MEA), based in Beirut, had several flights a week to Dhahran as did TWA, KLM, and PANAM.

I am not aware of the dialogue that went on between ARAMCO and the American Community School (ACS) of Beirut but I somehow have come to believe that the new men's wing in the BD was bankrolled by ARAMCO. There were many young ARAMCONS attending the school, maybe we represented the largest block of boarding students. Given these conditions, I felt ACS was the most natural extension of the Dhahran Senior Staff School. Still, although we were a large segment, we did not control the school's student body because there was such a large day student population.

Beirut was a banking, trade center, and as the jewel of the eastern Mediterranean, it attracted a wide representation of international business families and foreign government employees. These families sent their children to ACS each day of the school year. ACS was composed of the academic (AD) and boarding departments (BD). The day students were more familiar with the academic department, attending classes in the complex immediately to the west of the boarding department. The BD was the dormitory facility, a four story building (with penthouse for the school's headmaster, Dr. Bassett and his family) with the basement used for support facilities, the ground and second floors for business and housing the men, and the top two floors housing the women.

Teachers were housed judiciously in the dorm areas (except the senior wing for men) and from this vantage kept track of us and our shenanigans. The school held high standards; this included ethics as well as scholarship. Some of my friends or acquaintances were asked to leave. Scholarship was also important for enrollment. Many ARAMCO students were refused admission for low scholarship. Others were accepted and expelled during the year for poor behavior or their parents were informed over the summer that they should find a different institution of learning for the following year. I came into ACS and left with average grades; although I stayed only the one year, it was the most remarkable year of my college preparatory training. I learned about responsibility, improved my scholarship approach, and came to grips with what life had in store for me. I made some lasting friendships and I came to love the city of Beirut as none other.

The BD was about turf to the boarding students. This was a mysterious current that was penumbric. It was elusive power because its administration depended on the whereabouts of the faculty. If they were in your space, the school rules applied and everyone could pass without incident. If teachers were absent , the invader could receive anything from a swat to a squirt of shaving cream. I am speaking of men and I can recount several incidents where sophomores were able to catch seniors on the the second floor. These seniors wielded the most power in school, physically and socially, but should they be caught in the domain of pond scum, one term of endearment for sophomores, they might quickly be dispatched to the deck by twenty odd students who would then do something unimaginable like painting their butt with refrigerator or model airplane paint. This degrading practice was the ultimate finger in the face of the ruling class! On other occasions, underclassmen were approached by seniors and intimidated with force or other social provocation. This strong-arm stuff was usually set up well before underclassmen came to ACS.

Over the summer of 1953, I was reminded by 'acquaintances' of several events at ACS the previous year and told that someone was already awaiting my arrival with baited breath. I thought this outrageous since I did not know these people, nor even live in close proximity. These were ARAMCONS who lived in other oil camp towns. Fortunately, my biggest hate-figure was removed from school the year before and another was graduated. The remaining power-boss made several attempts to corral me but he was thwarted by my good luck and his bad timing. On at least one occasion, a sophomore and good friend was tested by senior intimidation. He defended himself with honor and the whole senior class stepped back to have another look at the pond scum of 1953-54. These bouts of defense were usually not more than two or three punch affairs. I think that altercation made our sophomore year one of peaceful coexistence. There were a few brushes but on the whole, it was a non-threatening year, one to be enjoyed. Once the rabble was dispersed, the real junior and senior leadership came forth and made that school year remarkable for me.

I was in a clique with Gary Cody and Bill Crays. They were both from Abqaiq and for some reason we became fast friends. We knew each other from ninth grade sports in the ARAMCO inter district competitions. Crays was a great bowler and Gary mastered every sport he attempted. They called us the Three Cs: Cody, Crays, and Christophersen. We roomed next to one another in the new wing and we had a few close friends. Bob Lowenthal was the closest, I think. We did almost everything together.

I was homesick for the first month but this temporary mental illness was short lived. I didn't realize my yearnings until two weeks into the school year and after a two week bout of sniffling at odd times of the day, it was over. I attribute this rapid recovery to so many of my friends from Dhahran being in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes. There was usually a friendly face just around the corner. Another influence, maybe the bigger, was the wonderful, tender care of the teachers. One, Mr. Koundakjain, treated me like his son and I wasn't even in any of his classes!

There was strong competition among students for girl and boy friends. There was lots of going together and the social aspects of school were augmented by day students like Ginger Moore and Harry Parnell. They invited many of us away from campus for an evening of fun. In the case of Ginger, she and her parents would throw their home open to us on a grant scale. Unfortunately, I never made it to one of these visits but my classmates talked about these gatherings for weeks afterward.

The school's social program including dances, field trips (Baalbek, Dog River, Tyre, Sida, the Cedars, castles, etc), plays and other activities rounded out the school year nicely. Seasonal sport, field day, and graduation were character builders. The biggest change in me occurred when I went home on Christmas vacation. My mother had gotten rid of all my personal things, even my desk, when they moved to a new house. This was a shock but eventually I put this change into perspective; I knew that from then on I was just a temporary visitor at home in Dhahran. When I went back to ACS I was on a mission of the future, something I really didn't think much about until January 1954. I think it's a good thing that I had my friends around me and the beautiful city of Beirut to help me adjust to my new status. I ended up with two roommates that year. David Stone, a junior from Montana, was an excellent student and musician. He got infectious hepatitis and had to leave school. Miraculously, I did not catch it from him. Bob Lowenthal was my other roommate. His parents were working in India, I think. We were together several months before he found another roommate.

ACS had close ties with the American University of Beirut (AUB); some graduates from ACS went right up the hill and became experts in Arab studies. So, for all of us who came, the American Community School was a launching point to the future. A few of us turned our interests to Middle East studies. But the majority scattered like seeds in the wind. Some stayed at ACS through graduation before dispersing. Others took one year and headed for the states. During this time of education, our parents toiled vigorously on our behalf, carving out their futures and ensuring our quasi-colonial lifestyle. It was a grand but tenuous experience.


Copyright ©1999-2006 Rolf A. Christophersen
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