When school started last week, one face was noticeably absent at South Whidbey Elementary School. Longtime elementary school teacher Carolyn Bippart wasn’t there.
She was teaching school 7,000 miles away at the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon, a K-12 school of 1,000 students and 160 staff.
Bippart signed a two-year contract with ACS, and has been granted a leave of absence from the South Whidbey School District, she said.
“I’ve completed 30 years of teaching,” Bippart said.
“I promised myself a change when I reached this point in my career. Not ready to retire, I opened the dream box a year ago in June and I expressed my secret desire to teach abroad.”
Local English as a second language teacher Judy Kaplan and two other friends and colleagues, Marguerite Hauberg and Nadean Curtiss, were inspirational for Bippart as she shaped her plans.
“I decided if I’m going to make a change, make it a big one. My mom loved to remind my siblings and I that life is not a dress rehearsal! So I’m moving forward with determination to make it count,” she said.
In Beirut for roughly three weeks now, Bippart settled in and went to work.
Teaching abroad is an adjustment.
“Today was my second half-day with my new class; 21 fourth-grade students. I said to them, ‘Tomorrow we’ll start reading. You may bring a book from home if you’d like,’” Bippart wrote in her blog. “First question: ‘Ms. Carolyn, does the book have to be in English?’ I paused on that one. ‘Well Michael, that’s the first time anyone has asked me that question. I guess I’m not in Washington state anymore!’ We laughed.”
Bippart is chronicling her adventure in her blog “My Overseas Adventure” at cbippart.blogspot.com.
She said she hopes to rediscover herself during the trip.
“I’m seeking to reclaim my life’s path. I’ve always loved teaching and children. But recent events caught me unprepared,” she said. “For one, I am a proud mother of my own three children who have grown up and are out on their own. My 28-year-long marriage ended, leaving me feeling quite lost. My goals are to redefine my life’s path, live with passion, and to travel, travel, travel. While all the pieces in my life are up in the air it’s the right time to try something new.”
Bippart lived in Nantes, France, as a junior in college. Other than that, she has not needed a passport for the past 40 years.
“This is an out-of-the-blue adventure,” she said. “I went to a San Francisco job fair in February figuring that I might learn more about teaching overseas. As it turned out, I came home with a job.
“No one was more surprised than I was. Ironically, I went to the fair intending to work anywhere except the Middle East.”
Bippart said she attended the Lebanese school presentation at the urging of the fair director, who encouraged her to drop preconceived notions.
“I was swept off my feet by the American Community School in Beirut,” she said. “Why? Because they are involved in community service projects (Palestinian refuge camps), have a strong focus on the arts (music, visual, performing) and have a high academic standing, presented in that order. I admit I was intrigued.”
Bippart’s family was supportive when she presented them with the plan.
“My Dad, then 83, told me ‘Go for it Carolyn!’ My son James, ‘I’m proud of you, Mom.’”
Bippart said she and her daughter have communicated more in the past few months than they have in years, and she wants to visit.
“My youngest, Erik, intends to visit me, in fact all three are talking about traveling to the Middle East,” she said.
It was also difficult to tell her friends, but she only came across supporters and cheerleaders.
“It was hardest talking to my friends, my everyday family,” she said. “I love my colleagues and friends, but am hopeful that there will be others out there who need a friend, a place for Thanksgiving and a travel partner. My friend Karen has already bought her ticket for a spring rendezvous in Istanbul.”
Over the summer Bippart prepared for her trip, tackling the logistics and research for her big life adventure.
“I sold my van, found happy homes for my piano and sweet kitty, Pepper. Had a moving sale, donated, gave away, then packed the rest into an 8-feet-by-15-feet steel container that’s being warehoused until my return,” she said.
“I have used Google for fact finding and Google Earth for virtual tours. I’ve pestered my Beiruti teaching buddy, Lucy, emailing her dozens of questions.”
She added that she met with Melissa Dowd of the Northwest Language Academy for French conversation practice as French is second to Arabic in Lebanon, and did a lot of reading.
She hopes to soak up the culture and take home some cultural lessons.
“The turbulence in the Middle East has created a questionable situation for tourists,” Bippart said. “I’m grateful that I get to live there, to have the opportunity to get to know the Lebanese people themselves, news aside.”
“I want to learn some Arabic,” she added.
Exploring the culinary offerings is also on her to-do list.
“I’m told the food is delicious, Mediterranean style, and I want to eat well and learn to prepare some new dishes,” she said.
“I also plan to indulge in the art of travel! As long as I am there, I’m going to see and do all I can.”
Bippart is looking forward to seeing the world from a different perspective.
“The director’s daughter is the Middle East correspondent for CNN. His advice to me: Don’t listen too much to the American news, and keep packing,” she said.