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Go, Mother Lion, Go and Farewell

John Leistler muses on his quarter-century friendship with Julianne Puente

I vividly remember the February afternoon in 2007 sitting in the Middle School cafeteria at Hackley School in New York, when I announced to my longtime colleague and friend, Julianne Puente, “I have just signed a contract to work in a brand-new school in the country of Jordan. I wanted you to know.” She looked incredulous, smiled and said, “Wow, Johnny —that sounds exciting. I wish you the best.” As Julianne tells it, she walked away from that encounter shaking her head, saying to herself, “John is crazy! What’s he doing going to Jordan???!”

Eighteen months later, I was with King’s Academy founding headmaster Eric Widmer in his office in the Arab Bank Administration Building. Dr. Eric had asked me in his usual, casual-seeming way who among my Hackley colleagues “might have the stomach for this kind of work we are doing in Jordan.”  Without hesitation I said, “I can think of one person — her name is Julianne Puente.”  Eric handed me the phone and suggested I call Julianne right then and there in New York and talk to her about the school. Julianne and I had not spoken on the phone in the year since I had arrived in Jordan. So when she picked up the phone and greeted me, it was with her usual brio. “Johnny, is that really you?” “Yes,” I said, “and I have an important question for you.”

And the rest is history.

Go, Mother Lion, Go and Farewell

As our school on the plains of Moab prepares for a farewell to Julianne Puente, I am honored to write a few words about our long and rewarding friendship. I have the joy of knowing Julianne, or Jules, as she is known by her coterie of fans and friends, longer than anyone else at King’s Academy. Indeed, having worked with Julianne at two schools, for 11 years at each one, Julianne will always be the colleague with whom I have worked the longest.

I met Julianne in 1996. She was a 23-year old returning “former student” to Hackley where I was a new teacher. She had had a storied career at this private school, as a true scholar-athlete.

When Julianne returned to Hackley after graduating from Cornell University, she did not yet know that independent schools would be her life’s work. She was simply “young, scrappy, and hungry” (if I may co-opt Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics about Alexander Hamilton!) and wanted to coach and be around her beloved Hackley School. Starting in the College Counseling office, and then moving to Admissions for both Middle and Upper Schools, she gathered wisdom and insight from important, veteran teachers as she assiduously absorbed their lessons and advice on working with adolescents, colleagues, and parents. When in 2000 I asked her, “What’s your ultimate  career goal?” She had an answer ready.

“I want to be a head of school,” she said. “Have you taught any academic classes yet?” “No,” she replied. “Well, if you want to be a credible head of school someday, you will need to add that to your resume,” I advised.  So we worked out a plan. She would start by teaching middle school history courses. As with everything Julianne has ever done, she threw herself without reservation into planning and teaching 8th grade US history.

In the next several years Julianne demonstrated a growing competence as she moved through a variety of positions, eventually becoming one of the deans of the Middle School. From there she could easily have moved to other traditional administrative posts in East coast prep schools but the offer as the Dean of Students at King’s Academy intrigued Julianne. Always looking for a challenge, and understanding that the greater the challenge, the greater the growth, she chose the difficult path of becoming an ex-patriate to nurture a fledgling school in the Middle East, moving to King’s Academy in the fall of 2009. Julianne’s first year at King’s was not a bed of roses, and that’s an understatement. Julianne will gladly tell you stories of how hard that first year was, but I watched as she deployed her trademark grit and resilience, mixed with human understanding. As she remembers it, “I worked to win people over, one person at a time.” And she did. For example, she spent time getting to know the “Admin people,” but she also spent time with the guards at the gate, and the people in the kitchen. She quickly understood that she had to slow down her New York bravado and soon grasped the importance of having tea as a means to get to know students, faculty, and families. She once joked that her memoir from her Jordanian sojourn should be called, Ten Thousand Cups of Tea. 

Go, Mother Lion, Go and Farewell

Through the years I have marveled at the “Midas touch” Julianne uses in choosing and training her Office of Student Life team. Time and again I have seen her identify competent educators and through modeling the hard work, tenacity, resilience and love of school life that she demands from herself, train them to become outstanding deans, extraordinary leaders and role models for our school. She reminds herself as she reminds each dean that every interaction with students provides an opportunity for mission-driven learning and growth. For five years Julianne lived in one of the dormitories so that she could better understand the inner workings of a boarding school and be in the trenches with all of the other boarding faculty. While Julianne’s most enduring identity may be, as a student once called her, “the warden,” I believe her least recognized public persona is that of an intellectual. She has insisted on continuing to teach a class, always mining both her New York and Jordan roots to inform the way she views and teaches world religions.

Like every other faculty member, Julianne has to plan, assess, grade, write comments and divine a differentiation game plan for every student. But this fits in so well with her lifelong love of sports and coaching. My first impression of Julianne, when I met her in 1996, was “hotshot coach.” Yes, she came across as a hotshot, coaching teams to multiple state championships! But there was always so much more to her coaching work.

Julianne approaches every group as a “team,” using the methods that cohere and inspire people, as she works to build relationships that yield the group goals she and the group have set. Whether she is “coaching” a sports team, or her OSL team, her World Religions classes, a dormitory house or any other group, Julianne understands how to use the building blocks of interpersonal dynamics which comprise the foundation of deep success.

Go, Mother Lion, Go and Farewell

Julianne is also a consummate story-teller with many stories in her collection from her 11 years in Jordan. One story reigns supreme for me, as it embodies so much of the work and joy we have shared. In the spring of 2010, in our first senior class, a rambunctious bunch of senior boys delighted in pranks. One evening I received a phone call from one of those boys who whispered, “I wanted to warn you that some of us put a dead chicken in Miss Julianne’s office earlier this evening. But I don’t want her to find that.  She doesn’t deserve a dead chicken.” I thanked him for his honesty, and although I am a city boy, I went to do a farm boy chore:  remove the dead chicken and all signs of this prank. Entering Julianne’s office, and seeing the carcass on the floor, I screwed up my courage. As I reached for it — whoa!! The chicken was not dead after all! Great! Chicken in hand, I walked to Julianne’s apartment to decide with her what to do. Instead of any punishment for the boys, we decided that the best retaliation was not to mention this publicly at all. In private, however, we called up the other deans of the OSL and had fun taking photos of each other playing cards with the chicken, whom we nicknamed ‘Sparkles.’ A decade ago Julianne told me that she imagined she would stay at King’s Academy for no more than five years tops. But I watched as she got to know Jordan and made friends that became like family. For a long time Julianne’s desire to be a head of school simmered on a backburner. Then an opportunity arose and it seemed that the time was right for her to take the next step in her career. Sometime around 2012, in my AP Art History class, I compared Julianne to the ancient Egyptian symbol of Horus the falcon, which the Egyptians used to show toughness. According to Egyptian lore, falcons fly into the sun and do not flinch. They are also protective and command attention. Certainly this describes Julianne. She will now fly into the sun, 10,000 miles from us here on campus, all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico. So now my colleague, my problem-solving, let’s-start-a-grocery-just-for-fun, New York soul sister-buddy and dear, dear friend will be working her magic in New Mexico, where I am sure she will also be teaching about life on these plains of Moab, and how she helped mold the contours of the King’s Academy experience for more than a decade from 2009-2020.

Long ago my wise 5th grade teacher, Nina Wilson, taught our class the aphorism, “bloom where you are planted.” In the nearly quarter of a century I have worked with Julianne, I have met few people who exemplify this advice as well as she does. Not only does Julianne bloom wherever she is planted, but she encourages others, nurtures them, prepares the soil, weeds out their inadequacies and insecurities, and waters their hopes and dreams. Like the beautiful iris, the national flower of Jordan, Julianne found congenial soil at King’s Academy, and bloomed here in the desert.

Among many other things, John Leistler is the dean of the faculty at King’s Academy, as well as the holder of the Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa Distinguished Chair in the Theory and Practice of Knowledge.