This I Believe

Karen - Millbrook, New York
Entered on September 20, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe from the moment you decide to join the Peace Corps…

I believe from the moment you decide to join the Peace Corps your service never really ends. You may say goodbye to your host country and return to do pretty much what you were doing before – or – you may, as is true for many RPCV’s, move into an uncharted, totally unthought-of of before landscape of career, friends, place. Either way or whatever latitude you land on, Peace Corps service changes you profoundly – so deeply and so thoroughly that you can’t shed it – you carry it with you forever.

At least that is true for me and for the RPCV’s I know.

Having started out to teach elementary school or high school English – a job that I announced I wanted in the second grade and from which I never wavered right through student teaching, I graduated from college to discover the job market for freshly-minted teachers absolutely stunk. So there were my choices: work in a home finance company calling people about their past-due loans, work as a sales clerk in a department store, try to find a job as a sub-assistant assistant editor for a publishing company or having vowed to be a teacher, look at the Peace Corps. With no true life experience and possessing the post-adolescent nerviness that leads you to believe you can do anything, anywhere, I applied to the Peace Corps. And was accepted. Unbelievably. Fortunately. For everything else has flowed from there.

“Liberia?” I started to look up “Libya” knowing as much about the world as the average USA-centrically educated American. (I think though today’s kids do learn more widely and technology does inform a more aware world view. Enough? Probably not – but better.) And so arms sore from vaccinations and suitcase packed with the wrong stuff, I arrived to teach high school English classes of sixty plus students, most older and bigger than I was, stuffed three to a desk, with no books, chalk, paper, using a model based on a musty US curriculum – (How do you teach “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening” seven degrees above the equator-or better yet, why?)

And, as is the Peace Corps truth, I gained so much more than I gave. How generous and forgiving my students and the community were. How passionate to learn – even in the most meager of circumstances and from the most inexperienced teacher. The recipe of me pre-Peace Corps, my certainties, my facts, my tomorrow, was stirred, sifted, and refined. The results are still surprising me years later.

A clear product: choosing to teach English as a Second Language to foreign students rather than to teach the seventh grade and “The Scarlet Letter” in a suburban middle school. I craved and couldn’t live without that global, cross-cultural fix. Whatever I do binds me to the Peace Corps. Getting a graduate degree in creative writing may not be so obvious. Having a story published interwoven with Liberian references? Almost a cliché. And so it goes. From going to my child’s school to do a show and tell about Liberia to listening to NPR and the BBC rather than a local station to making time to volunteer, Peace Corps is stuck to me-for life.