Recently someone posted a comment to our blog asking about our Peace Corps experience. She mentioned that most of the blogs she is reading only say good things about the writers’ time in the PC and she was hoping to hear more about the trials and tribulations of serving. At the time, I told her that we were only three weeks into our time in the PC and that nothings bad had happened yet. Yes, training is hard and yes, at times I am hot and tired and overwhelmed, but nothing really negative had happened so far.
On Tuesday we went on our site visits/on-the-job training/independent travel trips. Basically the idea is you find your own way from Apia to your site and then you spend two days there getting to know the people you will be working with.
Oh wait, I am sorry, am I getting ahead of myself here? Did I fail to mention that site announcement was on Monday? Oh goodness. Well, on Monday we learned where we are going to be spending the next two years. Such a small detail to gloss over.
Cale and I are living and working in the same village. I will be teaching computers at a college (read: high school) run by the Methodist Board of Education and Cale will be teaching woodworking at the vocational school next door, also run by the Methodists. There is also a third member of our PC group, Aaron, living and working in our village. He is going to be working with Cale at the vocational school. He will be roommates with a JICA volunteer at my school. I don’t know all the details about JICA, but it appears to be the Japanese version of the Peace Corps.
So, where was I? Oh yes, the site visits and negative experiences. So something I learned about negative experiences in the PC is that it is all a matter of your attitude, time and processing. If I had written this post immediately after my first day at my school, it would have been incredibly negative. In fact, I did write something in my notebook the day after and it is very long and complainy. However, I have had time to think about the experience and time to process it with the other volunteers and trainers and it has given me a better perspective on things.
I was very overwhelmed on my first day. The school didn't seem to know I was coming. The principal paired me up with one of the other computer teachers who was very nice and seemed like someone it would be good to partner with later. Unfortunately, that teacher had only been teaching at the school for four weeks (two of which were a break) and didn’t have a lot of information about the computer department or program. He did show me the computer lab, which is FULL of potential. It is a clean, well-organized, air-conditioned room with more than 20 new computers. However, only six of them are working at this time. I feel pretty confident that is fixable.
However, after first period that teacher disappeared and I was left to my own devices in the teachers lounge. I made some conversation with other teachers, but they seemed like they needed to work, so I mostly sat to myself and wrote letters home. During this time the principal was also away, when he returned I asked him if I could observe a computer class and he sent me off to watch another computer teacher for the last period of the day.
This is when I discovered that no teaching is going on this week. Students are having self-study for the exams next week. It highlights the difference between the Sāmoan education system and the one that I am used to. In the States the week before a big exam the teachers spend it doing review, frequently with games and quizzes and practice tests, and all the quiet self-study is something you are supposed to do on your own at home. In Sāmoa (or at least at this school), the students sit quietly and study at their desks and the teachers just act as room monitors during the week before the exams. I wonder if part of that is because the students do not have time to study at home, they have lots of chores to do when they get home.
Anyway, this teacher decided to do something with his class because I was watching, so he started to ask them questions about things like input devices and RAM and ROM. Then, he started quizzing me a little. Which is where my day really fell apart. When I didn’t know the answers to questions, it set the class laughing and he had to give them a speech in Sāmoan about not laughing at me. It was pretty humiliating.
Before we left, your trainers prepared us saying that the school would have a place for us to stay set up and that they would be feeding us while we were there. However, the people at the school didn’t know anything about this, which jacked my anxiety level up even more. I was sent me off across campus to find the director.
By the time Cale and Aaron found me 30 minutes later sitting in the director’s waiting room I was pretty much a mess. I was hot, hungry (I hadn’t eaten anything all day but bread and tea from the tea break), anxious, humiliated and in general in fear for the next two years. And, to be totally honest, I cried.
Thankfully, the director was totally on top of things. He knew we were coming and planned for us to stay in the house where we will be living when we work there, only a stone’s throw from the school and next door to his. The house is awesome. It looks just like the sort of house you would find in Florida. Cinder block construction, three bedrooms, a large living room and dining area with a dining table, a large kitchen with gas stove and oven with broiler and refrigerator, and a large wrap around porch. The house is rock-tastic and totally not what I expected at all. We will need to clean the living daylights out of it. The last volunteer to live there left rather unexpectedly in June or July and the house was left open to the elements for all that time (all the louvered windows were left open and it might have even been unlocked). It is pretty filthy inside, but nothing a power washer (or a lot of hot water and soap) won’t fix.
I went to school the next day with an improved attitude and determined to take things into my own hands. I still ended up sitting in the teachers’ lounge for most of the day, but I did get to meet the head of my department and ask him questions and I did make a friend with one of the science and maths (they call it maths in Sāmoa) teachers (I think). And after processing with the group and trainers back in Apia the next day, I was determined to look at the potential of my site and not at the experience of the first day. There is one guy in our group whose site was a completely wrong match for him and right now, he doesn’t know where he will be working, yet he has the best attitude out of all of us I think and that was really inspiring.
My school has a computer lab all set up and, with a little work, ready to rock and roll. I met a new computer teacher who has a lot of good ideas for the school computer program including getting a computer with Internet in the library and teaching research skills to the students. The head of my department is interested in having me help him learn more about computers. I made friends with a teacher my age and I might even join her soccer team when I get there. I have Cale for support and Aaron and the JICA volunteer are down the street if we ever need a suipi party.
One of the things I kept telling myself after the first day was, “If everything here was the way it should be, they wouldn’t need Peace Corps in the first place.” I cannot look at all the difficulties I had with my site on the first day and let it get me down. That is what I am here to do, I am supposed to find areas where there might be room for improvement and then do what I can to help people improve them. So how is that for a Hallmark-movie ending of inspiration and up-lifted spirits?
So now that I have blathered on for a ridiculous amount of time (word count at this point: 1,675) you may be wondering, “So, how was Cale’s site visit?” I cannot speak for Cale, other than to say that it sounded like it was pretty amazing and he is stoked to get to work. Hopefully, I can get him to start making posts to the blog and he can tell you about his experience.