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The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

October 1, 2011

teaching ESL in a barrio school

“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier … the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes….”  John F. Kennedy, 1960

The Peace Corps turned 50 this year, a momentous event in my estimation for an enterprise many thought would never last past its first year. Since its birth in 1961, two hundred thousand Americans have served in 139 countries around the world. I am proud to say that I am one of them.

The organization was in its ninth year of existence when I joined in 1970 and was undergoing some growing pains, as was I in my twenty-first year of existence, so we were a good match. It was a perfect direction for me in which to go to channel both my idealism and sense of adventure.

The seeds were sown when I was in high school. I had admired the feeling of the era of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot even if I didn’t fully understand it, but reading a novel about the Peace Corps entitled The Zinzin Road by Fletcher Knebel crystallized much of my amorphous desire to do good in the world. In my senior year of college, I sent out my application, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In March of 1970 I received a letter from Joseph Blatchford, the director at the time, telling me I had been accepted to become a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher in Micronesia. I could barely contain my excitement. I rushed off to the nearest atlas to see where I would be spending the next two years of my life. However, in April my assignment was changed to the Philippines, a place I knew a bit more about since my father had served there as a soldier in World War II.

When I told my parents what I had done and where I was going, they were somewhat befuddled. After all, they hadn’t sent me to college to go off on some crazy escapade. What about getting a job and starting a career? In my view, there was plenty of time for that, and they reluctantly accepted my decision.

I must say, I had not given thorough consideration to what I’d be leaving behind: my home, family, friends, and girlfriend, not to mention electricity, running water, a refrigerator full of food, changing seasons, reliable transportation, and a relatively predictable existence. I had no idea of what to expect, and yet I relished that very idea.

After some difficult good-byes, I reported to the staging point in Philadelphia in June. Our group then left for our tropical assignment training site — in Vermont, of all places. The next three months would be spent in intensive language instruction (mine was Bicol), cultural training, and applying teaching techniques to our unique task. Since I was to be an ESL teacher / teacher-trainer, the third month was spent in Montreal, Canada, practicing English teaching skills on the French-speaking populace who were in the midst of an anti-English movement.

We bussed to New York City the weekend before the long flight to Manila, and I took the opportunity to go home for a final farewell. The night before departing, I was informed that I had to shave off my beard. “It’s too radical looking,” I was told. “No Castro look-alikes will be allowed on the plane.” The next morning I headed out — beardless — with the rest of Philippines Group 39 to Kennedy airport, appropriately enough, to board the then-new 747.

Punctuated by an overnight stop in Tokyo, our journey ended at Manila airport, and we stepped out into our first blast of tropical heat. What followed was a whirlwind of orientations, meetings, and in-country training. Finally our group split up and ventured forth to our assignments.

The ensuing two years were an invigorating, frustrating, magical, frightful, and absolutely incomparable procession of experiences and adventures that resulted in a critical period of growth for me and friendships that have lasted until this day. I can not even begin to put into words how valuable this part of my life was. It altered my view of the world, my country, and myself, and the effect of this experience is a singular and essential part of who I am.

I did not intend to sound like a recruiter, though I would certainly encourage those who find the idea intriguing to seriously look into it. It is a life-changing experience in several ways. That there are countless individuals in those 139 countries around our planet who have changed for the better because of the Peace Corps presence in their lives is without question. Perhaps an even greater change, though, occurred in the two hundred thousand of us who were volunteers in this visionary program.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. I firmly believe that each of us that serves helps further the cause of education, health, justice, and peace in this world by those single steps. We aren’t there yet, but as long as there are people who are willing to believe in the possibility, however remote it may sometimes seem, I shall hold onto hope.

the future

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