Two years of solitude has left me with an uncomfortable amount of self-reflection time. One particular thing I’ve learned about myself is that I do not like teaching. I care very much about education and books and children but I’d pay money not to stand up in front of a group of people and tell them what to do, how to live, what matters, or what they should know or think about. Not that I don’t believe there are some people that should be doing that, just that I definitely don’t want to be one of them.
As you can imagine, this has made certain aspects of my service challenging, considering in many ways I am here precisely to do that- to tell people what to do, or at least to encourage them to do things differently, to do things “better”: to teach better, take better care of their health, treat women better, etc.
After spending the first year focused on teaching, I was lucky to have enough support from friends and family from home to get the supplies I needed to instead focus on putting together a library. If I couldn’t teach the teachers how to teach better, I figured I’d at least give them better resources.
In the process, something even better came about and Gel Paoa was formed. On my better days I try to teach them things, but on most days, if I teach them anything at all, it’s by chance only, a chance they’re paying attention.
I casually introduce topics of conversation when we’re sitting around sorting books or making bracelets. Sometimes it’s about small things like peer pressure, other times education, and sometimes about violence against women- particularly the women in their own lives. Mostly, I just listen to their stories, but occasionally I feel inspired to add my own input and to tell them that I want them to go to school for as long as their families are willing to pay for (which sadly for some of them will only be until Year 6). I think I give them a safe place to talk. I hope I do.
They’re (rightfully) prone to make fun of me a lot now. Often joking that they’re going to quit school or not come to class tomorrow. At first I just laughed it all off, but then I realized something I had said actually sunk in. That was scary. I had made them think.
Last week at our meeting, I gave out the activity books mom had mailed me and Halloween kits my Aunt Kathryn had mailed me. They were just fun activities like gluing designs to small trick or treat bags or window hanging ornaments. I was worn out from a fundraiser we had at lunch selling kids shoes Aunt Kathryn had mailed me so I didn’t say much besides to aid them in creating their projects. Craft projects don’t really happen at schools here so they thoroughly enjoyed this (as much as they enjoyed making bracelets the week before with the string Tori had mailed me).
They then asked me if there was any more of the “ice cream” (marshmallows) left over from the week before when we had roasted and made the s’mores Aunt Kathryn had mailed me. Rats had gotten to the rest of the graham crackers and chocolate but I still had the second bag so I sent two of the girls to light a fire in my kitchen.
We roasted and ate our way through about a fourth of the bag before one of the neighbors kids poked his head in the kitchen. One of the girls asked if she could give a roasted marshmallow to him. I told her to give one to his mom, the year one teacher, too. And suddenly we were roasting marshmallows for all of the teachers, and for all of the year 6 kids stuck in extra lessons, and for everyone else that was around. Giggling and running all over the school grounds, the girls handed out the marshmallows with huge grins.
It was the first time every single one of them had ever eaten a marshmallow. My headmaster guessed at their name in broken English. “marsmalls?” he asked. “I’ve read about these.” As if they were some mythical object.
It’s so easy to feel down about my service here. To think that the most I ever did was give these kids books they might not even read and marshmallows that they only got to taste once. Especially when I’m surrounded by amazing volunteers like my friend “Baby” Lynn (nicknamed by our group to differentiate between her and “Fairy” Lynn), who have affected real change.
Baby Lynn took an interest in a young girl in her village with no education, who had been a house girl practically since she had been born (maybe because no one had ever believed she could do or be more than that). Lynn worked one on one with her until the she was smart enough to attend year one. She continued to work with her and the little girl has now moved all the way up to year four, in just these two years.
In part, I mention this not just because I wish I had done something as amazing, but because it inspired me. Working on the Van Am in particular taught me that I love to be surrounded by other people’s ideas and creativity. And in addition to a love of feeling inspired, I also love inspiring others, I love encouraging people to create and to pursue their talents and dreams, and even better, I love being able to give them the platform to do so. So although I had realized in these past two years that I could not teach, I also learned that I could inspire and that in itself can be almost as powerful.
One of the things people in my village, particularly my Gel Paoa group say to me is that they’re afraid the next Peace Corps won’t have the same fashion as me. They won’t be nice like you are, the girls tell me. And when I stood there that one afternoon, watching them run around handing out their marshmallows, feeling inspired by their kindness, by the kindness that had started in and been sent all the way from the United States, I realized that none of it mattered. That as long as I had represented something good, that I had been the best of myself that I could be, that I had been kind and thoughtful and that I had cared, then none of the rest of it mattered because I had showed them that the world outside of their own could be kind. And through that, hopefully, I inspired them to be kind too.
Because in the end, it isn’t really about what Baby Lynn taught that little girl. It was the fact that Lynn went out of her way to help her, that she had believed in her, that she had been kind to her. Proof that even the smallest bit of kindness and encouragement can change the direction of someone’s day, and then their week, and then maybe even their year, and, eventually, their life.