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Monday, May 14, 2012

Loose Ends & Reflection

Tying up loose ends

The English Book for the “Best English Club”

My vice principal is getting panicky - he's pushing the project where I have to write a book which will teach my students English!!! I keep smiling and saying "Yes.” (God give me patience with this man.) I finished up the Grammar, Conversation and Cross Cultural chapters and then he wanted the Title page, Contents and Credits for all the editors (he and the other English teachers - who have not yet done their translation parts.)
Today he told me I need to write an acknowledgement and a preface!
He did apologize that I will never see the book because they won't print it till after I am gone!!!

You may think I'm slacking here in paradise - But I'm not!

Now he wants a Preface to every chapter!
And he wants all my music, all my photos, all my lesson plans (which I’ve already given him several times) and my shoes.
Give Me the Shirt Off Your Back

This is not unusual. Many other people have asked me for “a going away gift to remember me by” – there’s a special word for this in Indonesian. About 10 women have suggested that I give them the clothes that I am wearing!

Andrea, another Peace Corps volunteer took my pictures and made an awesome card that I have copied. One thousand copies, one thousand signatures, one thousand little hearts, one thousand sticky tags with my face book and email address attached to the back, stuffed in one thousand envelopes with one thousand stickers on them…. That’s so I can give one to every student and teacher at my school. It took me a week to get all that done.

Some bits and pieces being included in my Volunteer Report Form:

Community Integration:

I feel integrated into my community. I'm different, but accepted. I think I am the most loved volunteer in the Peace Corps Indonesia program - partly because I am old and that brings a lot of respect and admiration but also I think it's my attitude. I always tried to make each day fun for me so that I would want to come back again tomorrow. Students and teachers and community members can tell if you genuinely enjoy what you do. And I do.


Every day is a challenge. In looking back over the last 27 months I have to say that I never expected to feel so much despair, doubt and inadequacy. Peace Corps is much tougher than I thought. Who I am now is not who I was when I came to Indonesia. I used to be a confident, competent woman. Now I am much less sure of the meaning of things. I am humbled by my lack of ability to thoroughly learn Indonesian and Indonesian culture. It's okay. I am learning to be patient with this new woman that I have become. My "dis-abilities" are not the defining part of me. I am living closer to the “core” of who I am and in that place the challenges I experience are like waves washing over the ocean, they really don’t alter the essence of the water.

Lessons Learned:

I have learned to say “yes” and then figure out the details later. I have learned that if someone wants me to do something that there will be some reward in it for me even if it seems overwhelming at the time of the request. I said “yes” to Peace Corps service and I have learned that no matter how difficult the circumstances it’s worth it.

Planned Activities:

This week I will return to America and present a program on Indonesia to the kindergarten where my grandchild is a student. I am taking home many fabrics and crafts from Indonesia to facilitate telling my friends and family about my experiences.

Peace Corps Goal 2 – To promote a better understanding of the American people

I taught all 579 of my grade 10 and 11 students a lesson about Americans based on Barack Obama's book - Of Thee I Sing - A Letter to my daughters. We learned about Georgia O'Keefe, Albert Einstein, Jackie Robinson, Sitting Bull, Billie Holiday, Helen Keller, Maya Lin, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Neil Armstrong, Cesar Chavez, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

The students and teachers listened to uplifting and inspiring words from President Obama in both English and Indonesian. We discussed the impact that each person can have within their community.

Peace Corps Goal 3 – To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

That’s the main purpose of this 2 ½ year blog project

Success story:

I remember very little from my own High School language classes. I studied French and I recall that my teacher was beautiful yet almost cruel. She insisted on proper pronunciation. I know how to say “Bonjour” and I remember the words to a song we learned.

My legacy of what I will leave behind as a Peace Corps volunteer will NOT be a school full of fluent English speakers but the challenge has always been to leave them with a little more knowledge, competency and desire to speak English.

One of my co-teachers, Mrs. Ni’mah wanted to “use media” in the advanced grade 10 class. At my school, many classrooms do not have electricity. But one group of “gifted” students is in a classroom where there is a carpet and students and teachers must remove their shoes before entering. Not only is there electricity but there is an overhead projector where you can hook up your computer and project images and sound to the front of the room. “Technology” is not one of my strong points but my co-teacher insisted that I find something in English and teach it to this class. I suspect these students may pay extra for this privilege of being in this class – that is true in many schools in Indonesia, but I also wanted to do something special for my other, not so advanced classes.

I found a song by a Norwegian girl group – M2M - that I have heard a few times on loud speakers set up for weddings. I could play the music video on the overhead projector and in the other classes I could charge my battery and take the computer and play the song and then at the end of the class hold up the computer so the students could see the video. This song, “The Day You Went Away” expresses some of the pain of moving on in your life and has an easy to remember series of repetitions.

“And we were letting go of something special – Something we’ll never have again.” “I know. I guess I really, really, know.”

So I taught this song to my 3 co-teachers and then, together, we proceeded to teach the song to the 579 students that I teach every week.

The challenge was having the students achieve a sense of competency in a 40 – 90 minute session. Half of my students only see me for 40 minutes each week and in many of those classes the boys are often late coming to class and so I need to do something that gives an advantage to the students who are on time but still doesn’t leave the boys behind.

I went to each class and played the song, stopping at various times to ask the students what they heard. I wrote their responses on the board. Then we erased the board and I gave them lyrics with 20 blank places where they had to listen and write down the word they heard. After several times going through the song, we corrected the papers. The next step was to have the students sing the song reading along with the words. When they could do this well, then I had them put the papers away and sing from memory. The final step was to sing without the music.

They groaned as each step became increasingly harder. They tried to cheat and look at the words in the most creative ways. But at the end of the session every group was able to sing the song on their own without music! The students cheered. For most of them it was the first time they had massive success in speaking English.

Because so many other teachers heard us practicing this song, they also asked to learn the words.

On graduation day, the day before I leave my village permanently, my co-teachers, the vice principal and I plan to sing this song on the stage while Grade 10 and 11 students join in. I hope it will be a gift that we can give the graduating seniors and a tender farewell to this school that will remain in my heart.

“Why do we never know what we’ve got till it’s gone.”
“And I am letting go of something special, something I’ll never have again.”

No one wants to think that I will never return to Indonesia. They insist that I give them a date when I will come again. But the truth is in all probability, I won’t return. I am in the process of saying goodbye to the people who have dramatically altered my view of who I am.

Advice to future Peace Corps Volunteers in Indonesia:

Diversity – How it feels to be the only older volunteer for most of my time in Indonesia.
There were times when I felt Despair, questioned why I ever signed up for this job, Doubted if I could do it and felt like a bumbling idiot
I knew I was smart. I knew I was competent. How could I possibly not be that and yet by every measure I knew, I was not measuring up.
I was a failure in my own eyes.
In Pre Service Training I tried so hard to learn the new vocabulary but I just couldn’t remember it.
And I felt physical symptoms too. My hip hurt. My knees hurt. I had diarrhea. (a lot)
I suspected a lot of this was because I was old but no one in my village agreed with me. The other trainees said they all said learning Indonesian was hard and they didn’t feel great all the time either. But in my heart, I knew it was harder for me.

And then there was the whole being tethered to a family issue. It had been so long since I felt I had to answer to someone, to ask for permission to go outside, to have the request to leave the window open at night denied, to be told when, where and what to eat.
I was treated like I was old and fragile. In my permanent village people told me there was no way they would let their grandmother go to Surabaya by herself. Mandatory retirement age for teachers at my school is 60. The average life expectancy in Indonesia is 65.

Indonesians felt comfortable falling asleep against me. If I wasn’t talking to the person next to me on the bus or train I could almost guarantee that they would fall asleep on my shoulder. And one time I spent the night at another volunteer’s house with 2 local 22 year old girls. They both wanted to sleep in the same single bed with me rather than sleep in the top bunk! I finally just apologized and crawled into the top bunk by myself.

And then on the other side of the coin, I felt slighted when they always let the oldest teacher be the first in line and she was 3 years younger than I was!

And sometimes it was my fault. I don’t blame them for thinking I was senile. I would step out into the road after looking the wrong way, hand money with my left hand and say the absolutely wrong thing – oops, I just got one word mixed up!

And it sucks being the only older volunteer. My support group was kids younger than my children!

The delightful part of this situation is that I found I am still young at heart. Some days I’ll remember forever: The day we made the human pyramid at Borobodur. The night in Bali we stayed out clubbing till 3am. The day I jumped off a 50 foot cliff into a river with 9 of my closest friends. I made an effort to bond with those crazy youngsters and it all paid off. I feel closer to them than I ever imagined. They helped me get through this challenging Peace Corps experience.

I felt so frustrated. I tried to talk to PC staff but they just didn’t want to listen. I know they thought I was a complainer. I really thought there were things they could do to help the situation but all I got was that they thought I should stop complaining. I felt so alone.
I didn’t think any other volunteer was going through what I was going through. I wasn’t really close to any of the others anyway.
I cried alone in my room.

What got me through – I don’t know. I guess it’s my belief that nothing you experience is just about you. I figured that ultimately other volunteers would be forced into situations where they were pressured to give money, or situations where they had diarrhea and vomiting at the same time, or situations where they were worried about their host families feeding them.

I stayed here in Indonesia because of YOU, the future generations of Peace Corps volunteers. I figured that if I could face all my difficulties and figure out how to do it that maybe I could help you out in some way. Or maybe just by facing my difficulties I would inspire some of my students to face theirs.

But the truth is I don’t know How to explain what solved the problem.

I came to understand that every moment that challenges me is my teacher – a persistent yet compassionate teacher. If I don’t handle the difficulties in that moment, they will come at me again at another time in my life.

It’s not just this one counterpart who doesn’t value me, it’s my friend in America, or my co-worker at any job I have. Ultimately it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with me.

What do I do when I don’t feel valued, when I feel rejected, when I feel useless, when I feel used? Those where the dilemmas that my Peace Corps service presented me with.

I became much better at going with the flow, lowering my expectations and listening to what the situation was asking of me.

Often I just did not think I could do it. God help me. I am not super woman. But somehow, someway, I survived. Maybe just my example is all that I can give you.

The problems that you will be given each contain a gift that is unique for you. I hope you ultimately learn to treasure them. Because the person that you are now, the one who is beginning this adventure, is not the person that you will be when you finish. That new person is yearning to be born, but the birth process is so painful!

In the words of someone else: “Sometimes Peace Corps kinda sucks.”

But hang in there. In the end it’s really worth it. I’m curious to find out the new you that you will become just as a result of simmering in this Indonesian soup.

PS Peace Corps is the 2nd hardest job I have ever had. (I think "mothering" was harder. Happy Mother’s Day to all you other Mothers out there.)


  1. I still can't believe those kids were okay with you being on the bottom of that human pyramid at Borobodur! You are a hero, Colleen. I find the idea of a Peace Corps tour terrifying at 54, but I'd have to wait a bit longer yet to try a challenge comparable to the one you've completed!

    Oh...while there are several excellent writers in your group, in terms of communicating about this experience I think you've written the best blog too!

  2. It’s never too early to think about the Third Goal. Check out Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir. Oh! If you want a good laugh about what PC service was like in a Spanish-speaking country back in the 1970’s, read South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. I am going to Indonesia in April to start the peace corp and this really helped my nerves. Thank you!