Peace Corps 50th Anniversary

In 1994, my one-egg nest emptied when my only child left home and hearth for college.  At first, the echoing hallways and tidy spaces in our house were a welcome diversion from the carnival atmosphere of her senior year. No more clothing strewn all over, running shoes left underfoot, and a phone unavailable except by Presidential decree.  When the newness wore off, however, I began to reexamine my own life.

While she was off pursuing new dreams, I found it difficult to recall any goals that weren’t related to parenting.  It took awhile to excavate a strictly child-focused history and devise a new reality. Ultimately,  I recalled the appeal to Americans from decades previous, an invitation to serve the country and the world in “The toughest job you will ever love.”  The Peace Corps exists to create a difference, that while it might not be immediately visible, erodes the divisions between disparate peoples and creates a space of connection, a possibility of community.  Applying to the Corps took reams of paperwork.  The steps were a challenge akin to buying a house, but the result was even more gratifying.

From June 1996 to July 1998, I served in the Education Sector of the United States Peace Corps’ Moroccan office, teaching Academic English to the country’s future leaders, scientists, educators, and parents.  I learned to adjust my expectations to the students’ needs, to create materials and resources from nothing, to beg for books from embassy libraries, US publishers and friends, and I learned to survive without hot water, heat, or modern conveniences.  Along the way, I made the acquaintance of a bouquet of welcoming Moroccans.  On a train, a teen-aged girl introduced herself, in halting school-book English, and said she had several times seen me walking around town. (I walked everywhere, to the tune of 5 miles a day.)  A neighbor asked if I would tutor him.  Naturally, I agreed, though I refused his offer of payment.  Peace Corps has its standards, after all.

Never will I forget the holiday breakfast delivered by a neighbor who had so little.  The morning after the fast of Ramadan ended, someone rang my bell far too early.  Opening the window from my third floor apartment, I saw Aisha, a woman who lived in a waterless, dirt-floored hut across the way.  After I ran down the stairs, anxious not to keep her waiting, I opened the door, and spied the large tray on which she had spread a bounteous breakfast feast: crepes, and honey, oranges, cookies, and tea.  Yum.  And this from a woman with whom I’d exchanged only a few dozen words over the months I’d lived there.

On another occasion, I was stuck in a small city without transport to my friend’s village.  A stranger, passing the bus stop offered a a meal and a place to stay until the next morning.  I took the meal, but passed on the overnight, finally able to secure a seat on a bus going the right direction.

The Peace Corps was a transformational experience which has gifted me and a hundred thousand others with a myriad of skills and memories. I celebrate its recent 50th Anniversary and encourage other adventurers and those not so adventurous to consider a two-year tour.

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