To take part in a panel on the Peace Corps Then and Now, I had to think about the lessons I learned during my two years teaching English in Ethiopia. In doing so, I realized that the experience affected not only my attitudes and interests but also the jobs I held in the years after that and the fiction I’m writing today.
In September1962, the Peace Corps responded to Emperor Haile Selassie’s request for secondary teachers by sending in 275 volunteers. We doubled Ethiopia’s secondary faculty. I taught eleventh grade English at the only high school in the mountainous Wollo province. We had approximately 1,100 students from grades seven to twelve.
From the beginning, the Peace Corps has been known as the toughest job you’ll ever love. We lived that slogan. Almost no one quit. Why did we go, and why did we stay? Adventure and service dominated for almost everyone. Add to that, some men wanted to avoid being sent to Vietnam, some volunteers saw the Peace Corps as a career stepping stone (one volunteer was aiming for the Presidency, and took a shot at it), and some wanted to clarify what they wanted to do. A number became teachers.
The crucial thing that kept us there was that we were going to, not escaping from.
For me, the Peace Corps wasn’t a career move. I had long planned to be a writer and editor. After I left, I didn’t stand in front of a classroom for many years. When I did, I taught writing and editing in graduate continuing education programs. Still hard work, but not nearly as hard as teaching in that high school.
The general lessons that I learned served me personally and professionally. Here are some of them.
Keep your head and cope with whatever impossible challenge arises. When you don’t have what you need to do the job, figure out another way to do it.
All peoples and individuals are different, all peoples and individuals are the same. If we listen and look for commonalities, we can work and play together with people of all races, cultures, and creeds. (Some of that creeps into my mysteries.)
Americans take for granted our nation’s privileges and resources, from our rich farmland to our Constitution to our diverse population
I acquired lifelong interests, including folklore (folk tales reveal culture and values even better than history does), international affairs (leading me to work for the United Nations and follow international news), travel (roughly 70 countries so far), and how governments work (and don’t).
I also have been enriched with lifelong friendships. What’s more, almost any gathering of returned volunteers gives a feeling of fellowship and commonality that I’ve felt with no other group, not even writers.
The experience also had direct affect on my professional life, beginning with winning my first job as n assistant editor on a national education magazine. The Peace Corps line on my resume continued to interest people as I applied for jobs and, as a freelancer, went after contracts. One contractor told me never to take off my resume that I helped build a school in a leprosarium. My carpentry was irrelevant but memorable.
The Peace Corps experience made me willing to take chances on being able to survive as a freelancer and being able to sell novels. I was unwilling to view money as more important than boredom.