Thursday, April 15, 2010

On a Jamaican Mountaintop

I don't know when I first realized I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and i don't know why -the desire just seems to have always been there. When I finished my bachelor's degree I applied, not knowing it could be a year-long process. While the application was pending, I decided to go to graduate school and was accepted at Oklahoma State University in Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations. I spent a year learning Latin and Greek, and reading some really old books. It was fascinating, but the interaction between my professors really turned me off. They fought, and lived what I thought were pretty insulated lives. I knew then that I wouldn't be a professor, I couldn't live the rest of my life that narrowly.
After a year, my Peace Corps invitation arrived - I was headed to Jamaica. I was not thrilled at all, many of my friends had been there, and I wanted to head out across the world. Despite my reluctance, I accepted the offer to teach Educational Psychology at a teachers college in Montego Bay. The thought of teaching at a college was interesting, so I steadily grew more excited about the assignment.
After two weeks of training in Kingston, I was told that the teachers college had closed. The Peace Corps officials would look for a new assignment for me while I finished my training. After five more weeks, nothing had materialized. I went in to see my supervisor, and he suggested I take a bus up to Montego Bay, look around and see what I could find. I jumped at the chance. The next morning I headed off in a bus to Mo Bay. I found a really nice cheap hotel and made my way around the town. It wasn't very big, but it was very friendly. I spent a good part of the day explaining I wasn't a tourist and asking for various educational institutions. Later in the afternoon, I drifted down a backstreet and saw a very colorful sign that said JAMAL - The Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy. I walked into the building and up a long stairway where I met the most engaging man in Jamaica, at least I thought so. His name was Errol Drummond, and he supervised the literacy programs on the western side of the island. I explained my situation, and he suggested I might like to visit an adult literacy class that evening. We made arrangements to meet later and I headed off to freshen up at my hotel.
Later, near sundown, I returned to the office to find him waiting with another man in a Landrover. I climbed in and he told me it would take a few minutes to get to the class. An hour later, we were deep in the cockpit country of Western Jamaica. The ride was bumpy and rough, but we had fun talking, and I learned a lot about the literacy work there. Finally, we began driving up a very steep hillside and he told me the class was at the top of the ridge. As we crested the summit, I saw a very dilapidated shack in the distance. It seemed to be leaning to the right precariously, and I could see light from the inside pouring out between the rough-hewn planks. We pulled up near the building and he and I got out. As we approached the doorway, he nodded and had me go in first. When I stepped in, I was alarmed - the room was full of Jamaicans. They were crammed around desks, a few sat in the rafters, and they were all staring at me. The desks were pushed almost up to the blackboard (the front wall painted black) and I barely had room to edge my way to the other side. I got to the wall, turned around and pressed myself to the wall, there was literally room for nothing else. I expected my host to come in and to teach the class. He didn't emerge right away and I nervously turned and looked into what seemed to be a sea of dark faces. I nodded hello, and about a million teeth became visible as they smiled and greeted me in the dimly lit room. The light by the way came from a few hurricane lamps tacked crookedly to the walls. After about thirty seconds (or three hours, if you had asked me then), a piece of chalk came flying in from the darkness outside and a remote voice said "Teach them something, I will be back in a few hours."
Stunned, I stepped up to the board and began writing words. I decided we would review verbs: Run, Leave, Flee, Vacate, Bolt, Escape, etc. They didn't get the connection, and after a few minutes I settled down. The following few hours flew by and I had a wonderful time. We laughed, I answered questions, we talked about Jamaica and the USA. They wrote everything down in their little workbooks (at least what their language abilities allowed)very neatly, and I waited patiently as they did so. I discovered in that first evening with these students what four years of my own schooling in teaching education had failed to accomplish - I knew I was a teacher, and I knew what I would be doing the rest of my life, with passion and love. I became a teacher that evening.
I spent the next year teaching adult literacy classes in the evening while teaching at an orphanage in the day. The second year I stopped teaching full time at the orphanage (they had found a Jamaican teacher which was appropriate), so I increased my role at the literacy agency. I became a field officer, travelling around the western side of the island setting up and supporting literacy classes. It was the best year of my life. I didn't go to Jamaica to teach adult literacy, but I left Jamaica with a lifelong passion.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I was lecturing about time travel today in my philosophy class. Still not sure how I got on the subject, but it brought up a lot issues, for me anyway. We were talking about the propensity for some people to have regrets, to wish in a way to go back in time to certain points to redo choices, change outcomes. They not only wish this impossibility, they often spend an inordinate amount of time in the fantasy. The obvious lesson is to learn from these experiences, deal with the consequences, and change the future not the past. By the way, I heard a leading physicist talk a few years ago and he said something very fascinating. He believed that time travel will be possible, but we will never be able to travel to the past at this point: there will have to be a receiving unit built to "catch" the time traveller in the past. Since one hasn't been built at this point, there can be no travel to the current past. I had never thought about that.
As a result of the lecture, I started to think about my regrets. I suppose I deserve to have a few score of them, or at least some very severe ones. I don't. I do have two that haunt me. They seem minor, but they come back time after time. They involve two strangers who I never met, and I will not meet. They involve split decision indecision that cannot be reversed. One of these strangers will most likely not be in the same circumstance that I observed and the other is dead. I won't have a second chance with either.
In 1988, I was in between Peace Corps stints, teaching at the University of Akron. I was teaching a Reading and Study Skill class and taking a free course on the Harlem Renaissance as one of the perks of the job. At that point I knew I was taking a new Peace Corps assignment in Yemen at the end of the semester. I spent a lot of time on campus at the library and university center, enjoying the simple luxuries of teaching and studying. It was a rare time with little pressure and a great deal of freedom.
The university center was a big sprawling building with a very large food court (named The Chuckery). It was dark and didn't appear openly inviting, but people congregated there anyway. At one end there were large round tables where various groups of like minded individuals spent a great deal of time playing cards or dealing in abstract political issues. At the other end, near the food counters, were long lines of straight tables - those of us without a genre ate there, alone. People ate, studied, and at that time, drank beer. It was a strange place, but it was a place to be lonely.
In the late spring I noticed a very different student at my end of the food court. He was probably six foot two, two hundred and fifty pounds. He wore a simple white t-shirt and white shorts pulled way up over his belly. He had very short hair, was about forty years old, wore white sneakers and white socks and he was blind. His father would guide him into the place, bring him his food, then leave him alone to eat and go off to his class (I supposed). I was usually passing through when I saw him, and didn't think too much about him. One day though, I was sitting at a table when his father brought him over. He sat down about ten feet away from me and started to eat, staring aimlessly up and about. Like always, no one else sat near him in the ten minutes I sat there. I had a very strong urge to move down and talk to him, but did not. I thought about it, felt bad but resolved to do so the next time I saw him in the Chuckery. I walked past him feeling ashamed that I couldn't stop and even greet him. I never felt so inadequate, even though I knew I would do so the next time when I was more "prepared," He died a few days later.
I read it in the newspaper, they did a small feature on him the day after he died. In a few minutes I discovered things about his life that I could have heard from him. He was a long time ham radio operator and an active church member. He had returned to school and was excited by his new challenge. I didn't get to hear these things from him, and he didn't get to share them with me. There were probably hundreds, maybe thousands of us he didn't get to share with. All because we weren't comfortable enough to do what we should have done, what many of us would have liked to have done. I hesitated to extend a simple human courtesy to him, and I will pay for it for the rest of my life. I am by no means a victim or martyr, just haunted by the worst kind of ghost, a spectre of my own creation, my own guilt.
A few years later, on Martin Luther King Day, I was driving across town to an African-America art gallery to listen to students reading "I Have a Dream" and "I Have Been to the Mountaintop." I drove my pickup truck across town through the tail end of a big blizzard. I was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, work boots and a beard. As I was driving through a neighborhood near the gallery, I saw an elderly woman shoveling her sidewalk. In the few seconds as I approached and passed her, I knew she was laboring at her task, and was most likely very, very cold. Once again, I knew I should stop and help, a simple gesture that would have saved her an hour of work. I didn't. I kept driving to the gallery.
I got to the gallery early, and after a few minutes I noticed a smartly dressed woman enter the building with a notebook. She looked around, saw me and made a beeline over. She was a reporter and asked me several questions. It was nice to talk to her, somewhat flattering. It would take twenty four hours for me to figure out why she was so interested in talking to me. I picked up the same paper I had read those years ago, this time turning to the cultural section instead of the obituaries. Her article was there, and I began to read it. She mentioned me early on, and I immediately realized her attraction - she described me as a "rugged looking" man reading a South African fairy tale book. Translation - What was the redneck doing in an African-American art gallery on Martin Luther King Day?
I felt guilty again, and had some serious doubts about Karma. I should have stopped and helped that woman, should never have been at that gallery when that reporter came in, should never have been in the paper. I failed in an instant, but even in that brief moment I knew what I should have done, what I wanted to do. And again, I didn't do it.
I often feel lonely, and sometimes I remember these failures. I feel foolish for feeling sorry for myself, remembering that there are so many people in the world who have far less than I, who truly know what it means to be alone. Ironically now, these two failures make me feel better, which in turn introduces me to a new brand of sadness, the solipsistic sort. I failed these two people, not myself. I don't deserve to adopt their pain, their suffering as my own. Doing so is an extremely selfish act, far too self-indulgent.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sindi Wins

Sindi and I just spent two days at Clearview working on the barn. We got almost half the roof done and stained one side. Today was the shorter day, we only painted for five hours. Sindi did a good job, and we had some fun for the rest of the day. After cleaning up, well kinda cleaning up, we went out and golfed. Sindi didn't want to play so she drove the cart. Was a lot of fun, though I was very sore from being on the roof and ladders for several days. We played about twelve holes and came into the clubhouse. We then decided to go out and fish in the two ponds. Sindi wanted to have a competition to see who could catch the most fish. I agreed (especially since she had been skunked the evening before!).
There are two ponds at Clearview, and we had usually caught fish in the smaller pond. We started there, and Sindi caught a few Bluegills. I wasn't doing well, so I went over to the other pond and literally saw a hundred fish in the shallows. I called Sindi over and we got started. We both caught several Bluegills and smaller Bass. Sindi then caught a two pound Bass and was thrilled. At one point, we were catching fish with every cast. Most were large Bluegills and small Bass. We moved around the pond and caught several more. Later, Sindi caught a very large Crappie, a fish that wasn't stocked in the pond. It must have washed in when the nearby creek overflowed. I don't know if she caught more fish than I, but she did catch the two biggest.
We took the fish back in the clubhouse and Sindi got bragging rights. Everyone was impressed with her prowess. She was very happy despite the fact that we now had to clean all these fish. We went outside on a table and got busy. Sindi got to be head scaler, and she went to work on the Bluegills with a spoon, scraping the scales off each fish. I cut the heads off and gutted them. We worked together and got it done in an hour. It was a messy end to a good day outside. We then offered to cook dinner for Renee and Larry, and we headed up to Renee's apartment to cook.
I breaded and fried the fish, and Sindi made homemade tarter sauce. We made some beans and potatoes, and sat down to a feast. The fish was fantastic, and we just lazed around for awhile enjoying the fruits of our labor. After dinner, we dragged ourselves down to the car for a long ride home. It was truly a great day.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Falling Through the Roof

Been out of work for almost four months now, not counting a month long gig in the Middle East and a part-time course teaching philosophy. I have never been this inactive in my life, at least not since I was eleven years old. I have been applying for several jobs, preparing for the class, and spending more time with my daughters. Still, it's hard facing each day with an uncertain future. I have lived to work, and work has been my life. I am as lost as I can be.
I am hopeful on the job front, and I have been a bit unlucky to date. I interviewed for one position, did well only to find out the school is in a hiring freeze with no thaw in sight. I had a good line on a job in Yemen, but the Saudi entrepreneur isn't sure he wants to bring in a project manager. He could be months making up his mind. I have a lot of time on my hands, probably too much. I think about the economy, thinking about all those other people looking for jobs, with even less prospects. I pray for two things I guess: I pray that those deserving people find equitable employment, and I pray I was never flippant or cruel talking about unemployment or the unemployed, I really do. No one should face this, there are enough issues in our lives to cause us concern and pain - not knowing how you will provide for your family is hell, as close as I will come to it.
Sleeping is very difficult. I tend to sleep for a few hours, then wake only to toss and turn and fret for six or seven more hours. I catch myself starting to doze, and some thought, some worry explodes and I sit up wide awake. This cycle goes on and on until I find the energy to get up. To be honest, I am tempted to use sleep aids, but I try not to, they don't help much and it can't be good to use these things too much. I will never take a good night's sleep for granted again, ever.
I was out at Clearview Golf Club the other day and Larry (the superintendent) asked me if I wanted to paint their barn. I said yes, and very dishonestly told him he could pay me - I will stain the clubhouse and Renee's deck as well. Clearview is a national historic landmark, and I am so proud to be able to help. Sindi (my youngest daughter) and I showed up today and got started. It is a large barn but the roof does not have have a great deal of pitch, and I am glad as we are painting the roof as well. Sindi was a bit tentative about getting up on the roof, but she acclimated well. We spent a good part of the day up there scrubbing and cleaning the surface. It was good to be sweating (eighty-seven degrees today) and finding out how out of shape I am. I welcomed the activity and pushed on throughout the day.
I had to go up and down the ladder several times, and often slipped a bit getting back up on the roof. I was never in danger, but it startled Sindi. It was cute hearing her gasp. We washed and scrubbed most of the roof before I got careless. There were several fiberglass panels on the roof, providing light for the barn. I was working on the last portion of the barn when I slipped and my right leg slid down metal panel and over the flimsy fiberglass insert. I crashed through, my leg going though the roof. Luckily, my other leg stayed on the metal roof and I only went halfway in. I was using a large bucket with a split on the side. As luck would have it, I reached out when I fell and my hand went into the split. I twisted my knee a bit, cut my hand between fingers (ouch) and scraped my arm and elbow. It all happened in a second, and once again, Sindi reacted - she screamed.
Had it not been for her reaction, I think it would have hurt a great deal more. I assured her I was ok, and started to laugh at my own ineptness. I don't bounce as well as I used to. We recovered and finished the roof, made a trip to the hardware store, and came back to patch the roof. Sindi took me inside to "dress my wounds." We went back out and worked on one side of the barn. Tomorrow we will paint the roof.
It felt really good to be occupied, doing something worthwhile. I am so pleased I can do this for the course, and do it with my daughter. This is a really authentic activity, not some sort of diversion tactic to get my mind of the fact that I have been in a world without answers for too long. Not knowing where I will be, how I will provide for my family, has been incredibly hard. I do believe when I get back to higher education, I will make time to help others who are unemployed. I don't know how, just know that I will. For tomorrow at least (and through the next week)Sindi and I will be back at Clearview, painting and watching out for fiberglass panels. I think I will sleep well tonight.