Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Not the picture you were expecting? Be patient. During my second year as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica, I was issued a motorcycle and began doing outreach on the western side of the island as a Field Officer for the national literacy agency. I set up new classes, did training, and visited existing sites. It was a lot of fun, and I got back to many remote places few tourists ever saw. I visited each site often, and developed a rapport with the teachers and students. Two nights a week, I would be off in the middle of nowhere working with literacy classes. As time passed, I began to get involved with various community development issues that related to our literacy curriculum. We learned how to boil water effectively, worked on parenting skills, discussed domestic abuse and many other issues. I didn't know it at the time, but someone in town (Montego Bay) was watching my progress carefully. It was another Peace Corps Volunteer who was working with the Jamaican Cancer society
She performed free PAP smears for women at a local clinic, and had a hard time getting women from the rural areas to come down to the city. She told me that many of the women believed that they would have IUDs secretly implanted or that they would even be sterilized by the nurses as a clandestine birth control program. She was very frustrated, as cervical cancer has a very high cure rate if detected early. When she first told me I could help her, I thought she was nuts. She worked on me for awhile, and I guess I came around.
Her proposal sounded far more simple than it ended up being: She would give me some of the "tools" she used to do a PAP smear and I would take those out to the classes, let the women see and touch them, answer some basic questions about the procedure, and exploit my good relationship for the good of womankind. As usual, my hubris was delighted and I agreed with little thought (terrible to have a disease you can't even spell!).
I visited her office and she gave me a crash course in basic PAP test 101. She showed me the speculum, the swab, the slides, all the instruments she used. Of course I did not get to see an actual procedure, but I got the idea. The phrase "visualize the cervix" stuck with me, even though I really didn't want it to. She loaded everything in a five gallon bucket and off I went. I had no idea I would shortly enter the whimsical world of "my mouth has just overloaded my rear end."
I went back to a small community about ten miles south of Montego Bay named Horse Guard. It was a comfortable place for me, I had been there many times, and we had done some successful community development activities. The pastor from a local church always helped out, and he was comfortable with the subject for the evening: he was excited at the prospect of encouraging the women to get into town for health screening. As a matter of fact, he recruited a larger than average audience, and I was actually a bit nervous when it finally hit me what I was about to attempt. The pastor introduced me and I walked to the front of the room with my props.
I began by talking about disease prevention and general health. I then told them about the Cancer Society office and the nice nurse waiting for them. I reached into the bucket and told them I had a surprise - as I pulled out the speculum they just stared at me, they had no idea what it was. Now I would challenge anyone at that point to describe the instrument and its use in front of a large group, mostly women. When it dawned on them what I was driving at, there was a slow rising giggle that turned into a wave of laughter, as only Jamaican women humiliating a white boy can. They had a great time that must have lasted several minutes. I waited patiently until the pastor came forward and muffled the chaos. I don't think the redness in my face helped matters at all.
Eventually, we covered the material, and the women had a lot of good questions. They came forward, touched the speculum and swab, even waving them at each other good naturedly. I thought I had survived the ordeal until the pastor suggested we discuss birth control methods. He knew I was acquainted with the Billings Method, and he thought the women were comfortable enough to discuss more sensitive issues. I did a quick overview of the method, and listed several other options. The pastor then asked them what methods they practiced. I was astonished at their candor and at the "creativity" of their beliefs. I don't remember everything, but I do remember one woman telling us how she kept a large wash basin half full of water and vinegar at the foot of the bed. When her husband "finished his work", she would jump off of the bed and sit in the basin for twenty minutes. Several other women indicated that they did something similar.
We talked for quite awhile and they asked a lot of questions about fertility and ways to get pregnant, or to insure the birth of a boy or girl. I was steadily getting my feet back under me when a very small, young woman in the back who had said nothing to that point blurted out "why do Americans love oral sex so much?" I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to say, and that same tide of laughter rose and crested again. It was a good time to quit. I called the pastor back to the front of the room and he thanked me and the women gave me a very warm applause. I packed up and was about to leave when my curiosity got the best of me. I caught the young woman on her way out of the room and asked her why she asked me the question. She thought she was in trouble, but I assured her it was fine. She was very shy, and told me she couldn't tell me but she could show me why she asked. Normally I would not have touched that with a ten-foot pole, but she seemed so genuine, so sincere. I told her ok and she asked me to wait in the room for a few minutes. I said I would wait and stayed behind and chatted with the pastor who was delighted with the way the evening went. He told me it was good that they had laughed and were able to ask their questions and discuss their beliefs without being ridiculed. I felt a bit better (but fully resolved to quit the birth control business).
About twenty minutes later, the woman returned with a small bag. She handed it to me, blushing. I took the bag and glanced at the pastor. He smiled and I reached down into the bag to reveal its contents. It was an American porn magazine she told me her boyfriend had brought home. I gently put it back in the bag and begged her not to judge all Americans on that magazine. I explained that the magazine was not typical, and that Americans were probably not much different than Jamaicans when it came to those things. She smiled, turned and walked out. It was a poignant, awkward bit of cultural exchange.
The community of Horse Guard continued its literacy and community development classes, and I made a few more appearances, but on carefully selected topics. No one teased me again or reminded me of the evening, and I realized just how honest and authentic those people were. I envied them.
I was told that several of the women eventually came down for PAP smears, and the nurse was very pleased. I was happy that my embarrassment yielded some positive results. Never again have I or will I be floored by a question by a student though............
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
After my first year working for JAMAL (The Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy) in Montego Bay, we moved our office across town. The new space was larger, but was in terrible shape. I am not sure why, but we had to vacate the old offices with little notice, and classes needed to continue. The director and I, along with three other staff worked around the clock for three days to get the place ready for our students. We cleaned, patched, and painted. It was tiring, but a lot of fun. Mr. Drummond, the director, was a wonderful man who never lost his composure and always had a cheerful demeanor. We were worn out, but proud and our students appreciated the new classrooms.
I had been teaching a group of students for most of the year, and we had a great relationship. They were from different walks of life, but had bonded well. My favorite of this favorite group was Mr. Cowell, a sky juice vendor. Sky juice was shaved ice flavored with syrup. Sky juice carts (made famous by Cool Runnings) were home made sleds on wheels that carried a large block of ice and bottles of various syrups. The operator would shave some ice off the large block, put it in small plastic bag, then pour the syrup over it. This bag of cold refreshment came with a small straw. Mr. Cowell pushed one of these contraptions cheerfully ten hours a day, six days a week. He had cut his working hours down in order to attend early evening classes. He learned slowly, but was very eager and worked very hard. When I saw him in the day around town, he always made a big production, introducing me to his customers and "comping" me a sky juice. I didn't really care for the mixture, it was far too sweet, but I loved the interaction and ritual.
When we moved to the new office, we slowly gained more students. We had more space and a more visible location. I had a large desk in a corner of the first floor with a filing cabinet - my first official office space. We had a small cook stove in the backroom and Kingsley, our custodian, would make lunch everyday. We ate casava, dumplings, sweet potatoes, and greens. Morale was very high. It was a very dynamic time, and I was thrilled to be part of it all.
During the day, I worked out in the rural areas setting up and supporting classes. On two nights each week, I taught a class in the classroom above my office, where Mr. Cowell and his classmates made me laugh and love the fact that I was a teacher. Things were going so well, I should have known there would be an inevitable problem, not yet understanding how pessimistic karma really is. The problem came three weeks or so after the move, and I was totally unprepared for it (I guess that is what makes it a problem). I was teaching late one evening when three women knocked on the door asking to be admitted to the classroom. I was excited - three new students! As they entered, I felt a chill in the room and I saw the other students stiffen. The three women proceeded to the back of the room where they sat quietly and waited for my instruction. The other students shot furtive glances at each other, but said nothing. I dove back into the past tense or whatever lesson I was working on, hoping that the atmosphere would soften, and that I would figure out what the heck had just happened. The chill remained, but the explanation came at break time. When most of the class had gone downstairs for water, Mr. Cowell and a few of the other regular students stayed behind. The did not address the issue directly, but it was clear something was on their minds. After a minute or so I just looked at them and said "what?" Mr. Cowell stammered, paused, and blurted out that the new students were not proper women. The others just nodded solemnly. My three new students were prostitutes.
At first, I was somewhat indignant that such a thing mattered to these students. Who were they, who were we to judge anyone? I was really at a loss. I tried to remain patient as an ultimatum was constructed. By the end of the break, I was informed that the entire class would walk out if the new students were allowed to return. My instinct was to call their bluff and to take the higher ethical ground. But I owed these students more than that, more than my desultory liberality. Desperate to buy time, I told Mr. Cowell to tell the other students that we would end class early, and that I would address the issue before we next met again. I called the three women in on the pretext that I needed to do a registration for them. I really did not know what to do.
As we chatted and as I took their information, a plan slowly developed. I told them that since they were new, they would be behind the other students. Therefore, I would teach them separately for awhile, immediately after the scheduled class. They were deferential, and in hindsight, I suppose they were hurt. In any case, I had time to help them and to figure out a way to get them back into the regular class. In the end, it almost worked out, and I learned more about human dignity than I had expected.
The ladies and I met steadily for almost two months before one disappeared. In that time they worked hard at their lessons, and taught me about some very harsh realities in the pursuit of simple existence. As they grew more comfortable with me, they shared more about their lives and their occupation. I never asked, but I think they wanted me to know they weren't bad people. On one evening, the oldest of the group (perhaps 30) told me she did the work she did in hopes of purchasing a mattress for her three children. Their father had moved to Racine, Wisconsin and would be sending for them any day, at least that was the dream she half held for more than ten years. At one point early on, I realized I had seen one of them near the bars on several occasions, but she had been dressed much differently, even her presence had changed in the classroom. She told me she had seen me as well, as had the other two. I did notice that I never saw the three of them "working" again, as I suspected they began to avoid the few places I went out to.
Back in the original classroom, I had been fairly icy with the students. I felt bad for them, but I had not completely forgiven them. The three women always waited outside until the other students had left the classroom completely, and I could tell Mr. Cowell and some of the other students were curious about the second class. Our class never regained the ambiance it once had, but we attended to our business and the students learned. I still got my sticky sweet sky juice, and Mr. Cowell plodded along as earnestly as ever. At the end of the second month, after I had lost one of the three women, I was resolved to bring the other two back to the larger class. I sat down one evening with the original group and told them flatly of my intention. They muttered and made small protests. I explained that the two students had worked very hard, and that they deserved to be in a proper classroom. I went on to say that I was growing very weary of teaching a double class. Perhaps it was the latter appeal that moved some of them. When the following week arrived, most of the students returned, a few did not. The two women quietly sat in the back, and we continued to do our work into the next year. The class was never the same, we laughed far less often, but we all learned. I settled for tolerance when I was aiming at acceptance.
I don't think the women changed their profession while I was there, and I know the two groups never really interacted, but I was grateful for the peace we finally settled on. Mr. Cowell and I remained friends, and I had the hope that the seeds we sowed eventually spawned simple and honest dreams. I cling to that hope every time I step into a classroom anywhere.
Last week, for the fourth time in my life, I had to chase someone down who had committed a crime(albeit minor this time). Like the other three occasions, I gave little thought as to what would happen once I caught up with my quarry, adrenaline ruled. I did mediate my pursuit as my younger daughter Sindi was with me, but I was resolved to catch the guys who had hit my car and fled.
The first time I chased someone down was also a hit and run incident. I was on my way to tutor a friend on a warm Sunday afternoon. Wardell was a great kid who suffered from Muscular Dystrophy. His mother was a wonderful woman, devout in her faith and her love for her son. I was younger, and I think I would have been tempted to debate with anyone else as adamant and staunch in their religious views, but she was so genuine, so honest, I knew it would have been vain and disrespectful to challenge her. I enjoyed visiting them and I knew that they both appreciated my help. Wardell and I would go over his Alcohol course and his mother would make us lunch. On that day, after a productive tutoring session and a wonderful meal, I left to make my way home. Wardell was an African-American and lived in a predominately African-American neighborhood. This did not concern me, but I was aware of it.
As I was making my way through the winding streets,I noticed a car approaching the adjacent stop sign as I was halfway through the intersection. I laughed to myself as I noticed the young driver was engaged in the "Detroit Lean", a term I had just learned. I supposed I knew he was going to hit me at that moment. He did hit the rear of my car, and spun me around a bit. I stopped, gathered myself and noticed he was driving off, ignoring the accident. I shook off the impact and turned the car around to follow him. I had no idea what I would do when and if I caught him, but I knew I was not going to let him get away. I didn't occur to me that I was a White male chasing a Black male through a Black neighborhood until I noticed bystanders in their yards. As I sped along, they pointed the way, showing me where he had gone. Eventually, he turned down a dead end street, and I cornered him at the guardrail at the end of the street. A small crowd approached as I got out of my car and confronted him. He was young, maybe 18 and I immediately felt sorry for him. My anger dissipated and I went about the business of exchanging information. I learned quickly that he had no insurance, so I knew I would be out a hefty deductible. The crowd watched and listened, and before I left two gentlemen offered to be witnesses. A third offered to call the police. I politely declined, figuring the kid had learned his lesson, and I knew I wouldn't recover anything from him. I left the cul de sac neither angry nor upset, perhaps a bit bolstered by kindness of strangers.
My second chase happened in Yemen, a year later. The circumstances were somewhat similar, I was a stranger in a neighborhood chasing down a local resident. This time I had help, and I wasn't sure things would work out well at all. At the end of our first year of service, the Peace Corps had brought my group together in the port city of Hodeidah for a check in conference. We had a great time, swimming, hanging out, eating great food. We stayed in a nice hotel that had a bar on the top floor. After a day of sessions and camaraderie, many of us met in the bar for a few drinks. Although Yemen is a conservative Muslim country, there were some Yemeni in the bar drinking. After a few hours, everyone seemed to be having a good time. At some point, one of the female volunteers excused herself and went into the restroom. We didn't know at the time that one of the Yemeni patrons followed her in. To this day, I don't know what happened in that room, nor did I care to know. I was sitting across the room when I saw her emerge, obviously shaken up. The Yemeni came out a moment later and bolted for the exit. In an instant, several other volunteers jumped up and followed him out. I made my way through the crowd and followed them to the stairwell (we were on the tenth floor). I could hear them below me, and I descended as fast as I could. When I got to the bottom, I went out the exit door and saw a trail of flip flops leading towards a few buildings. I caught my colleagues around the corner of the first building. They had chased him down the street, and he was now hiding under a car. As I approached, they were trying to drag him out. At this point, a very large, vocal crowd was gathering. Once they had pulled him from under the car, they were trying to restrain him. He was large and stocky, and they were having a hard time. He was also very drunk. I came up from behind him and put him into a full-nelson. I wasn't trying to hurt him, I was trying to get control of the situation until we could decide what to do. The crowd observing this was getting agitated as they did not understand what was happening, I don't think we did either. Eventually, a serious looking man stepped out of the crowd with a 45 pistol raised in the air very close to my face. He approached us and asked in Arabic what had happened. We tried to explain, but I think the alcohol on the assailant's breath probably told the story. He waved the crowd to the side and escorted us down the street to the police station. I released the man and we held his arms as we walked down the street. The crowd slowly dispersed and we entered the gates of the police compound. Two officials walked up and took custody of man. We were told later he was a naval officer, and had received a month sentence for public intoxication. I don't think the volunteer had filed a complaint. Once again, I had been assisted by a group of people who could have taken a different approach to the situation, based on some simple biases. Sometimes, right is right, anywhere.
Two years later, I was back in Akron working for a literacy agency downtown. We had evening tutoring sessions, so often I would stay late to keep the office open then close up. On most of those evenings, I was the only staff in the place. It was a large complex of offices and desks provided by the library. On one evening, I must have been in the back, because later I discovered that someone had come in front doors and taken my new leather jacket. I was crushed. I called the police and a friendly officer responded promptly. He sensed my disappointment and told me to be sure to keep my eye out as Akron wasn't that big, and I might actually see someone wearing it. I didn't realize it at the time, but his advice would about drive me crazy.
I spent the next two months scrutinizing every brown leather jacket I saw in a city of 250,000. Finally, I gave up and let the jacket "go." A week after my closure, I was taking a former student and Vietnam Vet to the rehab center at six am on a Sunday morning (another story). On the way back, I drove through downtown, even more deserted than normal. As I was driving through an empty intersection, a lone figure caught my eye a block away. It was a man wearing a brown leather jacket, but with the plaid scarf that had been on the pocket when it was stolen. I pulled the car over to the curb, jumped out, and ran after him in the sub-zero weather. I was about a half a block away from him before he heard me - he took off. I chased him for about five minutes and caught him outside a bank. I grabbed him by shoulder and spun him around to the wall of a bank. As I caught my breath, I told him that he had my jacket, and I wanted it back. He looked at me and said something like "what if I don't give it back?" I knew he was scared, so I led with a Clint Eastwoodesque "Well, I am leaving with that jacket, you can go home or to the hospital." I should mention that such forays into similar masculinity had usually backfired in my past. He looked at me,told me he bought it and hadn't actually stolen it. I just held my hand out. He slowly took the coat off and gave it to me. I started to turn and leave, thought better of it and turned and addressed him. I asked him how far away he lived and he told me a mile or so. It was very cold, I gave him a ride home.
So, almost twenty years later, I found myself chasing down yet another offender. Sindi and I were in West Virginia apartment hunting (in case I accepted a job there) for a full day. I was frustrated as there were no decent places in town at all, and we had seen some very nasty places. On top of that, the town of 17,000 had traffic like LA. We were attempting to make a left hand turn and a white pickup truck hit us from behind. We finished our turn into a driveway when we noticed that the truck continued on. We backed out (I had not made a proper turn, and we were still in traffic) and drove fifty yards in the wrong lane. I saw the truck turn behind a hospital on the right. I cut through a parking lot and entered a small neighborhood. I wasn't driving recklessly, but I was determined to catch the guy. As we got into the neighborhood, we turned onto a dead end street. I saw the truck ahead of us, with a jeep behind it. I overtook the jeep and and driver was on the phone giving me a thumbs up sign. He had witnessed the accident and was trailing them. The driver of the pickup stopped realizing he had nowhere to go and two vehicles tracking him. I jumped out and I guess I was pretty hot. I approached the driver (there were two of them) and told him he had hit me. He and his friend told me that they didn't know they had hit us as we did not stop. I cooled off and wrote their license down. The driver of the jeep was actually some type of off-duty officer, and he had called the police. He gave me his name and number if the police needed any more information. He left and the police arrived a short time later. The officer approached me and asked me what happened. When I told him, he told me he had complaints about my driving (when I got out of the left lane). He looked at the other two who had an expired insurance card and overdue tickets and asked for their story. When they told him they didn't know they had hit me, he smiled and asked them where they were headed, especially at this dead end. They had no answer. At the end of the incident, he wrote them several tickets and gave me a reference number for a police report that I will have to pay $25 to obtain. A lousy day.
I have been lucky, I know. I just can't see how we should let people victimize us. I am not sure I would chase someone down again with my daughter in the car (she thought it was "way cool" though).
*Couldn't help posting the Rosario Dawson photo from the movie The Rundown. Editorial privilege
A month or so ago I was working at the golf course while a crew was moving down the highway (the course is on historic route 30, Lincoln Highway the first transcontinental highway)changing guard rails. Larry, the course superintendent, thought we might be able to purchase the replaced rails and poles to line the drive from the highway down to the bottom of the hill. He had started to speak to the foreman about the possibility, and was now too busy to follow up. He asked me to figure out how many rails and poles we would need, and then to go out and find the crew to see if we could purchase them. With the help of another volunteer, we did the calculations, and I went in search of the foreman.
I found out where the crew stored their equipment, and I went down to ask for the foreman. I was told his name was Kevin, and that he would be around later. I walked over and looked at the rails and poles they had removed, and determined that they would be adequate for our needs. I waited for Kevin for about 30 minutes before I left. Later in the day, the crew had progressed up to the course, so I got in a golf cart and went out to the highway. I was told Kevin was just up the road and would be back in a few minutes. Sure enough, in about five minutes, a tall, tan, tattooed man made his way down the road towards me. He introduced himself, and we chatted. I noticed that he was in good shape, had a friendly demeanor about him, and he seemed very honest. When I told him what I wanted, he looked at our drive, measured everything, and checked our calculations. He gave us a good price, and delivered most of the materials later that day.
Talking to him, I reminisced about the many construction jobs I had done when I was younger. It looked like hard work, but I sort of envied him. Being outside, working hard, moving to new locations, all seemed appealing to me. He seemed to enjoy what he was doing, and when I told him about the history of the course, he was genuinely interested. Kevin made an impression on me that day, someone living life well. He even came back to remind me that the asphalt crew would be by, and they might be able to offer us some services at a discount. I thanked him, thinking I would see him again to ask for some advice on how to install our guardrails. I was wrong.
A few days ago I learned Kevin had been electrocuted while digging a post hole. Evidently, he raised the boom of the auger too high in the air and didn't notice a power line. I am not sure if there is a lesson here, only the idea that death seems to be ironic, and I think more about the simple interactions I have with others these days.