In just about two weeks, I will be off to the Democratic Republic of Congo to work in a UNHCR refugee camp on a State Department assignment. It is a daunting task, as it is a hardship post and the work is very ambitious. I will be helping establish a secondary ESL curriculum based on the UN's Conflict Resolution curricula and I will be creating a handbook for camps that want to start English clubs. The intent is to design the activities and conversations around their issues. If successful, the plan is to disseminate the handbook to other camps around the world. As I said, ambitious, but I will have help.
In my interview, they stressed the spartan nature of the camp and I sorta smiled. I really believe nothing could be much worse than the camp I lived in for two years in Yemen. By worse I mean lacking basic amenities such as running water, electricity, other hygienic necessities. So what ever is waiting for me will probably be ok. I am more concerned with the scope of the work; not that I cannot do it, but that I do justice to it. After 30 years in and out of the disaffected American education system, I understand too well the stakes over there and the hopes and dreams that will flow through every classroom interaction, every lesson good or bad, every opportunity to catapult out of that place to a decent and productive life.
Recently, while getting my Yellow Fever immunization, I thought back to my adventures with tropical diseases in far off places - Malaria, Typhoid, and Hepatitis to name a few. I was never afraid back then, instead almost curious about what I could endure, how I would face those maladies as millions did each year outside my country. Now, I would rather be spared any further similar experiences. I will take my medicine, eat and drink properly, and keep my hands clean. I cannot spare a week of semi-consciousness on this trip.
I am looking forward to the kids in the camp, and that artful dance I will do as I am playful with them while maintaining the requisite sense of professionalism with the adults. I do exploit all the good that comes with being an American, often banking on a benevolent patience with my occasional over-the-top performances. I am often reminded of an aphorism I learned when I went to work for the Peace Corps (as an employee, not a volunteer): If you are stationed in South East Asia, you will learn about religion; If you are placed in Latin America, you will learn about politics; If you to to Africa, you will learn how to laugh.
Most of all, I long to be back in environment where teachers are revered and respected. Here on weekends in the ESL conversation group, I am simply "teacher." The difference is the tone it is said in. I saddens me to see the apathy, contempt, and indifference shown educators in this country by its students, parents, and public. A byproduct of a liberal dream sliding sideways I suppose, or a conservative nightmare where greed and ruthlessness work their ways backwards from corporate career to the womb. In any case, the respect given is a gift to be nurtured and then converted into a reciprocal energy, not some sort of entitled license to wield contempt and disdain as so often develops in academics across the planet. There is a kind of grace embedded in these simple interactions (teaching) that fills my heart and drives me on - I couldn't dream of betraying them or the beautiful souls that offer me this occupation.
I smile every time I encounter a quizzical reaction when I mention this trip or other similar interests. Who wouldn't give anything, everything to do such work? I am not kidding, it seems almost selfish to get paid to do these things. There is nothing altruistic in my nature - I am a hedonist! Teaching, laughing, smiling, challenging, jostling, affirming, are pleasurable things. I didn't wake up one day and decide to make some sort of sacrifice for others. If anything, they make sacrifices for me by being patient and tolerant. The world is sometimes upside down for me.
Most of all, chasing this grace, finding ways to help others is the best way I have found to deal with an emptiness I have always felt. I think I tried to fill that void inappropriately in so many ways over the years that I lost track of its utility. In a strange way that nothingness provides the unending energy I possess. I want to lose myself in this project, in these lives the next two months. I want to work hard with no complications, no rewards, no politics. I want to see how I can leverage a lifetime of work in an overlooked corner of the earth. I can't wait to get there to get started..............