This photo was taken twenty years ago. The fact that I am old enough to share photographic evidence of a time from my mid-twenties puts me solidly in “middle age”–a chronological reality despite my feeling not much older than I was when captured on film (yes, it was film) in July 1996 in Latvia.
Serving in the U.S Peace Corps is, by way of CV, the job I am most proud to list. While I have had other bleeding-heart-liberal/social justice gigs (e.g. investigator of child abuse and neglect and public defender), being able to call myself a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) is second to none in the ranks of “progressive cool.”
Getting back to the photo, it was taken during our in-country training when each of the Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) were living with a host family. The PCVs in my group were assigned to a former Soviet-Bloc country. No one in Latvia spoke much English, despite watching a show from the US called “Dinastija” (Dynasty), and we Americans were only slowly beginning to learn how to speak exceedingly rudimentary Latvian.
In the back row are five fellow PCVs (you only get the “R” upon completion of the two-year assignment) and my host “mother” in the woolly turtleneck under a heavy jean jacket. (At any moment, one could be struck down by a draft that could cause maladies ranging from scratchy throat to death. The woolly turtleneck was good insurance against the panoply of threats to one’s health.)
My host mother was ten years my senior and raising her two children, whom I am crouched next to in the front row, on her own. She seemed more than a decade older than me, and I would come to conclude that living life under an oppressive regime caused folks to age prematurely.
Of the six Americans on the photo, five managed to attain the honor of the “R.” The other one left before our 11-week-long training was complete; she never made it to her assigned post.
I have remained friends with three of the pictured fellow RPCV’s. Chris is a NYC-based writer who, by my observations, is widely-published, and he has been a great help to me over these last couple of years with my own writing; Nanci teaches in Oregon, and my family camped in her backyard a couple of summers back; Randy owns a company that educates businesses on how language and culture effect commerce, and my family saw him last summer in Chicago. All three of these friends have continued the Peace Corp’s Third Mission: helping people here in the US understand other cultures. Whether through writing, educating, or consulting, these three have fulfilled the ideals outlined in 1961 by JFK.
I will admit that my retrospective glasses are a bit rose tinted; there were times of deep despair and hollow loneliness. I left my lover in the US and came home to a father ravaged with cancer. Days without a letter from home and nights which began at 3:00 PM and didn’t end until 10:00 AM drove me into an involuntary protective retreat where I sat on the floor smoking endless cigarettes and listening to mixed tapes fraught with tear-provoking lyrics. I was, for months, a mess.
Nevertheless, I got up every morning, walked to my classroom, and did my best to fulfill the Peace Corp’s first mission: providing technical assistance to members of the host country. For me, my assignment was standing in front of various groups of teenagers and teaching English as a Foreign Language, Monday through Friday, in a public school. My summer projects were girl-focused: 1) Six teenage girls and I built a playground in the town center; it still stands today; 2) Three dozen girls participated in a soccer summer camp. Both projects came from the fact that girls were not encouraged to use tools or play the Beautiful Game; participants got hammers with their names on the handle alongside the words “Women are Strong” and trophies with a girl figure playing soccer, respectively.
In my two years living on the edge of the Baltic Sea, I tried to be the best example of myself so that I could succeed by way of the Second Mission of the Peace Corps: helping people outside the US understand American culture. While I reminded them that I was not “like all other Americans,” I think most drew their impression of America based on my example as I was the only one they’d ever met. For the record, not all Americans are vegetarians who are comfortable naked among strangers in the public sauna.
The Peace Corps was the toughest job I ever loved. How twenty years have passed amazes me for the memories of that time and that place are so easily called up. To think that my oldest child is only seven short years from being eligible for Peace Corps service fills me with happy anxiety and hope for a future of continued understanding built through living as an “other” overseas.