One Year Later

2013 has to be the fastest year of my life and by far the hardest. On this day last year (January 10, 2013), I stepped off a plane at PDX after about 30 hours of layovers and flights (not to mention the cross-country taxi ride in Guinea). I found my mother’s arms by the baggage claim in what I can only describe as a blurry, more emotional version of the final scene in “Love Actually.” I’ve been to the airport a hundred times but I’d never felt such butterflies in my stomach as I did just before I made eye contact with my mom.

 

I’ll warn you now that my thought process is very tangential. 🙂

 

I made the decision to leave Guinea just before I started the 2nd trimester of school. My host brother was sad of course, but he was very understanding and talked to my host mom before I broke the news to her. My proviseur, censeur and other administrators at my lycée were not so understanding. They were all convinced they only had themselves to blame for my leaving and begged me to stay, even if it was only until the end of the school year. It broke my heart. I couldn’t even fathom going into any of my onzième classes and telling them that I was going back to the US. They said they would tell my students I wasn’t coming back. I was barely able to explain my reasoning in French because I was so emotional. And of course, Guineans don’t like it when you cry so I was using all my strength to hold back. I know my explanation wasn’t the best, but how could I articulate it in French when I struggled to articulate it to myself? Why was I leaving? Could I make it to the end of the school year? The little voice in my head said no.

 

The journey from Labé to Conakry was 12 hours of my heart breaking over and over again. Prof (my brother) had driven me to the gare that morning that I left Labé. We played ‘Salimata’ in his car on repeat until the taxi was ready to leave. I handed him a note with an apple, which he read while I got into the taxi. The apple was our joke–he never eats enough fruit, so every time I bought some at the market I would give him one. He spends all his time trying to better the communities and villages surrounding Labé but he doesn’t take the time to eat right, even though he has the Labé market (full of veggies and fruits you won’t usually see in the villages) at his disposal. Anyways…it was our thing. I got him to get back into running again. Victory! He started to cry as he finished the letter. My taxi pulled away. Him and his brother Yebhe sent me texts and called me multiple times just during my taxi ride, and contacted me while I was at the Conakry house.

 

I came home every day from school emotionally, physically and mentally drained. Even my host mother, a former primary school teacher in Labé, could see that it was too much. I would come home and tell her about how my class numbers were growing exponentially and she would let out her exceptional “AY?!” when I told her the size of my largest: 170. I couldn’t bring myself to use Mobel, the ‘curriculum’ that the TEFL volunteers were given during PST, so I was writing all my own lessons based on my TESOL training at Western and any resources I could find online and the grammar book I brought with me. I brainstormed with other PCVs on the phone. I was up until at least midnight every night lesson planning or correcting student work. I was frustrated by the relentless cheating on homework and tests. I felt like I wasn’t really correcting anything, just taking off points for cheating. I asked my fellow English teachers at my school for tips but basically the answer I got each time was “I just do it.” Simply, they teach the way they were taught.

 

I won’t go into the classroom management issues I had because I described much of that in former blogs.

 

I came home to the states and instantly felt a sense of calm. I slept. I brushed my teeth with running water. Granted, I forgot to turn the lights on, but whatever. I got to see my best friend and visit friends in Bellingham. And then about two weeks after being home I suddenly broke down. I started crying hysterically. I covered my face with a pillow and screamed. My mom came in and immediately held me. She knew it was coming. I rocked back and forth until I could catch my breath. The guilt overwhelmed me. How could I leave my family? Leave Prof, my rock? Leave my students, my stage, my first host family? I did get to say my goodbyes to some people, but because of my short time between ET’ing and getting on a plane, I left a lot of folks without having seen them since our swearing-in time at the Conakry house.

 

I say that 2013 was difficult because I’ve been struggling with that guilt ever since. I’m still struggling to find closure to the fact that I spent several years volunteering, working, studying French and finally applying to Peace Corps only to early terminate on my biggest dream. I really did plan to stay for 27 months. I thoroughly enjoyed living in a 3rd world country. I was even getting used to the bush rat living in my ceiling!

 

I really wanted to teach English. I just couldn’t do it day in and day out in a setting where I felt like I could be a better teacher than the one I had become. I was short-tempered, lost my confidence, and lost my patience on a daily basis. I dealt with behavior issues, students cheating, students coming in December to START class, professors weren’t showing up, the proviseur was fired, students mocked me, etc. Bottom line: there were some major issues due to the size of the school and the people in charge of the Labé public schools that I would never have any control over. And a biggie: There was no way I could get to know my students and that in of itself felt like I could never be a great teacher. The only names I knew were the students that consistently misbehaved in class.

 

After telling some of my Peace Corps story to a fellow teacher this summer at an English language camp, her response was, “So you hated Peace Corps, is that what you’re saying?” I’m sure my mouth dropped. No. Not at all! If I were to go start over again I would still go to Guinea. It changed my life forever for the better. I’m so thankful for the people I met: the formateurs who were involved in training and who shared their inspirational stories, my host families, my stage, fellow PCVs, regional staff. I’m thankful for all the Guineans who wished me ‘du courage’ when I told them that I was a PCV. The nenes who taught me Pular during taxi rides and while I wandered the market. I will never forget the hospitality and warmth I received in Guinea. How greeting everyone in the room was a norm, feeding guests was a norm, putting others first…no one cared who was whose half brother because we all live under the same roof and we’re all going to eat the same food and we all have the same name! 🙂

 

Guinea gave me a different lens on the meaning of normal and how much ‘my norms’ can change in just a few months. Really, it changed my view of just about everything I thought I knew (and then some), but mostly it impacted how I view normalcy. I went from teaching numbers to my Guinean brothers and sisters by flashlight to teaching tennis to American high school girls. From using just chalk, a chalkboard and the occasional hand-made poster to teach vocab, to using a projector to play YouTube videos of “Across the Universe” songs in a UCLA classroom for my English language learners. I’m still amazed that the electricity in our house always works and I can charge electronics whenever I want.

So back to normalcy…2013 has been part of a transition. Have I found the closure I need? No. I’m convinced I won’t feel it until I’m in a position where I’m helping others who are truly in need–I hope it comes when I start teaching again or have the chance to volunteer abroad again. Have I forgiven myself for leaving Guinea and relieved my guilt? Not yet, but I’m working on it. I have to remind myself everyday of the positive experiences I had in Guinea and the positive impact I had on people. I couldn’t call my host brother for several months last year until I began to convince myself that talking to him was a step towards positive change and forgiving myself for leaving. Even writing was hard, but I’ve found that it has always been beneficial. I’m going to call Prof tomorrow, post this blog, and hope these are small steps towards a new normal.

I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You

Just when I thought I had forgiven myself for ET-ing, the flood of guilt has come back. Maybe it’s because I’ve been off from work this past week and I have the house to myself for the next 48 hours. I have way too much time to be idle and think. Generally, Fridays and the weekend is the worst time for me to get thinking about Guinea because friends get online at those times and post photos.

I keep going over the what-if questions as I peruse friends’ photo albums on Facebook. What if I had stayed until IST? What if I had stayed until the end of the school year? Would things have improved if I had asked for a new site? Sometimes I try to answer that and say that I would be depressed because I would have to leave my host family…which is true. But would the weight on my shoulders lift if I had less students?

I was constantly frustrated by my obsession with ‘what is the next lesson going to be?’ so that my students would benefit and would be able to follow, sans confusion with vocabulary or a new tense. I think that frustration would have continued and would have quickly drained me of my sanity even at a new site.

The other piece that depresses me is how much I want to go and visit friends and my host families, but I have to get settled before I can go jet set off to Africa again. The settling part is almost there (if I get the job I’m really hoping for). I haven’t been able to call my host brother in a while because it’s spendy for me to call him given I haven’t got my first paycheck from my job that I started in February. I hope the family doesn’t think differently of me because I don’t call on a regular basis like some folks in Guinea do, even if it’s just a quick hello, how are you, hang up.

I suppose like the many other major life-altering decisions I’ve made and felt uneasy about, the getting over part will just take time. I thought 3 months would have been enough. Don’t they say it takes half the time you were in the relationship to get OVER the relationship?