This installment, the one that begins to describe my Peace Corps experience, is the last I will be able to share for a while because I am moving.   As I write I am amidst more boxes than I’ve ever seen in one place.  Our new chapter in North Carolina will begin Friday, June 19; this computer through which I am reaching you now will be packed away tomorrow, June 17.  We’re supposed to be up and running on the North Carolina ISP on Monday, June 22nd, but unpacking into our rental house and getting set up in a new place will take at least a few weeks, and then we are traveling to visit friends over the July4  holiday.  It may be as long as a month before I am in a proper mental state to set fingers again seriously to keyboard.  I am disappointed that I must stop just at the beginning of  a very dramatic episode, and I hate to keep you hanging, but to do this project right takes time.  What I describe today portends disaster.  I can tell you now that instead, it  became yet another time of unexpected and undeserved grace, something that taught me to be grateful to be alive.  I want to do the telling of it justice.

See you sometime in July.

Having already been through a Peace Corps staging and training, I was not quite as wide-eyed as I boarded the train for Philadelphia to meet the other people I would be traveling to Africa with.  But the welcoming smiles were the same as what I had seen in Puerto Rico, and friends I made those first few days in Philadelphia are still among the dearest people in my life.  Since I was added so late, not much was known about me by the programming people there.  For the purposes of getting me into the program at the last minutes, I had been stuffed into an English-teaching slot, but when programmers discovered I was a French major, they asked me if I would like to join the one other French major in the group in a pilot project teaching  French at the secondary level.  It seemed that the Ghana Association of French Teachers, which in my entire experience consisted of one rather dotty English woman, had put it in the Education Minister’s ear that French should be a mandatory subject for all secondary school students, since anglophone Ghana was surrounded entirely by francophone countries.  The fact that Ghanaian students already learn everything at school through a second language, English, didn’t seem to be taken into account, nor was the central fact that all francophone students learned English and even back then, English had displaced French as the worldwide lingua franca.  French-speaking people were much more interested in  practicing their English than English-speaking people their French.  And last, it was always my experience that language facility is something one either has or does not have.   A second or third language can be drilled into your brain, but not always effectively.

But whatever.  It was my job to teach French, and I was game.  True to form, I molded the job to my version of reality and took it as seriously as I could, but never felt I could force kids to learn something they either didn’t want to learn or couldn’t.  I ended up teaching to the ones who did want to learn, and in the process discovered a great love of teaching, or rather, explaining, relating.  I still remember the thrill I felt digging deep for the first time into gender and number agreements in a French sentence.  It wasn’t the subject itself that I enjoyed so much as the mental challenge of finding ways to explain it clearly.

I may or may not have been a successful French teacher, but in retrospect, I know I was a bust in many ways.  I was 24 going on 18.  Given my immaturity and my American sense of egalitarianism, I never bought the English educational model practiced in Ghana, where the teacher was a “master” to be respected, obeyed, and kowtowed to.  I was only a couple of years older than my oldest students and related more to them as peers.  And the worst:  I wore shorts to teach in, and to my headmaster’s consternation, started a fashion trend among the other, African, male teachers at my school.   Tennis whites became the thing.

Our training program in Ghana was one of the first in the Peace Corps to be conducted entirely in-country, and the design, with its live-ins, specially set-up practice schools, and a pattern of periodic group dispersal and re-gathering to compare notes, has changed surprisingly little over the years.  The most salient feature that is now thankfully a thing of the past was the resident shrink.  Just like in Puerto Rico, we had our psychiatrist.  A Ghanaian one.  We were a group of about 75, and he spoke to each of us once.  For 15 minutes.

I learned later that based on that single conversation with a man largely unfamiliar with any American culture cues, the word on me among the staff was that I was “wild.”  What in the world I did to create that impression I’ve never known, but it became an important driver in my final placement.  After visiting Kumasi, the old capital of the Ashanti kingdom and the cultural heart of the Ghanaian south, I fell in love with the city and requested that I be placed there.  I was granted my wish but with several safeguards.  I was to be placed with an older, second-year volunteer whose maturity would keep me on the straight and narrow.  For social release, an attractive  female volunteer was placed at another school in the city.  And, most important of all, I had to be placed at an all  boys’ school.

Here are the results of all that careful planning.  My older, experienced roommate quit the Peace Corps soon after discovering I wasn’t interested in sharing in his marijuana habit. Michele, the other Kumasi volunteer, and I became fast, lifelong friends.  And this tightly bound sack of post-adolescent, gay hormones fell in love with one of his students.  Thus my Peace Corps experience became a trip into my personal heart of darkness.  Most RPCVs fondly remember their fulfilling jobs, their adventures in other countries, the parties, the host-country friends they made.   An honest telling of  my time as a Peace Corps volunteer, however, has to include the harrowing emotional journey that dominates it.

It all happened because there was a war going on and if the Peace Corps found out I was gay, I would be sent to it.