On the 10th of December, the NYC Returned PCV organization and SIPA sponsored a panel titled Service Abroad: Peace Corps and JFK’s Legacy. Carla Pellegrini invited 11 returned volunteers to participate, including me. As a member of Nigeria 1 in 1961, I was the person with the most distance from my experience. The most recent returned volunteers on the panel completed their tours in 2008. However a member of the audience had just returned from Ecuador. So we had a fifty plus range of people in the same room! Actually, the fifty plus range was not in the room since I was in Tokyo and listened to fellow panelists and the audience and spoke to them via SKYPE.

Carla had asked us to consider a dozen questions questions before the panel. I will share some that I answered in this post and others in subsequent posts.

The first on the list was “Why did you join the Peace Corps?” Strange as it might seem, I applied to the Peace Corps as soon as it was formed because I wanted to improve my Spanish. I had majored in Spanish and English intending to be a high school Spanish and English teacher. But I thought that my spoken Spanish was quite deliberate and unnatural. I thought that if I lived in a Spanish speaking country for two years I would make a much better Spanish teacher. I specifically requested a posting to Peru, for reasons I cannot remember. In the event, I was told that for a posting in Latin America I would have to wait a year but that I could join a training program for a group of teachers bound for a country in West Africa. I checked a map and found Rio Muni and Fernando Po in West Africa and for a short time thought these might be the places in West Africa where I might go. A follow up telegram invited me to join a training program at Harvard University for teachers bound for Nigeria.

I was not immune to JFK’s idealism. I was particularly moved by his speech at American University in which he called for dialog rather than confrontation and a limit on nuclear arms. And his famous “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” struck a chord with me. I had been a Boy Scout and a member of a service fraternity in college so the idea of helping others was not foreign to my experience. But the idea of joining the Peace Corps to further peace and serve America seemed a bit sentimental to me.

None of the questions we had been sent ahead of time asked about our training. But for me this part of my experience was crucial. After I finished my tour in Nigeria I was invited to train PCVs for Nigeria at Teachers College, Columbia University, which had been awarded a contract to prepare teachers for Nigeria. Though the contract was awarded for Peace Corps Volunteers bound for Nigeria, one of the factors that contributed to TC receiving the contract was that it had prepared teachers to teach in East Africa about the same time that the Peace Corps was established. TC had written a grant proposal to the US Aid Agency to prepare teachers to teach in East Africa in a program called TEA–Teachers for East Africa.

During our training at Harvard we had many stimulating lectures on the history of Nigeria and its educational system. We heard about values of various groups in the country from noted anthropologists who used little jargon and opened my eyes to realities that I had never imagined could exist. We met Nigerian students and diplomats informally as well.

We continued our preparation in Nigeria at University College, Ibadan. But the focus at UCI was on teaching. We practice taught at secondary schools in Ibadan and at UCI discussed our experiences with seasoned teachers. We lived in the dorms along with the Nigerian university students. Sharing meals with them and going out with them of course gave us a feel for living in Nigeria that was impossible to achieve in Cambridge.

But as you can learn from the Peace Corps web site, on the 16th of October our increasing confidence in teaching and in beginning to understand how Nigerian students in our classes and in our dorms felt about not only us but  many other ideas was turned upside down by the distribution of a copy of a message one of our group had written to her boyfriend in Boston. My fellow PCV had written what we all had written: nothing in training could prepare us for what we experienced in Ibadan. We saw people eat in the streets, use the streets as toilets and we saw a lot of poor people dressed in rags.  These incidentally are my words, not my fellow volunteer who wrote the post card.  But my point is that she did nothing unusual in 1961. Out of the 250,000 returned volunteers I would claim that almost all of them either wrote these types of messages or spoke them to friends and family on the phone.

Tragically, the PCV had to be sent back to the US and for a number of days university students we had shared meals with and gone drinking with did not speak with us much less eat or drink with us.  The Peace Corps Director in Nigeria was negotiating with some Nigerians who realized that there were some who were against the idea of having Americans teach in Nigeria and if they had not found and duplicated the post card would have found another reason to embarrass the program. But the PC staff in Washington decided that the negative press both in Nigeria and elsewhere was too great to ignore. They believed that the best way to defuse the situation would be for the PCV to return to the US. She made many contributions to various training programs and received a letter from JFK thanking her for her service which she keep private all of her life.

john-potI am attaching a photograph of me in a large cooking pot.

I was walking around a village near the town where we taught when we saw the huge pot that was used for cooking stew for festivals. I hopped in and my friends gave knives and forks to some of the younger people who had come to greet us. When we had the photo taken, we thought it was quite funny. But when we saw the developed photo we were aghast! How insensitive! How racist! The Nigerians in the photo had not seen the Tarzan movies we had. And since they used the pot only for cooking food, images of cannibals did not enter their minds. We found this out during chats with them after we had the picture taken, with one of my students translating.

Of the three purposes of the Peace Corps–helping people in other countries, making Americans more sensitive to people in other countries and enabling people in other countries to better understand Americans–I think the second is the most crucial. And the photograph I have attached shows how profoundly I realized how narrow I was in my view of others.

Of course reading some of the history of Nigeria and anthropological studies expanded my thinking, as did having conversations with Nigerian teachers I worked with and my students. But to change my deeply ingrained thoughts and feelings I had had all my life, I had to do have a photo taken showing me doing a ridiculous thing.

I am dwelling on training and its relationship to how we act because I have spent my entire professional life exploring ways I can enable teachers to see how what they think they are doing and what they are actually doing and what they want to do are often different. So the photo of me in the pot is an icon for my entire professional life in a way.

cont-conv-lg2One of the other questions we were asked to address was how our experience influenced our careers. My discussion of the photograph was part of my response to this question. The other part of my response is reflected in the covers of two of my books. The two figures in the photograph of the cloth on the cover of Contrasting Conversations are from a fabric I bought in Togo. I do not know the origin or meaning, but the two figures represent the two contrasting conversations that represent the theme of this book.

breaking-rules-lgThe bird on Breaking Rules is one of the many images that you will find in the tapestries mounted in huge mud huts in Benin depicting the history of the country in images.

It might seem strange to read so much about my training experience in response to the question of why I applied to the Peace Corps. But as it turns out the Peace Corps Training program was as important to my career as was my teaching at a teacher training college in what was then called Eastern Nigeria.

As I said, the readings and lectures we had at Harvard were very stimulating. And though the focus of our continued preparation in Ibadan was on practice teaching, we continued to have lectures. When I started to work in Peace Corps training programs at Teachers College, I changed the balance between reading and listening to lectures to demonstration lessons and teaching practice based on my experiences.

One feature of our training in Nigeria was follow up visits from those who supervised our practice teaching in secondary schools in Ibadan. This feature was perhaps the most crucial for me because I could discuss what I was doing with the teachers I was working with and would continue to work with for many months.  When I joined the Peace Corps staff in Somalia, my main focus after the initial training at Teachers College was on visiting teachers in their schools multiple times.

Unfortunately, this model is rare these days in teacher preparation programs around the world. My participation in the panel at SIPA reminded me of the important lessons I learned from my Peace Corps training program.

fans-teachersI am attaching a photo of teachers I worked with, all of whom had more experience that I had.

Yet one of my roles was to supervise their practice teaching!  They were teaching information that was new to me — the history of Nigeria, pounds, shillings and pence — this was before the adoption of the decimal system in Nigeria — measurements like poles, rods and perches, which I had never heard of before. And of course the methods they used were new to me since there was just one book for every few students.  Fortunately, there were two streams of each class that I had practice teachers in. So I took copious notes of Benedict for the first half of a math class and then copious notes of the second half a another math class at the same level that Okon taught. At the end of the day I told Benedict what Okon had done and suggested he try the alternative. And I told Okon to try the alternatives that I had seen Benedict use.

These lessons were very powerful. Being ignorant of what the teachers were teaching and how they were teaching made me ask many questions which of course is the best way to learn.

Another question that was part of the conversation with the SIPA panel was what we contributed. Well, I tell people that I learned a lot, my entire professional career was developed on the basis of what I learned about the various experiences I had both during Peace Corps training and in my work teaching teachers and I do not think I did any harm.

nigerian-boy-treeMy final photograph is one that continues to inspire me. I was blown away by the interest in learning in the students I taught and the primary school students who my students practice taught with. Their energy and engagement was 10 times mine!  Yet the students were born and grew up not with reading material all over the place but in the environment that you can see in this photograph — my version of Rodin’s Thinker.

To be continued.

Enjoy, enjoy.

John