The only Peace Corps official to visit my classroom at the Commercial School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was Sargent Shriver. In November, 1962, he saw my tenth graders among other Volunteer classrooms he was visiting in his swing through East Africa. In his usual manner, he came rushing through the classroom door with his hand outstretched and bursted out, “Hi, I’m Sarge Shriver.” I flippantly replied, “No kidding?” It was uttered more in surprise than rudeness. I was thrilled by Shriver’s visit. It was the first time my students had been quiet since September.
To rescue myself and the class, I asked Sarge to tell my students about the Peace Corps in Ethiopia and his trip, and he told us all about seeing the Emperor, and having told His Majesty that there would be another 200 PCVs coming to the Empire the next fall. Our first group of PCVs numbered just under three hundred.
In the silence that followed Sarge’s remarks, I decided to conducted a short language drill to demonstrate the students’ command of the English language, and also to get the students involved in the class. And for the fun of it, I threw in a few Amharic words for Shriver to repeat. He was game to the quiz, but I don’t know if the students really understood anything Shriver said; his eastern accent might have been too much for them.
Teaching and teachers
Besides myself, there were four other PCVs teaching at the Commercial School: Sam Fisk, Charlotte Crawford, Neil Boyer and Wanda Socha. We all knew how lucky we were to be assigned to this school. Many considered it the finest secondary school in Ethiopia. It certainly had the finest Ethiopian Headmaster in Ato Seifu Felleke.
When I’d come into Seifu’s office to complain about not being able to reach all my students, he would lean back in his chair, smile, and tell me how we were examples of successful people who had achieved much in the world. We could teach these students just by being in Ethiopia, by living among them.
Teachers everywhere learn their own techniques, and in many ways, teaching is a discovery of who we are as a person. However, for me teaching in Ethiopia was difficult, mostly because I was “learning on the job,” and I sometimes wondered why I didn’t give up. The tide of difficulties never seem to go out to sea. But I didn’t give up.
One reason was the headmaster, Ato Seifu, the other was Harris Wofford, our Country Director.
Wofford sent us memos every month that had the Knute Rockne quality of half-time pep talks. In the memos he would continually re-define the reasons for our being in the Peace Corps, and why we were teaching in Ethiopia. He always could, with his great stretches of imagination and literary allusions, explain how our elementary and secondary school teaching contributed directly to this developing nation’s needed to reach self-government. For example, he once wrote:
The classroom or school in which you are teaching should be, as much as it can be made, a model of the kind of society we and the Ethiopians want to achieve. This is an old proposition. Aristotle saw the Academy as a classic definition of what a university should be, what a school should be, what a government should be. Robert Hutchins is saying the same thing when he says that ours is the civilization of the dialogue.
What I’m suggesting is that our way of education should primarily be education by dialogue . . .. The things learned by lectures, by rote, by drill are generally inconsequential. Only self discovery is consequential. For this, listening and questioning are the special components.
True, there was a lot of questioning going on in my classrooms . . . but students’ questions wanted to know why I wasn’t teaching them the same way the Indian teachers taught — lots of writing on the blackboard, lots of drilling them with facts to memorize. Teaching wasn’t what I did, it was endlessly answering questions . . . and to pondering what I had to say and debate a possible solution.
At the end of my two years at the Commercial School I had no idea if I had taught anyone anything. I left the Empire thinking that much of what I had done in the classroom hadn’t worked at all. And the only self discovery was on my part.
A Return Visit
I returned to Ethiopia in early 1971 while I was making a nine-months swing through twenty-seven countries in Africa on a freelance assignment with Dispatch News. During that visit I went to Dire Dawa in southeast Ethiopia. I had returned there for a number of reasons, and one was to stay in and write about the Continental Hotel that Evelyn Waugh had written about in 1930s. It was a very old rundown hotel, a block south of the railway station. It had two wide verandas and lots of charm, and it had been passed over by time.
Arriving in Dire Dawa by train I went into the Ethiopian bank to cash some American Express checks. I was waiting for the manager to approve the transaction when a guard motioned that I was to follow him upstairs to the manager’s office. This was a new bank building, small and clean and very modern, and the manager’s office was roomy, air-conditioned, and nicely appointed. He stood as I walked into his office and greeted me with a slight bow and took my hand with both of his, a gesture of Ethiopian respect. He was in his late-twenties and was wearing — as the custom of Ethiopian businessmen — a white shirt, a necktie, and a dark suit. He offered me tea and a comfortable chair. He seemed absolutely delighted to have me in his office. I wasn’t sure if I was in trouble or about to win the Ethiopian lottery.
He asked me then if I remembered him.
I shook my head. It had been a half dozen years since I had been in the country, longer since I had visited Dire Dawa. There wasn’t anything familiar about the young man.
He told me his name and I shook my head, now I was really embarrassed.
He picked up my passport and said how shocked he had been to see my photograph, and that I was in Dire Dawa and in his bank. I had been his teacher, he said, in Class 2C in the Commercial School in 1962. I could not recall his face or where he might have sat in that long ago classroom.
He reached into his desk and pulled out a small, old black-and-white photograph that had been taken at his graduation shortly before I left Ethiopia. It was a photograph of his class taken outside in the school’s compound in front of a small statue of Haile Selassie. It was one of those photos taken at the end of the school year. I recognized at once Mabel Burton, a British teacher, who taught shorthand at the school in the center of the old photograph, and he pointed out himself, a small, blurry face in the back row.
He tossed off names of other students in the photo, some of whom I did recall, and told me what they were doing, and which one had left the country. He mentioned other Peace Corps teachers from the Commercial School, Neil Boyer and Sam Fisk and asked about them. He recalled with relish the first time I had walked into his classroom and all the students stood and I told them that they didn’t have to stand, that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, that I was a different kind of teacher. That never worked; they always stood whenever I entered a room. And he remember Shriver’s famous visit in the fall of ’62. It had been to his classroom.
I asked him about his life and he told me about going onto Haile Selassie University and earning a scholarship to Germany. And then he came back to work at the Ethiopian bank. He showed me family photographs on his desk. Four children and his wife, all dressed in their Sunday best. And also a photo of his new red automobile. He was standing casually beside it, looking proud. There was another photo of him in Germany. It was taken in the winter and he is standing out in the snow. I congratulated him on his life and family and successes and apologized for not recalling him. “I was not a bright student,” he admitted.
And then he did something surprising. He thanked me for coming to Ethiopia to teach. He knew what it is like to leave one’s home, he told me. He thanked me for teaching him English, for helping him get ahead in life. He gestured around him, indicating his office as everything that he had achieved.
“No,” I told him, “no Peace Corps Volunteer couldn’t and wouldn’t take credit for the success that he had made on his own.” He kept protesting as we went down to the main floor as he gave orders for my exchange of money. He accompanied me out onto into the hot afternoon and shook my hand again in front of the bank, saying goodbye, and asked where I was staying.
I told him the Ras, the only modern hotel at that time with its swimming pool and rooftop bar, the tallest building in Dire Dawa, the hotel where faranjoch stayed when in Dire Dawa. If I had told him the Continental, it might have embarrassed him, embarrassed us both. After all, I was an example of a successful person. I was an RPCV!