Excerpts # 2 from High Risk/High Gain

Pages 31-33: There followed a briefing by the Peace Corps Field Assessment Officer, a psychiatrist. Now in sections, we met in a reverberatingly hot classroom of Teachers College. The psychiatrist was a ruffle-haired, soft-cheeked young guy, trying to – suck! suck! – get his pipe lit. Off to one side, half sitting against the desk, was presumable a colleague, a haggard-looking creature with a large balding dome of a head and jutting elbows. The spitting image of Raskolnikov.

“We’re meeting today,” said the psychiatrist, “to tell you what to expect in the way of selection procedures. It would be disingenuous of us to pretend that you won’t be observed and assessed throughout training. Most of you will be judged acceptable and sent to Nigeria, but a small percentage will be disqualified. Why disqualified? I will come to that. It shouldn’t surprise you that we want emotionally mature, competent individuals who can bear up under the stresses and strains of living in an alien culture. This is not to say you haven’t given every evidence so far of being exactly that. You are already a highly select group. The mere fact of your being here indicates that you have survived rigorous selection procedures that have whittled you down to your present size from a group of applicants in excess of a thousand.”

He paused to suck! futilely at his pipe, and there was a stir from the people who, in corroboration of Roomy’s story, had been recruited in whirlwind fashion in the space of a week.

“So we already know a good deal about you, but we need to know more. In the course of training each of you will be interviewed by a psychologist three or four times, and as many as half of you, for one reason or another, will meet with a psychiatrist. Now what are we getting at? Simply this: we are trying to determine if you are fit to serve out two difficult years in Nigeria. It is not in our interest, but it is certainly not in yours, to send a person to Africa if he’s basically unsuited for the type of life he will have to lead there. A man who find the climate unbearable, his teaching a bore, who is continually at odds with local ways – well, obviously, this is a person best not sent. Let me give you an example of what we run into. A Volunteer is posted to a village and finds it difficult getting through to the people. Like all of you, he experiences culture shock, or the queer up-in-the-air malaise which is the reaction to the absence of the unconscious signs of communication we daily exchange with each other. The normal cues, say of welcome, sympathy, or praise are missing. The loneliness and lack of intellectual stimulation take a severe toll on him, he desperately wants to talk to people who speak his language, he wants to see a movie or snap on the radio and listen to a baseball game. Frustration sets in, he curses out his students for their refusal to learn, which actually it is he who is at fault, he retreats more and more from village life, finding barriers everywhere. Finally his effectiveness has dwindled to the point where he is doing more harm than good. He becomes a liability. We may transfer him, into a city, say, among other Volunteers, but if he doesn’t snap out of it we are left with no alternative but to return him to the States . . .”

Page 222 By the sixth week, training was little more than a charade. The great gusto, individual and collective, with which activities had gotten underway, was completely dissipated. People, grim-faced, were hanging on for dear life. Lecture attendance had fallen way off, and threats and warnings did little to lift it. Few read the assignments. Not very many knew exactly what those assignments were. Business at the library dropped off to a snail’s pace. Language was probably the most severely hit. Even the most naively accepting among us had come to realize you could not learn the slightest beginnings of a multitonal Kwa-branch Niger Congo tongue in two weeks. Now it was nothing unusual to find three, four people in a class meant for thirty. Myself, I was so far out I couldn’t get back in. If I appeared they would have known I hadn’t been appearing.

Page 234: The rumors reached us long before the actual happening: spread in gold ripples: the highest of the high priests is coming! He’s coming, Oh he’s coming, Yes indeed he’s coming! Was not my wisdom tooth pulled at his indescribably bidding? said one. And was not my jock strap washed a snowy white because he demanded it so? said another. And has he not created with a strike of his hand a world for us out there, replete with resthouses, doctors ever on the wait, and slave-a-boys? Do we not owe everything – this latest charismatic finger up our ass, the kiss of balm of our tormentors, that little sex from the back on the roof, our very fates and futures – to this august presence?


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  • i can “hear” the voice of Norman Mailer in these musings! But I keep getting stuck on little facts. “Cutting class”? I was in training that same last great summer, 1963. Attendance was always taken in class. If you didn’t go, it was an instant “out.”

  • Our training for Ethiopia I, which I understand was the largest single group ever assembled by the Peace Corps at one place, at one time, was chaotic. A friend, Jim McCartney invented a phantom member of the group, Charlie Breslow. I aided Jim in bringing Charlie to life. We took turns answering here for Charlie when the roll was called in various training classes. And Charlie attended almost all classes. We also turned in required papers for Charlie. However, he never showed up to get the endless series of shots we received.

    Charlie became such an established member of the group that the Peace Corps was actually waiting for him when we arrived in Ethiopia. It took awhile for the powers that be to discover the prank and Jim took all responsibility leaving me off the hook.

    Someone at the 50th Anniversary asked me about Charlie. I gave the full story. So Charlie still lives in Peace Corps lore.

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