My Tacoma-to-Liberia Peace Corps journey proved to me I could tackle anything anywhere
By Kathleen M. Corey (Liberia 1975–79)
March 26, 2021
“I got a C?! I’ve never gotten a C in my life!”
It was 1969. I was a senior at the University of Washington, preparing to become a high school English teacher.
“You have an A+ for subject matter knowledge,” said my mentor teacher, Roy Feldstadt, “but a C in classroom management.”
Depressed that I’d chosen a career for which I was clearly unsuited, I decided to go skiing in Sun Valley. After five fun but somewhat meaningless years, I decided to try teaching again and applied to the Peace Corps.
Assigned to Liberia in Western Africa, I called my old mentor and told him the news.
“Liberia!” he said. “I was in Group 2 in Liberia! Ask for Zorzor Central High — you’ll get the experience you need.”
Indeed I did.
This year Peace Corps celebrates its 60th anniversary. Over 240,000 volunteers in 142 countries have devoted two or more years to what the agency called “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
Which is exactly what it was for me. No job since has been more challenging or rewarding than my job in rural Liberia in the 1970s teaching high-school English for $75 a month.
Arriving in this world of heat and unfamiliar smells and life, I told the Peace Corps staff I wanted to teach at Zorzor Central High. They were astonished. I soon learned why.
After six weeks of in-country training and a nine-hour bus ride on a red dirt road rutted from torrential rains, I arrived in Zorzor to meet the principal. I was given a schedule, a book, and student rosters.
I would teach five classes a day to a roomful of mostly boys — only 10% were girls — ranging in age from 14 to 30. Some older boys wore the uniform of first grade — pink shirt, blue shorts — having started first grade at age 16.
Calling roll, I asked the students to open their books.
“What books?” they said.
I had the only one. I tried my best to teach five classes of 300 students without any materials other than a crumbling blackboard and a few sticks of chalk.
For the next months, I wrote excerpts and exercises from the book on brown butcher paper that I got from the local butcher. I taped them on the classroom walls. Welcome to Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, Emerson, Thoreau, and Hemingway — the authors who would be on the all-important National Exam at the end of the 9th and 12th grades.
Trying to teach 300 students a day without books was hard enough. A bigger problem was classroom management. I’d walk into a class that hadn’t had a teacher for two hours, and the students were wound up. They ignored instructions, openly carried on conversations, wrote notes, threw spitballs.
The curriculum didn’t help. Why would tribal students who walked six miles to and from school each day and paid for supplies their families could barely afford be interested in English and American literature?
What could be further from the realities of village life, where 60% of babies died, and malaria and schistosomiasis, a disease of the intestines and urinary tract caused by water-borne parasites, were common?
One morning I took the nine-hour bus ride to Monrovia and used the Peace Corps office Roneo machine to create my own book of African literature and poetry. I used the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Bai T. Moore, focusing on topics of interest to my students, such as growing up in a tribal village and the history of African slavery.
I clamped down on bad classroom behavior. Students caught cheating on a test, a common practice based on the belief that you help your friends when they need it, were suspended for two weeks.
“Miss Corey, you were so nice last year and now you’re so mean,” the students said. But they had to admit they were learning, and I became a popular teacher.
My students frequently came to me for help, which often I couldn’t provide. Sick babies were brought to me to heal, and once when a student’s mother in the lepers’ compound became very ill, I was summoned to help.
Students who had no kerosene lamps to read by would ask if they could borrow mine during testing week. I did what I could. I loved what I was doing so much I stayed two more years.
When I returned home four years later, I met Roy and thanked him for putting me on the path to a life-changing experience.
Years later, as a refugee camp worker, NGO director, Peace Corps country director and a diplomat, whenever I encountered a challenge, I’d remind myself that if I could teach 300 students a day at Zorzor Central High, I could probably do just about anything anywhere.
Kathleen M. Corey is president of the Women of Peace Corps Legacy and teaches leadership to diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. The former Peace Corps volunteer and manager is a native of Tacoma, Washington.