Never Too Old for the Peace Corps — Baby Boomer’s Perspective on the 2nd Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love
Single parents or married parents all face a time when the little bird leaves the nest. Some celebrate, many more smile and mourn. I walked the carpeted hallways of my townhouse wondering why life had gotten so quiet all of the sudden.
In the manner of 18 year-olds the world over, my daughter couldn’t wait to pack up and move out. One hundred and twenty miles away, she landed in a postage-stamp apartment that would barely sustain her possessions and soon sank under the weight of dirty dishes, piles of unwashed clothing, and fashion magazines. Do you see how easy it is to slip back into mother-ease and isms?
Over the span of several months, during which the emptiness began to loom much like the spread of mold in an unaired closet, I pondered the future. It was strangely unexciting. I would continue to work in a job I took to support us, hang out with loving friends and members of my spiritual home, and visit with my parents who were doing just fine on their own with meetings and clubs and exercise classes. Ho, hum. Nothing was wrong with a life of that design, but likewise, it boasted no element to raise the pulse rate, stimulate a brainstorm of new ideas, or challenge familiar thinking.
Eventually, reeling from a lack of inspiration, from loneliness, and from a the sense that something I couldn’t define was waiting, I made an appointment with a therapist, one who didn’t bill himself as a “Mid-life Crisis Consultant” but who served the position admirably. He listened attentively to the tale that spilled, handed over Kleenex for the eyes that wept and nose that ran, and then suggested an exercise. I stood in the center of the carpet and literally turned around 180 degrees. “Look back,” he said. “What were your dreams then, before marriage, pregnancy, and separation?”
It took a few tries to find a path back through a mind constipated by history, attachments, and memory. At last something percolated to the surface. “I wanted to go into the Peace Corps.” “Well, why not?” “I am too old.” “Are you?”
The view that Peace Corps volunteers are all young is widely held, Lillian Carter, the former president’s mother notwithstanding. In truth, anyone can apply to the Peace Corps, and given reasonably good health, a lack of indebtedness, and a set of skills worth sharing, he or she may be accepted. Eighteen months and six inches of paperwork later, I was.
Originally headed to the South Pacific island of Palau, the assignment was changed at the last minute, and I was off to Morocco! 70 mostly very young volunteers proved friendly and caring training-mates as we moved through language, culture, and sector classes that kept us busy from 9am to midnight or later. Every work product was scrutinized. As a part of the education sector, this meant all lesson plans had to meet learning goals and effectively scaffold the process. Manually-typed handouts were assessed for their ability to progress proficiency, and teaching hours were regularly observed for appropriate rhythm, attitude and student involvement. More than the prep work, teaching actual classes took me to the mat, challenging my knowledge, patience, and suppositions. Peace Corps training is boot camp without the marching, yelling, or English. But, we did have drill sergeants, experienced Moroccan teachers who constructed a practicum that would truly prepare us for a Moroccan classroom. Other sectors’ trainees became familiar with parks and conservation, health and sanitation, and agriculture.
We all lived on the campus of a training school, empty that summer of students and also lacking hot water, sit down toilets, air conditioning, and any but iron bed frames with a single mattress. Each dorm room had four-bed frames, so my dorm-mate, Jen, and I used the second set of beds as closets, standing them on end so that the legs stuck out and would hold such hangers as we could find. Additional pillowcases brought from home held underwear and were tucked into the tight, slightly rusty rings of bed springs to keep them off the ground. The extra mattresses were folded to function as soft, comfy chairs or spread out on the cement floor as make-shift yoga mats. A make-shift, make-do attitude grew among the volunteers during training and served all of us in the less-than-salubrious circumstances we would find at our individual sites.
Ten weeks and 200+ hours of Moroccan Arabic classes later, plus 200+ hours of culture and training, 69 volunteers (one chose to resign) took the United States oath of allegiance in a tearful ceremony and, then, almost before saying our “goodbyes”, left for locations spread across the entire country. I traveled three hours by train to Settat, Morocco, a rural city best known for being on the road between Casablanca and Marrakesh. A small city of 150,000 souls, I became one of a handful of English speakers in a place where three other languages were regularly spoken: Moroccan Arabic, Berber, and French. The language I used for communication over the next two years was almost exclusively Moroccan Arabic.
Within a week, I had found an apartment, purchased seven pieces of furniture, bamboo except for the bed, plus a butane burner and gas tank, and moved into a large cold-water flat three stories up. I came to love those 36 stairs and what they did for my stamina, butt muscles, and strength, but initially, when they meant schlepping everything up, up, up, I simply panted.
The Peace Corps prepares volunteers to be alone, thus, they choose people who are resourceful, motivated, and enthusiastic. As a long-time single parent, I discovered that many of the mental skills that that life had developed worked well in service to my country. Instead of a child, I had a job to focus on, classrooms of students to serve, and a myriad of tasks that demanded creativity and perseverance. Clothes and bed linens needed to be washed by hand and hung on the roof, another two floors up. Water was heated for bathing and shifted from the burner to a bucket in the bathroom where I ladled it one plastic container at a time. During warm weather, I filled a half dozen two-liter bottles with water and set them on the window sill to warm during the heat of the day. Then, just before sundown, I would take all the bottles into the bath/shower. Hair and body thoroughly washed — 12 liters of water, plus a saving on butane. Food, basic and minimal, was prepared only in the amount required because, other than the butane burner, the apartment had no appliances, not even a refrigerator. Therefore, no storage for leftovers. Since Settat lacked digital connectivity, and local telephones didn’t dial internationally, letters flew across the Atlantic, from me to family and friends, and theirs on the return flight. Twenty-five months later, as I prepared to leave Morocco, I counted over 300 supportive, sustaining, and newsy letters.
I loved it! The exigencies of daily life kept me busy and involved. Exploring the town and meeting storekeepers, neighbors, and waiters added whole chapters to the adventure. Soon enough, school started and classrooms packed with dozens of unknown students created a large, new community of purpose and connection. I was home.