Sunday, June 30, 2013

Series Finale

As I approached the end of my Peace Corps service, as usual, I turned to television legacies to relay my thoughts and feelings. I pondered the best final episodes of television sitcoms.

Would I have a Newhart show ending where I wake up and realize I just dreamed the last seasons of my life? Would it be a Family Ties ending where the entire cast comes onstage after I say my goodbyes as I leave my village? Or would it be a Wonder Years tearjerker where the audience has to grapple with the fact that things sometimes just don’t turn out the way they thought they would… and realizing that’s OK?

In the end, it was a little bit of all three.

How Do I Feel?
My handling of the end has been odd, I must say. In the final weeks at site, it seemed my sadness manifested itself by way of not eating or sleeping, but I shed fewer tears than I expected. I will chronicle a few moments where I did break, however:
1) One of my brightest students, Luqman, gave me his pramuka (scouts) sash, his school cap, and a note telling me I was the best teacher (lie, but it got me right here).
2) My friend, Peni, a Muslim student, gave me a set of Rosary beads with a message saying "God Bless You".
We did it, Peace Corps. Bringing it all together.
3) My class X-1 wrote notes for me to bring home to America, and in Tiara's she wrote,"I and all friend very sad if Mrs Erin return in Amerika. And I would in the future if I have livelihood, I would tell my family about Mrs Erin teacher English from Amerika and teaching in MAN Padangan."
The thought of one of my students telling her kids about me just never would have occurred to me. It was more than I could handle.  
4) I gave yet another speech to my fellow teachers and friends and tried to explain that, while I might have had a lot of experiences traveling to different places, leaving this place would, by far, be the hardest thing I'd ever yet done in my life.

5) My ibu (host mom) uncharacteristically shed tears in the final moments before I was getting in the car to leave my home for the last 2 years, and this made me also momentarily lose composure.


6) Walking up the same road I strolled in those first days in Indonesia in Beji, my training village, I wondered when/if I'd ever get back there. I said good-bye to the family who first took me in and made me feel like Indonesia was my home. Then, I temporarily and unexpectedly lost it in the back of my host dad's car as he drove me to the bus.   

My thoughts turn to 27 months ago when I was driving in my aunt Sr. Tesa's minivan on the way to JFK. While passing the site of Ebbet's Field, I got a text from my pal, Christine, asking, "Leaving do you feel?"

My answer: "At peace. It's time."
Feels about the same now.
What I Learned
I originally had pegged my last entry to be a summary of things I had learned, but I think you’ve had enough of my nonsense for two years, and it might be time for me to start closing up emotional shop to prep for my next moves in life. But I’ll share a couple of things:
A) PC showed me that I can be kind of an asshole.* And we’re all probably more selfish than we care to admit. And that cues can be taken from other cultures on how to remedy this.
B) We’re made of some tough stuff – all of us. So far, my ranking, with the most grueling being a 1, is as follows:
1)     Suffering through the ordeal of getting over a long-term relationship
2) Peace Corps service – and all that entails
3)      Studying for the Series 7 exam while working 60 hours a week
4)      Marathon running 
If I ever experience childbirth, I'll update this accordingly. 

The Thanking**
Family. When I discussed applying to Peace Corps the first time more than ten years ago with my mother and father, they didn’t seem exactly overjoyed. This time around, when I actually went through with it, I think they swallowed some of their feelings because they knew it was something I really wanted. As did my brothers and sister when I traveled to each of their houses to break the news that I not only applied, but that I would probably be leaving the country in a couple of months.

Thanks for making me who I am (it is sort of your fault I ended up doing this in the first place). And for letting me find out that not only could I do Peace Corps, but that it was something I could be good at and love.  
My PC friends. You’re da bomb. It was never my plan to make friends with volunteers here, but it is almost sickening how close I feel to you after two short years. I suppose it might have something to do with all the poop talk and bed sharing. You each have taught me so much – just by being who you are. And through your kickin’ dance moves. ID4, IDFLY, ID6, and with ID7 continuing the legacy – thanks for building such a rad and accepting community – one that I am very proud I will belong to for the rest of my life.


My village communities. I distinctly remember in my first few weeks at site riding bikes with kids in my village. Two of them, Ratih and Ayuk, were laughing and trying to hold hands while riding alongside each other as we passed the pasar (market).

I was riding behind them, and I couldn’t believe they let me, a stranger, be a part of this moment – along with so many other moments. I couldn’t believe I could just come in out of nowhere, plop down into these people’s lives, and they would accept me. Just like that. I knew right then how amazing this is  - and would be - getting to do this.

There is no way I can ever properly thank an entire community for all they have given me these past years, but here’s a go:
Ini adalah sesuatu yang istimewa, sebuah kehormatan, dan sebuah kebahagiaan untuk menjadi bagian dari keluarga MAN Padangan dan Desa Padangan untuk dua tahun terakhir. Terima kasih banyak dari hati yang terdalam.
I also passed out about 750 copies of these to my village:  

I’ll be thinking things over. I’m also doing some traveling on my way home to catch up with some old friends. You can follow the ridiculous-ness of my travels here, once I get it up and running:  I Got Nothing Else Going On

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I can only hope there will be butter. And I know that when I hit the duka (downs), as happens no matter what country I happen to be in, or if I am rindu-ing (missing) my home and friends in Indonesia, I can take comfort in knowing that the sun will always come out tomorrow…

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. – George Moore 

It has been a pleasure processing my thoughts with you watching. Until the next adventure...

*Another nice Peace Corps memoir read: I Joined the Peace Corps to Keep From Becoming an Asshole (It Worked, Mostly) 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Failure is a Friend of Mine

   Brianna: "Congrats on finishing the year! How does it feel?"
Me: "Sort of like failure."

This text exchange occurred between me and my PC pal on our last day of school last year. After a year of teaching in an Indonesian high school, I certainly had made some strides, but I still battled with planning with counterparts, figuring out curriculum, handling cheating, and effectively assessing students. There were definitely moments of futility and disappointment. A lot of them.

Some days I couldn’t get anything right - even in my down time. One night I planned to watch Short Circuit as a treat for getting through all of my classes, and halfway through the movie, I realized all the scenes I looked forward to watching were actually from Short Circuit 2 – which I didn’t have. Fail again, Erin. 

I had discussions back in pre-service training about what it would feel like when we finished service. Would it feel like we helped at all? I certainly did not come with any naive expectations of changing the world, but I am surprised now to feel I’ve had a lot more successes than I would have originally thought.* My expectations were pretty low, mind you, but I am grateful I will leave PC service feeling like we did it. (WE DID IT!) 

Fall Hard, Fail Frequently**
However, I can’t help but be reminded how important it is to sit with the failures. If there is one thing Peace Corps taught me – it’s how to fall and fail. Hard. 

Let’s take a look at some of the fails:
  • English speaking groups with students and teachers sort of fizzling by the end of my service
  • Feeling like I could've gotten closer with more of my students
  • Never making it to several local schools as I planned
  • Never made my elementary lessons after school sustainable by getting a local teacher to continue them after I'm gone
  • A fellow teacher telling other teachers how I failed because after 2 years she still couldn't speak any English (in my defense, this teacher talked to me about 5 times in all my two years and never attended one teacher's English club)
  • Never made that world map painting with my students
  • Feeling like I could have generally spent less time in my own head or in my room and more time with my community than I did
  • Never did any environmental projects
  • Not doing more with the runners at my school
  • Didn’t spend the night in the pesantren, or Islamic boarding house, like I planned
  • Never got my students to learn about or connect with kids from the SLB (special education school) as I hoped
  • Never got the elementary school English teachers in my village together to talk about ways I could help them with resources
  • Didn’t get as many books for the library as I wanted
  • Didn't get all of our teaching lessons posted onto our teaching blog as planned
The icing on the cake came one week before completing service: a teachers’ group I helped create was deemed “illegal” by the local office of religion. It felt as if I was “shot right through the tomato” (for you Wonder Years reference lovers). This might have been my worst PC moment. Got it in just under the wire.

Embrace the Fail
In motivational speeches I would often ask why people were afraid to speak English, and they’d say they were afraid of making a mistake. To which I’d say, “Yes. You will. You will all fail.” 

This wouldn’t exactly get me a round of applause. And probably wasn't exactly the motivation they were looking for. But I tried to explain that once they accept that they will fail at speaking like a native speaker and their grammar will probably never be perfect - so what? Failure will come. There should be no surprise. With failure as common an occurrence as it is, why should we fear it as we do? In a way, doesn’t the regularity of it kind of make it less daunting to try? 

Peace Corps not only helped me learn this, but to embrace it. After some time in my school and village, failure became my safety net. Before entering class with Ms Olif, my pre-class pump-up saying was, "This could be a complete disaster. Let’s go.” 
The Fail in Full Effect
For some reason, a few volunteers*** and I thought it'd be a good idea to run a marathon in Bali after service. Here's a tip: you should train for marathons. Having not run for a good two months prior due to the wave of departure preparations from my village, I was forced to look upon this self-inflicted disaster as more of a "reflection experience" than a marathon.

Each 10k represented a semester of service that I could reflect upon whilst subjecting my body to excruciating torture. It was a chance to relive each friend/family visit, PC training, vacation, teaching success, and new connection made. It was also an opportunity to sit with and reflect upon every illness, loss at home, host family/community difficulty, and teaching/community failure. I made a chart that is forthcoming, once I figure out how to load here. 

In the end, I ran probably a total of 26 km collectively, and I used the remaining time to reflect on my service, cheer fellow runners, make friends, take pictures (see below), and lie on the ground periodically in pain. I strolled across the finish well after I should have - had I actually trained for this thing. But it seemed like a perfect way to end...picking up my failure, accepting it, and carrying it for 26.2 miles.

And now I'm geared up for the next disaster. Thanks, Peace Corps!

Pre-race meal (Liz, you better eat that bread, or I will)

I mean, this outfit could run this thing itself.


John did not fail, and as such, he was entitled to enchiladas and tacos after the race.  


1)The general increase in confidence levels on the part of students and teachers, to me, has been worth the effort. Even if my students are not fluent in English, they are definitely more confident to try - and more confident in interacting with someone different from them. My counterparts have stretched their ways of teaching and are so much more open to searching for new ideas and are more confident in their own abilities. 

2) My school, family, and community definitely understand more about America and that Americans don’t all look like me. 

3) Breaking ground in my area on some new events like English camps and camps for girls.

**Inspiration for this post is from another PC article here: What the Peace Corps Taught Me About Failure. Favorite quote: "Americans are immature when it comes to honestly accepting failure and maybe that's why so many of us lack the emotional depth to make sense of it."

***In other news, fellow PCV Shane (pronounced Shawn) brought 10 of his high school students to run in the races. This was pretty fantastic since this was the first time they'd been out of their village, and they had only started running this past year. Here are the amazing whipper-snappers: