Trying to predict what your job is as a Peace Corps Volunteer is like throwing water on the ground and trying to predict what the splash will look like. You know where the water will start out because you’re the one pouring. But moving out from the center, the rivulets, puddles, and droplets will take on forms that you could never have foreseen. The middle of my puddle is my primary project: to promote literacy in the primary school, most likely through a pullout program, and to make use of the school’s resource center/library. This fits into the first of three areas in which Education PCVs work:
• improving reading skills for elementary school children
• integrating innovative teaching practices into the classroom
• involving parents in the community and the school
So that’s where I’m expected to spend most of my effort. Quite a tall order.
But most—if not all—Volunteers end up doing many other projects outside of their primary projects. They work with boys’ groups and girls’ groups, teach computer classes and cooking classes, train health promoters and youth group facilitators. Jessica, the Volunteer who was here before me, had just about any kind of group you could think of. Art class, chess club, escuelita, Superman boys’ group, Brigada Verde environmental group, the list goes on and on. So I can basically do anything and these kids will be up for it. The wheels in my head are turning already.
Wait. I may be getting ahead of myself. All this talk about projects is pretty energizing, but I’m not actually doing that yet. My job right now is the Community Diagnostic. It’s a clinical-sounding name for something that actually involves lots of friendly conversation and getting-to-know-you. For about the first three months in our site, our primary goal is to integrate into the community, get to know people, and get to know the problems of the community. Then we go to a training retreat where we process our findings and hammer out a Project Plan for the next year. As an Education Volunteer my diagnostic takes on a weird two-headed hydra shape, since I have to diagnose both the school and the community. The students in my school come from all over the neighboring barrios, and only one teacher lives in my barrio. So getting to know the school does not mean getting to know the community, and vice versa.
For the school part of my diagnostic, I observed classes, talked informally to the staff, and made a survey for all of the teachers. I went to the school as often as I could to get my face out there and made sure I was dressed nicely to show them I’m an hombre serio. One day I found myself helping the secretary with the attendance system, and another day I was playing dodgeball with first graders during recess. The surveys gave me a lot of insight into what the school needs and what I—just one person—can actually tackle. But before I knew it, classes were ending and the school half of my diagnostic was wrapped up, whether I liked it or not.
With the school year behind me, I’m turning my sights on the community. To be honest, I feel like I could have been doing more up to this point about meeting people and building that all-important confianza. But that might just be my tendency to be hard on myself about everything. I’ve spent most of my time with a group of awesome people who I like a lot, though I’ve occasionally ventured out and met new families. I still definitely feel like the new guy, which I guess is fair considering I just completed one month solid in my site. But the due date for my Diagnostic is creeping closer every day. It’s time to ramp up my efforts. It’s time to linger on doorsteps until being invited inside, drink too much coffee, endure awkward silences, and somehow get people to tell me everything that’s wrong with their community. If I meet one new family every day between now and the end of July, I’ll be in good shape.
I’ve left out one part about the Diagnostic phase. We’re expected to do “easy win” projects during our first three months here. This shows the community that we’re here to work, gives us something to do besides just talking to people, and reassures us that we can actually get something done. I’ve started two “easy wins” and have a third in the works. The kids who live around me are really enthusiastic about practicing reading and math with me, so I jump on that energy whenever I see it. I’ve been teaching them tricks for multiplication, using rocks to practice different orders of operations, and giving them reading comprehension questions to accompany the little paper books I made in training. I’ve also been tutoring two brothers twice a week. Their mom wants them to get help over the summer, but can’t afford to sign them up for an escuelita in someone’s house. So I go and tutor them for free. One is in fifth grade and can’t read or write his name, so we’re starting from the ground up. It’s challenging and at times frustrating, but it’s all worth it for that moment when he proudly shouts out the right word after having stumbled over it for the past hour. My last project, the one still in the works, is more structured. I want to do an art and science club in the community center. The kids are all stoked about having art classes, so I know I have an audience. It’s just a matter of getting access to the space and making up a schedule. Easy, win.
So that’s my job right now. I have a rough idea of what it will be, and at the same time I’m excited to see what the final puddle looks like. Sometimes the line between work and life gets blurry. But that might be because living here is working. That’s one of the things that I love about the Peace Corps—we’re on, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. If I set up and run a successful summer camp, I’m working. If I show kids Planet Earth on my laptop during a rainy night, I’m working. If I chat over coffee in my neighbor’s backyard, I’m working.
What a job. What a life.