Why do we stay?
Instead of writing something myself, I thought I would share something written by a fellow PCV in my group. Angela submitted this to our volunteer publication called IZIT? that we send out every few months. Among other things, IZIT? contains funny or ridiculous stories about learners or colleagues or daily happenings, humorous SMSes received or sent, as well as insightful essays about life in Nam. The question of “why am I here?” is something that I know must resonate with every long-term volunteer at one point or another during his or her service. Though we often discuss such things and share possible reasons with one another, I think identifying the “why?” is a very personal and necessary moment for every volunteer. I thought Angela’s story was touching, so with her permission I decided to share it here.
Why do any of us stay here?:
Recently, following a physical attack by an angry taxi driver and an infuriating lack of response by passers-by and Nam-Police, a fellow PCV sent me an sms asking “Why do any of us stay here?” In the wake of a situation like that, it is difficult to call to mind why. The sms left me pensive for a week.
A World Teach volunteer visited the next weekend, and she was asking similar questions: when the grades don’t improve in the classes you teach, why do you say the kids are enough to make you stay here for two years? Whenever I ask about your classes, the answers don’t sound like what you are doing is working, so why are you (why are any of us) here? My defense to the World Teach volunteer came quickly – I am here because I believe with all my heart in the power of education. I am here because these kids also have the right – just like you and I had – to a QUALITY education. Regardless of if they pass or fail, they should be given as much of a chance as possible with a teacher who cares. I do believe that – but I knew even as I was saying it that while that might be the reason I came here in the first place, that belief is not really what makes me stay. I just didn’t know what it is that keeps me – that keeps any of us – here. I couldn’t quantify it or verbalize it, but I knew there is a reason, or a quality within us, that keeps us here – that carries us back to work again the next day after only 3 kids passed the math test, a staff meeting was three hours longer than necessary because of a discussion about track suits, the teachers stole the kudu meat that was donated for the kids, a colleague “forgot” to inform you that you were on study duty so that you could be ridiculed and called out in the staff room, a child drank copper sulfate solution when you tried to do a practical in science class… something takes us back!
The very next day, the reason manifested in front of me. My school was hosting a choir festival. Thirteen schools from different regions were here to compete in the festival. We did not have any classes Friday, since the kids needed to put all of the desks and chairs into storage and clean the classrooms to prepare a place for about 400 visitors to sleep. The kids were ecstatic, not only by knowing that there were no classes that day, but also because the type of chaos that ensues with 400 visitors meant they could get away with anything they wanted for an entire weekend. The choir festival was, of course, not very well organized. I went to school that Friday expecting to have classes as normal, thinking there might be fifty or sixty extra people coming to stay at the hostel. Apparently that is what the rest of the staff thought also, if they thought anything at all about it. When we were informed how many people were actually coming, a huge argument began, mostly around the fact that there is no hall in town that can hold all the people. The argument ended with most of the staff refusing to help with this disaster since they did not want to be associated with whatever went wrong.
When the time came for the main event Saturday night, I estimate about 1500 people showed up to watch in a hall that has a capacity of maybe 500. The schools paid to participate in this competition, and there were not even enough chairs for the choirs to sit down. The organizer of the event, my school’s secretary, had forgotten about many details, and being white and walking fast (the kids always tell me that miss is walking very fast!) gave most of the visitors the impression that I was supposed to be in charge. Choir directors from other schools were scolding me, “You Americans are the ones to be well organized, and what now! What is this?” What could I say? I just tried to help however I could. The hall filled up quickly, with the choirs sitting two per chair and only about 20 audience members getting a seat. Of those twenty were three white people – two new faces who I had never seen before and a Dutch volunteer. The two new faces turned out to be a couple of Germans visiting the area. I felt self-conscious of my skin color when I saw the scowls on their faces. They were not pleased to be crammed into the hall like sardines; they were not pleased with how loudly everyone was talking around them; they were not pleased with the fact that it was more than two hours since the advertised starting time and the event was not yet ready to begin. No sir, they were not pleased at all with the situation to which they had come to play spectator, and damn if they were going to let go of their chairs to let an old meme sit down!
Finally the event started, but after two choirs performed, the judges made an announcement that unless the crowd quieted down the rest of the event would be cancelled. The noise from the audience was too loud for the judges to hear the choirs. A third choir performed, and the judges made another announcement that we would wait five minutes, give security a chance to identify the chief noisemakers and make them leave, and if the noise was still too much then we would all have to go home. Five minutes, ten minutes, a group of drunk people were escorted out by “security” (a few male teachers and my principal), but it was still too loud to go on. At that point, the three white guests lost their patience. The room was much too crowded to move around without causing a scene, but causing a scene was exactly what they wanted to do. The two Germans marched right up to the stage, told the MC (with scowling faces, shaking heads and pointed fingers flying angrily) exactly what they thought about how poorly run this competition was. They forced a crowd of people to make way so that they could leave through a side door that was intentionally locked. Immediately following, the Dutch volunteer did the same thing, stopping at the stage to say her piece and again forcing the crowd to make way for her to leave through the same locked door.
I looked out from my spot at the judges table, scanning the crowd for the only other white person I knew was there – the World Teach volunteer. I found her in the crowd, and I was telepathically sending her a plea to please, please, please not leave. She wasn’t about to leave. She, like me, was there to stay. She was busy helping to keep order over her school’s choir. She wasn’t frowning or rolling her eyes. She was making the most of it.
Despite repeated threats, the event was not cancelled. Eventually all thirteen choirs performed. After the trophies were awarded, the entire room sang and danced together. A learner from my school sidled up next to me during the dancing, and grinning from ear to ear he declared – “Miss, I am so proud of our school!” Throughout the hectic evening, one-by-one, the nay-saying staff members of my school showed up. Almost the whole staff was there to see our choir’s amazing performance and to dance and sing together at the end of the night. We danced and sang and laughed and enjoyed the time with the visitors until almost midnight. The World Teach volunteer told me that her choir (who won third place) sang the whole bus ride home, and was still singing at study the next morning.
I am sorry for those three people who choose to leave. I am sorry they do not know that nobody listened or cared about what they had to say when they marched up to the stage. In fact, the judges shared a glance, rolling their eyes as if to say “typical.” I am sorry they will never know the joy that filled the room at the end of the night. Their comfort and time, they seemed to think, were more important than anything else going on around them. And that, as I see it, is why we stay. It is something in our hearts that tells us we are not more important, more valuable or better. Something that allows us to go along with whatever is happening and experience it - to get in the middle and be a part of it – not as an onlooker or as a guest, but to really be a part of it! Watching the scene those people made, I felt my face heat up with embarrassment, and I hoped that the rest of the room was not looking at me thinking I am just like them. We stay, because we are not like them. And thank-goodness we are not because we get to dance and laugh with the people who infuriated us the day before, and we get to feel our hearts pound and our eyes fill up with tears when a disadvantaged young school child comes to tell us that he has something to be proud of. And maybe, because we stayed, just maybe someone will want to listen to us when we have something to say.