Saying my Peace Corps experience has been a rollercoaster ride is a hilarious understatement and gross cliché. Like most PCVs, I entered my service starry-eyed and squeaky-clean with dreams of changing the lives of my students and goals of connecting with my community members and making an impact.
But then Indonesia happened.
I’ve spent long, hot, and frustrating days just wanting to work, but being told classes were canceled for unexplainable reasons. I’ve had seemingly great conversations that lead to being called fat or a bad woman for not yet being married and having children. I’ve been sexually harassed and groped.
During our Close of Service conference, I was given back a “letter to myself” I wrote in PST after site visit that began with an inspirational message that summed up the trip:
“Girl, I sure hope things got better!”
A year into my service, I was miserable; marking the days off on a hand drawn advent calendar like an inmate or captive first thing when I woke up every day. I obsessively checked the social media accounts of friends back home and called every moment I could, thriving on the details of the “normal” life I was missing, jealous of my former peers’ 5- and 6- figure salaries.
But then Indonesia happened.
The children of Indonesia happened. The beginning of my second school year, everything changed. I knew what to expect and, what was better, I was no longer the new kid in school. The campus was full of over one hundred eager and jittery Class 10 students. I passed the class rooms of grades 11 and 12 greeted by a chorus of students I had taught my first year so, therefore, knew by name. I overheard the older kids explain to the new that I was no big deal, just another teacher. The selfies slowed and then stopped and the students became more outgoing toward me, feeling free to approach and ask questions.
It took that whole first year for them to get used to me and open up. The whole year for the community to realize that I wasn’t going anywhere — the full year for me to decide I would complete my service.
My students are the only reason that I have made it to (almost) the end of the program. My kids are what get me out of bed every day. They were the magnetic force that had me returning to site when it would have been all too easy to hide at a hostel, or board a plane back to America, something I’ve considered often throughout my two years.
This country can be terrifying and infuriating. This program can be banal and hopeless. It can also provide you with the greatest experiences of your life if you let it.
When, during the 12th grade exams, no 10th or 11th graders showed up to help me the first day of painting our world map, I considered quitting. I was prepared to return the grant money, donate the supplies I’d bought, and head home early. If no one wanted to do my project, then we simply wouldn’t do it.
Then, after school, a dozen 10th grade students showed up. The class 12 kids whom I had grown close with saw how upset I was and started sending messages to their younger peers until all of the English Club students and then some had arrived. With the help of all three grades of students working before and after they took exams, the map was finished in less than a month, they grew excited to work every day on our project — the key word.
In our month of working, I grew closer than ever to the rock star student body of SMAN1 Panawangan. The bigger the map grew, the more they wanted to work until the last handprint was painted and we all stepped back and looked at our work with eyes glazed over. We had spent hours painting and repainting. Paint was spilled, clothes got ruined, awkward tan lines formed. Dozens of Dum-Dums and Smarties were eaten as Bruno Mars lead our slap-happy dance parties.
It was throughout this project, that I finally felt the peace I had been looking for. I finally felt like I was making a difference here and that my service was worth-while. We know it’s hard to gage the progress of foreign-language students, but our world map was a physical difference I saw not only on the wall of the biology building, but in the students.
While painting, they sang and asked me questions, too distracted by the work to be embarrassed. They talked of where they wanted to go, the foods they wanted to try, the languages they wanted to hear. I saw the world open up for these kids, that’s what I was here for. That’s what I’d wanted all along.
Next time I do Peace Corps, I hope to complete far more projects like this. Keeping the kids physically active opened them up in a way they never had in the two years sitting in desks. Working to create something together connected us and nurtured a new bond between us.
A full twenty-four months into my service, I found peace. I’m ready to leave and begin my graduate school adventures, but I’m also sad to leave. Incredibly sad. As in, my students know not to talk about it unless they want to make me cry, which some of them do. I’m sad because it’s over, but I’m also sad because I’ve grown to be so so happy here.
My Class 12 babies crossed the graduation stage earlier in May, and the whole day, I was a puddle. Soon, I will board an elf and leave Panawangan for the last time. My heart sank even writing that sentence, but it’s okay. I will look back with joy toward Panawangan. The difficulties and the successes, I will remember. My students’ faces, I will remember. The moment one of my students told me I was like a sister to her, I will remember; because honestly, that was the dream.