Warning: lot’s of bragging below because my students are the best and I love them
Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but we all do so whatever. Mine are the students who I am closest to, and the students who keep me motivated and moving.
In case it isn’t clear, Peace Corps is not easy. It’s not a trip, a vacation, or a place to “party it up.” It’s really f#%^ing tough. You’re away from your family for years, you are (usually) the only person within miles who shares your religion/language/culture, and oftentimes, implementing projects is blocked by politics, budget issues, or mere laziness.
I stayed in the Peace Corps — in Indonesia — because of the students in my English Club.
From my first semester, I have had a core group of five or six students extremely involved in my English Club. They all may not have made it to every meeting or cooking class or dance party, but for the most part, they stayed interested and engaged.
When my second year began, these kids I relied upon to come to my activities were in their final year of school (and I was in my final year of teaching at SMAN1 Panawangan), so not only did I have the cool kids in my corner, we shared the special bond created by the fact that we were all on the same time frame. We felt our “lasts” together. Because of this, we felt our time slipping away at the same rate and, magically, it motivated us in the same ways.
My Class 12 “babies” (as they’ve finally accepted me calling them) realized at the same time that I did that our chance to make an impact on our school was slipping away, so we got moving.
We decided to elevate our English Club. Class 12 was no longer interested in playing games and singing karaoke, they wanted to prepare for college, so we created a University Prep Club that worked with me on resume and interview skills one day a week while mentoring the underclassman English Club another day each week.
Their idea. Excuse me while I swoon and praise my kids’ drive and leadership skills.
Splitting into two groups was chaotic at first, and then I let the 12th graders take over more and be the real people in charge of English Club, and that’s when things got beautiful.
Think camp counselors. I would facilitate a game or activity while my older group sat in the back reminiscing about when they played the games, and jumping in when examples were needed. They planned the day’s activities and were in charge of contacting their peers to tell them about meeting times and locations.
It became their English Club and took the stress of planning off of me while still allowing me to do what I love: play with and get to know the students.
Then senior exam season began, daily activities lulled, and I had less than 100 days left in Indonesia.
For me: crunch time. For the seniors: time to end. For the underclassman: holiday.
I had the crazy idea to take the month break from school while seniors were testing to begin creating a World Map at my school (a traditional, global Peace Corps project that was a long time in the making at my school. From waiting for permission to grant money. I began planning this project in October 2016 and didn’t start painting until March 2018.)
Painting the World Map with this group of kids was the greatest experience of my service. Not only did I get to know my “core” students even more, but I was able to bond with the slightly more shy, younger students who I hadn’t gotten to work with for as long.
What was better, is that I got my final taste of Indonesian medicine, the kids refused to help. For a while.
I went with my counterpart to buy paint, I kept the supplies at my desk, I provided the students with photos of maps at other sites (in and outside of Indonesia) and did my best to explain the point. The day we began, four students showed up and we spent three hours in the sun sanding the old paint off the wall.
Day 2: no one showed up. No one wanted to labor in the heat for my project that “all Peace Corps Volunteers do” and that they didn’t fully understand. I went home that day angry, sad, and frustrated, ready to return the materials, return the grant money, and leave the school with a white, sanded wall.
And then, Billy Ricardo (yes, his real name, and the kid is just as cool as his name would suggest) sent me a message asking why we didn’t work that day. I told him class 10 and 11 didn’t want to help, so there was nothing I could do.
“Hmmmm ok Miss, wait.”
The next day, 12 students showed up. TWELVE. They told me “Aa Billy” had sent them a message telling them how long I had been working forward to painting the map, and that this was our English Club legacy. We worked for six hours that day and painted the full side of the building blue.
The next day, less 10th and 11th graders came to help, but my 12th grade loves joined in the fun. After 4 hours of exams, they decided to stay at school instead of going home and help with the painting. From there, it was easy. We finished the full map in three weeks. The students chose the design and slogan and painted every detail (every time I tried to jump in and paint a country, another student would pop up and need my brush.)
My role in creating the SMAN1 Panawangan World Map was official paint mixer and DJ. Bruno Mars got us through the long afternoons.
And I am so proud. Proud that my kids took the initiative and made this project happen. They help each other accountable and showed up every day to work their buns off and create a product we were all more than proud of.
The whole time, still studying for their final exams, still practicing for the Peace Corps Write On Competition (in which all seven of my participants placed in the top 10 of PCV students in all of Indonesia), still planning for the Peace Corps West Java English Competition (in which one of my students placed third in Art and one placed third in Creative Story Telling), and while living their regular lives.
These kids impressed me more than I could possibly say. Watching their faces light up and listening to them talk about where they want to go while pointing to it on the map were the greatest moments of my life.
Truly, all of the moments spent with these amazing students were the greatest moments of my life, and certainly greatest moments of my service. The dream is to make an impact, and if I had even half the effect on these kids as they had on me, then mission accomplished.
From movie trips to the neighboring city to crafts, long talks to yoga sessions, these kids have been my entire world for the past two years. When my class 12 students graduated, I cried an embarrassing amount, and then cried more when they surprise-attacked me with presents and a photo shoot.
The tears haven’t stopped as now my class 10 and 11 students have begun to realize that I will be heading home to America soon, and I don’t expect they’ll stop for weeks to come and onward as I remember my brilliant and inspiring students. The students who showed up and tried their hardest; the students who didn’t always understand me, but always wanted to try; the students who shouted “miss!!” at me from across the courtyard and came to my house just to talk.
I like to “joke” that my house is going to have a shrine of pictures of my students when I get home, but the reality is there isn’t a wall big enough to contain all the memories and photos with these amazing young people. They have given me so much more than I ever expected in joining Peace Corps. They have been the absolute joys of my life and saying good bye to them is going to be the hardest thing I ever have to do.
To make it easier, I’m following the guidance of one of my dazzling kiddos:
“I will never say good bye, because I believe I can meet you again.”