A couple of days ago, my former student, Stepan, shared this photo on Facebook…
I taught Stepan “conversational English” at Ruben Sevak School #151 in Yerevan, Armenia. I came to Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and was a member of the third group to go there. My specialty was TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language). I liked that they called it TEFL instead of TESL (teaching English as a second language), since most everyone in Armenia in those days spoke Russian as well as their native tongue, Armenian. When I met Stepan, he was already fluent in English. Ruben Sevak School was an English specialty school, and quite a few of my students spoke English very well. However, most of my students didn’t speak English, especially the young ones. I taught first form kids, too– seven year olds– and yes, a lot of my teaching was done in my piss poor Armenian for those children. It’s hard to believe they’re in their 30s now!
Anyway, Stepan shared this picture, which cracked me up, since I have another one taken the same day with one of his classmates, a guy named Arman, who was totally funny. Arman didn’t speak English at all, but he had personality plus. One day, he decided to jump out of the window of our classroom. Stepan later told me he’d done it to impress a girl. We were on the third floor. Miraculously, he wasn’t hurt. I couldn’t believe my eyes… and he did it before I could stop him or even know what he was up to. The next day I saw Arman, he was very cool about his little stunt. I still can’t believe he did it, even today. When I ran into Stepan on Facebook a few years ago, I had to ask him if I’d really seen what I’d seen. And he confirmed that I had. I even remember one of his classmates talking and making the downward sound effect as Arman made his sudden descent.
In the above photo, I have that serious look on my face because, at the time, I had giardiasis and was trying not to crap in my pants. Although the water was generally safe in Armenia in the 90s, and I could drink tap water with no ill effects once I got used to it, there was a broken pipe in the water works that I hadn’t known about because I didn’t have a TV and hadn’t seen the news. I drank some contaminated water and got the worst case of diarrhea of my life. I couldn’t eat or shit properly for two weeks. The day that picture was taken, I had finally decided it was time to see the medical officer for some drugs. I remember going straight to the PC doctor (also my landlady at the time) and getting antibiotics. Within 24 hours, I was back to normal. Maybe I should have held out longer and lost some weight.
Such was life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1990s. I joined the Peace Corps mainly on a whim. My sister had been a Volunteer in Morocco in the 1980s and managed to carve out a career. I had trouble finding meaningful work after I got out of college, so I decided to apply for the Peace Corps myself. As the Peace Corps is competitive, I never thought they would accept me. But, I happened to join at a fortuitous time. The Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc had just fallen apart, and many of those formerly closed countries were opened up as their governments welcomed American Peace Corps Volunteers to come in and work.
There were a lot of places to go– Russia (eastern and western), the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states– Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan all had programs. Since my day, a number of those programs have closed. A few others have opened in their place, or reopened, such as the case with Albania, which was open when I was a Volunteer, closed for some time, then reopened. Azerbaijan and Georgia both got programs years after I finished my service. Armenia is now on its 28th group… I think. It’s been 25 years since I joined, after all. I was in the group that was known as A3.
I didn’t have the easiest time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was very young and naive about a lot of things. I hadn’t been trained as a teacher in college, although I did major in English. I didn’t know anything about government service, although I was an Air Force brat and my sister had been a Volunteer. She’s thirteen years older than I am, though, so it’s not like we did a lot of talking. In short, I left the Peace Corps feeling depressed and hopeless about a lot of things. The year after I came home was one of the worst of my lifetime. I ended up in therapy and on antidepressants, and instead of using my year of non competitive eligibility for government jobs, I wound up waiting tables, a job I hated, but from which I learned a lot.
I often wondered if I’d even made any difference as a Volunteer. There were many times when I felt like my efforts were unappreciated and ineffectual. Sometimes, I almost felt like my presence was even resented by a few, although Armenians are very warm and hospitable people. Other times, I felt like all of my talents were useful in Armenia in some way. I had some experiences that were just incredible… I will never forget them, nor do I think I could have had them anywhere else.
For instance, there was the time I went to Lake Sevan with an Armenian friend and his wife. We missed the last bus back to Yerevan, so we started walking and my friend, a large, good looking Armenian man, stuck out his thumb. Sure enough, we were picked up by a guy headed to Yerevan. He took us to his home for coffee. I was a little hesitant about going into a stranger’s car, let alone his home, but it turned into one of those incredible experiences.
It turned out our benevolent driver’s son was an artist and was going to be exhibiting his art in Paris. The man’s apartment was liberally decorated with his son’s paintings… amazing creations that looked worthy of the best art museums in Florence, Paris, or Madrid. I sipped the thick, sludgy, sugary Turkish style coffee, my mind absolutely blown by the talent hidden behind the drab walls of the man’s Soviet era apartment. I don’t think I could have had that experience anywhere else but in Armenia.
Armenia was also hospitable to my musical leanings. I often went to jazz clubs to listen to live music and drink wine. More than once, I got to sing with the bands. People knew who I was, too, simply because I was that American girl who sang. There were so few Americans back then that it was possible to be known in such a way.
In Armenia, I lived without hot water, electricity, and basic literacy, since I had trouble reading in Armenian. I was actually better at reading Russian, even though I never studied it. And yet I kind of experienced a type of notoriety, too… I left that country a bit depressed, discouraged, and wondering if I’d made any difference. But I also left richer than I was when I got there, simply because my eyes were opened to another perspective– a whole new way of living that, as an American, I had never considered prior to joining the Peace Corps. Hell, just meeting other Americans from places other than the southeast was life altering for me, but also meeting Armenians, Georgians and Russians, as well as the odd Brits and Germans who came through, really expanded my horizons beyond the southeastern Virginia town from which I’d come.
So… when Stepan shared that photo, I was very touched. But then I read what was posted along with the photo…
Stepan now works for Peace Corps/Armenia. I don’t think I had much to do with his decision to work for the Peace Corps, although reading the above commentary makes me realize that I did make a difference by being there when I was. I was an American he met when he was a teenager and he didn’t forget about me. I didn’t turn him off to Americans, either. I remember days when I was walking home from school… I lived a pretty good distance, so it would take me about a half an hour or so to get home if I walked the whole way. I ran into Stepan more than once, and he’d walk with me and chat. A couple of his classmates did, too. One of them, a boy who didn’t speak much English, once surprised me in class by asking me how my weekend was in perfect English. I guess he picked it up from me, since I started Monday lessons by asking my students how their weekends had been.
I remember small children begging me to sing with them, “Lav eli, Miss Tolley, yergi!” (Lav eli is an Armenian expression that kind of defies translation– it’s basically akin to “Oh, come on!”) I remember how beautiful those children were, and how small they were… and now they’ve probably got their own families in an Armenia that appears to be very different from the one I remember.
I see all of the amazing things that the new Volunteers are achieving… very impressive feats indeed, even out in the “regions”, where all of the Volunteers serve nowadays. I see that the newer Volunteers start learning the language at home, before they even arrive in country, while in my day, we learned in grueling training sessions. They’re taught by my very first Armenian teacher, Armine, who now heads the program to teach new Volunteers Armenian. I was in her very first class. She was one of three teachers I had, but she was also the first. In fact, I sent her a private message and that was how Stepan and I got in touch again. Thanks to Facebook, I know what became of some of the people I knew in Yerevan… and I actually want to go back to visit, since I know the city, and yet I don’t know it anymore. But there are still friendly faces there for me… who will welcome me if and when we can visit.
I think about how physically difficult life in Armenia could be in the 90s. I’m not sure if it’s still that hard. I know that Yerevan, at least, is a lot better than it was in the 90s. Armine has told me that my group had a “real” Peace Corps experience and has implied that the newer Volunteers have no idea of what we faced back in the day. But I’m sure they face their challenges too. It occurs to me that even if the Volunteers in my day didn’t do as many really apparently incredible things as I’m seeing from the new Volunteers, we still helped pave the way for today’s Volunteers, which in and of itself, is kind of incredible and awesome. We helped lay the bedrock for bigger and better things to come. To this day, it makes me proud to see how very far Armenia has come in such a short time and how committed the people are to going even further. I am so happy I got to be a little part of that, in whatever small way.
I think, of all of the people who served in Armenia, the first group was by far the bravest. I think they were also the most depleted. I heard, when I was still a trainee, that about half of them either quit or were medically separated. A number of others found jobs. The same happened in the second group, although their group was significantly smaller than both the first and third groups. In my group, several people married locals. I was told I would marry an Armenian, too, but alas, it didn’t happen. I married a Soldier and moved to Germany instead of Armenia. I should probably thank the Peace Corps for turning me into the “overeducated” housewife. I went to grad school, in part, because I had been a Volunteer. That’s also why I got degrees in social work and public health– those were degree programs for which I would have had to study if I had been a Peace Corps Fellow (and alas, I wasn’t– for complicated reasons that worked out better in the long run– a story for another post).
No, I didn’t end up becoming a teacher after my service, although I did find the job somewhat rewarding at times. However, thanks to people like Stepan, I know that all teachers make a difference, and they do indeed “plant seeds” for trees under whose shade they may never sit. I would never say I was a particularly gifted teacher… but I will say that everyone has the potential to teach. We can’t help it. You can learn from anyone. I’m proud that I was able to teach Stepan something, and I’m grateful to know that I did make a difference to some people, even if it didn’t seem like I had at the time. Although my time in the Peace Corps was very difficult, I’m still grateful I had that amazing, life changing opportunity. I’m so glad I did it, even if it was a decision I made on a whim. Part of me kind of craves to have a new opportunity that will make a difference in someone else’s life. Maybe when Bill is finally retired… maybe someday, I might even use those degrees I earned thanks to the Peace Corps.
To Stepan, and any other Armenian who helped change my life, I say “շնորհակալություն” (thank you). You gave me so much more than I feel like I gave you… but I suppose it’s impossible to measure such things. It’s all about perspective, and mine was definitely changed by my time in Armenia. It will always have a part of my heart.