by Jim Gause
The Peace Corps limits the number of words you can put in the application.
|Even those who never leave the borders of their homeland have a way of examining it objectively. When we wish to address the benefits and idiosyncrasies of our birth culture we take an obligatory neutral voice if we wish to seem impartial and honest. Otherwise we come across as arrogant braggarts and our opinions and motives become suspect. And yet, for the most part my experience has been that the best examinations of a culture by its members comes from the voice of the one that has wandered outside – the voyager. Still, there is some personal discomfort for me to assert that I am a better American for having traveled abroad. I have to confess to flaws that were exposed out there and relate uncomfortable anecdotes in order to show how a self assured cocky young American got old and wise. I have to recognise what is improved and how I use that improvemnt to make my interactions with others beneficial. That's the story of life, nonetheless we experience, interpret, and analyse events and phenomena for future reference. We err and correct and when we encounter similar situations we are better prepared to adjust our reactions and interactions. In the end it all comes down to the educational mantra “what ?-so what ?-now what?“ meaning that we not only need to understand a thing but understand how a thing functions and how it can be used to benefit (ourselves, our community, the world). So if I believe that I am a product of my travels what good does that do?
There is an engine that wants to save the world. Steeped in politics, selfishness and a desire to watch from the sidelines with some degree of schadenfreude, most people regard poverty, war, crime, and disease as problems of others to be avoided. They cross their fingers and hope that they are not next. The Engine that would save the world is not so easily frightened. It is a web of compassion and empathy that applies knowledge judiciously, seeking out ways to solve problems. It is all the people who have an understanding of world as a global community – interconnected and reliant upon others. It believes that equality, peace, and freedom are not just worthy ideas, but real obtainable goals. It is a crazy kind of hope, that anyone, anywhere can find the means to make a step towards the betterment of the human race. It has been called many names, few of them flattering “Liberal Idealism”, “Multicultural Education”, “Secular Humanism”, “Leftist Ideology”. It is more than that, it is people that realise that they can do more doing more. The old adage about being the change that you seek is the motto of this engine. It is fueled by hope, determination and a fearless will to share what it knows and accept lessons from every source available. And me? I am one of the many who oils this machine.
My cousin asked me why I became a teacher once. I said that I knew – I felt – that something was coming, some great trial that humanity must face or become a casualty of. I said that I knew there was a way to win, to triumph but it would take someone who could doubt themselves, lay aside those doubts and become supremely confident. “And it's you” my cousin said with a sly smile. “No – no not at all- but I can find this person and I can let them know that no matter what that thing is that seemingly insurmountable obstacle – that they can succeed, that's my only part.” I was a little angry that my cousin thought me so arrogant that I would see myself as saviour of the world. I know that is untrue there are no such individuals. Every “great leader” is the result of a belief given voice and heard by a chorus. Those world changing movements of the past The Reformation, The Revolutions, The Civil Rights were all made of the masses. The spokespersons who became the face of the movement were the voice of the movement but the movements persisted in their absence. And every leader begins as a little Plato at the knee of a Socrates, an intelligent curious being that thinks foolishly that every problem can be solved. And I want to tell them you are probably right let's see what we know and what we can do and importantly I believe in you. I wrote about that theoretical individual somewhere in a long lost paper during my New York City Teaching fellowship: “There is a young person who is full of hope in the midst of despair, full of wonder in the midst of befuddlement, full of intelligence in the midst of ignorance... and I can take those random thoughts and feelings and help them order them and figure out how best to use them to improve themselves and their community.”
I have always had that belief. When I was young it was pure and bound up in superstitious/ magical thinking: “show them all the beauty of creation and they will marvel at it and come together”. As a child I knew I didn't belong in the North Carolina backwoods. It was beautiful and wild, full of places a little boy could get lost and have those country fantasy adventures like some latter day Tom Sawyer. My grandparents were the most perfect parents that I needed. Age had made them patient and I was pure energy wrapped in skin and bones barely tethered by gravity to the soil. Still, there were the quiet times when they could give me a book and I could get lost in other adventures. I didn't know anything at all about the great flaw of empire wherein all literature is parsed through the lens of a European male. Black as midnight I couldn't cast myself as anything other than Achilles, Solomon, David, Peter Pan or Pinocchio. I didn't have any reason to not do this due to our relative isolation and meagre contact with the Southern society of 1960s North Carolina. Of course, that changed, but biology is not destiny. Character is destiny. And my character was to be without becoming. To be at the party without being one of the members of any of the social cliques. To be unbound by convention while still respecting it. To be like a microscopic observer of everything and reporting on it but to whom? I had no source to whom I should report my observations and experiences. And at night sometimes I could see the light of that farm barely a mile away it was like beacon from a thousand miles away. And I always wanted to go to it for some reason, a distant beacon.
When I was shipped off to New York I found out that I knew less than I ever thought I knew. I was a capable student but the outsider status in the Long Island suburbs is a special kind of curse. Luckily, I embraced my otherness and I saw myself as a visitor and observer. Many years later, Kurt Vonnegut gave me the words I would have used to describe the interactions I watched as so much “granfalloons” people clinging together under abstract associations. I understand now how important it is for people to create social groups - it improves mental health and is statistically linked to longevity – but as a preteen and a teen it was a key ingredient of my aloof arrogance. Yes, I was that weirdo outcast misfit dark skinned boy who liked poetry and writing fantasy make believe stories. And how the world has changed. That kid is now the coolest kid in school. I was being ostracised and mocked, taking blows to my self esteem like an untrained boxer and the world was turning to make my loner some kind of hero.
The trend continued in the Army – I was a part but I didn't quite fit in. I was capable and willing to do anything to make my mark or at least find it. I was the first to volunteer to do the Australian crawl on the rappel wall (actually the second – the first volunteer went straight down and incurred a 2nd degree rope burn on his arm and a bruised dignity no one wanted to repeat). I made myself the “Original Here Try this kid” and greatly increased my understanding of what physical limitations of the human body (hint: your limit is usually just beyond what you imagine it to be). I got along with others but didn't 'click' with them. And then they sent me to Germany.
I was always a linguist. Its inherent in us to understand that there are more words for a thing or thought than are commonly expressed. A second language is an expansion of our understanding of vocabulary. “I” am also 'yo' and 'moi'. It's not just a 'rug', it's also a 'carpet' a 'teppich' or a 'tapis' with some allowances for the specifics of nomenclature. So I took to French, hungry to grow my voice and the range of expression. Maybe the mysterious stranger I was meant to report to came from Nantes or Port Au Prince or Dakar. So my first second language became a kind of code and a whole new vocabulary for me. What luck then, when Iwas assigned to an American military detachment in North Rhine Westphalia that was attached to the 3rd Belgian Army. Comprised of regular volunteers and obligatory servicemen (the 'Bleus') we served as the 4th US Army Field Artillery Detachment to young men out of Hainaut Charleroi Namur and Brussels – the Walloons. I would say that is where I actually began to learn French. Years later when I was working for Air France Ameriques they would dispute my claim to any knowledge of the french language. So much for the arrogance of learning. And I also improved my social interactions to the chagrin of my fellow Americans I became a mascot to the Belgians – the American to go to for translations despite the presence of University trained officers. And I found out what an American is from people who had never been to the United States. And I found out how little I measured up to what an American is supposed to be. Rich? No. Not at all. Good looking? Well, if I get the right lighting and position. Loud? I've got that covered. Insanely, ridiculously proud of the accident of having been born in the country that is the model of prosperity and unlimited freedom? Only in passing, and only on certain days of the week. It was a lesson in celebrity, my popularity with the Belgians and the local German population. I had to be good to everyone, I had to be fair, I had to tell as much of the truth as I could without compromising security or embarrassing my command. I was a minor diplomat, like an ambassador of goodwill. Only my job was defence, and to prepare for what we all assumed was the inevitable third world war. I was a bit silly with my idealism back then and made some surprisingly bad decisions as well as some proud choices. The Army took me to Korea as well, an I was again on that celebrity track. What made it it happen was my curiosity about the people and the places and the cultures I was assigned to. There is a reason people wear what they wear why they phrase certain requests after a specific pattern. They follow different paths but they are all seeking the same thing: a way to food shelter and friendship. In Germany we were hardly a few hundred metres away from our guard post down a long stretch of road. At night sometimes I would look out the windows and see those lights and be reminded of the distant lights of that North Carolina farm. Again I was disappointed because I knew those were not the lights I wanted to go to. There was a place, a distant place and it would calm me, it would be like home, but like a home that I had never known. A place I could feel that I belonged even if I didn't.
Korea mocked the beacons with red neon crosses lighting up every hill between Camp Mercer and Kimpo Airport. I felt the need to get to that place and I couldn't imagine it being anywhere on earth. The Army gave me money for college and when I left Korea I permanently separated from active service. I made some kind of living for a while wandering around the states and learning that I was lucky even when I felt broken. Then I spent a year folding shirts in the now defunct department store Abraham and Straus before my wanderlust exploded and I boarded a bus to California. When we relate our biographies we should always state that we were born and did strive and fail and strove and failed and failed again before we can ever say that we succeeded. My California life was all of those things. It was a beautiful disaster but it gave me to the University of California at Davis and it gave Davis to me. If the places we live become part of our psychic dna then I am most proud of the part of me that was made at Davis. I love my Fort Sill skills and training and my Belgian compatriots will always be my brothers as well as those KATUSAs (Korean Army attached to US Army). Davis made me believe that I was a student and a potential teacher. I never say that I am from Sacramento when I speak of being part-Californian. I come from Davis.
When I graduated the happiest and saddest day of 1994 for me, I was required by family to return to Ne York and become an official adult. I took up with Air France and learned more about civilian corporate culture than I really wanted to know ( incestuous, traitorous, loyal, funny). It was a polyglot paradise and a cultural bouillabaisse that fit me and fed me for eight years as I re acclimated to being what I was always meant to be a New Yorker. A Brooklynite. Without giving it much thought I applied to the newly formed New York City Teaching fellows program figuring a Master's degree couldn't hurt and my mission wasn't going anywhere while I was ferrying eurottrash between JFK and Charles de Gaulle Airport. In fall of 2002 they responded and I went to the interview at Livingston and fell in love.
I love teachers. I love students. And books and pencils and smooth clean paper. And I love that paper when its filled with words and ideas and stories and random madness. There is a hero in there and purpose. It wants to save the world. I want to see it succeed.