Thursday, January 10, 2013

How many Peace Corps volunteers does it take to change a light bulb?

Early on in my service, I was told a joke by another Peace Corps volunteer who was at the end of his service. The joke went something like this.

Question: How many Peace Corps volunteers does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None. Peace Corps volunteers can’t and don’t change anything.

The guy who told the joke had left Bulgaria disappointed, disillusioned, and disheartened. When he told it, I felt a bit sorry for him and resolved not to leave feeling the same way. But as my Peace Corps service came to an end there was a point when I couldn’t help but thinking maybe he was right and maybe the joke wasn’t a joke at all but a painful truth most of us are simply too proud to admit.

If you’ve followed this blog closely, you know my primary assignment was to teach English. I haven’t written much about my work as an English teacher because that wasn’t and isn’t the purpose of the blog. But some background is necessary for the purposes of this post.

For starters, it’s extremely difficult teaching within the Bulgarian education system. Schools are funded based on enrollment. This gives students an unhealthy amount of control. If they are unhappy, they complain to their parents. Their parents then complain to their class teachers or the principal and threaten to pull their kids out of the school. Always needing students to hit certain numbers, the schools acquiesce to the students’ demands. It’s a classic case of the inmates running the asylum.

It’s even more challenging teaching at technical schools such as the one at which I taught. My school had an enrollment of approximately 150 students, most of whom were studying to become car mechanics. For three years, my job was to teach those students, every single one of them, English.

Much like an American high school, the school catered to students in grades 9-12. Class sizes varied from the high teens to the high twenties. The school was predominately male, and nearly 20% of the students were from minorities (mainly Roma or Gypsies but a few Turks). Many of the students came from the surrounding villages, and almost all of the students came from families of limited means. Their level of English ranged from virtually nil to conversationally fluent and all levels in between. And these ranges of knowledge and ability were reflected in almost every class, as students are never separated from their classmates.

Due to a lack of funding, the school had no English textbooks. There were no lesson plans in place, so everything had to be created from scratch or cobbled together using whatever resources I could find. The ranges of interest in learning English matched the students’ ability levels, with many students having no interest whatsoever in learning English, most having minimal interest in learning it, and a select few truly having a real desire to study and learn. One of the biggest challenges I faced was developing lessons that motivated students from all levels of interest and ability.

My last day of teaching in Bulgaria is what triggered my thoughts concerning the joke about what Peace Corps volunteers change. A vocal minority of 10th grade students, empowered by the flawed system I just described, were upset with their final grades and yelling at me. I had been more than generous just passing most of them, but that’s not how they saw it. This was in sharp contrast to the 11th graders and 12th graders, with whom I’d worked for three years and who, with few exceptions, had thanked me for not only their final grades but also for being their teacher.

Anyway, in an attempt to diffuse the situation with the 10th graders, I called in the school counselor. But her words fell on deaf ears as well, and the kids only grew louder, more emboldened, and more disrespectful.

The next step was to bring in the principal. She yelled. The students yelled back. Everyone yelled some more. Ultimately, the principal got in the last word, but, although there was some resolution, the kids were seething and wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Recognizing we (the school) had erred in not disciplining them sooner, the principal then gave me a list of students she would like to see fail to be taught a lesson. Two of them ended up failing, but I couldn’t help but thinking so had I.

I had come to Bulgaria to promote world peace and friendship, and here was a group of students who despised me. Or so it seemed. It bothered me enough that I had failed to teach them much, if any, English, but to spend two years together and not become friends? I considered that an epic failure.

A few hours later, I walked home alone. Feeling dejected and somewhat betrayed, I couldn’t imagine a worse way to finish my tenure as a teacher in Bulgaria.

Along the walk, the potholed road and cracked sidewalks jumped out at me. Despite repeated cries from the locals to fix these things, there had been no progress made during the three years I’d been living at site. When I asked people how long things had been in such condition, I always got the same response – a brief chuckle followed by, “завинаги (forever).”

“Ridiculous,” I thought to myself. The town was full of obvious, embarrassing, dangerous, and easy to remedy problems. Problems that everyone in the town was aware of and that most community members wanted fixed. Potholes and cracked sidewalks were simply the most glaring. And, even though the problems had been known “forever,” no progress appeared imminent.

No wonder so many of my kids, when asked to do anything that even remotely challenged them, would respond by saying either “не мога (I can’t)” or “не искам (I don’t want to).” They had been indoctrinated into a culture of unabashed apathy that both accepted and expected things to never change for the better. And the defeatist attitude that permeates the culture seemed intent on making me its next victim. How could any of us, as Peace Corps volunteers, be expected to come here and make any real difference whatsoever when known problems had been staring the community in the face “forever” without anything ever being changed?

With that on my mind, I opened the gate leading to my house, walked silently past Baba Ristena as she tended to her garden, opened the door to my house, closed the door behind me, locked it, walked over to the bed, sat down, took in a deep breath, and sighed.

Then I started thinking about things that had changed during my three years at site, and it made me even more depressed. The sad reality was I had had absolutely nothing to do with the only “positive” changes I could think of. The other changes, the “negative” ones, were the types of changes that would not have occurred had I been a more effective volunteer. At least that’s how I felt.

And then I heard someone calling my name. It was Baba Ristena. I looked out the window, and there she was, standing outside my door, hunched over as always. I unlocked the door, opened it, and said, “Здрасти (Hi).” She smiled, revealing an imperfect smile and a few missing teeth, and slowly pulled her right hand out from behind her back. She reached out and handed me a cucumber, the first one her garden had produced this year. Her smile grew, her eyes twinkled, and she said, “Заповядайте (Here you go).” I thanked her, but she just giggled, wandered back to the garden, and went back to work. It was almost as if she knew how much her gesture had meant to me. But there was no way she could have known.

This is a woman who, as a child, lived through Allied bombing raids over Bulgaria led by American and British forces during World War II. Until she met me, her primary association with America was of those raids and, to a lesser extent, of what she had learned about America through Cold War propaganda. I’d never meet the little girl who watched in terror as Sofia was set “on fire,” who studied in a school whose windows had been covered with black paper, who was regularly evacuated from that school when warning sirens sounded, and who was forced to take shelter as bombs – American bombs – fell from the sky above. Nor would I ever meet the person who was fed a heavy diet of anti-American propaganda for more than forty years. I’d only meet a stubborn, tireless, headstrong баба (grandmother) in the sunset of her life.

Not surprisingly, her feelings toward me were anything but warm and fuzzy when we first met. Things got worse when, after more than a week at site living out of my luggage, I simply asked when I could expect to get some furniture in which to store my clothes and other belongings. It turned out that Baba Ristena had a wardrobe that was intended for me, but it was packed at the back of an inaccessible room and had not been accessed more than a couple times in over twenty years. The wardrobe was a treasure trove of memories, many of which were thrown away during the cleanout process, and witnessing her life being discarded before her eyes proved to be more than Baba Ristena could bear. Her torment and suffering were obvious, and tears ran freely down her face. When I heard her say, “Всичко за американец (All for an American),” I figured all was lost between us.

But, in the three years that had passed, she had overwhelmed me with her kindness and generosity, providing me with more peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes than I could ever hope to eat. Giving me, and no one else, some of the few pears her small pear tree produced each year. Demanding that I help myself to the fruits and veggies from her garden and eat more lettuce, strawberries, blackberries, grapes, and apples. Presenting me with a hand-knit scarf for my birthday. And, then, after one of my worst days in Bulgaria, there she was handing me her very first cucumber of the year.

Three years earlier, I would have taken the cucumber and remained in a funk, thinking only of my failures as a volunteer and teacher. Back then, I hated cucumbers and had no understanding of how central they are to Bulgarian life. I probably wouldn’t even have eaten it. But three years later, I can’t imagine life without таратор (tarator) and Шопска салата (Shopska salad).

Anyway, as Baba Ristena resumed her work in the garden, I closed and locked the door and returned to my bed. Sitting there, clutching the cucumber, I thought of some of the other positive things that had happened because I had served as a Peace Corps volunteer.

I thought of my family members and friends who had come to Bulgaria only because I was here and how all of them had left this place with wonderful memories and more than positive impressions.

I thought of other family members and friends who, for various reasons, couldn’t make it over here but who read my blog and as a result came to see Bulgaria as a real place with real people as opposed to just a name on a map.

I thought of Petko and Valya and how one day they would tell their son the story of how once upon a time an American came to Slivnitsa, and how they first met at some conversational English classes he taught, fell in love, got married, and brought him into this world.

I thought of my colleague, Slavkov who, upon learning that the school was getting a volunteer, supposedly remarked, “Great. We kissed Russia’s ass for fifty years, and now we’re going to have to kiss an American’s ass for two.” As with Baba Ristena, things were tough between us in the beginning. He was cordial but nothing more. Now, he always greets me with a big smile. We worked together to digitize many of the posters he uses for teaching, and I picked grapes with him last fall which he turned into rakia and wine. Over the course of three years, we became more than colleagues, we became friends.

I thought of my Bulgarian friends who had told me I was at least 50%, 75%, or even 90% Bulgarian.

I thought of Emo, one of the 12th grade students I taught my first year here and how he went from calling me a feminized version of my name and a “homosexual bitch” to going out of his way to honk at me, stop his car, and say, “Hello” whenever he sees me walking around town.

I thought of my many neighbors and students and former students who always greet me with kind words and warm smiles.

I thought of all the neighborhood dogs that used to bark at me whenever I walked by but no longer do.

I thought of a remote-controlled car racing track that had come about as the result of connections we made during an unsuccessful attempt to secure funding from the Dimitar Berbatov Foundation for another project.

Without a doubt, a lot had changed in three years. Many of those changes had been nothing but positive. But those changes were primarily second and third goal changes. They weren’t things anyone other than a current or former Peace Corps volunteer could relate to or truly appreciate and grasp the significance of.

And sure. The mission of the Peace Corps is, and my personal mission was, to promote world peace and friendship. But I wasn’t just here to share with Bulgarians a bit about Americans and American culture and to learn about Bulgaria and to share what I’d learned with my friends and family. I was also here to work, and my primary assignment was to teach English at the Professional Gymnasium for Transport, Nikola Ionkov Vaptsarov, in the town of Slivnitsa. And, as I thought about my few successes and many failures as a volunteer, I kept thinking that my biggest failure had been in the work I had done and was supposed to have done at my school.

The next day, after a restless night, I woke up trying to think of something positive, truly positive that I had accomplished for my school.

The first thing that came to mind was the new technology center that came about as a result of the generosity of friends and family. It was a project that met all three Peace Corps goals and brought about a certain level of satisfaction and pride.

Then I thought about when I’d returned from a short vacation with friends and the principal rushed up to me with a huge, genuine smile, told me how terrible things had been in my absence, and told me how glad she was that I was back.

Next, I thought about how just a week or so earlier I had sat in the classroom with complete satisfaction as my kids took their final exams in utter silence, knowing and respecting the rules I had established.

But none of this was enough to make me feel good about my service, and I dreaded returning to school later that day for the final school-related activities of the year.

At 2:00 p.m., we were scheduled to have a wrap-up of an after school project we had started thanks to financing from the E.U. and the Bulgarian Ministry of Education. There was an English club, a dance club, a drama club, a life skills club, and a science club, among others. I had helped with the English club and provided minimal assistance with a few of the other clubs, but, by and large, this project had been driven by the school counselor and a couple teachers.

Knowing how Bulgarian time works, I left my house around 2:10 p.m. and reluctantly headed up to the school. Arriving around 2:15, I expected to see a few of the “good” kids, the counselor, the teachers who had worked on the project, and perhaps the principal. But when I reached the second floor, I was shocked.

Not counting the 12th graders, who had graduated several weeks earlier, our school was down to perhaps 100 students. Even though school was technically out and all of the final grades had been written, more than half of those students were there, either participating or watching intently and behaving. All of the teachers, the principal, and a representative from the Ministry of Education also were there. One of the teachers was videotaping the entire thing with the video camera we had purchased in connection with the new technology center, and the new laptop we had bought was being used to pump in the music.

Stunned and slightly embarrassed, I slid down next to a couple students sitting in the back row. I sat and watched in awe as the theater and dance groups performed and the kids not performing continued watching, perfectly behaved. “Where the hell am I,” I thought, “and what happened to the school I had taught at for three years?”

When the performances ended, one of the teachers gave a short speech and presented the representative from the Ministry of Education with a small gift, which was quickly returned to the principal. Then I was summoned to the front and presented with a large plate of food and likewise thanked.

With the formalities out of the way, kids rushed up to have their photos taken with me, including many of the kids who had pretended to be mad at me the day before (it was all an act, designed to see how far boundaries could be pushed). Then the crowd thinned and the cleanup process began. Still taken aback by what I had witnessed, I stayed around to help clean up and to try and make sense of it all.

As I was doing this, I noticed a wall of photos. The photos were of some of the things that we had done during the year. And that’s when it hit me. I stood there looking at the photos and started to tear up when my counterpart, the school counselor, came up to me with a big smile on her face. Speechless, I choked back the tears and pretended to be unfazed.

Then she asked me, “Well, what did you think?”

Still overwhelmed with emotion but hiding it well, I said to her, “It was amazing, and I really can’t believe it. After three years, this place finally feels like a school – a real school. Kids were having fun being kids … and learning. Did you see them? Did you see how many kids were here?”

She smiled even more broadly and said, “You should be proud, Brian. None of this would have happened if you weren’t here.”

When I came to Bulgaria, I didn’t have any preconceived notion that I’d change the world with my charm and brilliance. My goals, as expressed in my aspiration statement, were quite simply “to leave Bulgaria with new friends, fond memories, and the respect of the community I served.” When I applied to extend my service, I did so for several reasons, but the primary reason was this:

[S]omewhere along the line during the twenty three months I’ve been here Bulgaria became my home – more of a home than some of the other places I’ve lived, less of a home than others, but a home. Eventually, it will be time for me to move on and find a new home. For now, however, I’d like to continue working to make this one better.

Looking back at the past three years, it’s easy to be critical. Without question, I failed far more often than I succeeded. I learned far more than I taught. I took far more than I gave. I was helped far more often than I provided assistance. And many more of my neighbors remained strangers than became friends.

And if you came to Slivnitsa, you’d be hard pressed to find any evidence that I'd even lived there. The town looks much the same as it did three years ago and eerily similar to many other towns of comparable size. Its failures – the abandoned factories and administrative buildings, the hotel that once was, the hospital and other buildings that were started but never finished – are far more prominent than its successes.

But what we see is only half of reality. We cannot read minds or see the internal processes that lead to change. And sometimes we are too close to even see changes as they occur. We focus on potholes and cracked sidewalks without understanding anything about other more pressing needs and budget shortfalls. But Peace Corps volunteers aren’t and shouldn’t be in places to fix those types of things anyway. We are or should be abroad to share thoughts and ideas, stimulate minds, raise questions, and inspire and motivate. These are things that are, by and large, immeasurable and imperceptible.

I got lucky. I was able to see some of the seeds I had planted begin to germinate at my school. And I witnessed changes among some of my students, colleagues, neighbors, and people like Baba Ristena. But, even if I hadn’t observed any of those things, as the first, last, and only volunteer to have served in the town of Slivnitsa, I would have left this place as I am leaving it – with everything I wanted to leave with and without any regrets.

In some ways, the old joke is true; Peace Corps volunteers can’t and don’t change anything … at least not alone. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.


  1. Excellent account of three years well spent, Brian. Let me add that although your primary goal might have been to promote world peace and friendship among Bulgarians, you also had the same effect on Americans who followed your adventures from afar. You might not have been able to see it directly, but it happened.

    Now, I just have to invite you to Texas to visit your cousin John who just completed two years of teaching English in China. Not the Peace Corps. Different country. Different circumstances altogether. Still, I just have to believe that you two would have some great stories to share over a glass or two of rakia.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I may just take you up on your offer in the very near future.