WORDS CANNOT EXPRESS nor emotions imply the impact that my years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Southern Philippine Islands still holds for me now after over 25 years. We were a special breed, we early Volunteers, and many of us postponed or forsook budding careers in business and industry to share in this opportunity of a lifetime. Most of us were caught up in the zeal expressed so often by our late President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and saw an opportunity to assist those less fortunate than ourselves by getting our hands dirty in the many developing nations of the world.
Yet, other motives prevailed upon us, as well. I, for one, looked upon Peace Corps service with, perhaps, a selfish motive. I felt that if I could teach for two years under the most adverse of conditions in a leaky, termite-ridden school house in the middle of a jungle half way around the world and return to the States with a strong commitment to continue teaching, then I would know that it had to be in my blood to be an educator.
Let me say that the spark of the Sixties has remained with me to this day. There is no question in my mind that my Peace Corps experience enabled me to strive for excellence in my own educational pursuits. I am a holder of three Masters Degrees and a Doctorate from Columbia and have taught and administrated at almost every grade level in both public and private schools and in urban as well as suburban settings in the State of New Jersey.
At that time, however, it was not easy for me to make any type of momentous decision, much less a two-year commitment as a stranger in a strange land. I was only a mediocre student at the University of Notre Dame; however, I looked upon the Peace Corps training experience at San Jose State College in California and at Zamboanga Normal College in the Philippines as even more important and meaningful than my four years as an undergraduate.
From these two training centers, only the cream of the crop were sent into the Sulu Archipelago, south of the large island of Mindanao, and only four of our Group VII members were sent to the island of Jolo where the populace had not seen a white man, other than missionaries, since the liberation from the Japanese in 1946; a tiny hour-glass shaped island where national allegiance was more often seen towards the Moslem/Islamic nation of Indonesia rather than towards the more Christian government in Manila.
An incredible learning experience followed as I diligently led these people by good example and exemplary conduct. Becoming conversant in a little-known Arabic dialect in order to barter in the marketplace; realizing certain Moslem taboos in worship, in eating, in marriage, and in death; living without electricity and running water for two years; having a pet monkey to climb palm trees and throw down coconuts; and just basically surviving are just some of these instances which could fill volumes.
In order to convey more fully the deep meaning of these two years as we gather in Washington, D.C. to commemorate our late president and founder twenty-five years after his assassination, allow me to share in this moment of memory by relating a final excerpt from my Peace Corps journal of early 1960s:
On Tuesday I left Bilaan for good, emptying my house completely of all my earthly possessions. I gave my sala set to Miss Asgal as she will get married next month, and it will be their wedding present. I gave my bed to Mrs. Kadil as she and Roger have just had a daughter and need it badly. The rest of my things I sold and made about 90 pesos which will go to the family of my number one student graduate this year whom I will support in the city of Jolo at Notre Dame High School. His name is Bindo Alpa, and he is our first male valedictorian in five years. He is exceptionally bright, and I dont want him to miss out on a good education because of his poverty. He has earned a scholarship at NDHS because he is a first honors student but will need money for school expenses, uniforms, books, and the like. He will start high school in August, and, if need be, I will support him from the States as tuition is only 50 pesos, or about $16.00, a semester.
Leaving Bilaan was the hardest thing I have ever had to do here, as I have so many close friends whom I may never see again. I know Ill never see Tex (Mr. Ebol) alive again as he is 74 years young now. He shrugged off my leaving in his usual jocular manner, but his dear wife cried, and it was all I could do to keep from shedding a few tears of my own. I really choked up when the truck pulled away from the house, and half the barrio was there waving goodbye, including my entire sixth grade. It will be equally as hard to leave Jolo City and Dr. Cabels house which was my home away from the barrio. It is difficult for me to continue this discourse, too draining.
Since that final week in the Philippines, I have returned to the States with the desire to teach and administrate. I was extremely pleased to have been invited to Washington, D.C. in March of 1965 by the then Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey to participate in a conference with about 200 other returned PCVs to discuss how each of us has best been assimilated back into Western Culture after our experience abroad. The time s pent with President Lyndon B. Johnson, Sargent Shriver, Harry Belafonte, and others was a fitting climax towards a fuller understanding of the demographics of crossing cultures.
Now, as I complete my 27th year in the field of education, I cannot help but reflect on my Peace Corps days, especially on this significant occasion. I, and my colleagues alike, often reflect upon the immoral words of another great American, Thomas Jefferson, as he said:
Educate and inform all of the people, for they are the source of our strength and our freedom.