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Stole worker: a Peace Corps Profile

After weeks of rain April came, and with it, the Filipino sun. Even very late in the afternoon one Wednesday, a warm breeze skirted the Eastern Visayas State University and equatorial rays seared the treetops. The semester over, the campus was nearly deserted. But in one classroom on the first floor of the silent Science building sat an American, alone in the front row of wooden desks. He wore a form-fitting polo and dark skinny jeans. Well-worn sneakers. A few days’ dark beard clothed his jowls. He hunched over a Peace Corps-issued green notebook, studying Tagalog. His name, Kurt.

Like me, Kurt had arrived seven months before, part of the 269th batch of volunteers to serve in the Philippines. There were 143 of us and I don’t think I spoke more than a few words to Kurt during that first interminable week, where the bunch of us were confined in an all-too-posh-for-Peace-Corps Manila resort and debriefed on official policies and protocol when all we wanted to do was to see and to be and to go and to help.

It was a week of first impressions. Of sizing each other up. I found myself trying to read the volunteers, trying to gauge why everyone was here, reconciling the myth of the Peace Corps volunteer with the reality I was finally experiencing after a year of anticipation. I recall Kurt, then, as the well-built, smiling social butterfly who always had the right thing to say. He was the good-looking cool kid on campus. The varsity letterman who gets the girl while you march in the band and worry about your acne. The guy you simultaneously resent and idolize.

But first impressions give way to first memories, and the first distinct recollection I have of Kurt was how he bounded up with energetic cheerfulness to receive his regional placement at the end of that first long week. He practically danced to the front of the conference room, pumping his arms in silly, self-effacing Rocky-esque excitement. 143 volunteers-to-be laughed, and in that moment, I admired him.

Along with 14 others, I was assigned to the same region as Kurt, and the 16 of us trained together for 3 months, the closest proximity to other volunteers we would experience during our 27 months of service.

Kurt unluckily and immediatedly contracted bowel problems, but he endured the ordeal with humor: “Today I had soft-serve! But heck. It’s better than the Slushee I had yesterday!”

Kurt effortlessly and immediately became close to an attractive female volunteer. They walked together daily to and from training classes, trading witty banter while the rest of us normals listened and envied them as you do the cool couple on campus. Peace Corps can, at times, be clique-ish, complete with hook-ups, break-ups, make-ups, and rampant gossip.

Always diplomatic, he was also unafraid to have candid conversations with locals to set straight mistaken notions about Americans. Always culturally appropriate, he nevertheless endured false claims about an engagement to a Filipina. And he bore all of it–the cultural ignorance, the fake fiance, the explosive diarrhea–with unsupressable optimism.

And so, at the end of those 3 months of training, I decided he was one of those freaks of humanity who is naturally witty, naturally charismatic, naturally fit. Who has everything figured out. Who is never phased. Who always gives the credit to others. Who abides all hardship with a grin and a wink.

But of course it’s not that simple. Of course not.

The cool couple on campus? It was more like a big-brother and little-sister thing. In every friendship with fellow volunteers, in fact, Kurt extended unconditional filial love.

The naturally fit guy? Kurt had grown up the chubby kid in school. And endured the typical teasing. Only later had he transformed his body into its present lithe, well-muscled form. He worked out daily to keep it.

The guy who had everything figured out? He’d struggled for a direction through college, rarely doing more than the minimum. After graduation he spent a rough year working in a money-is-everything job and then, in his words, “hit rock-bottom.”

And then he joined Peace Corps.

“What makes you, you?” Kurt had once asked me. “I mean, where do you get the drive to do this? Peace Corps?”

I had no good answer, so I volleyed the question back. Part of his answer, he told me, was that rock-bottom moment. “It’s like that was a wake-up call. I had some pretty serious conversations and I saw how close I was to, to having rock-bottom be, well, it.” I inferred–rightly? wrongly?–that he was talking suicide. “But then I was like, right now is the only time, ever, I’ll be here, now, and I’d be a fool to waste it.”

And he didn’t waste a moment. After training, Kurt was assigned to work at an orphanage about 4 hours from my site. He told me that when he’d got that assignment, it was the hardest thing he could do keep smiling. He’d wanted to cry. The orphanage had everything. Funding. Staff. Resources. And that wasn’t what he’d wanted his Peace Corps experience to be. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m getting lots out of this,” he later confided. “But part of me thinks I can find what I really want if I maybe do Peace Corps in a different country after this.”

He didn’t tell me what, exactly, he wanted, but I assumed he’d wanted to work with the worst of the worst–the most malnourished street children, the most traumatized battered women, the most hopeless out-of-school youth. It brought up in my mind some ethical philosophical thing about how you best help a broken world. About whether you should play emergency damage control, trying to lift the forgotten and forlorn out of a morass of human hopelessness. Or whether you should build a foundation for a solid future. As an education volunteer working at a university, I was trying to do the latter, while Kurt, in social work, was the former. Both were needed, clearly. But was one more good, more “Peace Corps” than the other?

I barely talked to Kurt after training. Four hours is a long ride, and we were both busy. But then, in April, the volunteers met for a three-day language camp. We all were speaking regional dialects (either Waray-Waray or Cebuano), not the national language, Tagalog. So some enrolled in booster courses for Waray-Waray or Cebuano. Others–Kurt and I included–decided to take Tagalog, thinking that a familiarity with the national language would come in handy.

Learning Tagalog was a lot easier with a foundation in a similar tongue, but we still struggled, trying to cram an entire language into three days of classes.

On the second day I looked across the classroom to see Kurt with his head down. Silent. Our teacher noticed, too.

“Sorry,” said Kurt, looking up. A weak smile. “It’s just that, sometimes, I shut down. I’ve realized I have like, zero short term memory. I need time to process.”

We laughed off the struggle by clothing it in smalltalk about learning styles. And then, an hour later, class ended and we went home.

Except for Kurt. He stayed in that classroom–I don’t know how long–hunched over his notebook, studying Tagalog. Never wasting a moment.

Later that night, I texted Kurt: “Hey bud. Just wanted to say: your tagalog is awesome. I have been studying this shit since before peace corps so sure i know a few more words. But youre really picking it up fast. it’s so cool having you as a classmate. heck. your attitude inspires. youre kind of my hero.”

A few moments later, he texted back: “Sir Mark. Thank’s a ton man. You stole worker from me just then. I really appreciate it because i feel the same way. You are my best motivator!”

I thought awhile about what “stole worker” could mean–if it was some schway new lingo I wasn’t yet hip to, or just a text-message mistake. But it didn’t matter, not really.