I guess I’ve been putting this off for awhile now. It hasn’t been for any particular reason, I just haven’t felt much up to writing these past couple months.
Not too long ago, I posted on here about the conflicting emotions and feelings of Closure, especially as it pertained to the conclusion of my Peace Corps service. At the time of writing it, I still had several weeks remaining. The conflicting feelings continued throughout my final weeks, but I felt that spending time writing about it would just take away from my simply experiencing it.
So I put it off.
For those that don’t already know, I am officially back in the States. I arrived in Cleveland about three weeks ago, coincidentally awaiting my parents alongside Pro Bowl defensive tackle Myles Garrett, of the Cleveland Browns (cue internal fan-girl scream here).
In the little time that I’ve been home, a lot of people naturally have asked me how it feels to be back. My answer, I’m pretty sure, has varied from person-to-person and question-to-question.
It’s been a relief.
It’s been a joy.
It’s been bittersweet.
At times, it’s been overwhelming.
Part of me wants to say I’ve felt out of place since returning, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Home is home. How can you ever feel out of place with the people that have shaped you into who you are?
In a sense it feels as though nothing has changed; however, it also seems that everything has changed.
Flashing back a few weeks ago, when Closure was written, I wasn’t exactly in the healthiest state of mind. I was stressed and emotionally drained. The idea of closing my service and returning home seemed daunting to me, which I suppose is only natural when you’ve committed yourself to something as drastic and immense as serving in the Peace Corps. I grew accustomed to my life down there and the way things were. Then recognizing the fact that it’s within human nature to be resistant to change, it’s no wonder that I found the idea of returning stateside to be intimidating.
Nevertheless, in early June I had a trick up my sleeve. My cousin Joey was to get married on Saturday, June 22, 2019. Since the day I left for the Eastern Caribbean over two years ago, I have missed three family weddings and a number of other reunions and gatherings. Now, I signed up for the Peace Corps knowing that would likely be the case, that it was just a part of the sacrifice I had to make. It doesn’t, however, make it any easier when you see the pictures and hear the stories after the weddings and gatherings pass without you.
Additionally, seeing all those surprise homecoming videos of military personnel and their families, it can be fun to imagine what it would be like to pull off something like that. Thus, an idea was born. I had to pull a few strings and tell a white lie or two, but with the help of my cousin Joey and brothers Tom and Greg, a loose plan was put in place and I booked a flight for Houston, the destination for the wedding.
I was a bit nervous, but also curious as to what it would be like. Sure, I was returning to the States and spending time with family, but this time it would be different. This brief weekend hiatus was essentially going to function as a preview of my transition to come, a glimpse into my life post-service. I didn’t really tell anyone in my community I was leaving, fearing that they would misconstrue that it meant I was leaving for good. So in a sense, I literally “snuck away” on a plane bound for Houston.
The next thing I knew, I was crouching below the dashboard of my brother Greg’s rental car, popping up at the airport arrival pick-up just as my unsuspecting mother approached the car. Needless to say, we got her pretty good.
After the initial surprise, the secret of my presence was unveiled as the rest of my family arrived over the course of the day. Everything carried on per usual from there, with drinks at the hotel bar, dinner at a nearby restaurant, and even a late-night trip to downtown Houston. The next day, the wedding day, was as picture-perfect and as beautiful of a wedding as you could imagine.
Being there for it all was not only what I had wanted, it was exactly what I needed. I came away from that wedding feeling revitalized and re-energized. Sometimes it takes a weekend escape with your family to get you back on your feet. I realized that I needed them, Just as much and if not more, than they needed me. I feel it’s true what they say about family: at the end of the day, they are all have.
I’m glad I have mine.
Meanwhile after returning back to school, things were still moving fast. I was in the midst of running the after-school Techno-Reading Program for the struggling K-3 readers at the school. Funded through an Early Learners’ Program grant, myself and a few counterpart teachers orchestrated literacy lessons using the ten tablets the school received through the grant. It was challenging at times, as the Wifi connection at my school was not always consistent nor reliable. However, we fulfilled the obligations of the grant the best we could and the the tablets helped generate an excited interest in the students’ reading.
Particularly for my third graders, the final weeks of school meant not only end-of-year exams, but post-assessments for the seventeen of them in my pull-out tutoring program. Overall, I am satisfied with the progress many of them have made this year. Out of the seventeen students I was working with, thirteen of them improved in their reading by at least one grade level. More specifically, eight of those improved students are now reading at the grade three level.
Presently with that in mind, a few people have asked me, considering all is said and done: “Was it worth it? Do you feel you have made a difference?”
To that my answer is simple: Yes.
These past two years were an absolute challenge for me. I got to see, experience, and explore a number of incredible things and I met some amazingly inspiring individuals along the way. But what truly makes all the sacrifices and challenges of the past two years’ worth it is knowing that a number of students are now reading at a better level. It’s students like K, whose story I referenced in a previous post. When I first assessed K’s reading ability at the start of the year, he was reading at a pre-school level as a third grader.
But over the course of the year, he took a genuine interest in his reading. Instead of playing outside with the other students during break time or lunch, on his own initiative he chose to settle into his desk with a book and practice reading. His newfound passion for reading paid dividends at the end of the year when he completed the post-assessment reading at the third-grade level.
Yes, you read that correctly.
In just one academic year, K jumped four reading grade levels.
An additional example would be another one of my students, B, who I taught in my first year and was retained for a second year at grade three due to his literacy struggles. A quiet and shy student, he largely kept to himself. He didn’t register much substantive progress in my first year with him, where he started and finished at a pre-k reading level. But by the end of my second year working with him, he was not only reading at a grade three level and promoted to grade four, he became a regular and active participant in class discussions.
So was it worth it?
Seventy-five percent of the students I worked with in the pull-out tutoring program registered improvement. For the four students who didn’t, I can still walk away with the knowledge that although they didn’t improve by reading level, they have a better understanding of the alphabet and de-coding strategies than when I began working with them. In short, I leave knowing they are in better shape now than when I had found them.
I devoted a lot of time and effort to the students, staff, and teachers of St. Peter’s RC School. So when the final day of school arrived, my principal and a man I admire greatly, Mr. George, asked me to speak a few words to the school, I became nervous. Truthfully, public speaking was never really an issue for me. I typically don’t mind making presentations or speaking in front of large audiences.
But this time it was different.
This time my heart was pounding against my chest. Standing in front of the three hundred plus students, faculty, and families of the school, I shared my message with them, at times using a notecard to guide me along. I expressed thanks to the appropriate individuals who supported me and my efforts and without whom, these aforementioned accomplishments would not have been possible. I conveyed how important ambition and literacy is in a young student’s life, as well as my confidence in the opportunities that exist because of the RC teaching staff’s capabilities. Then ultimately the real nerve-racking part, it was also the last time I was to address them all, my time to say goodbye.
Later on, after an all-school field trip around the island and the students having all departed for the summer holiday, we had our end-of-the-year teachers’ social. With plenty of drinks, food, karaoke, and dancing to go around, it was the most fun I had in a long time. The faculty and staff of the RC School from day one welcomed me in as one of their own. It was a joy to be able to celebrate and share in their company one last time. That final night with them is one I’ll always cherish.
With my obligations at the school complete, I had two weeks remaining before I was set to return home. As with the nature of summer, the other Volunteers had a variety of plans varying from vacations, to camps being organized and trainings to be prepared for. Consequently, our first weekend off was going to be the last gathering of most of us together. Spending the day bathing in the Sea, playing dominoes, and dancing around a bonfire at night, I couldn’t have thought of a better conclusion with the government-issued friends that became my family.
The following morning, I set out with Volunteers John Lyness, Deb Campelia, and Katie Riley, and two of John’s friends on a five-day sailing trip to celebrate the close of our service. The week that followed was arguably one of the best and most surreal of my life. We sailed up the western coast of Grenada to the islands of Carriacou, Union, and even going as far as the Tobago Cays in the Grenadine Island chain. We snorkeled frequently along the way at the Underwater Sculpture Park in Dragon Bay, the reefs off the coast of Carriacou, and alongside loggerhead sea turtles and sting rays in the Cays.
There’s something to be said of the freedom a sailing trip entails. It was the first time I’ve ever done anything of the sort and it was nothing short of liberating. The warm sea breeze pushing the sails forward, cruising along a passage of deep blue and turquoise waters, small islands forming a gauntlet on either side of you with a horizon stretching as far as the eye can see, it was the true embodiment of freedom. Most nights I spent sleeping in the open-air cockpit, rocking gently to sleep with the distant chorus of the on-shore crickets and the looming shadows of the adjacent islands. Beside the silhouetted camel-back peaks of Union Island, I couldn’t stop peeking over the side just to see if it was real, in a “pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming” type of way. It was the ultimate escape.
By the time we returned to Grenada, a set of storms began rolling in. Despite what at the time became unpredictable weather, I did my best to experience Grenada’s beauty one last time. This included more days spent on Grand Anse and BBC beaches and an afternoon hike to Seven Sisters Waterfalls. On these trips I was accompanied by a number of the other Volunteers, witnessing fiery sunsets, climbing up rushing waterfalls, bar-hopping in my community of Gouyave, accomplishing my final bucket-list goal of renting a paddleboard, and cruising down the western coastline in the bed of a pick-up truck.
But while all this might sound amazing, those last few days were still challenging for me. With the objectives of my service having been accomplished and my plans for graduate school already organized, I was at a sort of crossroads.
I had to begin saying farewells to all the people I befriended during my two years in Gouyave. When I would explain that my contract was up and I was leaving for home, I’d receive surprised responses of: “It’s been two years already?” and “You’ll be coming back right?” This became an incredibly difficult undertaking, to the point that I didn’t even want to tell people I was leaving. I was almost ashamed to be leaving, having the opportunity to return to the United States, whereas they were all to remain there in Grenada.
It’s really just kind of hard to explain. You become so ingrained into a community, into a culture, into a way of life that you almost forget you have a vastly different life back home. But these people, they take you in and recognize you as one of their own. They invested as much into me as I had into them, and consequently it feels unfair that once I leave, they’ll have to start the process all over again with another new Volunteer. Meanwhile I return back home to embark on another exciting opportunity that awaits me.
Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer was exhausting. They say it’s a twenty-four hour job, as you always have to consider your reputation and the things you represent; for not only are your representing yourself, but your family, friends, government, and country as a whole. It’s like living in a fish bowl, one where everyone can see what you’re doing whether you like it or not and judge your actions as representative of your home.
I did the best I could going out to social gatherings, festivals, bars, street parties, basketball games, and cook-ups even when I wasn’t feeling up to it. There were nights where all I wanted to do was stay home, lay in bed, and read a book or watch a game. But when you want to represent the best your country has to offer and integrate to cultivate these international relationships, those sacrifices had to be made.
I often joked that living in the ever-active Gouyave, known as Grenada’s “City That Never Sleeps,” was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because there was always something to do, a reason to get out of the house and have a place to be. Yet, it was also a curse for the very same reason. These people welcomed me with wide-open arms and warm smiles each and every day. They welcomed me into their hearts and into their homes. They invited me to cook-ups, lunches, church services, sporting events, and road marches. Over time these social events developed from something that I had to do, to something that I wanted to do.
In other words, I became one of them.
I reached a point where I hardly felt like an outsider. In fact, I no longer felt like I stood out from anybody else at all. Students, friends, colleagues, and passer-bys on the road frequently called out, “Mr. King!” “King!” or “Scott!” with a honk of a car horn and a wave, just as they would with anyone else.
All this considered, as difficult as it was to announce my impending departure, I couldn’t leave without saying good-bye. It would have been unfair to just vanish into thin air. So I continued on, sprinting to the finish.
Yet having two weeks to do this, the whole process became lengthy and drawn-out, like slowly peeling back an old Band-Aid. I became anxious, just wanting to rip this Band-Aid off once and for all so I can begin the healing process.
But time, as it always does, eventually came to pass and I finally found my way back home. Three weeks have passed now, during which I’ve been running the necessary errands for school, visiting friends and family, catching up on all the Cleveland experiences I’ve been missing, as well as sitting on the couch and simply existing. I went to the zoo with my niece and nephews, met friends for drinks, attended Indians games, watched my oldest nephew’s baseball game, and played with my seven-month old niece in Columbus. It was an opportunity for me to catch up on all that I had been missing, an opportunity I made sure not to take for granted.
For my first couple days back, I admit I was reluctant to leave the house. Stepping out into the world seemed overwhelming, with the world flying by as I simply meandered on in slow-motion, feeling hardly able to keep up. But much in the same way as my early days in Gouyave, I forced myself out to begin the re-integration process. I soon discovered, though, I could only take so much at one time.
A little while back I heard a story about a Volunteer someone knew that served in Morocco. It was said that upon returning to the States, he locked himself in his room for a month. A friend of mine who served in Costa Rica confided in me that it took him three to four months after returning to begin feeling back to normal here. In their shoes today, I can now I understand why; although I won’t go to the extreme of locking myself in a room, I understand why one would be so inclined. At times I’ve wanted nothing more than to close myself out from the world. I’ve been feeling almost numb, not sure what to do with myself. Although I’ve been savoring the peace and quiet, the downtime spent with family and going out again with old friends, I still don’t entirely feel like my old self.
I’ve found myself craving isolation. After all, it was in the downtime I had alone in Grenada that I would truly feel at ease and relax. Time to myself had become a necessity for me to re-charge my batteries and become ready to face the world.
Admittedly and uncharacteristically, in all this stagnant transition, at times I’d become irritated and frustrated with what should have been minor inconveniences. I can’t really explain why certain things would trouble me so much, but I guess it’s all part of the decompressing process, “growing pains,” so to speak.
For two years, I’ve been living another life. All of a sudden, I’m expected to cut ties and move on and this is proving harder than I thought. The frustrating part is I still can’t really pinpoint an exact explanation as to why I’m feeling this way, despite the obvious answer that things just aren’t the way they were before.
Home is different. I’ve witnessed first-hand how technology here has advanced in my absence, I’ve heard the stories from the social gatherings and experiences I’ve missed, I’ve now seen the physical growth of my nieces and nephews from babies into toddlers and toddlers into children since I’ve been gone.
Yet in reality, I can’t expect things to remain the same forever. As I mentioned earlier, it’s simply human nature to be resistant to change; but change can also mean progress. For as much as everything has changed at home, I can feel the changes within me as well. I’m not that green, unpolished recent college grad I was when I left. I’m a better and more holistic individual than I once was, and this experience has played a major role in that development.
This experience has changed my outlook on life. I’m able to relate and empathize with different people and perspectives that I wasn’t fully capable of doing before. The other ways in which I’ve changed I’m still understanding, a process that I recognize will take days, weeks, and maybe even years.
I’m happy to be home. I’ve enjoyed having these past couple weeks to essentially catch my breath and hit the re-set button, to spend time with people I love. The time at home still has felt all too brief, the good-byes just as difficult, but I’m ready for the next set of challenges and experiences that await me out in Reno, Nevada as I embark on getting my Masters degree in Journalism. The starting point of this new journey begins this weekend, as I will be making the four-day solo road trip across the heart of the continental United States to get there.
Although the drive out there will be slow and monotonous, I can’t wait to start. The trip will give me time to continue decompressing the past two years. It will be a cleansing process, with a fresh start in a new place when I arrive in Reno.
Yet although the whole idea is to hit the re-set button and start fresh, I will continue contemplating my experience in Grenada and all that it has taught me. Grenada, the people, and the memories I created there is something I’ll always have with me; it’s become a part of me.
The first post I ever wrote at the beginning of this journey I had titled “There’s No Graceful Way to Eat a Mango.” I find the mango analogy fitting, as glorious as this experience was, at times it wasn’t always graceful.
But in closing this post, and consequently the storyline of my service, I’ll return again to the mango analogy.
One of my numerous goodbyes over the past couple weeks was to Stephanie Pena, a fellow PCV. After saying goodbye and turning to step out of the door, I heard her ask: “You want a mango for the road?”
I paused, hesitating as I contemplated her question.
“You know what? I think I will,” I replied, turning back and accepting the mango.
Then stepping out into the early Caribbean sunlight, I tossed the mango up and down in my hand as I began strolling down the road, a smirk across my face.
Despite all the mixed emotions, feelings, and questions swirling about my life right now, deep down I know everything will turn out all right and the way they’re supposed to. It’s just going to take some time.
This experience, ultimately, is just a mango I’ll be taking for the road.