Changing the World?

I recently received a care package from my New York and Boston friends (thanks again guys), and one of the gifts I got was a signed copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Ah, the benefits of having a friend attending the MFA program at New York University. Emily has raved about this book and the writer for a while now, and for reasons beyond my control (a lie…I was just lazy and had other books to read) I haven’t read it yet. Well, now it’s in my hands, so I guess I don’t have a reason to delay my reading of this book. I started it as soon as I got it, figuring it would be a refreshing break from my re-reading of Les Miserables. But this isn’t an entry about how amazingly different this book is from my usual fare…it’s about what Mr. Foer wrote in the part before his autograph. Is there an actual name for what that’s called? A dedication? No, that sounds way too vain…anyway, here’s what he wrote:

“For Sanyo: Who is off changing a world that needs to be changed.”

I’m extremely flattered that Emily took time to talk about me with Mr. Foer and get a signed copy of the book, but these words have been haunting my mind and unfortunately not in the best way. I don’t think I’ll be wrong to think that many people think that’s what we do in Peace Corps: changing the world; however, since starting my work as a volunteer there is a gap between the ideal and reality.

 

Even though I’ve only been a volunteer for three months, it’s beginning to dawn on me that any real “change” isn’t probably going to happen while I’m here. I can’t get into details about some parts of it, but the Azerbaijan that exists while I’m here will probably still be here long after I leave. So if I’m not able to change Azerbaijan, maybe I can help my community, right? That was what I got out of my training…our “mission” was to help teachers improve their teaching, so they can continue to “mold minds” long after we’re gone. If Mr. Foer knew this is how I’m “changing a world that needs to be changed,” he’d probably want his autograph back.

 

Obviously I can only speak for my program in this country, but let’s cut the crap…we’re pretty lame in the scheme of things. Teaching English? Helping teachers become better teachers? Compared to other volunteers, even just talking about the other sectors in Azerbaijan, we’re pretty lame. I’m not surprised that TEFL volunteers get their “kicks” from YD or CED related activities, and not just TEFL stuff.

And here’s a scary thought: what happens if your counterpart, who has so passionately taken up lesson-planning or using creative non-textbook related activities, stops doing all that the second you leave? Congratulations! You failed in your primary mission! How does it feel to slave away for two years of your life, only to have your carefully thought out plans for sustainability knocked down like a house of cards?

 

This is probably a little too harsh…I mean, that isn’t the only goal of the TEFL program here, and there are other things you can hang your hat on right? You know: softball, summer camps, art clubs, sending students to FLEX, etc. But a lot of these things weren’t really focused on during TEFL technical sessions. Somehow by the end of PST, I had forgotten what else I could do as a TEFL volunteer here.

Maybe this is really all my fault. Honestly, if I wanted to even get close to “changing the world,” I should’ve known that TEFL isn’t necessarily the best way to get to that point. For some reason I thought being a TEFL would be a loftier position. I’d be a prime position to be a mentor for a new generation of liberal, western-leaning youth, and through them that’d be my way to “changing the world.” Oh how naïve I was with such expectations. Even though I’m working with much brighter students than what other volunteers have, a lot of them still cling onto the more traditional aspects of Azerbaijani culture. I assumed that better educated automatically meant more liberal…guess I was wrong. A lot of these liberal youth packed and left for Baku long before I got here. And I have to tread so carefully in this culture that thoughts of prodding my students to be more modern are only fantasy.

So I’m trying to find a different way to “changing the world,” but until then I’m perfectly fine teaching a bunch of adorable kids and acting like an idiot in class. Until of course, it’s two months before I leave and I’ve still got nothing.

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