and the Peace Corps: A Longtime Engagement
40 YEARS HAVE PASSED since President John F. Kennedy first
challenged Americans to serve the causes of peace and cross-cultural
understanding by living and working in the developing world.
Siddall '52 spent two years teaching English in
excerpt from Kennedy's inaugural address captures well
the essence of the Peace Corps' philosophy: "To those
people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling
to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best
efforts to help them help themselves."
College has had a strong relationship with the Peace Corps
since the earliest days of the organization's existence.
Between 1963 and 1967 the Peace Corps located one of its
first regional recruiting and training centers on Oberlin's
campus, often hiring faculty members and students to assist
in administrative and educational tasks.
in and year out, Oberlin's graduates volunteer for service
in the Corps at a rate unprecedented for a school its
size. Currently Oberlin ranks sixth nationally among smaller
colleges and universities, out-volunteering institutions
such as Dartmouth, Reed, and Johns Hopkins University.
During any given year there are about 20 Oberlinians stationed
with the Peace Corps at every corner of the globe, involved
in almost every imaginable capacity. Time spent with the
Corps can significantly change the future lives and careers
of its volunteers, such as Laura Wendell '90, founder
of the World Library Partnership, an organization inspired
by her service in Togo, West Africa.
the average age of volunteers, 30, has remained fairly
constant since the Peace Corps' inception, an ever-increasing
number of retirees are opting to get involved. Lawrence
Siddall '52, who served two years teaching in Poland
at the age of 67, is a case in point. Volunteers of any
age are capable of making meaningful contributions to
the cause, and the Peace Corps operates in many locales,
performing such a wide array of functions, that anyone
sharing in its vision and dedication to service is welcome
and needed. Oberlinians have met and will continue to
meet this challenge, whether they graduated this millennium
or the last.
Late-Life Adventure: My
Two Years in the Peace Corps
Lawrence Siddall '52
WAS PAST MIDNIGHT AND I COULDN'T SLEEP. A COLD WIND RAPPED
AT THE LEAKY WINDOWS, AND WHAT LITTLE HEAT THERE HAD BEEN
IN THE SMALL FOURTH-FLOOR APARTMENT OF MY SCHOOL HAD LONG
SINCE DEPARTED. The building was like a fortress, almost
100 years old, now empty and locked for the night. In
a few hours a torrent of 650 adolescents would be roaring
through the halls below. I was feeling restless and edgy.
It had been my worst day. Going through my mind was what
to do about the noisy and disruptive behavior in one of
my classes. I was still having trouble keeping this class
quiet during lessons, and my patience was weakening. I
hadn't yet figured out what I was doing wrong. I was thinking
of going to the director, but what would I tell him? After
six weeks I was having doubts about teaching for two years
in this foreign land 3,000 miles from home. From under
my covers I stared into the darkness and wondered what
I had gotten myself into.
any of my family or friends thought I was a bit reckless
or naive when I told them I was going to join the Peace
Corps, they kept it to themselves. I'm sure they wondered
why a 67-year-old grandfather would want to leave the
comforts of home to live in a remote village in some far
corner of the world. By the time I retired in July 1996
I had already applied to the Peace Corps to teach English
and requested to be sent to South America because I wanted
to learn Spanish. Within the next several months I had
a massive tag sale, put my furniture in storage, sold
the house I had lived in for 36 years, and waited.
received my "invitation" in April 1997. I was wondering
which country it would be: Ecuador, Peru, perhaps
Then I read the letter. I was going to Poland, with departure
in two months. The pang of disappointment was brief, however,
because I had lived in Munich for two years in the mid-1950s
but had not traveled in Central Europe.
early June our group of about 80 volunteers assembled
for "staging" in Washington, D.C. After several orientation
sessions and an overnight, we flew to Warsaw and took
a bus to Radom, an industrial city of 250,000 located
two hours to the south, where we would spend the next
11 weeks receiving our pre-service training. In addition
to excellent instruction in Polish, there were classes
and speakers on cross-cultural issues. Fifty of us had
courses in teaching English as a foreign language. The
other 30 would be serving as consultants to environmental
Each of us lived with a local family (who received a stipend
from the Peace Corps), so from the beginning we were exposed
to Polish food, customs, and the language. My "family"
was a friendly, 40-something factory worker whose wife
lived in a village 20 miles away, where she taught in
an elementary school. He spoke no English, but in spite
of that, we got along well.
of the host families lived in apartment complexes scattered
throughout the city. Children or parents often gave up
their rooms and slept on the living room couch to accommodate
their American guests. I was fortunate to have more privacy
than many of my friends and was spared being witness to
family squabbles and pressure from "host moms" to eat
more than some thought humanly possible.
In late August I arrived in Swidnica, a city of 65,000
in southwest Poland near the Czech border. The school
director greeted me with a warm handshake and a bouquet
of flowers, as is the custom. Dzien dobry. Witamy w
naszej szkole.(Hello. Welcome to our school.) I had
only three days to get settled and prepare for classes,
where I would soon discover that my preparation had little
to do with the realities of what went on in the classroom.
the Communist era, Russian was the main foreign language
taught in the schools. The Peace Corps came to Poland in
1990 at the request of the Ministry of Education with the
goal of having a new generation learn English. The agreement
was for volunteers to teach in high schools (lyceums) for
about ten years, thus the Peace Corps will leave
in June of 2001.
be assigned an American teacher, a school had to provide
housing, either at the school or in the community. My
modest apartment was fairly comfortable, though to save
coal in the winter the director didn't heat the school
on weekends; my portable gas heaters usually provided
adequate heat in my apartment. During especially cold
weather my students sometimes had to wear jackets and
mittens in class, where the temperature wasn't much above
The Peace Corps required a school to have a Polish teacher
of English grammar; the volunteer focused mainly on conversation.
To my surprise I was informed that I would be the only
teacher for 120 third-year students, teaching mostly grammar.
For me, a retired psychotherapist who hadn't been in a
classroom for decades, the task initially felt overwhelming.
SAW MY STUDENTS IN CLASSES OF 30, TWO OR THREE TIMES A
WEEK. I came to enjoy teaching, but dealing with classroom
discipline was another matter. The morning after my restless
night, the students in my problem class could tell something
was amiss by the look on my face. "I have something to
tell you. I have decided to go to the director today and
tell him that I don't want to be your teacher this year.
This class is too noisy and disruptive. There is too much
talking during lessons. Some of you have been rude. I've
reminded you enough."
was a long pause. Then Katarzyna stood up. Holding onto
her desk she said, "Please, Mr. Siddall, don't go to the
director. We will try harder to be quiet. Please give
us another chance." Then there followed pleas from Pawel,
who the day before had lent me a cassette of his favorite
music; Lukasz, the best student in class; and Magda, one
of the worst offenders, but always cheerful. Things were
better after that, and it was some consolation to learn
that they were often this way with their Polish teachers.
was perhaps the brightest class in the school (almost
half were A students), and keeping them busy and interested
was a major challenge. I learned a lot from them about
Polish history and culture, of which they were proud.
Once I asked what I should know about their social customs,
and Dorota informed me that it's impolite for a man to
talk to a woman with his hands in his pockets. As I look
back, most of
my students were respectful, hardworking, and often fun
to be with. Many did very well academically and went on
to the university.
my second year I shared teaching with the three other
English teachers who taught mostly grammar. I had 210
second- and third-year students. Instead of 30 in each
class session, I had 15, which made teaching much easier.
We spent more time on writing and talking about a variety
of subjects, such as the environment, the culture of the
United States ("Mr. Siddall, were you a hippie?"), favorite
films and movie stars, pop music, geography, the NATO
bombing in Kosovo, art history, listening to selections
from Handel's Messiah at Christmas, writing a brief autobiography,
and sports. "Have you seen Michael Jordan play basketball?"
Tomek, whose mother lived in Canada, asked one day.
I said, "but in America I live only 30 kilometers from
Springfield, Massachusetts, where basketball was invented
and where the Basketball Hall of Fame is." Tomek and
his friends seemed delighted with this bit of information.
It was his life dream to see the Chicago Bulls play.
We also had fun singing in English, although girls enjoyed
this more than the boys. Their favorite was Oh! Susanna.
school, with an enrollment of 650, was considered the
best lyceum in the city. Students were required to take
an entrance examination. Academic standards were high
and a lot of homework was assigned, which allowed students
little free time. Unlike schools in our country, there
are very few extra-curricular activities and no interschool
sports programs. Students are required to learn two
foreign languages. Almost all the students in my school
chose English, which many had been learning for several
years. Other languages available were German, Russian,
French, and Latin.
for the teachers of English, none of the other 23 instructors
spoke much English, so for the first several weeks I
was pretty much ignored in the teachers' room. I felt
isolated and wished my Polish were better. Then one
morning a woman I had not met came up and said, "Good
morning. My name is Urszula and I teach English here
part time. How do you like it here in our school?"
thought to myself, Not all that well so far. We chatted
for a few minutes before the bell rang, and then she
said, "I would like to invite you to my home for supper
sometime soon and meet my husband and two sons." This
was my first invitation, and over time I would become
good friends with Urszula and her family. Her husband
Alexander was an engineer who worked for the municipal
water department, and their two pre-adolescent boys
were quite good in English but a little shy.
many of my visits there were relatives, friends, or
neighbors sitting around talking and laughing. I sometimes
went with the family on excursions in their VW Golf
over winding roads through the rolling countryside,
with the mountains bordering the Czech Republic in the
taught the minimum requirement of 18 hours a week from
Monday through Thursday, but many hours were necessary
for classroom preparation. I met with students after
classes, too, for practice in conversation. I was paid
Polish teacher's salary of a little more than $200 a
month by the school, and $90 was added by the Peace
Corps. While this was adequate, especially because I
didn't have to pay rent, many teachers in Poland struggle
to make ends meet, even if they teach extra hours. The
average monthly wage nationally is about $400. An extra
project included meeting with a group of English teachers
from other schools in the city, and another involved
the local Lutheran church, known as the Peace Church
because of its association with the Peace of Westphalia
that ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648. It was built
in 1656 and is unique for its wooden construction, architectural
design, and beautiful interior artwork. Though the church
could seat 3,000 people, only about 50 attend Sunday
services. Audiocassettes in Polish, German, and English
were available, but when I heard the one in English
I could hardly understand it. With encouragement from
the pastor, I did some research, wrote a new text, then
recorded it in a professional studio.
MY FIRST YEAR IN SWIDNICA (PRONOUNCED SHVIDNEETZA),
I was the only American or native speaker of English.
(The following year a woman from England came to
teach in another school.) One of the local weekly
newspapers published an article about me, and because
of this I made another good friend. Wioletta was
an obstetrician whose parents and sister lived in
Chicago. She contacted me after reading the article
to ask if I would help her improve her English.
Though she had an active private practice in addition
to her staff duties at the hospital, she was considering
emigrating to join her family in the States. Also,
she was earning much less than physicians in Western
Europe or the United States. Our lessons were informal,
often over coffee, or sometimes having supper at
her home with her partner, Jurek, who worked as
a pharmacist, and she invited me to special occasions
such as Christmas Eve dinner with other guests.
When she had time we also did some sightseeing,
driving around in a white 1980s Dodge, an ex-police
car that Jurek had shipped over from California
for reasons that I never quite understood.
Poles like to eat, drink, and socialize, so being
invited into their homes was always fun. Though
Poland isn't famous for its cuisine, there are a
variety of interesting dishes as a result of so
many cultural influences over the centuries. Meals
on Christmas and Easter are the most elaborate,
and, of course, most celebrations would not be complete
without plenty of beer and vodka.
fully appreciate these occasions I made a real effort
to learn Polish. I found it a difficult language,
and though I would eventually become moderately
proficient, it would be a source of frustration
during my two years not to become more fluent. My
students enjoyed testing my pronunciation skills
with such words as przyrodoznawstwo (natural
science), czterdziestoletni (40 years old),
dalekowzrocznosc (far-sightedness), and skrzypce
(violin), usually to much laughter, but they cheered
when I got it right.
tutor and friend during my last year was Anita,
a newspaper editor who spoke excellent English.
We met weekly
at the small apartment she shared with her Artur,
who was also in the newspaper business. Anita was
widely read, easy to talk to, and always patient
as I struggled with Polish grammar. I especially
enjoyed her helping me write accounts in Polish
about my trips.
traveled extensively during my tour, both within
Poland and in other countries. The high points for
me, besides sampling the food, were wandering through
the art museums and going to symphony concerts in
Warsaw, Krakow, Venice, Florence, Milan, Vienna,
Munich, Dresden, Berlin, and, with a touch of the
exotic, Moscow and St. Petersburg. I usually went
by train, but flew to Russia because of the distance.
Many Polish cities have excellent opera and theater
companies, art museums, and a variety of on-going
cultural events such as jazz and film festivals.
retrospect, the most difficult time for me was the
first three months, partly because of the adjustment
to the demands of teaching, but also because my
Peace Corps friends were miles away and I was just
beginning to make Polish friends. Fortunately, I
had brought a laptop computer and portable printer,
so I could maintain correspondence with family and
left Poland at the end of June 1999. After stopovers
in Amsterdam and Cardiff, Wales, followed by three
delightful weeks in Ireland, I arrived home on July
24. Since then I have bought a house, retrieved
my furniture, and have begun studying Spanish.
I'll get to South America after all.
Siddall was born in China, where his father was
a medical missionary, and grew up in Oberlin. After
graduating from Oberlin College, he served two years
in the U.S. Army, the final year in Munich. Following
his military separation there he attended lectures
in art history for two semesters at the University
of Munich. In September 1956 he began what he calls
his first big adventure by driving overland with
an army friend from Germany to India in a VW Beetle.
From there he worked his way back to the States
on a freighter.
earned a MSW degree at the University of Connecticut,
an EdD degree at the University of Massachusetts,
and, from 1962 until his retirement in 1996, was
a psychotherapist, most recently with Kaiser Permanente
in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he now lives.
says that he is learning Spanish, and volunteering
several hours a week at a local elementary school,
helping children for whom English is a second language.
He has been working with two boys and a girl in
third grade from Tibet, Russia, and Mongolia, and
a boy in fifth grade who is from Japan. "Being with
them in their classrooms is a mini-adventure in
itself," he observed.
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