I am sitting at my brand new table, hand-made by the local carpenter in front of my living room window overlooking a sea of jungle green that grows between my front porch and the tarmac. It is 9 am here in Nkhata Bay, Lakeshore, and sweat is running down my back and my forehead. Behind me, my cat Tonga is hunting futuristically large insects, proving that she is not dependent on me feeding her plain rice. My signature red reading glasses perch on the tip of my nose and I am typing with the four finger system un-mistakenly giving away my age. Yes, I grew up without computers, and yes, my reading glasses get stronger and stronger.
Last year around this time my life seemed un-changeable in its course. Today, nothing is predictable from one day to the next.
During our first week of Pre-Service Training (PST) the country director asked me why I chose to join the Peace Corps during this stage of my life, mid-career they call it. And I answered that I wanted, that I needed change.
As an organization, Peace Corps is geared towards young college graduates, but as few years ago started actively recruiting mature adults. The medium age of PC volunteers is 28 with an actual percentage of adults over 50 right around 7%. While one does not have to join the PC to change one’s life, this was my chosen path. And it is with, within, and under the framework of PC that I strain against old patterns and struggle to find a new path in my life.
Working with my fellow PC volunteers (who mostly could be my children, and wonderful children at that) I am constantly reminded of that time in my life when I was so passionate, so full of energy and drive, and hope, and hunger for a promising, fulfilling life. I am also reminded that at their age I considered people like me “old”, just biding their time to retirement. They seemed boring, hesitant, judgmental, and frankly, a mere appendix to the “happening” society.
So, where do I fit in? Am I young because I do what young people do, or am I old, because the demands of an older body and mind set me apart?
I still cannot answer this question, but I can reflect on my experience with an openness to change and learning.
Has my life changed? Absolutely. I am living on another continent. I live like Malawian villagers; with no water, electricity, internet, or comfort except a decent mattress on my concrete floor. I know how to sweep the dirt, I am learning a completely foreign language, I live alone for the very first time in my life, and I teach children that don’t speak my language in subjects I have never taught before. I am starting over. My previous life has not prepared me for this.in this, I am just like my 24 year old fellow volunteers. Does change come easy? Absolutely not. I am probably slightly uncomfortable 80% of my time. Meeting new people is hard, communicating is hard, living a simple life with fetching water and cooking on charcoal is hard, not having access to fresh vegetables without a 10km bike ride is hard, being alone is hard, and not being able to share my darkest moments with anybody is hard. My friends could be my children, and one does not break down in front of one’s children. There is a code. The older ones give advice; the younger ones seek council. And here is my biggest surprise, being older does not change anything about how one feels about or perceives the world. I still feel frightened, I feel inadequate in the face of challenges, I feel lonely, I cry, I sometimes want to give up, I feel heartbroken. And yet I feel excited, and I am proud, I am in love, and feel giddy, over-the-top hopeful, and I feel so happy to live a meaningful life.
Most of the time I am excited about the changes I have made. I like the simple life. I like to have time to sit and reflect. I like that my life experience is valued here, and I like that I am respected as a teacher. I like to teach in a place where the naughtiest students sleep in class or wear their hair too long. I like the weather and how my life is lived 80% outdoors. I love how you can/must be creative without having to be perfect. And I actually like the hole in the ground that is called a toilet, because, really, it is more suited to what you are physiologically supposed to do there. I like that having a mattress on the floor and a table with two chairs is considered being wealthy. I like that people remain in their natural bodies with no veneer, no fake boobs, no teeth corrections, no lipo-suction, no permanent make-up or the need to starve or exercise themselves to death.
But what about the learning part? Life-long learning is almost a buzz word. As a teacher I promote learning through life. Modern Western society promotes life-long learning. How well and how fast do I learn all the necessary things? Peace Corps requires a fast pace of learning. Teaching and reporting styles are geared towards the capacities of young people. I have always been proud of my brain functions, my ability to connect the dots fast, to grasp the relationships of concepts. Learning with 23 year olds is different. The speed in which they comprehend completely new concepts is beyond my understanding. How can I be so slow? How can I forget so many details? How are 30 min of study time enough to retain 9 hours worth of lecture? I am at an age where I am the teacher, where I am the professor. I give the assignments. When did I become so slow? During our PC training I felt as old as I had never felt before in my life. I gained a new understanding of the frustrations a slow learner faces every day in school. If you have learning challenges you don’t just miss out on learning. You also miss out on all the fun. Instead of going to play ball and have fun after studies you go to remedial classes. Instead of taking part in leadership opportunities you go to remedial classes. Instead of playing cards, going hiking, going to the tea shop….you go to remedial classes. You don’t have time to form strong friendships or alliances. And all this immense effort culminates in is a barely passing grade. In class we learned about how adults learn in general, I read research on how adults learn a new language, during teacher training we learned about the importance of differentiation, the existence of different learning styles. Yet, we are not taught like this.
Volunteers in the 50+ range are a minority, the instructors are either young or never had our experience. They have not been on the other side, learning, just like, me until now.…It is frustrating to compete with the speed, energy, and brain elasticity of 23 year old students. Many times did I ask myself: what do I have to offer that the youngsters could not do faster and better? I still don’t know.
I am getting a new appreciation of the young generation. They are go-getters, compassionate, innovative, self-confident, and compassionate. They are everything we taught them to be. It is a joy to watch them. They will go far to places we never even dreamed off.
But where does this leave me? Am I worth the investment of a large organization? Where is my place? What can I contribute that 23 year olds cannot?
In Malawian culture the elders are revered. Many times did I witness a rude business man on the bus turn soft, wait patiently until an elderly person boards the bus, finds her seat, helps her store all her bulky belongings? How many times have I witnessed a high official kneel in front of an old person waiting for his advice?
Western society revers youth. In my service can I be the best in following all the rules and guidelines that are made for people half my age? Or can I contribute in a completely new way discovered by my individual life path, education and life experience? Is a chance missed by over-regulating, over-stimulating, front-loading?
In my experience, age matters. I would say there is a (slight) bias against age, against the changes that come with age. We have a slower processing speed, our bodies and minds can perform as high as young people’s , but we need a longer time to rest and recuperate. We are slower in learning entirely new concepts, but we can easily and efficiently integrate new information that is somehow connected to previous knowledge. We can attach new knowledge to old and use it in completely new ways. We have more patience, greater wisdom, more experience, and an ability to differentiate when assessing and responding to life problem.
Would I set out on the path of changing my life again? Absolutely. Would I wish for more differentiation in instruction? Absolutely. Am I absolutely sure of my advantages compared to 23 year olds? No, I still do not. Do I wish for more emotional support? Yes. Will I continue on the path of changing my life and others? Absolutely. Will I bear witness to the difficulties? You bet.
Change and learning are not in the sole domain of young people. Change and learning are in all of our hands. Are we all equally supported? No. But should this stop us? No again.
Age matters in all of this. We are pioneers. Our experiences count. And I am happy to experience the different ways that different cultures approach age. Outside of the training situation, I don’t feel the pressure and age-inappropriate treatment anymore. I am myself. I forge my own path for better or worse.
Change is happening. Learning is happening. Comparisons are toxic. Individual skill sets are everything. Kindness matters more than intellect, and the ability to press on after setbacks will determine our success. Human connections are the key to a worthwhile life in the US, in Malawi, in Germany, or anywhere else on this beautiful earth.
Age matters, but fortunately it is not everything. So go on and keep fighting, keep changing, keep learning, keep teaching at whatever pace you feel comfortable. The most important things are not quantifiable.
Peace of mind to all. Thanks for reading.