FOREIGN WORLD.

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REALITY REPLACED THE HYPOTHETICAL WHEN I BOARDED A PLANE FOR A TWO-YEAR STAY IN THE WEST INDIES
[posted 04.06.2001]

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Joining the Peace Corps was something I’d talked about doing for years. The trouble was, I talked about it in the same idle way that people begin to talk about quitting their jobs four cocktails into happy hour. It worked in a hypothetical, “Don’t you think a tattoo would look good … right … here?” sort of way. But nobody really thought I’d do it. Least of all me.

So when I actually did join the Peace Corps, even I was a little surprised. Still, it felt right. At age 24, my license to shirk all responsibility and dash off to foreign lands under the guise of philanthropy was nearing expiration. I wanted to see the world — and not from the clichéd window of a high-speed train, Eurorail pass tucked between the pages of my Lonely Planet guide. I wanted something different. Entirely different.

And I got it.

That was more than eight months ago. Now, through sweltering nights, surrounded by the sort of deep equatorial darkness that only can envelop you when you’re 3,000 miles away from home, I sometimes lie awake and wonder what I was thinking. I thrash about under the mosquito net as a soundtrack driven by tree frogs plays just outside the window. It’s a melancholy ballad, punctuated by a rooster that seems oddly out of synch with the Earth’s rotation. Before I joined the Peace Corps, I believed that roosters only crowed at dawn. In the West Indies, they seem to crow whenever they please. Like so many things in the islands, the roosters that live on the crumbling hillside behind my house have upset my notions about the way things are — and my ideas about the way things should be.

Some nights I tussle with more than just netting. I wrestle questions about opportunity, prejudice, history. I grapple for explanations, counting contradictions like sheep until I descend into slumber … until the roosters crow again. Shoving the dangling mosquito nets aside and pushing the questions back down, I crane my neck to glimpse the clock: 3:27. Definitely not dawn. But how could so many roosters be wrong?

        • *

Lionel is one of my favorite students. He’s a handsome youth with a broad, hesitant grin and flawless chocolate skin. After the first day of class he approached me with an outstretched hand, while his classmates shuffled timidly out the door. “Thank you, Miss,” he said with unusual confidence and a wide smile.

Today, he isn’t so self-assured. “Miss?” he whispers across the classroom. “Psst … Miss!” I leave a group of girls in the corner and pull up a chair alongside his desk. At 15, Lionel is just months away from leaving behind for good a school system that has failed him. His bulky six-foot frame already looks out of place squeezed into a tiny primary school desk. “Miss, this word …” he says furtively, pointing to the worksheet in front of him. “What is it?” Two laborious minutes later we’ve sounded out “friend,” a word Lionel has probably seen dozens of times before in the pages of his readers but for some reason, unknown to him or to me, one he can not retain.

At night I lie awake, wishing I had a better answer for Lionel. Wanting to give him more than one word at a time. Betrayed by the knowledge that writing, the very thing that most empowers me, is the same thing that diminishes my students’ self-esteem to nothing — when through the darkness the roosters screech abruptly, interrupting my thoughts.

I’m tired the next day as the late afternoon sun begins its fiery descent into the Caribbean Sea. School is over for the week, but I’ve asked Maria to stop by before she leaves. Like Lionel, she stands apart from her classmates. Maria’s skirt is always tugged up an extra inch or two, revealing just a bit more thigh than any of the other 14-year-olds in my class. Her hair, which runs in plaited rows toward the back of her head before tumbling over the collar of her faded shirt, is usually secured with gaudy plastic baubles and clips. But when Maria’s mischievous, taunting gaze meets mine, I cease to take notice of these things. I see only youthful exuberance cloaked by grown-up worries that I — even in adulthood — have never known.

Today, Maria approaches me with eyes downcast. “Yes Miss, you want to see me, Miss?” she asks, rhetorically, with uncharacteristic formality. She already knows what this is about. She saw me flinch when, during this morning’s exercise about setting goals, she drew a picture of herself and a toddler — and proceeded to tell me that her goal was to be pregnant by age 16.

“Maria,” I begin, hesitantly. “What you told me this morning … is that true? Is that what you want?” She nods, still not meeting my eyes. “That’s a big responsibility,” I contend. “You won’t be able to finish school.”

When I hear my own words, I realize how inane they sound. Maria knows responsibility already. And — with or without child — she’s not going to finish school. As soon as she turns 15, she’ll start looking for a job. Someone has to put food on the table.

So I change my strategy. I ask about her boyfriend. He’s in his early 20s. Says he loves her. Takes care of her. Buys her things.

Everything’s beginning to make sense. It’s an age-old dilemma. Even when you’re 14.

Suddenly I’m stuck in a horrible, impractical video I once dozed through in high school health class. I try to explain several archaic birth control methods that I actually know very little about. Forget it. There’s a place in town where you can get the pill for free. We could go together. Nobody would know.

“Oh Miss. No, Miss!” Maria exclaims, her worldly facade crumbling. “I could never do that!”

“What about condoms?” She looks at me like I just suggested she catch the next flight to the States and get a job on Wall Street.

I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know what it’s like to have a mother who beats you. An absentee father. A household where more money goes to crack cocaine than to dinner. So I say the only thing I can: “OK, Maria. Let me know if you change your mind.”

“OK, Miss,” Maria shrugs, tough again. “See you next week.” I try to catch her eye as she turns to leave, but she expertly averts my glance.

I stop by the store on the way home to pick up some condoms anyway, in case she changes her mind. She won’t, I think when I come across them unpacking my bags at the end of the day.

Alone in the falling darkness, I set the package on the counter and crawl into bed. I know I’ll toss a bit before I surrender, only to be awakened later, predictably, by the roosters. They’re not such a nuisance anymore. It only took me a couple hundred nights before I realized that the roosters are only half wrong: It is dawn. Somewhere. Just not here. Yet.

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m. kathleen pratt , known to her neighbors as “the white lady,” lives in the west indies with a feisty island mutt named wrigley.