Claire Nutter is a Practical English for Success (PES) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia
I have always had an interesting relationship with the word “fail.” What does it mean to really fail? Is it when you try something with good intentions, and it doesn’t work out? Or is it when you don’t try at all because you’re scared?
For me, failure is when I let my insecurities get the best of me and I give up on something before I’ve even begun. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a plethora of failures while serving in Colombia. To be honest every time that something has happened during my service that could be considered a humongous, flaming FAIL, I just shake it off (please, no Taylor Swift references).
For example, I had an amazing bachillerato counterpart before I even swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She was excited, determined, and spoke English: basically, a unicorn. During the five days when I was visiting my site, she told me she was leaving because my site was too far from where she lived. I dropped my phone on the ground when I read the message from her on WhatsApp, praying my brain just wasn’t comprehending Spanish that day. But no, she did leave. And all of the plans I had, all the listo-ness I had about working with her? Poof. No longer a thing. We weren’t going to mold Colombian teenage minds to love English, we weren’t going to do dynamic lessons using technology, and we 100% were not going to co-plan together. This is a huge fail, right?
Not exactly. Because of her absence, I had no choice but to put my Chacos on and get to work. I marched around my tiny town, showing my face in the bachillerato and in the primaria. I became “la gringa con gafas,” Seño Clarita. I taught in the primary school a few times a week and came up with a podcast project idea for the 11th graders that (some) of them really loved and participated in. I kept showing up day after day even though I was scared and anxious. I didn’t have anybody to work with. What was I doing? Who did I think I was? I pushed all of those thoughts aside and just showed up, no matter how tired or defeated I felt. My “big fail” turned out to be the foundation on which I built my first few months at site. Sure, I wasn’t doing what I was technically put here to do. But I wasn’t going to let that ruin my mood or make me give up on my little town. Nothing worth having in life comes easy, and I wasn’t going to throw in the towel right away. Integration wasn’t going to happen on it’s own.
One day, I walked into the bachillerato and some of my students ran up to me, grabbing my arms and pulling me towards the steps to the second floor of the school. This could mean several things: Were they showing me a wild animal? Was another student doing something illegal? Had they decided to push me out of one of the second story windows? None of my worries happened, thankfully. They were all chattering about a new English teacher, which I was skeptical of. Was he lost? Turns out, he really was the new English teacher, and I ended up showing him around. Now, a few months later, we are successfully working together in our classroom, and we co-plan together as well.
Finding out my first counterpart was quitting and essentially leaving me all alone in a brand new town where I knew no one was hard. It was really discouraging. I had been so excited about working with her, and had daydreamed about how great my life at site would be with her showing me the way. Instead, the rug was pulled out from under me and I had to find my footing way earlier than I anticipated. I had to do things outside of my comfort zone and really change my whole mindset about what I came here to do. My original plan had to be scrapped, so I made a new one. That first “failure” has really set the tone for my service. When things don’t go as planned, or something I’ve prepared for and really care about doesn’t work out, I just shrug and go about my day. I can’t change what’s happened. I can only change the way I think and feel about it. Sometimes I decide to deal with my so called failures by eating too many Goldfish that my mom sent me from home, drinking a Coke, and letting myself feel disappointed. And I think that’s okay, as long as I don’t stay stuck in that feeling.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer isn’t about being perfect and never failing. Everyone fails during their service. I think the big difference is what we decide to do with those failures. We can let it define our service in a good way, or in a bad way. Failures can teach us what we need to know, if we let them. A lot of people let the fact that they did something “wrong” change the way they feel about themselves. I hear a lot of friends beating themselves up for projects that flopped, like there’s some essential part of them that’s missing. If only they had done this, or that. If only they had tried harder.
Sometimes, for no particular reason at all, things just do not work out. It’s hard in general when that happens, but even harder when you’re miles away from home and in a different culture. Failures can teach us to give ourselves a break. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is about taking those failures, and choosing to still show up and be a positive presence. It’s about still smiling and saying “hi” to your neighbors, talking with the little kids in town that yell random English words at you, and sharing stories with your host family. It’s also about knowing when to take time for yourself.
A big failure can knock you down, and sometimes it’s good to just take that time to recharge. You tried, it failed, you’ll try again in a couple more days. People make mistakes, we mess up, and our best intentions blow up in our faces. But that’s okay. I’ve discovered that a failure isn’t truly a failure unless you let it consume you.
So go ahead and fail. Show up at your community class and have nobody come. Try to set up a meeting with a counterpart only to have them blow you off. When that happens (and it happens again, and again), try to laugh about it. Tell the tienda owner about it over an Aguila, or tell a friend back home about what happened. Failures are a part of service, but they aren’t the only part. When I reflect on what I’ve done so far in my service, I think fondly of my “failures.” They’re more like helpful setbacks anyway, things I know that have positively impacted my time here in Colombia.
Except that one time I tried to pet one of the stray cats in my town, that was a colossal fail. Zero out of five stars, would not do again.