A Lesson in Cultural Priorities

By: Phyllis Greenberg Houseman

In the summer of 1962, I traveled to Ecuador as part of a Peace Corps Volunteer group of science and math teachers. First, we trained for two months at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

Half-way through the course, our small team had the honor of meeting President John Kennedy in the White House Rose Garden. He shook all of our hands and told us how much we were needed in Ecuador. None of us had a premonition of what his future would bring. 

Assigned to the Escuela de Excelencia, a secretarial training school in the southern city of Loja, I taught Nutrition and English to three classes of girls. They were the hope of their families to provide the income needed to escape a life of poverty. Home for many of the students was a tar-paper covered shack with an earthen floor, with no running water or electricity.

The school had few resources—the classroom adobe walls were bare. And they had no actual typewriters. The girls practiced typing at a long, battered table, drilling on wooden replicas that had keys painted on their flat surfaces.

Determined to change the barren surroundings, I organized a project to obtain classroom materials from a variety of U.S. companies—many from my hometown–Detroit. The girls hand-wrote dozens of personalized letters to the businesses, using the ream of paper, envelopes, and postage I was able to obtain from local donors.

One of the students, Manuela Rodriguez, wrote so movingly I asked her to copy her words into a half-dozen requests.

“Sirs, we have little in our school to help us become excellent secretaries. Not even typewriters. But our mothers let us stay out of the fields and laundries and with your generous help, we may succeed.” 

Materials flowed in during the next several months: colorful charts of food groups and nutrition goals went up to brighten the bare walls. We read from an English-language, short story anthology that a publisher contributed. There were enough copies so that each girl received her own volume.

The most amazing gift was a microscope with prepared learning slides. The rector immediately locked it away in a display cabinet, never to be used, but always admired by visitors.

No typewriters arrived.

About a year into my stay, I was elated to learn the school was approved for a government educational grant. Now they would be able to purchase several real typewriters. 

Just before I left for home, the funds arrived, and a committee of school officials held closed-door meetings on how to best use the money.

A month later, I stood in the Plaza Central viewing my last Ecuadorian Independence Day parade. Various area schools marched by carrying streaming flags and banners.

None strutted more proudly than the young ladies of the Escuela de Excelencia. The girls all wore brand new marching uniforms in the school colors of white and baby blue.

I felt a wave of affection for my students, and a sadness that I had accomplished so little in my two-years with them.

For the next day, they would carefully store their uniforms, ready for another parade. They then would sit down at the table, and practice on the painted letters of the old wooden typewriters.

Learn more about Phyllis in her bio on the Featured Authors page.

Published by HLWW Featured Author

Featured Author of the Heartland Society of Women Writers

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