Nicholson on the Peace Corps: “My first priority is saying ‘Thank You’ properly

By Billy Nicholson ’11

As a junior at Falmouth Academy, Billy Nicholson ’11 received two awards that bespoke his future – one for giving support and help to the community and one for generosity of spirt. After having graduated from Wake Forest University, he is currently serving his second year in the Peace Corps, teaching science in Ghana. On a rare visit home, he spent half a day at Falmouth Academy talking to classes and sharing his experiences.

My students share the sentiment of most teenagers in small towns: this place is so boring. Mosques whose calls to prayer ring throughout town starting at 4:30 a.m.? Bringing concert speakers home for baby showers, funerals, and school field days? Speaking three, four, and sometimes five languages a day? Tropical rainstorms that send rivers of water through town reaching two feet in depth? *yawn*

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Because his students typically remember narratives well, Billy makes stories out of his lessons. He said, “When you teach, it’s almost like giving a performance.”

For such a small place – about one square mile of tightly packed houses rebelling against the rainforest, population of about 5,000 – my town has managed to surprise me continuously over the past year and a half I have been in the Peace Corps.

I teach chemistry and physics at a rapidly growing high school established by local university graduates, and the resilience, vibrancy, and wisdom of my students continuously inspires me. Senior High School in Ghana is no joke. It entails nine subjects that reach university-level curriculum in just three years, a daily schedule that runs from 6:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., and students serving as groundskeepers, event organizers, conflict resolvers, and disciplinarians.

They undertake these efforts all while having classes conducted in English, which all students have as either their second, third, or fourth language. More than half hail from communities throughout all the ten regions of Ghana, so most of them are 16 – 18 years old and live in a town unfamiliar to them while taking care of themselves.

My town is the heartland of the Nafaana people. The Nafaana language is just one of 55 spoken in Ghana, and towns just 30 minutes away don’t speak Nafaana at all. Most adults speak English as well as I speak Nafaana, so we share lots of comfortable silences together.

Nafaana features very clear distinctions between positive and negative – compare “keenyu” (that’s great!) with “keeenyu” (that’s awful!) – so I have totally avoided embarrassing missteps, such as agreeing to buy Headmaster’s four-year old nephew a bicycle.

However, we attract many migrants from surrounding francophone countries thanks to a strong seasonal cashew industry, an Imam famed as a healer, and our proximity with one of Côte d’Ivoire’s largest cities, Bondouku. Those years of French at Falmouth Academy finally bear fruit!

I have some of my best friends in Ghana thanks only to the amazing teachers I had at FA. If I feel disturbed or confused by aspects of life or school, they’re the only people who offer privacy, who understand life as a foreigner, and with whom I literally have the ability to hold conversations beyond small talk. I’ve felt grateful for my Falmouth Academy French teachers Mr. Parsons and Mr. Karolinski countless times since moving here.

Community and family mean everything. Aunts, uncles, and cousins are considered mothers, fathers, and siblings. I visited one student’s house, and he introduced me to four mothers, three fathers, and three grandfathers. “Sisters” are probably either close friends or cousins. I don’t even try to figure it out.

We have three families that make up about 75% of the town. Funerals are easy to spot, since hundreds of people will pay vigil outside the affected house from sunup until sundown. God forbid you’re late to school that day, because you must greet all of them, pay your condolences, bow low to the ground (no eye contact!), tell them how you’re doing and where you’re going, stand idly for a few seconds just to let the greeting marinate, and then move on to the next section.

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Billy’s students have their own handshake – they all start out in the typical fashion but after the grip, there can be a snap, a wave, a bump. The FA seventh graders loved his demonstration.

I’m the only non-black person in town, and before learning my name people just call me some translation of ‘White man,’ which applies to all Europeans and Americans regardless of skin color. It’s been challenging to feel hyper visible, stereotyped (positively and negatively), and just plain different from everyone else.

However, I’m not the main story here. The main stories are the students who last month started bleaching their skin. As a young, male teacher I can’t insist to students that their skin is beautiful without risking misunderstandings, especially across languages. My assurances of equality pale in comparison to their centuries of racism, decades of colonialism, and ongoing popular culture. Since the United States has such global cultural influence, my hope is that we can overcome our national past and resolutely remove this evil from the world.

Before joining the Peace Corps, a friend of mine who was in Rwanda told me, “The Peace Corps will change your life.” I was skeptical, but he was right. Completely right. I now owe a massive debt of gratitude to the residents of my town, mostly for gifts they unintentionally imparted. In the final months of my time here, my first priority is saying “Thank You” properly.

 

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