Playing Ball in the Peace Corps
I climbed the big concrete steps one after another, dripping sweat, unsure of what I’d find at the top. I’d been walking for a while and my mind was racing. It felt like the first day of school, like the first day of anything. It was a blazing hot day, but the heat was familiar. I had played ball many times in weather like this, especially in Iowa. But I was far from the cornfields of the Midwest now. I was in a place I’d never been before, a place I’d never dreamed I’d be. I was in Ukraine.
I’d spent the past three months training with four other Peace Corps Volunteers. We would meet every morning and study throughout the day, learning the basics of the Ukrainian language and culture. Our teachers, Roman and Natalia, both in their twenties, were smart and motivated. My site-mates—Morgan, Jesse, Brian, and Robin, names I'll always remember—were a motley crew.
While I was training, I lived with a host family who treated me to cake after every meal. So as not to be rude, I obliged… and gained twenty pounds as a result. It wasn’t until my last day that I realized Tato, my host dad, delivered cake for a living. Great.
But eating too much cake was the least of my worries. I struggled to learn the language. My brain was overloaded with all the different Cyrillic symbols and rolling Rs that the others seemed to pick up much quicker than me. It took me back to high school and college; academic learning never clicked for me.
Yet there I was, climbing the steps toward a school and an uncertain future. I had been dropped off the night before by taxi, the last leg of a long trip that had started in the country’s capital, Kiev. There I had met my counterpart Kamilia, the school’s English teacher, whose energy and enthusiasm were inspiring. We left Kiev by train and traveled to Kozyatyn, a four-hour ride, then to Dubovi Makharyntsi, a mouthful of a name for a village of 500 people. This village would be my home for the next two years.
I lived on the outskirts of the village, in a small two-room house at the end of a long dirt road. It had a couch, table, chair, bed, and small fridge. There was also a well down the road and an outhouse in my backyard. Basically, the house had everything I needed to get by.
It was the end of June and the temperature was reaching the mid-nineties. I made myself breakfast, finished unpacking, and hit the road to find the school I’d heard so much about. I walked down to the end of the dirt road, then turned left and headed to the center of the village.
The road was paved but in dire straits, with small brick houses lining the street. I walked about a mile until I reached the big concrete steps leading up to the school.
When I reached the top, I could see the school up ahead. I walked toward that giant structure with a colored mosaic on its side. There was a concrete courtyard in front of it, with three wooden benches along its perimeter and a small half-grass, half-dirt soccer field with makeshift goals at either end.
Several boys were playing in the field. They were barefoot and dirty, like every other twelve-year-old boy in the world. They were also sweating and yelling at each other, as athletic boys do. It was when they spotted me that they stopped playing. I waved and walked up to them.
“Hello,” one of them said.
“Dobry den,” I replied.
They laughed, surprised that I knew some of their language. They started asking me questions, but I had no idea what they were saying. Finally, one of them picked up the ball and showed it to me. “Hochesh?”
I smiled. That they understood. Despite struggling with my Ukrainian studies, sports were a language I could speak fluently. It dawned on me then that everyone has their strengths, and one way or another, we can all use our unique skills to communicate.
So for the first time since arriving in Ukraine, I did what I’ve done all my life, something I knew I could do with anyone anywhere in the world: I jumped in and played ball.