That sentiment was delivered by a Regional English Language Officer at the end of my first day of training as a English Language Fellow, a program funded through the U.S. State Department that sends English instructors abroad to teach, train, and help improve language and education programs in developing nations. In other words, soft-core diplomats.
I’ve been to a training similar to this, almost five years ago for Fulbright, just that one was conducted on the leafy grounds of the Embassy in Warsaw. I was so jetlagged and disorientated that the only take-away advice I could recall was from an ex-commando just returned from Iraqi. His words for staying safe in a new and different land? “Trust your spidey sense.” Department of State envoys, at least those I have encountered, always seem to approach the world with a wry humor and an almost British sensibility.
Today marked the first day of a week in Washington, D.C., with more than a hundred of my ilk gathered at the Omni Shoreham, a historic venue settled on a vast swath of green acreage not far from Dupont Circle and Georgetown, famous for hosting inaugural balls and a 1964 visit from the Beatles. It also might be haunted, but they don’t seem to put that one in the promotional literature. It’s the stuff of Downton Abbey- sweeping ceilings, crystal chandeliers, silent white-gloved waiters who remove dirty hors d’oeuvres plates so quickly and discreetly that I wonder if they spent time in ninja training.
I arrived last night, disheveled by Potomic humidity and wearing my very unclassy backpacker rucksack. All travelers know the feeling: when all you want to do is curl up in a corner and fall asleep/die/cry. I reached a similar point on my marathon journey home from Windhoek, Namibia, when boarding a plane in Dallas, my final leg in a thirty hour journey. My iPod fell out of my pocket and hit the floor of the plane and I thought to myself, I don’t really need that, anyways; it can just stay there. Last night, after hours of babies and airplanes that ran out of food before getting to my row, I nearly collapsed on the polished counter at the Omni and the posh receptionist raised a brow at me. It all made sense as soon as she checked my reservation: with the English Language Programs Pre-Departure Orientation. Of course. A grubby English teacher.
The training itself, beyond all of the introductions and referring to each other by their host countries (“Oh, have you met Uganda yet? She’s over there.”), isn’t much more fun than a typical job orientation: today was paperwork and how to submit expense reports and what happens if you terminate early. The rest of the week gets juicier: how not to die from diseases, uprisings, or saying something stupid at the wrong place/time. For the evening, though, we ended with a few more introductions and that DOS envoy’s immortal words to a group of fresh-faced teachers, ready to meet their students and tackle their challenges. “You aren’t going to change the world,” she said with a sincere smile, “so just be nice.” My internal pessimist agrees, while my internal optimist looks for some light- maybe the two are so far from each other. A hundred people, leaving this fancy hotel for much more meager dwellings, being nice- and hammering proper verb usage- to start new lives in day-to-day, dusty diplomacy.