CLOSE OF SERVICE CONFERENCE
October 1-5, 2012
Manila
No terrorist strike occurs at our unguarded pension hotel during the night, but the danger is still palpable in the area. I’m grateful when I finally check out and a flotilla of white taxicabs pull up to transport all remaining volunteers of Batch 269 (the 269th group of volunteers to serve in the Philippines since 1961) to the more protected Peace Corps headquarters outside the danger zone.

We’re here for our final conference before heading home. Of our original batch of 149 — one of the largest groups in the country’s history — 102 have made it to the end. That’s still a sizable number, but the fallout is above the global Peace Corps average of about 30 percent.

Everyone spends the next few hours padding up and down the hallway popping our heads inside offices to get clearance from each department. I return my Peace Corps life vest to the office that issued it, and they initialize it on my Close of Service (COS) conference checklist. There are 30-40 items to be checked off before we can leave the country. I complete only a few tasks on day one, but that’s okay. After the conference, most of us will return to our sites for our final week(s) and then return to Manila to complete our checklists before we fly home.

In the afternoon, all the regional managers gather us and announce that our buses have arrived to transport us to the much-awaited dinner and pool party. We erupt in cheers and applause. The venue was originally the U.S. Embassy along Manila Bay, but the terrorist threat nixed that. Rumors have been flying all day if the party would be held at all, and if so, where. Because of security, we’re not told where we’re going until we’re inside the buses: it’s the ambassador’s residence. Cool.

Well, sort of. If I were a terrorist, my top two American targets in Manila would be 1) the U.S. Embassy, and 2) the U.S. ambassador. However, if I received a tip that 102 Peace Corps volunteers were celebrating at the Ambassador’s digs, his place would move up to #1. Marvelous. Let’s party!

The ambassador’s house is stunning, sprawling, and ambassador-less. “He’s away,” we’re told succinctly. Not the most comforting thing to hear under the circumstances. The interior of the mansion is off limits, too. “The ambassador doesn’t want anything broken.” It seems our batch’s rowdy reputation has preceded us.

Whatever. We all head to the bar. The drinks are strong, the food is Tex-Mex, and the pool is warm. The new Peace Corps deputy country director plops down next to me on the outdoor patio, and she’s a breeze of fresh air. Laid-back, likable, like I’ve known her for years. Actually, it’s the other way around. She’s done her homework and knows a lot about me. She’s a writer, too, and still fiddles with it. We talk shop for 40 minutes before the country director summons her.

Moments later we’re all hustled back to our buses for the two-hour trip to our conference site, which will finally be out of the radar of the bad guys. As we pull away from the residence, I take my first deep breath of the evening.

The resort is high in the mountains, so our three days are rainy, chilly, and encircled by eerie, thick fog straight out of a Stephen King novel. As most of the volunteers are young, the conference sessions are geared toward them: how to prepare a killer resume, how to ace a job interview, how to take advantage of Peace Corps graduate degree assistance.

Highlights are seeing volunteers for the first time since our initial staging conference two years ago. Most of them have have lost weight, so I don’t feel so bad. My favorite things are the hilarious Internet videos about Peace Corps life that are shown between sessions. So true, and so funny. If any of you are contemplating applying to the Peace Corps, view these clips first before you decide!

So You Want to Join Peace Corps – YouTube

Pacific Love (Unofficial Peace Corps Anthem) – Poop in a Hole – YouTube

I miss the final night of the conference because I have to be back in Manila that evening to make my early morning flight back to my school the next morning. I say a few hurried goodbyes and grab a Jeepney heading back toward the capital. A young woman across from me happens to be getting off at the same stop and helps me off. The bus I need to take on the final leg pulls up seconds later, and I hop on just in time, grabbing the only seat left on the crowded  transport.

The man next to me is a ship captain, and I ask him about his job. After about 40 minutes of this, he suddenly blurts out, “I hate America.” I ask him why, and he describes what happens whenever he docks his ship at a U.S. port. “They’re so strict. They board us at the international water line, inspect every room, every crew member, every piece of cargo. They’re armed and treat us like animals, like we’re guilty. No other country does this. I hate coming to America.”

I ask if U.S. authorities have always done this. “Never before. Only after 9/11.” I say nothing. If he doesn’t understand our need to stiffen our security since that tragic day, then my pointing it out won’t enlighten him. Other than that, he’s pleasant, funny, exceedingly friendly and gracious, and helps me get off at the precise stop, reminding me and the driver miles before we get there and every hundred yards until the bus stops to let me off.

GOING OUT A CHAMPION…SORT OF
October 6-7, 2012
Negros Oriental
I arrive home to thunder and rain. I’m tired, cold, and not feeling well. I sleep most of the day and don’t go to school. I need to conserve my strength because the next day, Saturday, promises to be a big one. It’s the birthday of the mother of the Mabinay family I’ve grown to love, and everyone’s coming to Dumaguete for the party, to which I’m invited. In the evening, my tennis club at the 7th Day Adventist church will kick off a tournament in my honor. The turnout, I’m told, is the largest they’ve ever had.

I wake up in the morning to pounding rain that’s turned the street into a river. It doesn’t look like there’ll be a tennis tournament. When the rain eases, I dart through the thicket of banana trees across the street – my shortcut to the highway – and flag down an easy ride into town.

I meet Kim, the second oldest family member, at the bus station, and we hop on a trike to her sister’s new house. Her older sister Daisy, 24, married a 72-year-old American just three weeks before, and I’m not looking forward to meeting him.

When I step through the gate, all the family rushes out to meet me. The kids flit around me like fireflies, wanting to be close to me like always. I love them dearly. I hug the birthday mom and shake the father’s hand. He smiles and nods. Neither he nor his wife speaks English, which is as rare in the Philippines as a dog on a leash.

Daisy’s new house is a sparkling two-story townhome. I walk inside, and she’s cleaning as usual. The family’s only breadwinner for much of her life, she’s preparing the final touches to the feast. A large table in the middle of the room already groans with a half dozen dishes.

Sitting on a bamboo bench against the wall is what appears to be a carcass of a deceased elderly man who must have succumbed horribly because a rictus of a snarl is frozen into its waxy countenance. Then the form stirs, and I realize it’s not dead; it’s Daisy’s beloved.

I introduce myself, and his snarl turns into a scowl, which apparently is his default expression. With a Missouri accent as thick as glutinous rice, he unleashes a diatribe against everything Filipino: the heat, the food, the stench. Ants, drunks, dogs. Traffic, rain, trash. Laziness, corruption, bureaucracy. Assuming I’m an ally to whom he can share his prejudices, he throws around “these people” more times than a KKK social.

His biggest complaint is Daisy and her family. “I sol’ everthing to come here, and she and her family already done spent a third of it. Ever week it’s a hundred fer this, a hundred fer that. Livin’ here was s’posed to be cheap. Ain’t so. Don’t know where it all goes.”

I thought Peace Corps life was tough, but this guy makes me want to jump off a cliff. A cute stray dog slips into the room, and he tries to kick it but  nearly falls down. I use the opportunity to extricate myself from his vehemence.

“Daisy,” I take her aside firmly, “take your family and your husband’s remaining money away right now and flee into the hills. It’ll be weeks before your husband stops bitching and realizes you’ve split.”

I don’t say that, of course. I say, “Who’s the plantation owner who wondered into your house and soiled your furniture? Want me to get rid of him?”

Actually, I don’t say that either. What I say is, “Great to see you. Nice place. What’s for dinner?”

I dole out a stack of board games I’d promised to bring the kids, and they swarm over them like Snickers bars, which I’d foolishly not thought to bring as well. Kim, who still has hopes of landing me as the second foreigner in the family, slips me a letter and some new photos of her.

The meal is sumptuous, Mr. Daisy continues his rant about Filipinos as if the nine Filipinos in the room aren’t there, and I keep urging my watch to speed up and get to 5 p.m. so I can get out of here. Finally the time comes, and I say goodbye to everyone for the last time, hug the birthday mom, promise to return someday, and walk back to the highway with Kim. We hug, and I catch an easy ride back home.

I trudge through the drizzle to the church tennis court to see if the tournament’s still on for tomorrow. The pastor greets me. “God willing, sir, the rain will pass tonight, and we’ll be able to play tomorrow,” he says.

He  shows me the tournament banner with my name on it, which is stretched across the court entrance facing the road. “People have been calling all day asking if it’s still on,” he says. “Everyone’s excited. Many others have signed up.”

He drives me home and says he’ll call me in the morning to tell me if the tournament’s on or not.

That evening I’m awakened by vicious barking and growling. A gang of neighboring street dogs has decided to stroll down our street on this particular night, precipitating a battle royal with the local clan that lasts for hours. I shut my bedroom door and put in my earplugs to drown out the uproar.

Although this mutes the dogs, it also muffles my cellphone’s ringtone the next morning when the pastor calls me at 6:00 to tell me the tournament is starting. I’m still asleep three-and-a-half hours later when I’m finally awakened by pounding and shouting at my gate. Rushing to the window, I see the pastor laughing at me from the other side of the gate. The sky is cloudless, bright, and sunny. I splash water on my face, throw on my tennis togs, grab my bag, and jump into his van.

When we arrive, several matches have concluded, and a large crowd has gathered to watch the festivities. I’m told my partner in the intermediate bracket will be Bernie, a Phil-Am (half-Filipino, half-American) who’s as tall as me. We’ve teamed before and usually win because of our height and reach. He won first place in the church’s previous tournament with another partner.

He’s the health and communications officer of the church and travels throughout Negros Oriental to speak to school and community groups about nutrition, non-smoking, exercise, and stress-free living. He helped prod our mayor to institute a nonsmoking policy for our town.

We easily win our first two matches, although I’m hit twice by the ball, the latter a bullet to my right eye. The force knocks me over, and everyone rushes over to see if I’m all right. I’m lucky; a quarter-inch to the left would have impacted my eyeball. My eye turns black immediately, and I press a Coke bottle to my face the rest of the afternoon.

Food is brought out, the pastor leads us in prayer and asks me to say a few words. I thank everyone for accepting me into their church family even though I’m not a churchgoer. I tell the pastor how much his calm demeanor and inner peace epitomizes his church’s philosophy. I say that their Filipino culture of caring, sharing, and friendliness has so inspired and affected me that I want to bring it back home and share it with as many people as I can. I present the pastor with a Peace Corps polo shirt, and he’s really surprised. “I didn’t expect this at all.”

When I sit down, Bernie tells me my speech was remarkable. Others come over and thank me for what I said. Still others ask if they could reprint the speech in the church publication. When Bernie and I take the court for our third and semifinal match, the crowd gives us a rousing cheer. I’ve never had a crowd root for me before in my entire life. They want me to win on my last day with them.

I take Bernie aside and joke that I’ve been hit twice and we’ve won twice, so for us to win, the ball must strike me a third time. Sure enough, in the second game an errant shot by one of our opponents caroms off the church building and pops me in the back of my head. The crowd hushes in alarm.

Instead of wincing in pain or getting angry, I jump up with joy. “That’s three!” I shout to Bernie. “We can’t lose now.” The crowd roars. We win easily, thanks to three backhand lobs of mine that miraculously hit the corner line each time. As we leave the court, even the referee runs across the court to congratulate me.

As Bernie and I retire to our chairs to watch the other semifinal matches, the referee walks by and whispers, “By the way, I helped you a little with those line calls,” then bellows and slaps my back as if he was just joking. Or was he?

An attractive wife of one of the players leans over and purrs slyly, “So, Sir John, are you bringing a Filipina home with you to America?”

“No, unfortunately,” I say. “Those who liked me were too young and those I liked were either married or not my type.”

“Hmm, I know someone who’s available. Would you be interested in meeting her?”

“I think it’s a little late now. I’m going home in a couple of weeks.”

She gives me a funny look, as if to say, “Are you sure?” Then I get it. The little devil. “She’s here, isn’t she?”

She leans back. Sitting beside her is a plain-looking woman in her forties who looks up at me humbly. The next thing I know, the player’s wife has vanished.

The poor woman is so nervous, she can barely speak, and when she does, her English is rudimentary at best. She’s never been married but has a son. She not only works in the church’s high school canteen but lives in the tiny compartment with her son. Good grief. I politely keep her company until the last match concludes.

Our opponents in the championship match will be the pair we played first, a husband and wife team. Hooray. The wife is consistent, but her husband’s a beginner. But there’s a catch. The husband can’t play in the final because he has to be in Cebu tomorrow. So another player will take his place. He’s no other than the partner who teamed with Bernie last year when they won the championship. All the final matches will be played tomorrow. Our only hope is if I get hit by the ball again.

MY LAST WEEK AT SCHOOL
October 8-13, 2012
Negros Oriental
On my first day back after ten days, my first-year students crowd around me. “Sir! What happened to your eye?”

My eye looks like I swiped boot polish underneath it. “I got into a bar fight in Manila.”

They gasp. “Manny Pacquiao was there. He said something that I didn’t like, we exchanged words, and then it escalated. I got a black eye, but he’s missing some teeth. Watch the news tonight. It’s all everyone’s talking about.”

The kids stare at me aghast. They’re so cute and gullible. I finally let them off the hook and admit the boring truth.

I take a seat in the back as my co-teacher gives them a listening assignment. She plays a love song, and they’re asked to describe how it made them feel.

Krishna raises her hand and walks to the front of the room. “I love my parents and my family, but when I heard this song, I only think of Sir John.” She pauses, then starts to sob softly.

“He’s only with us short time, but we all love him and will remember him and will miss him and I don’t want him to go and will never see him again…” then she breaks down. And so do others. She hurries back to her seat and covers her face in her hands.

Every student swivels around to see my reaction. I also have tears in my eyes. Krishna’s words take me by surprise. I love these kids so dearly. When the class is over, I go over and put my arms around her. “I’ll never forget what you said, Krishna. Thank you.” My goodness, how am I going to get through this week?

I meet with counterpart Esther in the afternoon to discuss the reading contests tomorrow and my farewell ceremony on Friday. She hands me the contest program, and I see my name’s been printed next to “inspirational message.”

“Sir John,” she says, “can you give an inspirational speech to the school tomorrow before the reading contests?”

This is how it’s often done in the Philippines. I’m actually lucky; I’m being notified 24 hours in advance. Usually, speakers are told they’re to speak only moments before.

“Yes, I’d be happy to,” I sigh. There goes my evening. Composing speeches always takes me a long time.

“And for your ceremony on Friday, could you and Mr. Tinio sing a duet again? Everyone wants to see the two of you perform again.”

I groan silently. I suffered so much stress the first time that I vowed to never do it again. I tell her I’ll speak to Nesty and get back to her, but I have no intention of singing – whether our names are printed on the program or not.

At home I work on my speech for a couple of hours, then go to the tennis court. Bernie and I will play first, and he’s already warming up. I play out of sorts, spray the ball everywhere, and no one hits me with the ball. We lose badly. I feel sorry for Bernie but more for the audience, who cheered for us on every point. They really wanted me to take a trophy back to America.

The next day I host the English Quiz Bee and Spelling Bee, and my co-teacher Susan is ecstatic when our two classes – first- and second-year – win first place.

In the afternoon, I tell Nesty that Esther wants us to sing another duet for my farewell ceremony. Hoping and expecting he’ll grumble and say not again, he surprises me. “Really? They want us back? Okay, let’s do it. Maybe we’ll go on tour afterward.”

My shoulders slump. Well, maybe it won’t be so bad. My only real disaster before was my solo. Our duet was a smash. We had fun together, and we’re both hams. Maybe our magic can work again. We brainstorm songs. We both like Kenny Rogers, his voice matching ours. We choose “Lady” and “She Believes in Me.”

Then we try to add something funny like we did the first time. I suggest we ask teachers to heckle us during the performance. He likes it, but what would they say? I remember the two Muppet characters who always did that. The two old coots in the balcony who always berated the acts with lines like “Can you sing far, far away?”

“We don’t know that song,” Kermit or Miss Piggy would reply.

“It’s not a song. We just want you to sing far, far away! Haha!”

“Yeah, can you also sing somewhere else? Hoo-hoo!”

He loves it, so that will be our act.

The next day when I come to school, Dona takes me aside and says, “Jerlin’s in the hospital. She may have dengue.”

My blood turns to ice. Dengue can be lethal to the elderly and the young. Jerlin, 10, is the youngest daughter of my last host family. I love her. Her family must be deathly worried. Then I sit down. Her birthday is this Saturday, the 13th, my last day in town before I leave for good and fly to Manila. It was going to be a huge party. That won’t happen now. Ironically, I was in the hospital with dengue on my birthday, too, the 13th of September.

The next day I practice packing for my flight home and discover I need one more piece of luggage. I go to Dumaguete, pay all my remaining bills through the month, buy the luggage, and return. I spend the rest of the morning packing. Everything fits. What’s left over I sort for the raffle I’ll hold for the teachers tomorrow.

When I go to school, my name is emblazoned on the wall of the covered court. They’re preparing for my farewell ceremony. I rehearse with Nesty, and we’re more than ready. I go to the second campus to get my co-teacher Susan, who will accompany me to the hospital to see  Jerlin.

When I approach her second-year classroom, she rushes out and waves her arms for me to go back. “Don’t come down here!” she smiles. Moments later I learn why. The class is rehearsing their song for my ceremony. As I wait in the Faculty Room, I hear the students sing from the other side of the wall. The song they’ve chosen is “To  Sir, With Love,” a love ballad to a teacher. I bend over and tear up. It’s the song I wanted the students to sing to me the most.

Susan comes out and tells me to go on ahead. Their practice will continue for a while longer. I go to the hospital.  Jerlin’s room is a mammoth ward with 20 beds crammed into in the vast space. All of the patients are children with similar symptoms. I hug Jerlin. She’s weak. One arm is hooked to an IV, and all the fingertips on her other hand are covered with cotton bandages where blood’s been taken.

“She’s been looking out the window for you for the last hour,” her mother Bombeth, a P.E. teacher at the school, says. “When we checked in, only five other beds were in the room. Now look at them all. Many have dengue. An epidemic has hit the area. There are so many stricken, they’re turning patients away.”

“And her?” I ask tentatively.

“They don’t know yet. She has all the symptoms. Her white platelet count dropped like it does with dengue, but only a little bit. We’ll know in a day or two.”

Jerlin’s sister Jedmay arrives. She’s a third-year student at my school. I give them both gifts: a board game for Jerlin’s birthday, and the Hunger Games book set for Jedmay, who ‘s a voracious reader. When Jed reads the note on my card, she hugs me. “I’m speechless at what you wrote,” she says emotionally. They both ask me to autograph their gifts.

I get a text from the pastor reminding me of our dinner at his house tonight. Huh? I recall him saying that he wanted me over for dinner sometime before I left, but no plans had been made. I apologize to everyone and rush out. I promise Jerlin I’ll see her again on Saturday. When I hug her, she can’t bear to look at me.

My town’s been hit with a brownout, and I can’t see where I am. It starts to rain again. I trudge through the mist to the church, but everything’s dark and nobody’s there. The pastor must have given up. I traipse back home, thaw out some fish, and make rice.

When I check my phone, I see three messages by the pastor. “We’re waiting for you, Sir John. Food is ready.” I throw on my clothes again and trek all the way back through the rain to the church, which is still dark. This time I knock on the door. A couple of minutes later someone comes to the door.

“He’s not here, sir,” the caretaker says. “Try his house. It’s across the street.”

I go to the house and knock on the door, and the pastor opens it, a big broad grin on his face. “So you found us! Come in!”

A banquet of food’s been laid out for me. I meet his lovely wife and daughter, and we sit down to eat. I ask the pastor about his life. He was only 22 when he applied to be a pastor. He hadn’t been ordained yet, which is normally a prerequisite, but as the church didn’t have a pastor at the time, the church elders allowed him to act as one temporarily until an ordained pastor arrived. In his first months, he organized a youth camp and a number of community programs that were very popular. By the time an ordained pastor was found, the church opted to keep the young man instead. He’s been here ever since.

He drives me home in the rain. When he stops at my house, he tells me, “Sir John, your work here in our country and in our town – and your purity of spirit and conduct – is like that of Christ. By your manner and example, you’ve spread the word on how to live a good and admirable life. I’m honored to have known you.”

I don’t know what to say. I sit mute as rain droplets roll down the windshield. I thank him softly and go inside.

Friday morning. My last day at school. My last day with my teachers. My last day with my students. I leave the house unsteadily. My heart is heavy. I feel lost. I don’t want to go through this. I don’t want to go home. I can’t leave these wonderful people. But I need to and have to.

Maybe this day will be the catharsis I need to cleanse my emotions, which are off the chart at the moment. The school van arrives to transport my belongings to the campus for the raffle. I hesitate before getting in. Please. Please. May this day not break my heart irreparably.

The first thing I see when I enter the second campus is my first-year students practicing a dance for me. At the other end of the campus, my second-year students boom out their chorus of “To Sir, With Love.”

The first-year students see me, let out a cry, and surround me. “Ohhh, Sir, don’t leave, Sir! We love you, Sir!” They give me a group hug. I clutch them tightly to me, letting the moment sear my memory so I don’t forget it.

“Will you sing today, Sir?” one girl pleads. Yes, I tell her. “Oh, we will cry when you sing to us! Today will be so sad.”

I tell them I have something for each of them and lead them back to their classroom. I take out a bag and spread its contents on the teacher’s table. They’re wallet-size portraits of me that I took in a studio last month. The kids scramble over them, fighting for them.

They proudly show them off. One girl puts hers in her cellphone cover. Another one puts it on her I.D. holder. When the second-year students finish their practice and emerge from their classroom, I bring over the remaining photos and hand them out, too. They demand I autograph theirs, so I do. When the first-year students see me doing that, they rush over and ask me to sign theirs as well.

At 11:30 I go to the main campus, where the main campus teachers have planned a special lunch for me. A long table fills the entire room, overflowing with food. All the teachers come in, greet me, and take their places around the table. They begin with a prayer, and the teacher who leads it breaks down halfway through. Another teacher finishes it for her. I give a short speech recounting my fondest memories of them during my first year. Mr. Tinio thanks me for serving at their school and says no one will forget me.

At 2:45 I hurry to the nearest Internet café to print out my airplane ticket. On the way, the principal zips by me on his motorcycles on the way to school. When he sees me, his eyes bug out, and he skitters to a stop. “Sir John, where are you going?”

When I tell him, he says, “The ceremony is at 3. Don’t be late. The vice-mayor is coming.” I assure him I’ll make it in time. He zooms off.

A few minutes before 3, I enter the main campus lugging my teachers’ gifts, my speech, and my camera. Rows of chairs full of students fill the central courtyard. The stage is a flurry of activity. Esther sees me and looks relieved. I barely sit down when the vice mayor strides up and shakes my hand.

The campus rapidly fills up as classrooms empty and the third- and fourth-year students sit around the courtyard. The first- and second-year students file in from the other campus and take what spots are left. The national anthem is recited, a prayer is sung, and introductions are given.

The principal speaks first, and I’m touched by his sentiments. He tells the audience I could have done a lot of things in my retirement, but I chose a course of service with the Peace Corps to help the students at their school. A scholar of American poetry, he concludes his tribute by reading “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. At the end, he turns to me and says, “Sir John, this last verse is particularly relevant to you.”

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood,
And I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The vice-mayor speaks next, addressing the audience in Visayan. A teacher beside me translates: “He’s comparing you to a mentor of his, a professor…The mentor, by his example, changed the mayor’s life and inspired him to enter public service…He’s telling the students that you’ve become a mentor to them as well…One day they too will remember you for helping them and inspiring them to succeed in life.”

As he concludes, I see the Fernandezians, what my second-year students call themselves, massing near the stage. Classrooms are named for their class advisor, and the students’ advisor is my co-teacher Susan Fernandez. I shake the mayor’s hand as he takes his seat, and the students line up on stage and launch into “To Sir, With Love.” I keep it together until the end, when they all approach me with cards, scrapbooks, flowers, and gifts. I fall into their arms.

Next are the first-year students, the Calbogians. They’re so cute and offer a song and dance of their own.

Finally it’s the teachers’ turn. A dozen of them come up on stage and sing, “Please Don’t Go.” My supervisor, Geremia, bawls throughout, as do Susan and several others.

Susan presents me with a mug with pictures of us on it. Jedmay follows, telling the crowd about my short time living with her family and how our after-dinner conversations opened up her mind and brought her out of her shell. “They’re memories I’ll never forget,” she says. She hugs me hard afterward and is in tears.

Finally it’s Mr. Tinio’s and my encore. We stride to the podium to excited applause. I wave to my first-year students, the Calbogians, and we knock the socks off of “She Believes in Me.”

When I ask for requests, Susan jumps up on cue, “Can you sing… far, far away?” The crowd cracks up.

“Oh, you’re insulting us? That’s not nice. Any more requests?”

Our second heckler stands up. “Yes, can you sing…somewhere else?”

Mr. Tinio grabs the microphone. “That’s disrespectful! Just for that, we’ll sing another song!”

We sing “Lady” and leave to cheers. After the ceremony, all the teachers head to the classroom where my belongings are raffled off: clothes, food, appliances, books, backpacks.

At the school exit, I hug my students for the last time, and everyone’s sobbing. All except me. I want to, but for some reason my tears refuse to come.

As I walk home, I run into Edna, one of my favorite teachers who retired recently. She hugs me like I’m her long-lost son. I’m so happy to see her before I leave. She says she’ll see me off at the airport.

At night, Dona knocks on my gate and gives me hot soup and a polo shirt with the school logo. She’s crying. Unable to speak, she gets back on her motorcycle and races off.

Saturday morning. I pay my last month’s rent plus a couple hundred pesos for a piece of cabinet glass that I broke, then give my longtime caretaker an envelope containing 5,000 pesos (a little over $100) for always watering and pruning the outdoor plants and shrubbery, mopping the muddy dog tracks from the porch, cleaning the throw rugs, and arranging for plumbers whenever I needed help.

I return to the hospital. Jerlin doesn’t have dengue, but they won’t let her leave until her fever goes down, which it stubbornly refuses to. She looks much better. Most of the patients in the ward have gone. Jedmay arrives and is already on page 91 of Hunger Games. “You were right,” she says, “I can’t put it down.”

I give a framed collage of our times together and a Peace Corps polo to their mother Bombeth, and she apologizes for not being able to be there for my ceremony. I bid my final farewell to each member of the family and leave.

When I arrive back home, I stroll over to the cowboys next door, who are drunk as usual. I thank them for protecting my place during my stay and wish them all well. One of them, Willie, says, “Everyone in the barangay knows who you are, Sir John. Everyone. Students tell me they like you. Thank you.”

RINGING THE BELL
October 14-18, 2012
Manila and Home
On the morning of my departure, I get up early and clean the house. I hear a voice outside. It’s Jeanalyn, the local Peace Corps scholar who invited me to speak to her business students last month.

“I wanted to say goodbye, Sir John,” she says outside the gate. I let her in. She presents me with a handsome plaque and scrapbook of all of my pictures with the scholars. A wonderful remembrance. We hug, she hops on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle, and they speed off.

Minutes later another knock on the gate. It’s the pastor. He wishes me the best, saying he wanted to see me one more time. His presence is a comfort. My caretaker strolls out and sits with us. Then Esther rolls up in her van. With her is the principal. They help me load my five bags into the vehicle. We take pictures, and I say goodbye to the pastor and caretaker.

On the way to the airport, a handful of Fernandezians text Esther to say they’re at the airport. Susan, Edna, and Dona are also there. When we arrive, I greet everyone and check in. When I’m done, I go back outside. Everyone’s waiting under the shade of a tree. The students are quiet and withdrawn. One of them, Vanessa, texted me the night before saying she’s sorry for being so bad to me her first year (she was). She’s been a completely different person this year. I go over to her and tell her I forgive her, and she bursts into tears.

Finally, it’s time. I gulp down my emotions and wrap my arms around each one of them. Dona holds me hard for a long time, her face buried into my shoulder. That’s when I come closest to losing it.

Susan grabs me with tears pouring down her cheek. Edna holds my arm and doesn’t let go all the way back to the terminal and inside the check-in area. Susan follows her. She grasps me one last time at the door. “John, you’re my best friend. My prayers will always be with you!”

I wave to them as I go inside the waiting area. I find an isolated spot in a corner, sink into a chair, and try to keep myself from falling apart. Such a wonderful, implausible experience. Such a heart-rending, painful one. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I’m blessed to have undergone it.

In Manila, I check into the pension hotel for the last time and meet up with the other 30 or so volunteers who, like me, are leaving one month early. Five will be on my flight. I go to the Peace Corps office and continue my exit checklist, completing most of the items by the end of the day. One of my favorite volunteers, Gage, who will marry a Filipina next month, talks and drinks with me until 2 a.m. We invent a new game: Who can describe a movie in the fewest clues:

shower, knife = Psycho
lovers, iceberg = Titanic
girl, demon = The Exorcist

I return to the office the next day for my final task, the exit interview with the deputy country director. When I arrive, her secretary asks if our 9 o’clock meeting can be moved back to 10:30 because the Presidential debate will be shown in the reception area for all volunteers and staff. Yes! I didn’t think I was going to see any of the debates before I came home.

The room is 99% in favor of Obama, and all the women groan, gasp, or shake their heads whenever Romney speaks about women, abortion, or women’s rights. The reaction is an early indication on how the election will play out.

When the deputy director and I finally sit down, a clanging bell down the hall interrupts us. Is it a fire? She’s not concerned; in fact, she’s beaming. “There’s the bell! C’mon!”

“What’s the bell?”

“It means someone’s saying goodbye. His or her Peace Corps service is over. It’s a tradition we started. Isn’t it a wonderful idea?”

I can’t disagree. As we step out of the room, Peace Corps staff pour out of their offices all the way down the hall. In the center, where the reception area and flags are located, four volunteers are saying their final goodbyes. They hug individual staff members, wipe away a few tears, and then leave the office for the last time. I thought all my emotional farewells were over. I’ll be doing this tomorrow.

Back in the room, I rave to to the deputy director about my site, my school, and my teachers. “They want another volunteer. Anyone you send there in the future, trust me, will bless you for the assignment.”

She asks what I’m most proud of. “Immersing myself into the community,” I answer without a beat. “I loved my town and the people in it. I rarely left it. My priority during my service was to be a goodwill ambassador and to leave a positive impression of America and Americans. I think I did that.”

When I tell her how much the students improved their English whenever we spent time outside the classroom, she gets very interested and takes me to the Education Sector manager’s office so she can hear my method.

I wait with several other volunteers until our final papers are signed by the country director. When the forms are brought to us, that’s it. We’re now officially RPCVs: Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. We get up and head for the exit. The guard has gotten the word and is waiting for us. When we near the flags, he rings the bell.

Everyone rushes out of their offices. Our superlative medical team, our fatherly security and safety officer, our admin wizardess, the greatest librarian, my sweet regional manager, our education and training mavens. Eloi, Ferdie, John, Lani, Sheila, Lynn, Joji, Boni, Stella, Monette, Edmund, Ginny.

Back at the pension, I’m pleasantly surprised to run into my old friend Lonnie from Batch 270. We have dinner downtown and see Argo (clues: Hollywood, rescue). My last night of sleep in the Philippines is fitful. All night I try to shift my focus away from the Philippines. To my family. My friends. My favorite American food. My Mini. My music. Time to turn east. Back to where it all began.

But my brain won’t let me. It won’t allow me to go home. Not yet. It grips me tight. To my students, my teachers, my friends, my community. “This is where you belong,” it whispers to me.

I rise at 3:30 and lug my bags downstairs. The others leaving with me straggle down one by one. We hail three taxis and convoy to the airport. We’re stunned by how efficient Delta is. We’re whisked through check-in and security smoothly. Yea! No more Cebu Pacific!

When the aircraft lifts off the tarmac, I feel no emotion. After experiencing so much joy and sadness the past few days, my feelings have dried up at the very apex of my journey. I’m not sad about leaving the Philippines. I’m not  missing the Peace Corps. I’m not excited about coming home. I’m numb. I’m simply on an airplane going from one place to another. My mind is coping. Healing. I let it. I watch a movie.

Somewhere over the Pacific, my emotional frigidity begins to thaw. I’m going back to the place that works. I’m returning to the land where I belong. I’m reconnecting to my culture whose magnetism the rest of the world has been unable to withstand for centuries.

I look around me. The passengers are a melting pot. How many are U.S. citizens? How many are coming for the first time? How many are visiting family members who’ve opted to live in America rather than their homeland? The gravitational tug of America is universal, and I feel my long-lost patriotism coming back. It had gone asleep the past two decades, but as we near Hawaii, those prickly twinges of feeling start to return.

I’m proud of what I did, but I’m more proud of my country whose idea it was it the first place — in the words of biographer/historian Doris Kearns Goodwin – to produce “an enduring legacy of service in the cause of peace, a timeless symbol of America’s most honorable ideals and aspirations.”

Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps, called volunteers patriots who “represent our society by what they are, what they do, and the spirit in which they do it.”

I’m also reminded of the late British writer Christopher Hitchens, who explained to a BBC anchor that his move to the States was because the “planetary pull of America” had become irresistible. I close my eyes and smile. I let it tow me in.

When I touch down in L.A., I don’t clap or shout. If I feel anything, it’s subtle. Like a warm softness enfolding me. I’m where I belong. The Peace Corps tells us our return home may be our toughest cultural adjustment of all. I can’t imagine that. I walk out. The first person I see is my sister. I’m home. What adjustment?