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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

What's Integrity?

Asia, Nepal

I once heard "integrity" defined as the quality of a person who does what's right when he or she knows that absolutely no one else is watching. For example, there's the age-old question, "If you found a hundred-dollar bill on the street and you were certain that no one had seen you pick it up, what would you do with the money?" The particular context in which I heard the definition, however, was somewhat different. I was a third-year college student and somehow I'd been lured (possibly lured by a hundred dollars) into working for a door-to-door encyclopedia company. During my two-week tenure as an employee for this company, we spent our days entirely alone, running from home to home in distant American neighborhoods chanting a mantra—"Everybody's gittin' 'em, everybody's gittin' 'em." We were essentially brainwashing ourselves into thinking that everyone was buying the books. Well, everybody wasn't gittin' 'em, at least they weren't gittin' 'em from me. In two weeks I'd sold one book.

I got discouraged and one day stopped chanting long enough to have this thought: I don't have to do this. I'm totally alone out here, and if I just sat under that tree over there and didn't sell encyclopedias and instead took a nap, no one would know the difference. That's when the voice of the cult, er, company entered my head. It was like the God of Encyclopedias was sitting in a nearby tree, speaking to me from a megaphone: "Integrity!" the voice boomed, "What would you do if you knew no one was watching?" I suppose I'd take a nap, was my thought at the time. Instead of taking a nap, I found a local pay phone and called my brother in Ohio. "I want to quit. Does this mean I have no integrity?" I asked. "No," he said, "it means you have a terrible job." This was all I needed to hear; I quit and was home within a week.

Nearly 10 years later, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Nepal. Once again, I find myself in a distant place where I've been asked to do a job in which no one will be watching me. This isn't to say that the Peace Corps staff isn't concerned with what the Volunteers do at their sites, which are often situated in the most remote areas of the world. Rather, in this employer–employee relationship, the Peace Corps is more like a trusting parent. After an intense three-month training period during which, not unlike in childhood, our progress is closely monitored and we are under constant supervision, the Peace Corps decides that its Volunteers are mature enough to fly the coop. The staff entrusts its Volunteers to go out there and do our thing.

It's a bit unsettling, though, when you arrive at your site, move your bags into your new home, which in almost every way resembles no home you've ever known before, and there you are, alone with your goals, your ideas, your fears. Somehow I didn't expect that, in the middle of a rural Nepalese village, among squawking chickens and moody cows, below Himalayan mountains and terraced rice fields, I'd have anything resembling normal thoughts. But there I was, me and my two bags, a bed frame, and a foam mattress. "Wonder what time it is?" I thought. "And what am I supposed to do now?"

Actually, in terms of my assignment as a Volunteer, I had a very good idea of what I was supposed to do. I had come to my village to teach English at the local government school and to work with a Nepalese teaching counterpart as a kind of mentor, all in preparation for my second year of service, when I'd give teacher trainings at 15 schools in the area. Unlike my selling encyclopedias, I was both capable of doing this job and enthusiastic to start teaching. But, within the first few weeks of my service, I realized quickly that my success as a Volunteer and—more important—my happiness as a Volunteer might depend on how I spent my time beyond my given assignment.

My teaching job required that I attend school from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day for 120 days out of the year. This left a lot of time, mornings and evenings, weekends and holidays, once again to contemplate the meaning of integrity. There I was, in Nepal, without a single person to testify to my good work or even care whether I did my job. No one was watching me. As a child and a student, I had grown accustomed to the reward system, the one where I yelled "Hey Mom! Look at me!" or beamed with pleasure when my favorite teacher awarded me an A for a well-written paper. Now, if I tried my best, maybe no one would notice; similarly, if I decided to hide in my room for two years playing tic-tac-toe in the dust, no one would know the difference.

No one, that is, except me. This is something I imagine my mom would remind me of: "If you sat around doing nothing, you'd know the difference. I'd probably know, too." And so it came to be, the day the Peace Corps jeep dropped me off at my empty, dusty two-room flat in the middle of the world, I decided that, instead of curling up on the cement floor for an afternoon nap, I'd venture out. Outside. Outside into the village beyond my window, where old men rest under a shaded tree, where women gather and gossip, where children chase each other up and down the road, where goats and buffalo and cows and chickens meander and mingle. Beyond my room and beyond myself, I had the chance to meet new people, to practice speaking Nepalese, to drink tea, to play games, to watch, to observe, and to listen to everything going on around me.

Of course, I can't spend all of my time outside. Retreating inside to my small two-bedroom apartment has purpose as well. It's an opportunity to regroup, reenergize, and process my thoughts. I do this through writing journal entries, reading books, listening to my favorite CDs, dancing—yes, by myself—and sometimes, just sitting in front of the large window in my kitchen and allowing my mind to wander out into the Kathmandu Valley below. I've become more self-reliant when it comes to seeking praise and affirmation for my work. I haven't resorted to chanting "Everybody's gittin' 'em!" but if you can't prop yourself up when you're feeling dejected, you might not last long as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

We were told during our pre-service training that the Peace Corps is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. At the time, this seemed like a silly concept: Can sleeping be considered work? What about brushing my teeth? But now, a year into my service, I've found this to be true, not because Volunteers are diligently at work in an office, school, or field all day long, but rather because there is subtext to everything we do. For example, drinking tea in a shop isn't just drinking tea, it's a chance to practice speaking Nepalese and gain acceptance within our community. Which leads to my redefinition of integrity: when everything we do, regardless of what we're doing and regardless of who is watching, has purpose and meaning. Does this mean that you'll never catch me napping in Nepal? No, but with so much going on outside my window, I can't sleep anyway. 

About the Author

Steve Iams

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Steve Iams' assignment was to work with the Nepalese government schools as an English language teacher trainer. He taught English to grades 4–8 in a small village near Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal.

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