I have written about people who have touched my life in significant ways here on old Chez What, and today I am gonna tell about Jill.
Jill and I were in Peace Corps together, in Western Russia. Well, aside from my parents getting a divorce when I was 13, Russia had to rank right up there with one of the most strange and stressful things I ever did. I think the same could be said for just about every person in my group, but of every person in that group, I had the most respect for Jill.
Aside from obvious assets that Jill had, like being fluent in Russian, having already lived in Ukraine, having an eternally cool head and having a great sense of humor, Jill seemed to manage 99% of the time to float above all the crummy things that were happening in this time in Russia. Example?
Jill’s first placement was with a woman who took her basically as her own little personal American slave. She loaded Jill up with classes to teach, and while the rest of our group had apartments, Jill was living in this freezing cold dorm sleeping in the same room with 2 other girls (students) and sharing a kitchen that was nothing more than a hotplate on top of a fridge and a seat next to a window.
Almost miraculously, she got PC to change her assignment (for some reason this was utterly unheard of) and she went to a different school in Moscow.
This new job was less problematic, except that the living situation wasn’t much improved and where she was living was so dangerous she told me of being held at knifepoint outside of her dorm at night.
Now Jill was savvy and able to make connections with the teachers she was working with. She arranged for herself through her own connections to do a teacher training way out in Izhevsk (VERY far from Moscow). She charmed and wooed them (an easy task for her she was capable in Russian and had a charming personality) and they invited her to teach there with them. She had essentially done for herself the job that PC does for volunteers.
When she asked PC if she could go and her reasons why (safety, better circumstances) they said that she was not allowed to change sites again. And with the most amazing testicular fortitude, she ditched PC and crossed Russia on her own to teach in Izhevsk (a small remote burg), trusting them to pay her, help her out and give her a place to live. They did all that and she stayed there for the remainder of the time she was scheduled to be in Russia, after which, I believe PC flew her home.
Now it might not sound like a biggie, but to be in a foreign country without a sort of organization behind you to back you up or pull you out of a jam, well, that to me sealed the deal as Jill having real courage, and confidence. I don’t think she ever though twice.
Jill and I kept in touch after PC. This was during my salsa dancing phase. I went to Monterrey to visit her as she got her Masters in teaching Russian at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies. She came up to Portland and I took her around and to my family. She made fun of where my parents lived, in Gig Harbor, called it Geek Harbor and then laughed really hard and slapped her knee, she only ever referred to it as Geek Harbor. I thought it was funny too.
I admired Jill because she was so determined, so focused on what she wanted. She was all about Russia. And while my language abilities in Russian faded (I learn fast and forget equally as quickly) she had started publishing and got a job in Washington D.C. with ACTR (American Council of Teachers of Russian). With them she would bring Russian teachers of English to the U.S. to train and she would go to Russia to stay for trips.
She did things professionally that I thought were beyond cool, she presented at TESOL. She interpreted in important meetings. She was travelling, publishing. During this time of my life, I was basically trying to figure out what to do with myself after PC, hoping to avoid the Masters Programs so I didn’t accumulate any more student debt).
Jill now is an occasional intermediary between my host family in Russia and myself. I have sent her several letters, and not heard a word from her. She sent me a gift when my daughter was born, but the last letter I received had the wrong phone number for her in it. I think I called it about 5 times, leaving messages. The email too, dead. How wierd!
Jill told me once about how she had a friend in Russia who she had basically ditched. She told me how awful she felt about never writing her back, never calling her after having been as thick as thieves for years. If memory serves, she said she loved her dearly, but that the friend had become very reliant on Jill.
It is true, Jill and I were very different people, especially at that time after Peace Corps when I was trying to figure out which direction to take. She would tell me her professional travails, and all I could think was how lucky she was. I encouraged her, told her that I admired her, especially as this 2 year period saw my life sullied with ridiculous jobs, choices made out of boredom and a lack of real focus.
Jill and I were really different, she never seemed to be the remotest bit interested in marraige or family. I hadn’t been until I hit about 29, then it dawned on me: I wasn’t sure if being single was what I really wanted. She seemed to float above that. Marraige wasn’t at all interesting to her, her work completed her it seemed like.
Well so I have no issue if Jill dropped me off along the way, I am glad to have known her. She still kind of inspires me with her focus. I am not her, I do wish I could speak with her, if only to hear tales of her meteoric rise. I don’t doubt for a second that she would achieve among the highest goals. I hope she is well, and perhaps we will cross paths again.