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A Lesson in Cultural Priorities, a Short Story by Phyllis Houseman

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

In the summer of 1962, I traveled to Ecuador as part of a Peace Corps Volunteer group of science and math teachers. First, we trained for two months at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

Halfway through the course, our small team had the honor of meeting President John Kennedy in the White House Rose Garden. He shook all of our hands and told us how much we were wanted in Ecuador. No one had a premonition of what his future would bring.

Assigned to the Escuela de Excelencia, a secretarial training school in the southern city of Loja, I taught Nutrition and English to three classes of girls. They were the hope of their families to provide the income needed to escape a life of poverty. Home for many of the students was a tar-paper-covered shack with an earthen floor and no running water or electricity.

The school had few resources—the classroom I used had bare adobe walls. And they owned no actual typewriters. The young ladies practiced typing at a long, battered table, drilling on flat wooden replicas that had keys painted on their surfaces.

Determined to change the barren surroundings, I organized a project to obtain classroom materials from a variety of U.S. companies—many from my hometown of Detroit. The girls composed dozens of personalized letters to the businesses, using the ream of paper, envelopes, and postage I secured from local donors.

One student, Manuela Rodriguez, wrote so movingly I asked her to copy her message into a half-dozen requests.

“Sirs, we have little in our school to help us become excellent secretaries. Not even typewriters. But our mothers let us stay out of the fields and laundries. With your generous aid, we may succeed.”

Materials flowed in during the next several months: colorful charts of food groups and nutrition goals went up to brighten the naked walls. We read from an English-language, short story anthology a publisher contributed. There were enough copies so that each girl received her own volume.

The most amazing gift was a microscope with prepared learning slides. The rector immediately locked it away in a display cabinet, never to be used, but always admired by visitors.

No typewriters arrived.

About a year into my stay, I learned the school qualified for a government educational grant. Now they could purchase several real typing machines.

Just before I left for home, the funds showed up, and a committee of various city officials held closed-door meetings on how to best use the money.

The grant the school received was nonspecific. To my gringo mind, using it to get actual typewriters for girls studying to be secretaries was the logical thing to do.

However, orgullo, pride, turned out to be more important to all concerned, except me.

A month later, I stood in the Plaza Central viewing my last Ecuadorian Independence Day parade. Many area schools marched by, carrying streaming flags and banners.

None strutted more proudly than the young ladies of the Escuela de Excelencia. The girls all wore brand new marching uniforms in the school colors of white and baby blue.

I felt a wave of affection for my students and a sadness that I accomplished so little in my two years with them. The purchase of uniforms instead of the machines was their priority. It was my lesson in cultural values.

For the next day, they would carefully store their outfits to be ready for another ceremony. The girls then would sit down at the table and practice on the painted letters of the old wooden typewriters.


Phyllis Houseman was born in Detroit and received degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. She served in the Peace Corps, Ecuador, and then taught Biology and Physical Science in Detroit and California schools. In a step into another career, Phyllis has published several novels and short stories. Web Page: Author Page:


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