Lesson is taught from half a world away

A Peace Corps volunteer’s life in the Pacific helps teach geography.
Tuesday, September 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:17 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Friday, Sept. 10, the call came in at 2 p.m., not 2:20 as planned. Widget Ewing, a geography teacher at Columbia Catholic School, immediately began calling students out of their classes and hustling them into the library. The seventh-graders’ geography class would have a new voice that afternoon.

Half a world away it was already 7 a.m. on Sept. 11 for Nick Cook. On the anniversary of an event that would change the lives of many, Cook shared his own life changes through a speakerphone, providing a personal geography lesson about a distant part of the world.

Now he is a Peace Corps volunteer in Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean. He has been corresponding with Ewing’s class for more than a year now.

That Friday was the first time the students had been able to talk to Cook while he was still abroad. So when the students hustled into the library 20 minutes early that Friday afternoon, some were giggling, some whispering. Others had questions, and for the next hour they didn’t have to wonder about what really lay on the far side of the world. They could ask Cook.

Once the call was connected to a speakerphone in the middle of the library, Ewing began calling students to take their turn at the phone. At first the students seemed shy about standing up in front of their classmates, but soon a line formed as students stepped up to ask their questions:

“Do your students have pets?”

“What do you eat?”

“How far is Kiribati from the United States?”

Cook answered each question in turn, taking time to explain the context of his answers so his listeners in America would understand his life in Kiribati.

Yes, his students do have pets, but over the long distance line, pets sounded like tests, and yes, they have those too. He eats fish and rice — and maybe an occasional coconut. As for the distance between the United States and Kiribati, he didn’t know.

“But it feels like a million miles,” he said.

Then there were the tougher questions: “When you leave Kiribati, what will you miss?”

Cook answered with a description. In the evenings, he likes to run. Afterward, he cools down by walking on the beach and looking across the water to the horizon. It is a

lovely island, and Cook will miss its beauty when he leaves Kiribati.

Another student stepped up to the speakerphone and leaned in to ask, “Why did you decide to join the Peace Corps?”

“My father was a Peace Corps volunteer,” Cook answered. “I lived in Washington, D.C., and I saw Sept. 11 with my own eyes. I wanted to serve my country, but I didn’t want to join the military.”

Another question: “What do you want to have in Kiribati that you don’t have now?”

Cook had a ready response for that question, as well.

“I most want my family,” he said. “I know it sounds corny, but it’s true.”

After a few more questions had passed, Ewing interrupted the steady line of students, eager for their turn at the phone.

“I have a former Peace Corps volunteer here who would like to talk to you,” she said, leaning into the speakerphone to be sure Nick heard her.

A man had slipped into the library soon after the call started, and he had been standing quietly behind the librarian’s desk. At Ewing’s words, he stepped up to the phone.

“Hey, Nick,” the man said. “It’s your dad.”

There was a pause and then laughter.

Cook spoke to his father, his mother, his former teacher and principal. He heard about his niece’s baptism. He’s looking forward to meeting her when he gets home. Cook graduated from the eighth grade at Columbia Catholic School in 1994, finishing at Hickman High School in 1998.

This correspondence is part of the Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools program, designed to introduce students to the world beyond their classrooms. He is the third volunteer Ewing has been matched with. A previous volunteer was her daughter, who was serving in Russia.

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