The RPCVs of Colorado (RPCVCO) bi-monthly newsletter includes a section on a featured member where we celebrate our members, from newly returned to founders of the organization and everyone in between. The January/February 2017 edition of the newsletter features excerpts from this member profile of long-time member Don Curtis. A strong supporters of the local Peace Corps community throughout the years, Don, along with his wife Gloria, is a familiar face at many of our events. Don served on the board of RPCVCO for more than 20 years and was a long-time advocate of providing grants to support the projects of currently serving Peace Corps Volunteers. In honor of Don’s dedication to the Peace Corps Community, the Don Curtis Giving Fund was established several years ago. If you have ever bought a calendar from RPCVCO then you contributed to the Don Curtis Giving Fund, which most recently supported a leadership camp in Cambodia and a milling project in The Gambia.
The Peace Corps Experience and its Impact on My Life
By Don Curtis
The Decision to join the Peace Corps:
I had been contemplating joining the Peace Corps after teaching for 6 1/2 years because I wanted to do something different, exciting, and worthwhile. When President Kennedy was assassinated, I decided to apply sometime after Thanksgiving in 1963, and since I hadn’t studied a foreign language, I didn’t indicate a desire to go to any particular country.
By March, the Peace Corps sent me an invitation to train for teaching in India. I promptly accepted and resigned my teaching position from Arvada High School in the Jefferson County School District (consisting of the western suburbs of Denver). The administration liked the idea of the Peace Corps and said they would give me a two-year leave of absence to serve; however, they wouldn’t guarantee that I could return to the same school. As it turned out when I did come back, I returned to Arvada High School and finished my career there. After retiring from regular high school teaching, I taught part time an additional 13 years in our school district’s Adult High School.
Our PC training was at Downer College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Some of our training was very frustrating such as the peer counseling sessions, the midterm, and end of training selection process. I also found out that I had little talent for learning a language. Fortunately I was still selected to serve.
After my return to the U.S., I met our Training Director, Al Osborn, at several National Council of Teachers conventions and found out that he was supposed to be the trainer of Math – Science teachers, not the director. When the staff first met the week before our training started, they found out the person who was supposed to be our training director had been reassigned. Al became our director by default. He said it was like the blind leading the blind. I also found out why our group wasn’t assigned to teacher training institutes as originally planned. Since most of the people in our group were recent graduates and had had no teaching experience, it was decided teacher training wasn’t a good idea, so we were assigned to schools or projects throughout India.
Little did I know that I would be a teacher at a school in New Delhi that was about 100 meters from the Lodie Hotel, where we stayed upon our arrival.
The school, Delhi Public School (DPS), was asked to find housing for me. They were concerned that I would have a problem with the food, so they asked the Domestic Science teacher if she and her family would rent a small apartment to me. Fortunately she and her husband said yes and this decision led to a life-long friendship with the family. We still communicate with the children and grandchildren and have visited them in India, and they have visited us in the U.S.
Don Curtis with students while serving in Peace Corps in India
At Delhi Public School I taught math and science to 7th, 8th and 9th grades to start with. Two things I discovered right away were that the school administered the British “Senior Cambridge Exiting Exam” and that all the text books were published in England. This was a problem for me when it came to the biology of flora and fauna. I didn’t know how to compare the British terms to the equivalent Indian terms. As a result I ended up teaching “Maths” to 7th and 8th graders. I found the students didn’t behave any differently than our US students other that standing when a teacher entered the classroom. I also coached the basketball team with mediocre results while I was there. I found out later two of my 8th grade students eventually made the “All Delhi” team and two of my 11th grade students made the “All India” club team while at the university. Along with teaching, I helped with the physical training program.
In addition I was in charge of 250 Cub Scouts. The Cub Scouting program was a challenge. Prior to my helping, all they did was read Rudyard Kipling “Jungle Stories”. I had six other teachers to help, but the activity was held on Saturdays (our activity day) so many of our staff were absent and we would end up with groups of 40 or 50 cubs. Once we started having the boys earn badges the attendance increased. Some of the badges included: knot tying, activities related to sports such as cricket batting and bowling, health knowledge, running a certain distance (no specific time), they even had badges that the parents could verify such as cooking and personal hygiene.
One thing I am often asked is what effect I had on the educational system in India. I guess there were two things that stand out. One was a result of the students saying to an Indian teacher, “That’s not the way Mr. Curtis does it.” The teacher would come to me and ask how I presented the information. The other was a summer institute I was invited to help with. It was an institute presented by USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] for Delhi Math Teachers on the U.S.’s Secondary Modern Math program. Two professors from the US and a young Indian college professor were the instructors. Originally the two U.S. professors were to live in the dormitory with the Indian participating teachers, but the families of the American professors had decided to come with them, and they refused to stay in the dorm. Since I had taught the supposedly “Modern Math” at my school in the U.S., I was asked to assist in the project and live in the dorm. As a result, this was my summer project in 1965. There were about 40 teachers from the Delhi area attending. At the end of the program the Indian teachers decided they would like to do something along the lines of the methods used in the U.S. I basically helped them to organize a study group. They were “gung ho” and started by meeting weekly on Sunday mornings. I was concerned about this because transportation was a problem in Delhi since every participant had to travel by bus.
What the meetings involved was that one of the participant’s would make an in depth presentation on one of the topics covered in the summer institute. After about a month they decided to meet every other week, and after another month and a half they decided to meet monthly. We were meeting at the Indian college professor’s facility. They also talked about writing a text book incorporating the Modern Math concepts, but nothing seemed to be firm. “Modern Math” at that time was to explain the mathematical concepts involved and stress the mathematical structure, not just telling students to use this formula or that theorem.
My role was to make sure we had a meeting date and presentation for the next meeting. Everything had to be planned ahead of time as no teacher had a home telephone and mail was unpredictable at best. The college professor was the only person who had any contact information. I showed up for the April 1966 meeting, and nobody else showed up. At that point, I didn’t know what happened, so I tried to contact the college professor about the meeting but never heard back. I thought they must have decided to disband the group. In May, my PC service ended and I returned home. Then surprise of all surprises, in August I received a package at my home from the college professor with a Math text book the group had written. They had also made arrangements to have it adopted as one of the official Delhi State textbooks.
The summer program was written up in the “Mathematics Teacher” journal of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics as a successful USAID project. The Indian college professor, Mohan Lal, made several trips to the U.S. to study our programs and called me each time.
A personal comment about our Modern Math: The Geometry textbook we used at my school in India was a Durrell 1896 edition. It was so old that it was like our modern textbooks. The Geometry textbook I started teaching with in the U.S. had definitions for every term and theorems only, no undefined terms or postulates or anything related to the structure of Mathematics. The Durrell text used the undefined terms, point, line, plane. Durrell used the terms with no definition and never talked about the terms being undefined starting points. In explaining the structure of Mathematics the undefined terms and postulates (axioms) need to be pointed out and lead to new terms and proved theorems. Plane Geometry may be the best example that can show a step-by-step development that a student can understand. Spherical Geometry has different concepts in its starting definitions which can lead to different conclusions. An example is the sum of the angles in plane geometry equals 180degrees, but the sum of the angles of a spherical triangle is greater than 180degrees. Also the sides of a spherical triangle are curved, not straight, so they need a different definition. If a person has a different concept of any of these terms, it could lead to a different conclusion. The Durell text called all our U.S. postulates (statements we accept as true without proof) “axioms”. I guess that is a case of “Something Old – Something New.”
Another thing I have found interesting, several of the students I had at DPS eventually visited the U.S. and contacted me by phone. They knew I lived in Denver, Colorado, so they decided to call all the Don Curtises in the telephone directory. Since my name is Don, not Donald, it happened to be the first name in the directory and they got me right away. Two of them even visited me when they visited Denver.
After Peace Corps:
I traveled through Asia on my way home. It is a small world: I ran into Lowell Edwards and his sister in Hong Kong and Cedron and Helen (Fox) Jones in the Honolulu airport.
With the new school year of 1966 I ended up returning to my old high school. Also I immediately got involved with an RPCV group, which included parents of RPCVs. The meetings mainly consisted of presentations of RPCV experiences. This information seemed to be reassuring to the parents. At first the RPCVs of the group tried to get involved with local school districts by volunteering to give presentations at schools. This didn’t work out very well because most of the schools wanted presentations at times when the volunteers were working. Then we lost our free meeting place when the International House was sold. Soon after that the group disbanded for lack of interest. When ACTION was formed including VISTA and Peace Corps, we regrouped and even helped with recruiting. This Denver RPCV group has been active since 1976. At first I wasn’t very active in the group because of our small children. Once they were older both Gloria and I became very involved in our local group by serving in various official capacities. Currently we still participate in our group but let the very capable younger members run the organization.
During my second year back I found another RPCV, Terry Schoemaker, in our district was developing a low achiever math program. I became very involved in the project with him. We worked with the local businesses developing hundreds of materials for students that the businesses said were pertinent for students to know in order to work for them. The program was a great success and districts from all around the US came to observe the program. All the materials were copies of forms the businesses used so they were consumable. This eventually led to the programs demise because of the cost of printing.
The best part of working with the Terry on this Math project was that he served in Ethiopia with a young lady who came to our district to do her student teaching. He introduced us, and Gloria eventually became my wife and life-long partner. It seems as if we have been members of the local and national RPCV groups forever. We have been involved in international events in Denver and hosting international visitors. The Denver United Nations Association had an International Hospitality Center, where they asked its members to host international guests. Usually it involved showing the foreign visitors at the Federal Center around the Denver area and inviting them to meals and hosting Indian or Ethiopian professors studying or doing research at the University of Colorado Hospital. We also had two Foreign Exchange high school students (from Japan and Mexico) live with us for a school year. We still have the former student form Mexico, now mother of 3, visits us every summer.
Our daughter, Donna, even followed in our footsteps by serving in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan (1995-1997) and married a fellow PCV by the name of Michel Walker.
We are very active with Denver Sister Cities because Denver has Sister Cities in Axum, Ethiopia, and in Chennai (formerly Madras), India, where we served as volunteers. Our Axum, Ethiopia, committee has raised funds and sent water and sanitation engineers to Axum to improve the water and sanitation infrastructure as well as helped a school facility with funds and supplies. Metropolitan State University of Denver also has a working agreement with Axum University. Our Chennai committee is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the City of Chennai developing solar energy use. When Chennai was hit with the Tsunami in 2004, Denver helped raise over $70,000 to rebuild a village near Chennai. Since then we have also raised funds to help supply a medical center and build a school near the village.
I must say, “The Peace Corps changed our lives.”
RPCVCO current and former board members in July 2016. Don Curtis is seventh from the right.