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A LIFELONG EXPERIMENT IN OPTIMISM AND RESPECT FOR OTHERS

A LIFELONG EXPERIMENT IN OPTIMISM AND RESPECT FOR OTHERS

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A chilling rain pelted me as I walked around to the rear of Ruth Williams' house. I shook myself off and stepped into her back room, which was stacked up to hip level with boxes, clothes and books. Ruth was unfazed by the weather. She quickly cleared a path through her belongings and motioned to a room where we could sit down.Ruth was stuffing as much as she could into three suitcases. ``I just can't decided what to take,' she half-complained, then chuckled. She was preparing to return to Kaimosi, Kenya, where she works as a teacher of English. Energetic and enterprising, she is doing what you might expect a veteran teacher to do after she retires.

There's a difference, though. Ruth retired from her North Carolina teaching job back in 1972, at the age of 65. I figured out how old that makes her now, but I don't for a minute believe it. And I don't think she knows it: It would have been a waste of time to stop and count.

Ruth is the embodiment of optimism. She goes back to Kenya for the same reason she took off for Singapore more than 30 years ago: She believes that people can learn from each other, and therefore they should listen to each other. Since her retirement, she has also taught in Tonga and Thailand.

After finishing college during the Depression, Ruth taught until she married and started a family. By the time her daughter was in high school, she had applied to the Methodist Board of Missions and was accepted as a matron in a children's hospital in Singapore.

When she arrived at the hospital, one of the boys asked how long she planned to stay.

``Two years,' Ruth answered.

``Well, we've already run off three missionaries,' the boy said.

Ruth was undaunted. Her daughter, who worked beside her in the hospital, returned to Greensboro at the end of those two years to attend college, but Ruth stayed on for another year and a half.

Back in North Carolina, Ruth returned to teaching. Before she retired, she started planning her next move and wrote to the Peace Corps. When she joined the corps in 1972, she was ``the only elderly one' in her group. Now, she says, about 20 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are retired persons.

When asked what part of the world she preferred, Ruth asked for a place where people dance. So for three years she taught dance and drama to eighth- through 10th-graders in the Tonga Islands of the South Pacific. During the third year she traveled around the islands by bus and bicycle to conduct plays at one school after another.

A two-year hiatus followed while the Peace Corps assigned her to first Botswana, then Nicaragua. But the assignments were cancelled when the countries became too ``hot.' Finally Ruth embarked on a two-year term at Udorn Teachers College in northern Thailand, where she taught first- and second-year college English students.

``They were Buddhists,' she says, ``such kind-hearted people - kind to everyone, to children, to animals. I never heard a mother scold or punish her children.'

Ruth was touched by the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism. ``Their Buddha was very much like Christ,' she says, ``but he was a prince who left his palace and his beautiful clothing and began living as a poor person to find the meaning of life.' Because Peace Corps volunteers don't teach religion, Ruth was careful to steer her discussions away from Biblicalreferences.

At home again from 1980 to 1987, Ruth took a three-month trip to Africa under the auspices of Servas, an international hospitality organization. Because she had Quaker as well as Methodist connections, when she was in Kenya she asked to see a Quaker school she had heard about. She met an English teacher there, as well as the principal, with whom she later corresponded; when the English teacher moved away, Ruth volunteered to take his place.

So that is what brought this modest, soft-spoken and worldly-wise teacher to western Kenya. Her students range from 18 to their 30s; two are in their 40s. Because she is at a Bible college, she now has a chance to discuss theology with her students; she finds them working out preconceptions they learned from earlier classes and teachers. She urges the men to get along with their wives. She urges her students to listen to each other.

This week Ruth, still on holiday, is scavenging for the right clothes and books to take back. Because Kenya is trying to nurture its fledgling clothing industry, the government has placed high duties on parcels of incoming clothing, making relief packages prohibitively expensive for many people. And students in the rural community of Kaimosi need more current books. It isn't uncommon for her to find them reading books published 70 or 80 years ago.

Ruth expects to spend another year in Kenya. What then? She's not about to pin herself down.

``Why can't we all learn from each other? That's my philosophy. We can take the best and accept each other, and make a better world. I feel like we could have heaven on earth if we could learn to love and respect and accept the good in each other.'

Coming from someone who has put those ideals to the test, they are encouraging words.

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