“Steady valley experiences”

Posted: June 23, 2014

For two M.A. teachers, the road that led from high-school graduation back to the classroom was long, complicated

Westrems experience both highlights and influential ‘steady, valley experiences’


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Stepping onto the picturesque campus of Northwestern University, Reid Westrem (’84), then a college freshman and now Minnehaha’s journalism and freshman world history teacher, knew that his future lay widely before him. What he didn’t know, though, was how close he was to finding the woman he would spend that future with.

“It may not have been love at first sight, but it was definitely attraction at first sight, at least on my part,” he said, recalling September 1984, when he met Robyn Caithamer, then a college sophomore and now an English teacher at Minnehaha. “Robyn was the student health-aid on our floor, who dispensed band-aids and things on the floor. Now, when I found that out, I developed a lot of health problems. [During intramural floor hockey season] I developed many blisters, so where was I to go but down the hall?”

Starting on a foundation of bandages and Tylenol, the pair became closer over the course of the year, beginning as friends and progressing onward. From there they learned that they shared many things in common, from a love of books to a love of God.

“We went to church together,” said Robyn. “There really wasn’t anyone else going, so we rewarded ourselves with Dunkin’ Donuts after for getting up early.”

Though they shared many similarities, their differences balanced the two out. “I would probably sit in a chair and study for 10 hours a day,” said Reid.”She would come [to my room] and make me stop.”

In order to keep him sane, Robyn would manage to tear him away from his work.

“I was always the one convincing him to stop with the homework and go for a walk along Lake Michigan,” she said.

Looking back, Reid acknowledges how fortunate he really was. “In high school, I probably would have been voted most likely to never get married,” he said. “But three months after graduation, I met my wife. I was very lucky. If you’re going to marry your first girlfriend, it should be someone like Robyn.”

Once their relationship solidified it remained for all four years of college.

“I had wanted to join the Peace Corps in college, but I knew that would be the end of our relationship,” said Reid. “You can’t stay together during that and say, ‘Hey, I’ll see you in two years. Wait up for me!’ I put that on the back burner for a while.”

When the moment to join the Peace Corps presented itself a few years later, it was clear the time had arrived.

“Compared to a lot of our friends, we were unsuccessful,” said Reid. “We didn’t have a house and we didn’t have kids . What we did have was an opportunity. We looked at it and said, ‘Now is the time when we can do what we want to do.’ So we applied.”

After applying, the process took around nine months before they were placed in a country. For the Westrems, this wait came with multiple false placements.

“They told us we would probably be going to Armenia, so I went out to the library and started learning Armenian from tapes,” said Reid. “Then they said ‘nope, we’re probably going to send you to Yemen.’  And so I returned the tapes. I think I waited to learn Arabic until I was sure [we would go there], though. And then they changed that. They said West Africa, and then finally they said the Czech Republic.”

Though it wasn’t where they expected to end up, the Czech Republic influenced the Westrem pair just the same.

“You go in order to give,” said Reid. “And when it’s all said and done, you have received way more than you’ve given. You almost feel guilty. [An example is] that’s where I learned to love teaching.”

Throughout the experience, their moods oscillated from confidence in their location and what they were doing, to homesickness and doubt.

“[The Peace Corps] studied the responses to homesickness and culture shock,” said Robyn. “They were able to say ‘you’ll be feeling a certain way for the first three months, and then you’ll take a dip.’ It ebbed and flowed in three-month segments. Of course I thought, ‘that won’t be me,’ but most of us experience that.”

Between these lows lay “peak experiences.”

“I definitely have memories of peak experiences,” said Reid. “But I think it was the steady valley experiences that were more influential. The days in and out of teaching were not peak experiences, but the changed the course of my career forever.”

While the purpose of the experience was to make a difference, volunteers were encouraged to travel, and the Westrems took full advantage of that.

“In Yugoslavia, there was a cease-fire for 10 days or so [in the civil wars that tore apart the southern European country in the 1990s], so naturally we thought it would be a good time to visit during that time,” said Robyn. “There’s no fighting, so it’s safe, right?”

“We went to Dubrovnik, which is still, in my opinion, the most beautiful city in Europe,” added Reid. “When we got there, it was completely shot apart with artillery shells. We saw a society in collapse, which put our troubles into perspective. And then soon after we left [the town], it was bombed again.”

Once their time in the Corps had ended, they were offered the chance to go to Bosnia, which they seized. Because they had experience with a Slavic language in the Czech Republic, they were sent to Bosnia to serve as officials in the 1996 elections, which established a democratic post-war government. The devastation of the war was unimaginable, especially in the capital, Sarajevo, the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics.

“The parks and the Olympic field… basically any green spaces… were used as graves,” said Robyn. “They needed to bury so many so quickly. It was… I don’t even have the words to describe it. You have this sense that you’re witnessing something, and it’s hard to find the right, respectful response.”

This was especially true when they visited a charitable business that was helping women rebuild their lives following the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.

“When we arrived, it was just about a year after the mass murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys, who were then buried in a mass grave,” said Reid. “The wounds in the country were still so fresh.”

They found that sometimes no response is needed, only to listen and bear witness.

“[We sat with the widows] who were left without family, without income,” said Reid. “Their whole lives had been shattered. I remember visiting them and just being in their presence and being absolutely speechless. Our language skills were so that we could have said something, but what do you say?”

They also worked with Bosnians whose families had been devastated.

“Our translator was an 18-year-old girl [from Sarajevo], but she seemed so much younger and so frail. She lived with her cousin and two young boys, who were the only males left alive in her family. Unfortunately, that was fairly common.”

Such an experience put life into perspective.

“When the war started, I was working at a paper in Duluth,” said Reid. “I was putting headlines about it in the paper. It was all very abstract. You don’t really think about it likes it’s happening. It’s like a story. I could never have imagined being inside that story. But then you meet the people who are living that, and it changes everything. It becomes real. And from there, you live differently.”

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