Digging up my letter to Obama when I was in the Peace Corps in Madagascar

I had been living on the east coast of the ‘Big Red Island’ for one year, teaching English to high school students. I was spending my mornings (and most evenings) writing letters by hand and shoring up lesson plan outlines that I was always adapting to fit my 60-students-in-a-30-student-capacity-classroom.

I look back on it as a time of focused observation, study, and idealism about the future of the country I was serving in, the country I called home, and my own path forward as a teacher.

Obama had been elected just a month prior to my writing this letter from my desk in Mananjary, and I’m not entirely certain my postage ever made it out of the country. Nonetheless, I remember typing it prior to sealing the envelope so that I could remember what I sent. Here it is.

Disclaimer—look, I was 26, so some of the lines are a little overwrought and melodramatic, but I thought it would be disingenuous to edit my own writing. 😜

December 12, 2007

Mr. (President) Obama -

My name is Gabriel Krieshok. I am 26 years old, serving as a second year Peace Corps volunteer on the African island of Madagascar. My story is not unlike many others who serve with me, either here in Madagascar or anywhere else.

I come from a middle class Kansas background, whose parents, having an education background themselves, inspired me to seek my answers to life’s questions through that lens as well. After a few false starts in high school, I found my place at the University of Kansas, excelling in French and Anthropological studies.

Upon graduation, I served as an English assistant in France, before being accepted into the Peace Corps in June 2007.

People here ask me who I will be voting for, and my stock response is, “seriously? I’m a 26 year old Peace Corps volunteer with long hair and a degree in French. You think they’d let me into the Republican Convention?”

Although it elicits a laugh, it’s not the entire case, and I’m glad for it.

I joined Peace Corps not out of some grand vision of service to my country or dedication to service and helping others, but out of simple career-minded selfishness. Of course, there are worse ways to be selfish, but I didn’t mind sacrificing two years to an exotic post that I could brag about for the rest of my life.

Thank God, however, that I’m not above being humbled by these experiences.

I am not the same person I was two years ago, and that is for the better. I have been touched, molded, influenced, and shaped by my time here, teaching and learning in my role as a high school and middle school instructor.

I have learned from my students and my community things that before were out of my reach and desire, things such as humility, passion, perseverance, and compassion.

This experience was bigger than me, and for every reason I thought I came here, I will leave with a thousand more that I never thought of.

This is not a diatribe on the value of Peace Corps specifically, or even on the value of service to one’s country, although I do feel differently about these things now.

In May 2007 before I left, I was in Kansas City and I had the opportunity to see you on the stump. Since being here, your message has resounded within me more than it ever could in Kansas City.

Here in Madagascar, one does not easily become an optimist. It is a learned skill, and due to this environment of poverty and hopelessness, it is a cherished commodity.

And yet, it is a perspective that pays off.

I can see with beautiful clarity the moment when a student ‘gets it’, or when an older member of my village realizes I’m not simply a ‘white-man’ or even an American, but a friend who is trying to learn dominoes from him.

These are the moments, I realize now, for which I joined Peace Corps.

All the intangibles gained from maintaining a happenstance of hope and optimism for the future. The benefit of not always knowing why you involve yourself in something, but allowing it to speak to you for what it is.

That is how I interpret your message, and that is why all of us here, in Madagascar and those abroad, are proud to know you, even if we don’t.

Thank you sir, for your own service, and thank you for allowing myself to be proud to once again call myself an American,
Gabriel Krieshok, Peace Corps — Madagascar