Debby Smith and Lisa Smith

Recorded February 18, 2006 Archived February 18, 2006 39:35 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: GCT002532


A woman interviews her elder sister about her experiences traveling to Africa in the peace corps, on a fulbright, motherhood and life choices.


  • Debby Smith
  • Lisa Smith


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00:01 My name is Lisa Smith. I'm 50 years old and I've brought my sister with me to Grand Central Station in New York City to interview her today.

00:14 My name is Debbie Smith. I'm 57 years old and my sister is going to talk to me and it is so February 18th 2006 Debbie. I asked you to come to storycorps because you've made some amazing and interesting choices in your life. And I think that I want to know a little more about them than I've ever asked you before tell me what experience LED you to decide to apply to the Peace Corps.

00:49 I think it came from.

00:52 Our home

00:55 All the all the years that people came to our house from many different parts of the world.

01:04 And

01:09 Dada's the chaplain at Colgate University had people that came from many many different places and I remember in particular of The Reincarnation of The Dalai Lama little boys from Tibet who stayed up at Chapel house who would talk up a would come and would play with us, especially you and Brian and the

01:35 People came to our house from many different places and probably the most impressive was that there was a guy who was on the political science department who was single professor at the Colgate and he invited many of the freedom fighters in the late 50s to come to our house after they had given lectures at Colgate and I was a little girl as a very little girl and

02:11 They were he didn't have any place that the receptions after the lectures and so he would have them come down to our house to have the reception is afterwards and I didn't have to go to the long boring lectures. But when all those interesting exciting people came, I would be sitting up at the top of the stairs listening.

02:31 And so I think that that was how my interest in Africa developed early and I think that that was one of the motivations in terms of find Peace Corps because I wanted to go to Africa and that's one of the reasons why I got involved in learning French because I knew that Africa was francophone as well as anglophone.

02:55 And one of my earliest strong memories of Television was in 1960 when the United Nations they were showing the meeting where so many of the African countries were becoming members of the United Nations after having become independent most of them on July 1st. So this was misdemeanor Lisa by and I went that's a whole new part of the world that is opening up and I want to know more about that. I want to be a specialist in that area because I was kind of looking for you know, what was I going to do with my life at that particular time? So that was really important and unfortunately, I can't think of the name of the professor at this point anyway, and I've been California when you applied to the Peace Corps. What kind of choices did you have about where you wanted to go? Could you choose Africa or a given country?

03:50 I don't remember all the details. I know that.

03:56 You did have some choice. I know that because I knew some French that they were able to have me.

04:06 Chosen primarily for French speaking countries, they do a wonderful jobs with language instruction, but still when they have someone who already have some background, I think that there's a preference in that direction. I was supposed to go to Senegal.

04:25 And it was only changed at the very last moment.

04:31 And I don't know exactly why that happened. So I think that it's a combination of what what you have to bring to it and the other way. Thank

04:43 What the needs are of Peace Corps and what the circumstances are in terms of how many people they need. We're all so I know that sometimes Peace Corps wants Specialists and sometimes they want generalists and it's sort of like a pendulum that goes from one extreme to the other and my master of arts in teaching was one of the reasons why I was selected to be a teacher and because I have the Masters already was one of the reasons why I taught at a university level rather than the secondary level School you went to Upper Volta. What was then called Upper Volta and is now called Burkina Faso. Did you know anyting about Upper Volta before you went there? And and what was it like to land there?

05:31 Unprepared

05:34 One of the interesting things was that not that many years before when I was a sophomore in college, Carol Casey and I were both living abroad on the junior abroad program in Geneva Switzerland, and we shared a room in an apartment in Geneva Switzerland. And one of the things we had on our wall was a map of Africa.

06:02 And I was doing some studying at the African Institute in Coq Rouge, which is outside of Geneva. And that's one of the reasons we had the map and we would look at the map and decide where we would be in the number of years later and one of the places that we found on the map with this interesting sounding play Wagon. I do Google which I found out later with what they do and the capital of Upper Volta. That's where I'm going to be and the and the she decided that she would be in Washington DC and that's where she ended up later as well. And so at the African Institute, I was able to study some about Africa in general and especially francophone Africa. My specialty was related to Cameroon.

06:59 And so I knew something about French colonialism and Upper Volta was a

07:07 Colony in France

07:09 I didn't have any sense of what the Sahel and the sahelian, I'm it was going to be like in some of those things. We arrived in July we had had just a weekend in Philadelphia before where we were having some orientation and their number of volunteers who had come back from work in the fa sol to tell us about what life was going to be like in things like that. It was a very exciting time to meet a lot of new people and all this other stuff. They're almost a hundred volunteers at that time off work. We're going to be working the fossil at that time and

07:52 They showed us some slides and I remember vividly as they showed us each of the slides that came along that would be trees beautiful trees and I was just struck because I was expecting the this is a desert or near desert and I thought oh, wow. What kind of tree is that?

08:14 That's an African tree and that we had experienced and we had expectations and I knew more perhaps within a lot of other people that were becoming volunteers for the first time because I had studied Africa and I had some teaching experience but we had teaching English as a foreign language training while we were there as well as language training when we first arrived. So what was the most memorable thing about your Peace Corps experience?

08:54 Falling in Love

08:59 And what do you carry from that?

09:07 The humanity of all people I think

09:13 It was a magical time because it was during the first training. When we first arrived after we first arrived, I think we had six weeks of training and it was only the first two or three weeks that we were there that my teacher of Mordecai which is the local language in Ouagadougou.

09:37 Was very special to me and he just Sparkle and we made a connection very quickly and everyone was new to everyone all the volunteers to each other and it was a new place. We were all living on a girls school in the summer time and it was very intensive training. And so there are lots of Sparks going off and all kinds of directions in terms of personal relationships and made a very strong relationship which continue during the entire time that I was there.

10:13 But it was short-lived in a way because after the first 3 weeks then the last 3 weeks of my training were in this year. So even though it started who was also there was the it was the beginning of the arrival and then there was the departure and then we came back and so I think that comings and goings who had a lot to do with that what I take from the entire Peace Corps experience.

10:40 I think is the dynamic.

10:45 Energy of Americans really wanting to make life better for ordinary. People are very far around the world and

10:58 A kind of innocence and a real

11:03 Joy I think on the part of many of the volunteers including you

11:12 Years after you were in the Peace Corps, you went back to Africa as a Fulbright teaching fellow going to bujumbura. Tell me what it was like to go back and and what what Drew you back to Africa?

11:28 It wasn't so very long. Really I mean 70s.

11:39 I went back in 79 and so is only for four years or so and

11:47 It was the personal relationship with John Baptiste, which was extremely important to me. And so I was seeking a way to be able to return especially to Ouagadougou to Burkina Faso wasn't yet that it was still loud. And

12:07 So one of the possibilities was as a Fulbright professor and I had known the person who was the Fulbright Professor when I was there and was very excited by the kind of program that she was doing inside applied to purple bright, but at that time, I knew that she was continuing in the same position. So that particular Fulbright professorship was not available.

12:30 So then other ones were available and you applied at whole program and they offered me two possibilities one of them in Somalia and the other one in Burundi and because I had studied Cameron, which is one of the

12:46 Mandates and later one of the trusteeship territories and Burundi was also within that the PAT system. I those two countries had a lot of similarities so I knew something about 20 and I didn't know very much about Somalia. So I chose prune.

13:05 Would you recommend the Peace Corps or some other similar international program to children to young people that you know, would you recommend it for 18 year old son?

13:20 Absolutely.

13:23 And I think that it once again, I would say because of the humanity.

13:31 That all people are people and

13:38 Also because I think that it allows you to make contact with many other American school have a similar kind of

13:51 Vivacious knows a similar kind of Hope similar kind of belief in the importance of reaching out to other people around the world. So yeah, I think it would think it would be an excellent kind of thing. Not only because you're reaching out and beginning to understand another culture and another way of life and meeting and dealing with a lot of challenges but also because of the Americans that you meet it within that context as well.

14:21 You ultimately settled for a good. Of time in Burundi and had a new love their what he'll do in Africa.

14:34 And in Burundi in particular and what Drew you to keep going back?

14:41 Well, I have plaid for a Fulbright and the possibility was in Burundi and

14:48 It's

14:49 Partly because you can do important work.

14:58 Both Burkina Faso and Burundi are relatively.

15:05 Small populations, especially if he educated part of the population and yet

15:13 They are very much and international microcosm. So you get the opportunity to know many people and know many nationalities and interact in really International kind of way, which very often isn't the case in the United States. And right now I'm teaching French as an American High School.

15:38 Most the kids don't want to use fat and learn French and they don't think that they're ever use friendship in their Futures. Nonetheless. I tell them that it's quite possible.

15:49 When I taught in Burundi for three years at the University of Burundi as a Fulbright scholar.

15:57 When I return to the Grundy later.

16:00 I met people in many different institutions at the airport at the banks at the customs office at every place that I went. I saw of former students and when I finally returned it when I finally left for one day in 94, I was working for Unicef for a very short time. I went up country. So I wasn't even in the capital city and every place but I went I had met someone who was a former student of mine. And so you feel like you have an impact on a whole country and I don't think that I can do that in the same way in the United States.

16:38 I've never helped anybody as much as I wanted to but

16:42 It's I think I think I think it's worth doing.

16:47 I want to move to your experiences as a mother.

16:52 Your 18 year old son. Robare is my nephew and godson. Can you describe the moment when you saw him for the very first time?

17:08 I remember things about that time, but I don't know that I can pinpoint that particular moment.

17:15 And maybe that's another one of those funny things or odd things where I remember wanting to

17:27 Reach out to the level of our mothers experience.

17:35 Because childbirth was so important to her.

17:38 And I really wanted to have natural childbirth. I really wanted to.

17:46 Nurse

17:48 And neither of those things are possible.

17:53 And I remember her talking about the explosion of love that she felt the very moment that she first.

18:03 Gave birth, and that was too so amazing to me.

18:11 I remember holding him that night but I don't remember the first moment. I remember during this is Arian section when Dad was right there in the room and

18:26 When he was taken from my body and and they were checking him out over and the things are all right, and I remember that very vividly and I remember later when Carol Harmon was in the room and rocking repair and I remember that very very vividly. But the first moment of seeing him somehow is it isn't quite there in the same way.

18:55 Tell me about robaire's name and the meanings that go with his name.

19:04 It's passing on.

19:12 Uber has three names

19:20 And his first name is from his grandfather who has no as Robert and his last name is from his grandfather. Our dad is Bob Smith Robert Lee Smith. And so I wanted to honor him and I felt that Robert was a good name and I felt that it was a more interesting name as we fall back and because we were living in a French speaking country, and I wanted to choose a name for him that he could use in either an English-speaking country or in a French speaking country that he could use using the French pronunciation repair or Robert or Bob or Bobby or whatever you wanted at any other time and I thought there was some Freedom allowed in that first name.

20:14 And I guess I'm pretty pleased that he's chosen keep it real bear and when he's called in a in a nurse it in a doctor's office by the nurse or something and they call for Robert very often Hillside. Robere. My name is robaire, although sometimes we get Robert to and then his last name just be quiet and that comes from his grandfather.

20:41 My husband robears dad is there was there now and I thought that since I was a pretty long difficult name for someone to have to deal with in the United States cuz I got a lot of civil syllables and it's too long for a Brazilian name is relatively short, but that's okay. So instead of using his father's last name instead to use his grandfather's name and actually Bernard was known as the equator move or be quite most of his life because it was his father was important and because all of his younger brothers use be claimed as a last name.

21:22 So I thought that we were honoring both families with the first name in the last name and then of course the magic is Dukeland on.

21:32 Which means we love each other.

21:35 Revere's father your husband Bernard, very tragically died of malaria.

21:41 When rubber was six or seven seven and a half, what's favorite story about Bernard? Would you like to memorialize for real bear?

21:59 Care Bear was very special to Bernard and

22:05 He he like to have a real bear go with him places and we have photographs showing that he's come by the house and picked up Robert and my dad believes along with him and they make biticon in the back of the pickup truck on a Saturday or Sunday when when Bernard was working and they go to the to the bank the National Bank of of Burundi where he worked and one of his jobs, he had lots of different jobs was the to pick up the shredded paper of different kinds of things related to bake Batters & to take it to the dump.

22:49 And so the kids would get in the front of the oven the cab with Bernard and then they'd be full of all of the papers and things I never went on these trips, but he would take you would take her over there and the police and they would go off together and the fact that the Bernard really enjoyed this and this would have been when will be there was two or three years old and Billy's the same age and they would go to the bank and later Bernard took him into the bank to to the my life with her of a coffee shop kind of thing commissary sort of place where he he went with his daddy and got to see where he worked and things and enjoy that kind of thing. And so I think the fact that the real bear was very much a part of his work was very important and then of course on the basketball court for he would lift robere up so that he could make it back.

23:49 He was just very little that was special.

23:53 Do you have any favorite stories from your own childhood?

24:03 Okay.

24:08 One of my favorites comes from when I was really little.

24:16 Way before you were born maybe or just after want one of those summers at Saranac then I guess it will only two of them but it seems like it went on forever and ever and ever dad man. It's the Colgate campus are on Saranac Lake Upper Saranac and we were there in the summertime.

24:35 And one of the things that he did was they he called Square dances and we went down to the name of the campsite with is one of the state parks nearby and he would go and call Square dances and I was

25:00 Or 5 so you weren't born yet.

25:03 I guess Brian was the baby that was up in the brother Brian and I would get to go along sometimes and so I would go down to the campground with him and he would be calling the day of the squares and then he remembered this once but I have a feeling that it happened more than once.

25:27 He would stop and say to everybody none of you know, how to really swing. Let me show you how to swing and he would take me and show them how to swing and there's nothing like that. Of course, you know, the dad was a great grade square dance caller and enjoyed that in a lot of different format stuff. That's that's probably one of them and standing next to him at the chapel when he would have preached. I'm a Sunday morning and he would be shaking hands with everyone as they left the chapel and I would had a chance to stand next to him and check people seems to like to feel important next to my daddy cuz he was important to

26:09 Were there any experiences in your own College years that you would like to pass along to your son as he approaches College?

26:26 Interesting

26:31 I worked hard.

26:37 I get the feeling that from looking at the way that colleges are expressed or experienced these days by young people that at least for a lot of students. It's sort of fun and games and the classes are sort of

26:54 Incidental

26:56 And

26:59 When I was at Smith college, we took him fairly seriously, and so we pretty much worked all day long and

27:09 Partly because of the house system because we all met together and had dinner together and happened to speak French at meals at the French house. It was a small group of people who only 30 students and almost everybody came back for dinner every time they are rather than a general cafeteria situation and then after coffee in the front room almost all of us went to the library.

27:36 And most of us were using

27:40 The required readings that we had to get in the reserve room and saw that was the place where pretty much everybody was and it was like a study hall minutes and help him in terms of what he's going to do in the future, but we worked and we had a good time. We we really party too, but we really hadn't we really work tonight and I get the sense for real bear that that's his intention.

28:08 And it can be easier or more difficult depending on the context and my sense is that these days it may be harder to be serious than it was in the past. Tell me about your experience in Mississippi in the summer during the Civil Rights struggle.

28:28 What summer was that was my the first summer after my freshman year?

28:34 So the summer of 67

28:41 Where were you in, Mississippi?

28:43 I was Mary Holmes Junior College in West Point Mississippi, which is in the northern part of Mississippi is part of the office of Economic Opportunity program of the

28:59 Effort the Johnson effort to end poverty

29:05 And

29:09 It started.

29:12 Well, we're started this little bit difficult to explain.

29:21 Well, I was at Smith college and one of the lawyers for the n-double-acp came and spoke at Smith college and she was looking for a number of students to help with a

29:37 Program to

29:41 Help to integrate Mississippi schools integrate this perhaps too strong a way of explaining the whole thing. The idea was that the n-double-acp was bringing suits to try to force integration or to end segregation in the Mississippi schools and the Mississippi legislature. Come up with this idea of

30:09 Freedom of Choice plan, so that parents would decide which schools their children should go to.

30:17 Clearly you had to choose either formally black school. All black schools are formally all white school and parents knew which school they were their kids were supposed to go to and most parents chose the formerly all-black school if they were black.

30:36 But the majority of very small minority had Chosen and consciously chosen to go to White schools as a result of that many of them were in court court cases and spent a lot of time to aim at this it all taken place the the year before our program and the students many of them were not excelling in their new school and we're not passing and so the idea was to provide a summer program where

31:15 Students received extra help in basic courses and tutoring and I was I was a tutor at summer and it was to help them to be able to do better and dumb.

31:30 To be successful in the in the integrated schools to show that integrated schools could work and to support the efforts to integrate more full and the

31:48 We were supposed it was called the tougaloo summer enrichment program. And the theory was that it was going to be in tougaloo, which is the capital but they didn't have it there because the senator wouldn't allow it to be there for the Mississippi Senators. So we had it outside of the capital city. So it was a little bit away from

32:13 Where it would be more obvious and it was a very important as summer for me personally and

32:27 I think that it was interesting that classes in the morning the tutors supported a small group seven or eight students from the same county that were in these classes. We lived all on the campus of this junior college and then in the afternoons right after lunch, they had the groups meet as County groups and they were meeting with psychologists and sociologists about the

33:00 The impact that this had on the group of students as they moved from one kind of schooling to another and then we had tutorial and various other kinds of programs in the afternoon.

33:14 Games and sports and that kind of thing and I remember especially that we went to a swimming pool. It was not the swimming pool right there in the town because they didn't they had closed that one in order not to integrate it but we went we had some place else where I think it was swimming was very important in terms of people just sharing and being free and easy with one another and playing in the water make that was very important one time. We went to the movie theater in town and we unwittingly integrated the place because we all went upstairs and one time there was one boy who had a toothache and I had to take him to the dentist and I took him at night. We went to the dentist and went in the front door and then I was desperate to that. No that wasn't the place to go. We had to go around the back alley because it was a black students the black student and so when in the black and the back in the back alley

34:14 It's clear that the dental chair was the one that had been rejected and had been used long before and that.

34:23 Spoke more to me of the Injustice of segregation and more powerfully than almost anything else that it's the small things that the small humiliations that speak to the inhumanity of one person to another and probably that has a lot to do with

34:47 Wanting to reach out one way or another to

34:51 Human beings as human beings no matter where they lived.

34:57 Okay, your turn any questions that you've never asked me that you'd like to know about.

35:03 I didn't think of this and I didn't plan it.

35:12 Tell me about the

35:15 Experiences of having a child of your own and having an adopted child and

35:24 The joys and challenges of that

35:27 My son JT is 9 years old and he was born 10 weeks prematurely and during the first especially the first five months of his life. He gave us quite a number of scares had some significant breathing problems and my wonderful supportive husband was there with me to face those challenges every step of the way the first couple of years were difficult and for a time as I think many parents feel we thought we're never doing this again. We don't need any more children one is good. But as you mentioned earlier, we had a mother who really celebrated birth and family and children and I think although my husband and I had married somewhat later in life at 8:39.

36:27 We we did want to have another child. We wanted to feel that there was some balance and I think we also recognized that because of the challenges that our son had had it was awfully easy to spoil him to give in to him and having another child would help to balance that and so with the incredible support of our dear friends, Tony and Sylvia who are our daughter's godparents and who themselves are adoptive parents. We started the process of trying to adopt and from the very beginning. We said doesn't matter to us if this child is white black purple or green polka dotted we wanted to have a child that we could love and care about and because your son my nephew and godson is biracial we felt that there were no limits on from our own experience of what we had seen both in our family.

37:27 And in the world that those kinds of labels were not the important thing and so we waited as most prospective adoptive parents do and finally got the call that there was a baby girl available for us and she is now 6 Kinsey rose Rose coming from her our mother's name Rosalind and their hunt there are some challenges that go along with that. She has she she is in a school that is mostly white and she is a beautiful milk chocolate brown and she is more conscious of her color than everyone else in the family end. I don't think that's a particular surprised but she's the one who has to live with it. And so we have to

38:23 I encourage and support her in in dealing with being different and in reminding her that we are all different in one way or another. It's just that her differences a bit more obvious. Perhaps she's very conscious of not having been born from my body in the way that her brother was but every once in a while her older brother says, I wish you'd never gotten her but I don't think that's anything other than normal sibling rivalry.

38:53 I think adoption isn't it extraordinary process for creating a family that there's no perfect way to create a family and every family is unique has its own challenges and joys and Sorrows as does hours with a tease a miracle baby and so is Kenzie we have are both of our Miracle children that make our family complete any last words that you want to add to your story Court interview. I want to say thank you to my sister.

39:27 This was a great experience. Thank you.