BAJRAM CURRI, Albania — It is another exhausting, depressing morning for American Peace Corps volunteer John Crust, a high school English teacher in this impoverished town, as he struggles to control successive roomfuls of unruly teens.
In one class, several students yell at each other in an angry debate about democracy and communism. In another, Crust races out repeatedly, trying to catch the kids who broke three windows that period in the hallway outside his room. And throughout the day, he must shout above the din of students talking and stools scraping on the concrete floor.
At day's end, Crust, who is among a handful of Orange and Los Angeles county volunteers assigned to this tiny Balkan nation, tries hard to sound upbeat. This wasn't so bad, he says. Far worse was the time a student flung open the door and slid a flaming textbook across the floor to his feet.
"They're not bad kids," Crust, 33, says gently. "They're good kids, but a lot of them seem to equate the freedom they have now with anarchy. They're just caught up in something beyond what they can comprehend."
Classroom discipline is among a host of challenges for Crust and other teachers assigned to the Peace Corps' fledgling Albania program as they try to help this nation recover from decades of isolation and hard-line Communist rule.
Now democratic, Albania remains Europe's poorest, most backward land, a Rip Van Winkle country trying desperately to catch up.
"The fact that this country had been isolated until the last few years pervades every aspect of life here," says Patricia Johnson, the Peace Corps' country director in the capital, Tirana. "They are 50 years behind."
For the volunteers, who come to Albania for two-year stints, that translates into unpredictable hardships. At the most basic level, their lives--like those of all others here--involve a series of daily challenges: Will water flow from their rusted taps only at 4 a.m., or at all? Will the electricity, with no warning, go off for days at a time? Will telephone lines--if there are any--be clear enough for someone to make a call?
The volunteers have adapted with equanimity. They learn to do without faxes and phones, and joke about their water-saving systems of buckets, pitchers and pots.
But life here also means coping with more insidious difficulties.
Cheryl Cox, 27, who grew up in Mission Viejo and graduated from UC Irvine, speaks of the "giant fishbowl" in which she lives, of students and neighbors so curious about the rare American in their midst that they look through her garbage.
Kerry Byron, 23, of Laguna Beach, and other women in the group tell of attitudes toward women that test their patience and make them angry. And Crust and others detail the behavior problems in their schools, an annoying outgrowth, most say, of this repressed society's fervent embrace of freedom.
"It's really hard sometimes," admits Crust, a former newspaper reporter who lost his Sherman Oaks apartment in the Northridge quake. His Peace Corps assignment in remote Bajram Curri makes him the most isolated of the Albania volunteers.
"There are some days I hate it. I think everyone goes through periods of wanting to quit, but then you have a great day when the kids are great, everything goes right and you think, 'Yes! This is why I'm here.' "
The volunteers say the friendship and boundless hospitality of many Albanians also has helped them through the tough times. Soon after Byron's arrival in the town of Gjirokastra, for instance, her new neighbors appeared en masse to scrub down her apartment, leaving it cleaner, she says with a laugh, "than it was before or since."
The neighbors who live across the hall from Crust in a run-down Bajram Curri apartment house, meanwhile, have become "my Albanian parents," he says. Rukija and Sulejman Berisha invite him in frequently for lively games of dominoes and treats like \o7 bourreck\f7 , puff pastry laden with butter and cheese.
The Peace Corps workers also gain strength from some of their students, many of whom view the volunteers' service in Albania with gratitude and a touch of disbelief.
"Teacher John, he surprises us because he can choose to live in Los Angeles and he comes here," Jertishta Qerimi, 17, says of Crust. "We can't believe why he wants to live in Bajram Curri, but we are happy."
The Peace Corps, the U.S. development and goodwill agency founded in 1961, launched its first program in Albania three years ago, bringing an injection of American-style hope and idealism to a nation suffering through a chaotic transition to democracy.
Each summer since then, as one group of volunteers departs, a new group arrives. The new recruits spend two months in intensive language and cultural training in Tirana before taking up posts around the country. Most teach English, but others are involved in less traditional Peace Corps activities, including banking and reforestation projects.