Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Excuse notes

Every day I get scraps of paper explaining my students’ absences. From the signatures I learn a little bit about which students are living with their parents, and which students have come from outer islands to live with a relative on Ebeye so they can attend high school.

Some excuse notes are standard high school rubbish. Yesterday I intercepted a note being passed in class. Instead of the usual high school gossip, it was an excuse note she was forging for her friend. After class the note writer asked for the note back. “It’s my friend’s excuse note. She needs it.” I asked, “Who wrote it?” She giggled and said “Me.” That’s one thing I’ve noticed about Marshallese students so far – they do all kinds of mischievous stuff, but if you ask them if they did it, they’ll say “yes.” I haven’t had any students lie to me yet that I know of. (No, I didn’t give the note back to her.)

Here’s a composite from actual phrases from excuse notes from my students: “He was absent yesterday because he was haveing a stomach age. I thing he is okay now. Please accuse him.”

Here’s another: “Sorry Miss Marci I can’t be in your class today because I am having a girl sickness.” Yes, up to 50% of my class is absent for up to 5-7 days every month. I think, but do not say, “Buck up and take it like a woman!”

But some excuse notes tell even more about the tough lives some of these kids lead.

“Please excuse her absence yesterday. She had to take her daughter to the hospital.” Let me get this straight. My 10th grader is old enough to have a daughter, but not old enough to cover her own absence in school. She needs her mother to write her excuse note, to explain that she needs to take her baby to the hospital. Through it all, she’s staying in school.

Here’s another one: “She had to get her tooth pulled. It’s been hurting for a long time, but we didn’t have the money. Now we have the money, so she got the tooth pulled yesterday.” Many older adult Marshallese I’ve met are missing teeth. I’m no dentist, but even among my 10th and 11th graders I can see cavities, even on their front teeth. Lack of dental care and a terrible diet with lots of sugar all day long contributes to the problem. A favorite snack is Kool-Aid powder, served on a licked finger right out of the package. One day one of my students mixed the Kool-Aid powder with a ramen noodle spice packet and offered me a taste. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

One more excuse note: “Please excuse my son’s absence yesterday. He had to go to his cousin’s funeral.” I recorded the excused absence in my book and handed back the note to the student with a gentle “I’m sorry to hear the news.” He found me after school to talk to me. He explained that his cousin had committed suicide, using gestures to indicate disemboweling himself. The cousin was in his late twenties, leaving behind five children, the youngest of whom would have been a year old next month. “We all tried to talk him out of it, his friends and me, but he was stubborn and wouldn’t listen.” Suicide is the leading cause of death among Marshallese young adult men, in a remote land with few jobs or educational opportunities, and no way to ever afford getting off the island. The future often seems a bleak dead-end as a subsistence fisherman. I keenly felt my student’s burden, not only grieving for his cousin, but perhaps wondering whether he might have thought of the right thing to say so that his cousin would be alive today.

These are not your ordinary high school excuse notes.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On My Porch

The view from my oceanside porch

Let’s see – 100 minus 18 equals 82, a really good score for her. She must have studied hard. I add “Good work!” in my green pen next to her grade on the top of the test paper.

Today I picked a new place for grading tests: the oceanside porch, out my back door. Nearly every house here is beachfront property; it takes 1 minute 57 seconds to walk at a comfortable pace across the island from ocean to lagoon (yes, we timed it). The populated part of the island is a 15 minute walk end to end.

After grading every few tests, I put my pen down and treat myself to a moment looking out over the blue-green sea, topped with an occasional white-crested wave. Palm trees, lazily swaying in the salty, sticky ocean breeze, dot the rocky shoreline. During the two hours I’ve been out here on this late Saturday morning, I’ve seen one pickup truck and one bicycle go by. While weekday traffic is a little more than one vehicle per hour, it feels at this moment like I have this tropical island spot largely to myself.

A chicken clucks by, inspecting the grass for any bits of rice from yesterday’s school picnic celebrating the end of the first quarter. A tiny black lizard inspects my kicked-off zories, then skitters across the porch, steering around an empty condom package and broken condom I hadn’t noticed before. I never thought to wonder what happens on my secluded back porch during the school picnics; I guess everyone has their own way of celebrating the end of the quarter.

Youth find far less privacy on their overpopulated home island of Ebeye (12,000 people on 0.14 square miles of land; one of the most densely-populated places on the planet). It’s a half-hour school bus ride on the rocky, bumpy causeway to the island of Guegeegue on which the school is located. Guegeegue is a pleasant contrast with its population of about 100 and spacious tropical forests. We teachers carefully report to the attendance officer those students who cut classes on this open campus, but I wonder if it’s simply documenting what’s already happening.

Teen fertility rate in the Marshall Islands is among the top ten in the world, with 14% of teen women giving birth every year. Condom use among all ages is very low here, with the primary objectors being women, oddly enough. If her man uses a condom, the unspoken message is that a) he thinks she’s dirty, and b) he may be using a condom with someone else, too.

But at least one couple believes in using a condom.

I shrug my shoulders and go back to grading tests on my oceanside porch. 

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ribelle teacher learns about sharing, Marshall Islands style

Student Jamie Shem gives Marci a traditional Marshallese welcome necklace, made by Jamie’s mother from seashells and pandanus fibers.

“When you live on a small island that is sometimes no wider than the road you are walking on, and at high tide only inches above sea level, your only two choices are to change the way you think and live, or go home.” – Jack Niedenthal, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, xi. (Bikini is one of the Marshall Islands)

It took me awhile to realize that the children were calling to me when they chanted “ribelle, ribelle!” (“white person” in Marshallese). Getting used to that has been a little easier than getting used a few other things about teaching English in the Marshall Islands, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, surrounded by miles of ocean in every direction. Sometimes called “the friendliest people in the Pacific,” the Marshallese have a communal way of thinking which has made for some surprising moments in my classroom.

Marshallese people share everything. I have to be careful not to compliment someone on an article of clothing or a piece of handmade seashell jewelry, or they’ll try to give it to me. While I was picnicking at an oceanside park, a family at the next picnic table came over to see what I was eating. It’s expected that I’d share what I brought and they’d do the same. I keep my questions to myself about how long their food has been sitting out in the tropical heat. I make my own decisions about what to eat, all the while smiling and saying a warm “kommol” (thank you). Then I slip the iffy potato salad to a passing pig or rooster while the neighbors aren’t looking. (The pigs are quite clean here.)

The sharing mentality extends to family structure. Marshallese families are fluid conglomerates with loosely connected bloodlines. Under the same roof you may find as many as 16 or 17 relatives – nieces and nephews who come from an outer island to go to high school; ailing grandparents; a brother who lost his job because he drinks too much; and children from different fathers. In this matrilineal society where marriage is rather irrelevant, a common Marshallese saying translates as “You can have several fathers, but only one mother.”  There is no homelessness here; one of my students was visibly shaken when she discovered the concept.

Sharing can even extend to the children themselves. My Marshallese friend tells me about her sister-in-law who couldn’t have children, so she gave her her youngest son to raise shortly after birth. Every Thursday she talks to her son, now 9 years old, by phone through an interpreter. He’s grown up on a different island nation in Micronesia and doesn’t speak Marshallese. The son knows who is who, but he only sees his biological parents about every year or so.

In the classroom, the idea of sharing gets more complicated. I have to be very clear about what is group work which can be done with friends, and what must be a student’s own work. In preparation for last week’s final exams to end the first quarter, one of my sharpest students asked me for a blank copy of one of the chapter tests she’d taken, saying “I gave it to [another student] so she could study for the makeup test, but she didn’t give it back. I want to look at the questions so I can study for the final.” I thought, no wonder the other student got a perfect score on the makeup test. Both students were quite matter-of-fact about it, not at all trying to hide it as they might if they thought they were cheating. Of course the school administrators tell me that the students know the boundary between “sharing” and “cheating.” But I find that I’m teaching a different kind of thinking as well as teaching English, while simultaneously admiring the Marshallese and their open hearts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Island of Ngenge - Population 1

With a coconut husk under a towel as a pillow, I stretch out on the beach sand, with palm fronds above me hiding the tropical sun. It’s Saturday of Manit Day weekend (a day celebrating Marshallese culture). The other two WorldTeach volunteers, Diana and Morgan, and I have joined our Marshallese neighbors for a Saturday outing. We walk to the end of Guegeegue and walk across the reef, dry and exposed at low tide, to get to Ngenge, the next island up the chain in Kwajalein Atoll, with a population of 1. We check in with the caretaker who watches the island, bringing him an “offering” of home-baked cookies and fruit.

Our neighbor takes us for a walk through the mangroves, where tropical shrubs and trees form a dense forest with coconut trees galore in various stages. We taste coconut shoots (like coconut-flavored celery), spongy sweet coconut yew that’s sprouting to become a coconut tree, and the recognizable coconut milk and coconut meat.

Back at the lagoon shore, our neighbor teaches Diana and Morgan how to fasten the hooks on the fishing line, how to bait them with a bit of fish meat from a smaller fish, and where to stand in the water and cast for fish. A few tiny fish are thrown back in the lagoon, and two foot-long baby sharks sniffed the bait, but the day’s catch of six 4-6” groupers will make a nice grilled fish dinner.

I have never been converted to fishing, despite my mother’s and brother’s enthusiasm and plenty of opportunity on Lake LBJ in Texas as a youth. Instead, I’m enjoying stretching out under this coconut tree, listening to the sound of the surf, occasionally stirring to walk along the shore and collect beach glass  –  small bits of glass polished smooth by the ocean waves.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Marci weaves a plate on Manit Day - celebrating Marshallese culture

Marci, Arobina, Jabdor, and Keyoko (clockwise)

“Manit” translates to “culture,” I suppose, but the meaning is so much richer than that. Manit is tradition, it’s Marshallese pride, it’s intergenerational transmission of knowledge . . . and it’s also the occasion for a holiday celebration. THAT translates into a day I don’t have to teach! School is still in session, but it’s actually a community-wide, day-long celebration of all things Marshallese.

Manit Day preparations begin the day before, as the senior boys gather to go fishing to catch the fish to grill for the community meal. Here in the Marshall Islands, fishing can involve a variety of methods – spear fishing, the fishing poles with which I’m familiar, or fishing nets (either small nets that are thrown onto schools of fish, or large nets – as long as 100 yards long – that are held by a team of fishermen, one of whom chases fish into the net somehow). I don’t know which of the methods the senior boys used, but I do know the results were delicious. Some of the fish were parrotfish, whose skin is an outrageous shade of turquoise-blue, making even the grill itself look nicely decorated for a big party for the 20 staff and 379 students at Kwajalein Atoll High School and their families.

The families take the day off to come to the high school to celebrate Manit Day with their youth, bringing their family’s specialty of Marshallese food to share. While fathers and sons attend to the grilling of the fish and breadfruit, mothers and daughters weave palm fronds into plates. The plates are like small flat baskets, called “banonor,” meaning “what is in this plate is to be shared.” Some of the women and girls are quite skillful weavers, making large, beautiful palm frond baskets, as well as small toys for the children from palm fronds – pinwheels, a woven bird, and a square ball that even I could master (if one of my students got it started for me). Over, under, over, under. . . . My students were quite good at it, and were pleased to be MY teachers for a change, as I produced a few plates and a couple of toys.

While the cooking and the weaving were going on, the students played a variety of games such as a repeat of last week’s tug-of-war and sprint races. There was also a race in which a line of students passed a coconut to the person behind them, first between their legs, then over their heads, seeing which team could pass it the fastest. (I suppose that too is over, under, over, under. . . .)

The resulting buffet of traditional Marshallese foods was an astonishing variety of seafood (lobsters, whole small crabs, and many kinds of fish), as well as many different dishes using breadfruit, coconut, and banana. The 2 other WorldTeach volunteers here (Morgan and Diana) baked extra-fudgy brownies and added them to the buffet, with a sign that read “American Manit.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No tsunami here

The tsunami that has caused such destruction in Samoa and Tonga gave the Marshalls a wide berth, so we haven't even gotten any rain. The RMI doesn't have the right underwater topography for tsunamis -- the water depth drops precipitously off shore, which is good for tsunami prevention. So I'm high and dry (if you'd call 98% humidity dry).

However, other WorldTeach volunteers who went to American Samoa have been quoted in a few online sources about the disaster. I met those guys at our orientation in Los Angeles before we flew out, so I'm wondering how my fellow WT volunteers are faring -- but I think they're all OK too.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Dance like an Egyptian"

One of my 11th graders -- notice the quarters in her ears as well as the big earrings

Dance Like an Egyptian

Of course life as an English teacher in Kwajalein Atoll is not all serious. This past Friday was the welcome party, a day of games and contests between the 4 grades that lasted almost until sundown. The freshmen wore blue T-shirts, the sophomores red, the juniors white, and the seniors black. Each class sent two contestants to each of the games. There were sprint races, including one in which students had to stop, read a note with the name of a teacher, pick up the specified teacher, and run with him or her to the finish line. (Luckily I was spared that one.) There was a contest in which students ran, then sat down and gobbled 2 Marshallese cake-like donuts, swallowed, and finished the race. Another race was similar, except you had to gulp down a can of Coke in the middle. One game involved kicking a soccer ball to the finish line with a giant paper cone on the face, with only the tiniest hole at the end of the cone to see through. (Some students lost track of their balls for several minutes, to the hilarity of the rest of the students. Not much field of vision at the end of the paper cone.) A dance contest, in which the dancers froze when the music stopped and were eliminated if they twitched, ended in a tie between one young woman and a young man, both of whom were terrific at instantly stopping their really cool dance moves. Another contest involved a pan of flour that students raced to, then blew away completely before finishing the race. Naturally, most of the flour blew on the contestants’ faces. There were the traditional raw egg toss and ever-popular battle of muscles in tug-of-war. And also musical chairs.

            Of course the best part of musical chairs was watching the superb moves to the music in between diving for the chairs. First the girls competed, then the boys, then the female faculty. Decision time: shall I be the professional teacher self or the wild and crazy self? (Not all of you readers have seen the latter.) I figured this was the moment for silliness, hoping acting the royal fool might buy me some goodwill with my students. As they say, “play it big or go home.” So I hammed it up to the max. I did the “dance like an Egyptian” move, a few overhead claps to the beat, with a little John Travolta and a touch of hokey-pokey. The kids went wild – who knew their new ribelle English teacher had such an outrageous side?

            One of the students’ journals the next school day read, “The most fun at the welcome party was about Ms. Marci’s musical chair good dance. Because I didn’t know Ms. Marci know how to dance because she is so old and I think she doesn’t know how to dance, so that’s what’s so funny. I never seen old women do good dance.”

The next afternoon a little girl, maybe 4-5 years old, called out “hey ribelle!” (This Marshallese word for “foreigner” is a common greeting from the children.) I smiled at her, and she responded with her best “dance like an Egyptian” imitation. Either news travels fast on the “coconut wireless,” complete with gestures, or perhaps there were more neighborhood kids around than I realized. Either way, that appears to be my trademark now, for better or worse!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Voices from students’ journals

Another gorgeous sunset off the pier outside my front door

Maybe I’m not here to teach English. Maybe I’m here on a rescue mission. Many of these youth are in pretty tough situations, and it can make all the difference to feel heard, noticed, cared about. It’s also giving these youth the powerful tool of writing for self-expression – a simple tool with power to heal.

Journal-writing at the beginning of every class is a lifesaver, for them and for me. It gives them an outlet for their unique lives and stories and feelings; it gives me a window into their hearts. More practically, it gives me a couple of minutes of peace and quiet at the beginning of class to try to figure out who’s who, so I can fill in the right boxes on the attendance sheet. Sure, I’ve created my chart of assigned seats, but some playful youth like to switch seats and see if I notice, or they just want to sit near their friends, or choose a seat where the glare of the tropical sun bouncing off the next building doesn’t make it so hard to see the board. “Hey, guys, have pity, willya? Back to your assigned seats.” See Marci in five classes of about 30 sophomores or juniors each, trying to match 150 new faces in varying shades of brown to their musical names: Barijur, Jabdor, Kotwon, Janner, Jenniko, Beonin, Arobina, Keyoko, and Junior. There’s always Junior. I have at least one in almost every class.

Listen to the voices of these youth:

“My name is ___________. I like it because I’m taking the name of my father. And to remember his name because he’s not beside my family. And sometimes when I’m saying my own name I remembered the time he putted me on his back. When I was little, I remember the time my father has gone to a school of college. And he didn’t come back and I’m so mad because I do not see his face now. And I still remember the times he has put me on his back and took me to where I wanted to go. And we always played on those grass outside my house. But I want to see him now.”

These are rough drafts, written quickly in the 5 minutes at the start of class as the students are settling in, with multiple distractions: tardy students banging their way into class, others retrieving notebooks loaned to friends, or borrowing pencils. Besides, many of these students’ only exposure to English is only an hour a day, five times a week – the time they’re in my class.  I could have worked with them to polish the English – but forgive the grammar and look into the heart.

“Sometime my brother was go and drunk with her friend. And I was say to my father why is my brother drunk. Father’s say because he older than you.” (My response: “I hope you’ll behave responsibly around alcohol when you’re older. That’s important – REALLY important.”)

Here’s another: “When I was 11 years my grandfather passed away. Later my grandma also passed away because she had a lung cancer. I really miss my grandparent. Sometime I had bad feeling. Someday I really want to killed my self.” My response: “PLEASE take good care of yourself and never hurt yourself. You’re important! And the world needs you.” This particular student has missed the last ten school days straight. I saw her 4 days during the first week of school, and haven’t seen her since. I suspect I would have heard from the other students if anything had happened to her, but I wonder if she read my note in her notebook.

Two of the largest problems here – alcohol abuse and suicide – surface in the first three weeks of school, appearing in journals written by students to their almost-a-stranger English teacher.

And this final excerpt from a student journal: “Ms. Marci, THANKS for helping us to study from your own smarter.”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The First Bell

It took several false starts. “Tomorrow. We’ll start tomorrow. That is, those teachers who are ready to begin – they will start tomorrow.” After several days of teachers preparing their classrooms and finding textbooks and administrators assigning class sections and preparing rosters, school begins at last.

This is it.

This is what I’m here for. All of the planning, preparation, thinking, arranging; all the getting here; the month of orientation: everything brings me to this moment – to teach.

I arrive at the classroom at 8:15 a.m. sharp, fifteen minutes early. I wait for my first period students in 11th grade honors English 11A to arrive. No one shows up. Not one. Four days after my other classes have begun is the first time I meet any of my first period students. I’ve already stopped asking why things work or don’t work here in the Marshall Islands. Actually, I don’t mind easing into my teaching load, teaching only 4 classes at first – 11th grade English levels B and C before lunch, 10th grade English B and C after lunch. Next week, they tell me, they’ll move 11A to 7th period (2:30 – 3:25) instead of 1st period (8:30 – 9:25). Many of the students are Mormons and have started their day with an early-morning religion class from 6 – 7 a.m. Whatever. Starting early and ending early would better suit my biorhythm, but it will be fine.

My second period students trickle in. I take my first good luck at their school uniforms: jungle green shirts and black slacks for the boys, matching green pleated skirts and white shirts for the girls. Both boys and girls have the logo for Kwajalein Atoll High School stitched on the shirt pocket – when they wear the uniforms, that is. Besides the ordinary teenage boundary testing, there are the problems of living on Ebeye. A parent of one of my serious students sends in a note: “Please excuse my daughter for not wearing her uniform today. Water problems on Ebeye.” I ask my student whether the rainwater catchments are dry or whether it’s something else, and she shrugs and says, “They’re working on it.”

The students are wonderful – so hungry for learning, so committed to getting an education. But they’re teenagers nonetheless, dealing with normal adolescent issues like hormones and identity, as well as big social issues like high suicide rate, early sexual activity, and readily available mild narcotics. Many of my students already have teeth stained red from beetlenut chewing. I’ve already made it a class rule that going outside to spit needs to happen between classes, not during my class. One young woman was absent “because she had a miscarriage,” said the school secretary.

School has begun.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Return of the Keychain

I have a keychain again. The two keys for my classroom and apartment make a familiar jingle in my pocket. But there’s very little that’s familiar after that.

To begin with, neither key works very well. At first I would stand outside my apartment door for a full seven minutes, jiggling the key in the lock until it finally connected to let me in. The salty, humid air here makes things creaky over time. A few drops of lubricating oil borrowed from a neighbor has cut the key fumbling time to only 45 - 90 seconds before I can enter my apartment. The apartment itself is feeling less strange and foreign, and more and more like home. (Today’s enhancement: a skirt discarded by the previous occupant becomes a kitchen curtain, pinned to the wooden window frame with thumbtacks.)

The other key on my keychain – my classroom key – is another matter. The lock in the doorknob itself has long ago corroded into uselessness. The rusty padlock on the hasp is a little better. The padlock yields to the assistant principal’s experienced hand, and I enter my classroom.

The first thing I notice is the musty smell of sea air trapped inside since May. The assistant principal and I open all the metal slats on the screened windows to air out the room. I find the fan switch, the overhead fan blades springing to life to help brush away the stale air.

I look around. Thirty-five desks with tablet arms, most in fairly good shape, neatly arranged in seven rows, five chairs in each row. A substantial teacher’s desk and chair at the front of the classroom, with the former teacher’s comfortable clutter on top. Last year’s student artwork adds color to the white walls. The chalk tray is filled with the dust of last year’s learning. A bookcase in the back of the room, stuffed with science books I don’t need – a little disorganized, the pages a little sticky to the touch from the months and years in the salt air, all lightly sprinkled with lizard and mouse dung.

Hmm . . . needs a good sweeping, and I need to find out where to put the six bags of spring semester trash neatly lined up under the chalkboard, and let’s get these science textbooks into the hands of the right teachers – but this definitely has promise.

My classroom.

I trade the rusty padlock on the classroom door for a slick little suitcase lock I brought from Boston. I switch out the key on my keychain and drop it in my pocket.

I’m ready.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Destination: Guegeegue

This is Morgan, another WorldTeach volunteer who is also teaching at Kwajalein Atoll High School. We've just been decorated with our welcoming leis at the airport!

It’s only an hour-long plane ride from Majuro (the capital) to Kwajalein Island (where the military base is located, where we were greeted by school staff with leis for us!), then a 20-minute water taxi to Ebeye, followed by a ½ hour bumpy ride across the manmade causeway to Guegeegue. Actually, the causeway ride involves more zigzag than forward motion, avoiding the axle-eating potholes. The 3 of us Guegeegue WorldTeach volunteers arrived last Saturday. I’m joined by two terrific, bright, hardworking, upbeat women: Morgan (from West Virginia) and Diana (from Ft. Worth, TX and NYC). I have a one-bedroom apartment in faculty housing on the high school campus. Morgan and Diana room together in a two-bedroom apartment across the way that has the cleanest kitchen of the two, where the three of us share our meals. Morgan and I are teaching at Kwajalein Atoll High School (KAHS), where our commute is a 2-minute walk, while Diana teaches at Ebeye Elementary, riding the causeway back and forth each day on a school bus.

Like many rustic waterfront cottages I’ve been in, the line between inside and outside is rather blurry when it comes to animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. Despite that, our apartments are unbelievable -- far more comfortable (for RMI standards) than I expected. Granted, we still take bucket showers (closed to the sky, unfortunately), flush our toilets with a bucket of water poured into the bowl, and have only cold rainwater coming out of the tap which we boil for drinking. But we do have one amenity that was missing before: . . . drum roll please. . . . AIR CONDITIONING!!! (when the power is on, that is). We’ve had power outages about every other day so far, but none have lasted long (yet). The faculty office from which I’m writing you is not air conditioned, but it does have (intermittent) internet access. So I’m sitting in royal (developing world) luxury!!

On our second day here, Morgan, Diana and I walked the 5 miles from Guegeegue to Ebeye to stock our kitchen. We loaded up the groceries in our backpacks (Morgan has a camping backpack that fit a whole grocery cartful). We were ready to hike the 5 miles back if need be, but "luckily" someone stopped to give us a ride just shortly after we started out. Turned out he was one of our new neighbors, so we got a ride the whole way back! There are two “stores” around the corner on Guegeegue (consisting of shelves lining converted living-rooms, I’d wager), so we do have high-priced convenience-store kinds of foods available around the corner if need be.

On one of my morning walks, I covered the circumference of the entire inhabited part of the island in 25 minutes. I'm told there are about 100 people living on this island (men, women and children). The students who attend KAHS are bussed in from Ebeye, which has 12,000 people living on 0.14 square miles of land. Families are beginning to pester the KAHS principal, even at home, desperately trying to enroll their students, but even when we overstuff the classes, we have no more desks, no more teachers – we’re at maximum capacity of 320 students.

So far so good -- wish me luck! The teaching is what I came for, and classes start in earnest on Monday. We had a few preliminary meetings this week, but we’ll see what next week brings!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Preparing for transfer - sending home the bathing suits

While packing up to leave orientation on Majuro Atoll, to fly to my permanent assignment on Guegeegue, I go through my suitcases to see if there's anything I can ship home to make space for the mumus, Guam dresses & Marshallese skirts I've purchased here. Oddly enough, I'm sending home my bathing suits and sandals. I brought 2-3 of each, thinking they'd be staples of island dress, but neither one actually works here.

I knew that an important part of Marshallese custom is modesty -- defined as women and men covering their knees, shoulders, and chest with loose-fitting clothing. But I didn't realize that applied to swimwear as well. To take a dip in the lagoon, I don my baggy knee-length men's basketball shorts and T-shirt over my bathing suit. Then I wonder why I'm wearing a bathing suit at all, if I'm going swimming fully dressed. I buy another sports bra, dedicated to salt-water swimming, and skip the bathing suit altogether.

The limited usefulness of sandals is another surprise. Marshallese kick off their zoris (flip flops) at the door to keep the coral sand off the floors. Even teachers teach barefoot in the classroom, I'm told. Unstrapping my sturdy Chacos is a nuisance every time I move between the bedroom, kitchen, and classroom. So they're going home also. I suppose I'll keep one bathing suit and 1 pair of sandals for a special occasion.

Women nearly always wear skirts or dresses (far cooler than shorts). Pictures coming, but briefly described: Mumus are loose cotton dresses, often embellished, suitable for church and teaching. Guam dresses are ghastly baggy polyester dresses suitable for casual wear. I have one that I wear when necessary (like today, for cleaning up the elementary school for our departure tomorrow). Clothing is very inexpensive here. I paid less for my Guam dress ($6.50) than a pound of mushrooms ($6.99).

Next posting will be from Guegeegue -- wish me luck!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Closer to nature (in all its beauty and creepiness)

This is a chicken crossing the road. I don't know why.

So what's it like, you ask?

I wake to either the crowing of the wandering roosters, or the growling of the pack of dogs, play-fighting. Seldom do I need to kick off the covers; it's a rare night that the seabreezes blow hard enough for me to want to slip under the top sheet. Another restful night -- the thin foam mat on the concrete classroom floor is much more comfortable than I expected.

A few of my 11 roommates are beginning to stir. There are 39 of us spread between 3 classroom/bedrooms. I'm the oldest at 55, then a 51 year old man (with whom I have next to nothing in common), and one 29 year old woman. The other 36 are ages 22-25 (11 men, 28 women altogether). Oh -- make that 4 classroom/bedrooms: the sonic boom snorer was banished to a classroom of his own after the 2 other rooms became overcrowded from refugees fleeing the snoring.

As I get out of bed, I consider occupying one of the three shower cubicles made of plywood and tarp, open to the sky. But I'm just going to wash my face, so I take my bucket and green plastic cup around the back of the school building and sit on a ledge. There's something magical about my morning wash-up to the soundtrack of the surf, ten feet away at high tide.

Language lessons, teaching instruction, cultural adaptation talks, speakers and visits into town fill our days, usually leaving a little time for a jambo (walk around) or a dip in the lagoon or both. We take turns cooking the purposefully monotonous but reasonably nutritious food. This particularly prepares those bound for the outer islands for their year-long diet of fish, rice, breadfruit, taro & coconut, until the sporadic supply ships arrive. Once a day, usually noontime while we're busy with classes or in town, we have local catered food -- often from the town's Filipino or Marshallese restaurant, sometimes pretty good American-style pizza, served out of boxes improvised from foil and cut-up cardboard Budweiser cases. Fruits and vegetables are very expensive here, so they're served sparingly, but we all have our personal stashes of other foods we picked up in town to round out our meals.

At night, the wildlife count increases and my roommates start to get spooked. We have a strict "no food in the room" policy so as not to attract any visitors, but the visitors come to investigate nonetheless. Having grown up in the Great Southwest, where humans have to share the land with the other critters who live there, I'm rather unimpressed by the occasional gecko lizards, cockroaches, spiders and ants in this this tropical marine climate. Somehow we can't completely eliminate the ants despite there being nothing around to interest them. An occasional little black mouse or two likes to scurry around the edges of the room, but they're gone as quickly as they come. (I do keep my mat away from the edge of the room as a precaution.)

I'm the designated rodent catcher in our room. One mouse was stupid enough to hide in a rolled-up poster. It didn't take us long to block him in, grabbing a book for one end and a zori (flip-flop) for the other. We carried him outside and flung him out with a loud "Begone!" (Do you suppose he speaks English?) The 4-inch long crab was easier to scoop up in a towel and shake outside. Hey, we all wanted to be closer to nature, right? (Besides, did you notice I didn't mention mosquitos? I haven't seen a one, and haven't gotten bitten by anything at all. Not one critter bite.)

So yeah, it's basically like camping, except lots classier campers. The attitude is less "Euu. . . yuk! Somebody FIX IT!" asnd much more "Euu. . . yuk! I'm going to do something about this. Let's do it together."

Evening brings the welcome bucket shower, lathering off the dried sweat from the day as I stand under the night sky. It's astonishing to discover that it really only takes 1/2 bucket to get perfectly clean. We're pretty careful to conserve water on this island where the chief source of fresh water is rainwater, gathered into catchments. We drink bottled water now; we'll all make choices about how daring we want to be when we get to our placements. Rainwater is used for dishwashing (with a bleach water rinse), bucket showering, and laundering. One person's laundry rinse water is the next person's sudsy clothes-washing water, with one of the common agitation methods being the "grape-stomping" method: dancing in the washtub. Wastewater from laundry or dishes goes into buckets for flushing the toilet. I'm so grateful for ceramic flush toilets here (I've used far worse), even if a bucket of water poured into the bowl is needed to flush 'em.

I've seen some spectacular sunsets while sitting near the shore as the tide comes in and the sun goes down. Tonight's bucket shower was lit by the nearly-full moon, surrounded by a sky-wide halo.

I'd say more about Marshallese people and culture, but I'm aware of the artificial community we live in during orientation, intersecting only with our Marshallese language instructors, bilingual shop owners, folks I've met at church, and neighbors staring as I walk by. Yes, we ARE the TV here.

Photos next time, I hope -- no photos of wildlife, I promise!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Solar eclipse and lunatic foreigners (ribelles)

Wed. was a rare solar eclipse, with people across the world flocking to the best viewing spots. Turns out the Marshall Islands is a pretty good destination. The day of the eclipse coincided with our first trip into town. The astronomers of our group found a welder's mask in a hardware store, a suitable prop for viewing the total eclipse of the sun.

Picture this: a school bus full of ribelles, each sequentially hanging out the window wearing a welder's mask, peering at the sun. Amusing when those white faces are hanging out on the right (the lagoon side), but nearly disastrous when they're hanging out on the ocean side. The masked foreigner peering up doesn't notice that a car is coming the other way on the one-lane road, leaving scarcely enough clearance even without a masked ribelle head out the window. Luckily the other driver does notice. The laughs of the idiot ribelles ripple through the bus all the way home.

Days are filled with classes about teaching, kajin majel (Marshallese) lessons, swimming in the lagoon, exotic food (octupus isn't my favorite, but pumpkin/coconut rice -- delicious!), deep sleep, and sweating!!! Very few of my fears are being realized, and lots of the gorgeousness of this place is seeping into my soul.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Safe, sound and sweating

I'm here! All 39 of us WorldTeach volunteers arrived, with all our luggage intact (most with our lunch intact too). Our month-long orientation is in a village on the capital atoll Majuro, before we fan out to our various assignments.

The country is indeed the beautiful island in the photos, where a single-lane road traverses the length of the island (70 miles, maybe?), but you can walk the width from ocean to lagoon in, oh, 5 minutes. Orientation is in Ajeltake village, where we're sleeping on mats in classrooms, taking bucket showers, and taking over the elementary school kitchen to cook our meals. The sea breeze from ocean to lagoon helps make the humid heat less oppressive -- I can actually breathe here. One of the volunteers said of this morning's rain: "It's not raining; it's the Gods sweating."

We're in town now (Day 2 of orientation), hitting the internet cafe, opening bank accounts in the Bank of Marshall Islands, shopping, registering in the healthcare system, etc. Not sure when I'll be able to check in again, but so far so good!

Thanks to you all for your emails of support -- I so appreciate it!

Until next time -

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ready to go -- No keys in my pocket

I have no keys in my pocket. Not one.

I have always had keys in my pocket: my childhood bike lock key and house key when I was in old enough to be trusted, a dorm room key and a gym basket key in college, followed by the car keys, house keys, and safe deposit box keys of adulthood. Today I have no keys in my pocket.

Each chapter of this preparation phase has been marked by letting go of one key after another.

I left my office key in the drawer and locked the door behind me late at night after I finally finished the handoff document to my faceless replacement (they're hiring sometime soon, I hear).

I left the key to "the marital home" on his brand new kitchen table, after removing the last remnants of my half of our twenty years together.

I slipped my condo key through the mailslot at the realtors, for the renters to settle in next month before grad school starts in the fall.

I put my car key on my mom's keyring. There's space in her Texas carport for two cars. She'll keep it in the shade for me, taking it out for a run into town from time to time.

I've placed each key where it belongs now. It's just me and my suitcases. My pockets are empty.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

you're going where?

OK. Pick a spot about halfway between Hawaii and Australia in the Pacific (about 8 degrees north of the equator). Take a solid piece of coral about the size of Washington DC (70 sq. miles). Break it up into 1225 islands (34 are inhabited) and sprinkle it over 1 ½ times the size of Texas (375,000 sq. miles of ocean). Add a year-round tropical marine climate that ranges from about 75-92 F with a sweltering 84% humidity year round. That's the Marshall Islands.

I'm taking a year-long leave of absence from Brandeis and volunteering as a teacher of English through WorldTeach. I've been assigned to Gugegwe on Kwajalein Atoll: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=ebeye,+marshall+islands&sll=33.858329,-118.350195&sspn=0.008874,0.018861&ie=UTF8&ll=8.84781,167.743592&spn=0.005279,0.009431&t=h&z=17

Gugegwe is pronounced "goo-jee-goo," with hard "g"s like "Greg" on both ends and a soft "g" like "George" in the middle. It's 5 miles away from Ebeye (one of the most densely populated place on the planet, where most of my students live). I'll be teaching high school English, living in faculty housing on the high school campus. I'm told I have intermittent electricity, and 3 rainbarrels out back, so I should have water. No way to tell how often I'll be able to email or blog, but snailmail works. My address in RMI will be:
c/o Kwajalein Atoll High School
P.O. Box 5129
Ebeye, MH 96970
Republic of the Marshall Islands

It's the US mail system, so it goes at US rates!

I read today in the blog of a friend (Alison Courchesne) that the neighboring island "Ebeye was originally called Ebje, which is Marshallese for “your canoe will tip over trying to get there,” but due to a spelling error reminiscent of Ellis Island, it was mistakenly named Ebeye on an American map and the error became permanent."

I hope to be in touch during the year. . . Off I go! Wheels up on Sunday morning, July 19.