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!