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.”