Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island," by Peter Rudiak-Gould

Interested in a book about life in the Marshall Islands? A new one just came out – an easy beach read (no pun intended). Peter Rudiak-Gould was a WorldTeach volunteer on an outer island in 2003-4. He’s written a terrific, funny book that really captures a lot of the spirit of this place, without ducking the tough issues (Bikini nuclear testing disaster, grim global warming predictions, etc.). He’s now an anthropology grad student with an interest in linguistics; both of these disciplines feature prominently in his highly readable, witty memoir.

My experience is slightly different from Peter’s, for at least two reasons. One, I live on a rural island next to one of the two large population centers of the Marshall Islands, while Peter was on one of the remotest outer islands. Two, he’s male, and was therefore included in a lot of canoeing and spearfishing that were not available to me. Taking women on fishing expeditions is considered bad luck. Some Marshallese will break tradition to take a ribelle, but being a non-fisherman, I wasn’t particularly interested in breaking a cultural taboo on this one.

A few things that Peter writes about that don’t match my experience: I haven’t noticed any of the mistreatment or ignoring of children he talks about at some length. Neither have I seen the lack of activity on the part of the men. That’s probably a function of the rural outer island environment vs. the “urban” environment of Ebeye. Neither do men and women sit separately in the churches I’ve attended (Mormon and Catholic). Finally, the educational system here is challenged, but not as pathetic as the one he had to deal with on Ujae. We do have a school bell (an empty air tank clobbered several times a day with a hammer), and many teachers actually do teach. Among the Kwajalein Atoll High School teachers are several Filipinos, a Fijian, and a handful of Marshallese, as well as we two American WorldTeach volunteers.

Sorry, I don’t get a WorldTeach discount on the book; neither do I personally know the author to get you an autographed copy! But it’s a great book for understanding a WorldTeach year in the Marshall Islands.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

“I Have a Dream” for my Marshallese students

Students watching a video biography of Martin Luther King. Notice the face of King on my computer giving his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, while the students watch the projector screen. (Yes, we have easy access to the school’s laptop and computer projector, but we’ve been without a functioning copy machine for days, without a functioning printer for weeks, without internet access for months, and without a useable student bathroom for longer than that (that’s what the ocean is for). One of the many paradoxes of teaching in the Marshall Islands.)
It’s one thing to support Brandeis college students to come up with great activities to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, as I have done in the past. I’ve been inspired by Brandeis students’ creativity and passion for all that King stood for.

It’s quite another thing to teach about Martin Luther King to Marshallese high school students who are coming to understand his story for the first time, even if they might have heard of him before.

MLK is not in the curriculum, but I’m getting used to making up my own materials here. We spend the week studying new vocabulary words: “slavery,” “segregation,” “discrimination,” “justice,” and “nonviolence.” With no corresponding chapter in Marshallese history, students have a tough time understanding the two worlds in the American South in MLK’s time. One world for whites and one for blacks, intersecting at hot flashpoints, divided by centuries of bloody, shameful oppression and prejudice.

I write a skit to help them understand. We stage a nonviolent protest in the front of my class. A beautiful Marshallese-brown Martin Luther King (who happens to be a girl, even) sits at a lunch counter and won’t budge until she gets her hamburger and cola. The class laughs while other student actors haul her away to jail. I watch one of the boy’s eyes widen as he begins to get it.

“Ms. Marci, if we were there then, would we be treated like that too?”

“Yes, I’m sad to say. The whites called them ‘black,’ but what they really meant was ‘non-white.’”

“What about him?” The student points to the lightest-skinned boy in the class, whose skin could pass for a beach tan.

“Yes, even him. Some people said ‘one drop of black blood makes you black.’”

I watch the ripples of understanding – terrible understanding – go through the class, punctuated by the slap of the ocean waves hitting the shore outside my window. Another hand goes up.

“Ms. Marci, if Martin Luther King hadn’t done that, would . . . ” I see him struggling to finish his sentence, and I try to help by guessing what he’s thinking. “Would Obama be president? Not likely,” I say.

“No . . . would. . . would you have come here?” he asks simply.

“Oh yes. Of course I would. It would take more than discrimination and segregation laws to keep me from being here with you. And if anyone tried to stop me, we’d all go to jail together!”

One girl says, “I know a song about that.” She starts singing. Other students join her. I add my voice, and thirty-six voices in a high school classroom in Kwajalein Atoll sing together:

Heal the world. Make it a better place
For you and for me and the entire human race.
There are people dying. If you care enough for the living,
Make a better place for you and for me.

Excerpts from student essays:

“Martin Luther King taught me about kindness and being good to people even if they’re not from the same island. It was interesting about those people (blacks & whites) not sharing anything.”

“I think he was afraid of troubles.” (a student responding to MLK’s nonviolent tactics)

“To fight for something isn’t easy. He didn’t care if they kill him but he just wanted his children to live in a better place where there is no fighting when they grow up. Hurting people isn’t a way to have a better world.”

“You breathe, I breathe, so what’s the difference? ‘Beneath the skin is all the same.’” (a quote from The Cay, my 11th grade class textbook)

“Martin Luther King is the highest great of dream.”