October 19, 2005

Bridging the Divide

CHOOL IS FINISHED. SURPRISINGLY, I have survived my first year in my first classroom--a classroom situated not 50 feet away from the crashing waves of the sapphire sea surrounding the tiny island of Majuro, in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

It has been a busy, trying, challenging, and incredible year. I have cried and laughed over my students, and with my students. I have faced innumerable discipline problems that left me shaking in my zoris (flip-flops). I have written many lesson plans each week as well as tests, quizzes, and assignments; spending hours on the computer with my eyes glued to the screen, and my fingers pasted to the keyboard. I have graded more or less 11,325 papers, projects, tests, and quizzes (yes, I counted them--for posterity's sake). I have struggled to interest my students in learning, enticing them to think, forcing them to use their brains and to be responsible for their own learning, education, and future. And, yes, there were times when I felt I had failed miserably at each one of those objectives.

Did I have any positive influence at all on the 100 plus students that walked through my classroom door each day? Was I fulfilling my mission in my mission field?

Change Is Good?
Besides the grading, teaching, and struggling in the classroom, many changes occurred during these past nine months.

1543 story7I have changed. I wear zoris, island skirts, and Marshallese combs to hold up my hair. I run by the wave-crashed sea wall as the sun paints a new day in the eastern sky. Before breakfast I buy fresh cinnamon rolls and doughnuts at the local convenience store, along with other early-rising Marshallese girls sent to buy that morning's sweet bread for their families. I sing the full-voiced "kajin Majal" (Marshallese language) songs with my students each morning. And, by now, I am used to being called Mrs. Bizama, though "Mrs." made me feel ancient at first.

I relish Marshallese food: cold coconut water, breadfruit chips, fried breadfruit, aged breadfruit (called bwiro), breadfruit boiled in coconut milk, squash prepared the same way, pandanas fruit (called "pop" by the Marshallese), fresh fish . . . I can now dissect a fish cooked whole, complete with eyes, mouth, teeth, skin, fins, tail, and scales--and eat all the correct parts. That's quite a step for a born-and-raised vegetarian!

Then there are the teenage varieties of not-so-traditional food. Uncooked ramen with Kool-Aid powder and ramen seasoning would have to be first on a lengthy list of salty, sour, or sweet delicacies. One day the whole high school cafeteria watched in awe as I shared fresh lime with salt and soy sauce with some ninth-grade girls. "You know how to eat lime, Mrs. Bizama?" many chorused in surprise.

I oblige my students' requests of, "Mrs. Bizama, picture me!" as I snap their image into digital memory. I sit and "bwebwenato" (story or tell stories) with my teenage charges or "jambo" (a unique word that appears to mean riding or walking with a group of friends with no apparent purpose or destination in mind other than to enjoy the ride and the company) for hours into the night as I learn about the Marshallese, their culture, and, most of all, my students.

Adapting and Adjusting
For a weekend my new husband and I escaped to an outer island in Arno Atoll for our one-year anniversary. The boat ride was incredibly rough! We held on for dear life as the tiny boat jumped eight-foot waves and sank into deep chasms. We were utterly soaked from head to toe, and completely baked by the glorious sun. Throughout this experience, the sun sparkled and glistened on shimmering mountains of liquid blue diamonds, with a blue so intense and deep such as I've not seen outside the islands.

Although Arno was beautiful, rural, and full of curious Marshallese youngsters and grown-ups, the house had no privacy, and no clean sheets. People walked by at all hours calling, "Yokwe!" (hello). One morning a small boy silently observed our breakfast with huge solemn eyes. He soberly accepted our offering of a hard-boiled egg, and wordlessly scuttled off to enjoy his treat in privacy.

We walked on the beach and in the bush, watched sunsets and sunrises and stars, visited the coconut oil factory, the giant clam farm, and the Arno Elementary School. And we went snorkeling! Never have I seen so many vividly colored fish. The coral was incredible: gardens, expanses, and towers. And sharks! Three very small reef sharks.

What to Leave Behind
On Arno, time ceased to exist. I forgot what it was like not to have something to do every minute of every 24-hour period. But back at home the rat race continued. I drove headlong on a collision course with finals, consecration, graduation, and hundreds of yokwe (goodbye) parties. I sent both the eighth- and twelfth-grade graduates down the fern-lined aisle to the beat of "Pomp and Circumstances," feeling as proud as a mother hen.

Then the yearbooks came out. I was totally unprepared when the yearbook editor read my name for the high school teacher dedication. After all the times I had wondered if I was doing enough, if I was getting through to my students, now I learned that I had. They had chosen me from among 10 teachers, not because I was the best teacher, but because they knew I cared about them.

I'm glad to know that I have made some difference here on this island with these kids. And they have made a difference in me. I have tried to teach them. But they have taught me so much more. They have taught me about sharing, spending time together, cultivating friendship, and caring about one another. I hope that next year I will be a better teacher for what I have learned this year. And that I can continue to fulfill my mission here in my mission field.

Jennifer Bizama and her husband, Leandro, were missionaries on the island of Majuro in the Marshall Islands for the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 school years. Jennifer served as the high school English/ESL teacher at the Delap Seventh-day Adventist High School. Leandro served as the chaplain/Bible teacher/choir director.