This week’s blog post is a throwback to 2009 when Marci McPhee was a volunteer in the Marshall Islands. Marci volunteered while on a leave of absence from Brandeis University.


“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.

Marci was a WorldTeach volunteer from 2009-2010 teaching English at Kwajalein Atoll High School, on an island called Guegeegue (pronounced goo-jee-goo) in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. After volunteering with WorldTeach, she resumed her position as Associate Director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis.