The Importance of Choice by Christian Colo (RMI ’16)

It’s another Monday morning as I wake up to the sound of lagoon waves lapping against the shore mere feet from my house. I look out my doorway towards the cookhouse and see smoke rising: breakfast time. Mama is hard at work as she flips hot pancakes off the coconut husk fire that she has been tending all morning. She already has a steaming stack waiting for me with a boiled fish caught just the night before. Within a few minutes, I am walking past breadfruit, banana, and coconut trees as I make my daily commute along the dirt path that leads to the school. As I unlock the door and uncover the windows that look out over the beautifully blue lagoon, my students begin to trickle in and tell me about their weekends. This begins another week of teaching in the Marshall Islands.

If you had asked me as a child what I want to do when I grow up, I probably would have told you that I want to make a million dollars or fly to the moon. If those didn’t work out, I always had my fallback as a professional ice cream taster. However, I probably wouldn’t have told you I want to teach on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Yet here I find myself writing from Nallo, a small island in Mili Atoll which is one of the many coral atolls that make up the Marshall Islands.

At just under a half square mile in total area with a population of 150 people, Nallo is a fairly typical island among the Marshall Islands. I teach English and math in its elementary school where 65 children come each day to receive the education that is so necessary to unlocking opportunities in their country.

While during the school day they may be learning how to add fractions or write a persuasive paragraph, their afternoons often consist of spearfishing out in the lagoon to catch that night’s dinner, caring for their younger siblings, or traipsing through the dense jungle in search of brown coconuts to make copra, a coconut that provides the only income and opportunity for the majority of the islanders. In this way, these children are more than just students; they are also caretakers and providers intent on helping their families make ends meet. Yet each weekday, they make the time for their education and remind me of the spirit of the students in the Marshall Islands.

Don’t get me wrong. Living and teaching in Nallo isn’t just palm trees and beautiful sunsets. Every school comes with its challenges, and Nallo has its fair share. For a building with no electricity or lighting, the school’s empty window frames can be a blessing when they let in the daylight or a cool ocean breeze to combat the equatorial heat and humidity, but they can also be a curse as they let in the rain and heavy winds that are so common in this part of the world. School supplies and materials can often be in short supply, and at any given time, the school’s four classrooms cannot accommodate all nine of the grade levels it serves.

But just when these challeng es threaten to overwhelm me, someone or something unfailingly gives me a small moment to provide perspective on these incredible islands and the strong community that holds them together. I had arrived at school one day for my afternoon classes only to find that no one was there. As I took the path back to my house in a state of confusion and irritation, I saw some of my students hurriedly gathering coconuts in the jungle. It was then that I would find out a man in the community had recently died, and my students were each gathering 35 coconuts to trade for the dollar that they would give at the man’s funeral that afternoon. It’s moments like those that stop you in your tracks and make you realize that those fractions and paragraphs can wait until tomorrow.

Whenever I think about what impact I can have on my students, I’m often struck by the fact that for many people in the Marshall Islands, their home island will be the only world they ever know. Because of that, I’ve realized that my job here is merely to provide an opportunity by means of an education. If every student in Nallo finishes 8th grade with the thought that he or she can decide his or her own future, my job will be complete. Some may choose to remain in Nallo for the rest of their lives while others may go someplace else. Neither choice is any better or worse than the other, but the importance lies with the choice itself. If I ask my students what they want to do when they grow up, I want to hear something like, “Maybe I’ll make copra, or maybe I’ll make a million dollars. Maybe I’ll fly to the moon, or maybe I’ll raise a family in Nallo.” And hey, even if those don’t work out, they can always fallback as professional ice cream tasters.