It has nearly been seven months since WorldTeach has arrived in Chuuk, Micronesia for the first time. I still remember our first day: sunglasses, sunblock, and sandals were all intact as we took our first step from United’s Island Hopper onto the canvas of Weno, the capital island with splattered hues of green and blue, proportionally measuring far less than a pencil dot on a world map. We were shuttled a three-minute drive, roughly a 10-minute walk, from the airport to our apartment building, located equidistant from Chuuk High School, the downtown markets, and the airport. Little did I know of the actual size of Weno; Google Earth does no justice when it comes to envisioning what looks like a short bike ride from one-side of the island to the other could probably take a good two to three hours, or more! In addition, compared to the other islands of the FSM, the islands of Chuuk are packed with over 50,000 people. Chuuk, or Truk, lagoon is the most populous of the four states of the FSM; included are the Mortlock to the southeast, and the Northwest Islands, both over a day’s boat ride away outside of the lagoon. Although Weno is slowly becoming more ‘Americanized,’ with the recent addition of cable TV, internet, and relatives moving back from Guam or the mainland—which has brought a new style of clothing (“swag”), what seems like an innumerable amount of cars, a different view of relationships and public affection, and culture is slowly being pushed aside—you still see a more primitive lifestyle on other islands within and outside of the lagoon. What won’t change anytime soon is the infinite amount of respect WorldTeach has felt from the people here and our students, along with a smile and the obligation to say “Hello,” or “Ranannim,” to someone in passing. It is easy to feel homesick, especially as my first time away from family for an extended amount of time, but during my walk to school every morning I’m reminded of why I’m here and the help I’m bringing to move Chuuk further along in the push for better education.
A lifetime of experiences has happened since that first step through Chuuk International, inside and outside of the classroom. Within our first month in Chuuk, we were introduced to the uninhabited island known as Pisiiwi (pronounced Peh see wee), or Picnic Island. About a 45-minute boat ride from the dock, we landed on a white, sandy beach settled about a mile off the coast of Weno. Some of us snorkeled, read under the shade of the coconut tree, played water-volleyball with kids, learned Chuukese words, ate local barbequed foods, and swam through a storm we watched approach as a misty haze coming from the horizon and covering the islands’ mountains like a blanket. Rain or shine, which I should mention ‘the Pacific turnaround’ between the two states of weather can happen at any moment of time, the 400-miles-north-of-the-equator sun and the dark pink hue of a developing sunburn is always a consequence for stepping outside. We’ve spotted the little island of Pisiiwi from afar as we hiked up the side of one of Chuuk’s volcanic mountains (“Chuuk” means “mountain” in Chuukese) to get a spectacular view of the northeast pass and the ring of white islands that form the lagoon. Along the way, convinced we’ve seen Jurassic Park and a replica of the massive tree at Disney World, our machete-baring teenagers guided us through eight-foot tall grass to get to Japanese guns left from Japan’s rule over Chuuk during World War II. From these canon-sized guns nestled into caves at the top of the mountain, we can see the village of Sapuk, where some of us had attended a lengthy Chief initiation ceremony, filled with singing, laughter, dancing, and eating. This is also where we’ve kicked off during our own short canoeing trip right off the coast of Weno. Chuuk is all about adventure, and there is plenty of islands worth of it; it all depends on who you get to know, and which islands you want to see.
My classroom is a daily adventure in itself. We’ve called this year “Special-Ops Education” because of the high importance we’ve put on changing the education system due to how far behind most of the students are in English and mathematics. If you have ever had a thought about where in the world could you go to help better the lives of people and help someone in need, the answer is right here in Chuuk. My students are highly intelligent, amazing people, but they struggle because they’ve never had the opportunity of a good education, and in some cases, the resources to provide that education. There are some students that are fluent in English, but they lack the proper writing skills to make it in a college setting. I’m excited more than ever to be a part of the change happening in Chuuk, especially being that first year of WorldTeachers that saved the education funding in Chuuk from being cut off, and helped give the system a boost when they needed it most.
More than anything, I cherish the time with my students. They know there is a time to be serious and a time to have fun, and I try to incorporate both in my teaching philosophy. The students of Chuuk are very shy and timid, but with seven months under my belt, they’ve finally opened up and love to joke with me. My student council has been very successful in terms of learning their role as leaders in their respective grade-levels, putting on several parties (I’ve never laughed so much in my life while I was judging the Senior Halloween costume competition), organizing the group’s song for music club, trying to organize their first prom ever, and suggesting cool ideas I’ve never heard of during our meetings. Now that my students are opening up more, even the ones that I never knew could talk, they want to know more about me… and it is something I highly encourage them to ask about! I’ve told so many people that I’ve learned more from my students than they probably have from me; sharing our cultural differences with each other and putting ourselves out there to be exposed is how we learn. It is that cultural-diversity Gen-Ed requirement that we had to take in college, except we get to experience it in real life, with real people, and real stories. For them to understand there is other places to explore, other mannerisms to respect, and other people out there to get to know that are different from themselves is important for their own well-being. The question of all questions here in Chuuk, and my personal favorite, is “What island are you from?” Deep down I want to say “Hoosier Island,” just because it sounds more exotic than corn fields and rednecks, but it always sparks the discussion of the size of our states on the mainland compared to the size of all of the islands of Chuuk put together. Their follow up question is still usually said in a confused manner, “So, which island?”
Our students at Chuuk High School come from all of the islands of Chuuk, some by boat every day, and others to stay with relatives during the semester until the weekends or an extended holiday. We were recently blessed to visit an island in Faichuuk, a group of islands west of Weno in the lagoon, known as Tol. We were invited to a teaching conference, and little did I know I would be teaching in it. We went for the last day ceremony and it just so happened to be ‘mathematics day.’ I didn’t realize I was supposed to prepare a short discussion for teachers, but after one of the local teachers finished his discussion during the upper level math workshop, he said the words “Jess, your turn.” My first thought was, “my turn?” Quick thinking had me write a five-step lesson plan in terms of teaching mathematics, and how to better prepare students for the college entrance test in Micronesia. They all took notes, and I felt like a hero as a fresh graduate out of college teaching teachers whom have had their positions for years. I really felt I was bringing something they have never heard of before to a region of Chuuk where the scores are constantly the lowest, and improvement in recent years was not being made. We were the guests of honor, and I got to share my story to the other WorldTeachers as we were chowing down on a mega-sized bowl of different local foods. Each of our boxes had at least half an octopus, purple rice (the people of Chuuk love their festive, colored rice), pork with bone, one boiled fish, one raw fish, an orange, taro, breadfruit, a cupcake, and a coconut to wash it all down; enough food for a small family, right? Upon pictures with our leis and headdresses, it was back to our boat.
Chuuk and its history involves a great deal of navigation, relying on the stars and learning wind patterns, and how the Chuukese forebears were able to build strong canoes and actually navigate the aggressive Pacific from island to island. It amazes me learning about their mode of travel, how dangerous it is, yet also how much one has to understand about navigating even within the lagoon of Chuuk. On the way back, our skipper for the small five-person fiberglass boat was telling us about knowing the direction of the wind, understanding how to move the boat through the ocean waters during rough patches of waves and the weather that brings them. The lagoon was rough on the boat ride home from Tol after the teaching conference; it was nearly an hour and a half of bouncing around to get back to Weno after staring at what seemed like a mirage of a coast line. The boat constantly flew up out of the water and performed several nose dives to hit sea level again, making us all anxious to return to land. It definitely wasn’t a ride for a person with easy sea sickness, but the beauty of the islands of Chuuk is flawless and was a mental getaway from the hardwood floor of our uncomfortable boat ride. Every shade of teal can be seen the closer we arrive to the islands’ beach, birds resting on massive rocks protruding from the ocean’s surface, mangroves hidden between adjacent islands, coconut trees stretching their trunk to hang over the beached-area of each island as if wanting to safely shed its coconuts into the water below, and beautiful white-sand beaches and sand bars in the distant as we zigzagged around the different inlets of Faichuuk. Every now and again I would see a snorkel or face mask pop up from the shallows of the lagoon as a day of successful diving meant another day’s food for the family to survive. Beautiful islands and beautiful people, Chuuk is majestic in more ways than one.
My original title for this blog entry was “When People Move Mountains,” in relation to the fact of changing around this education system can be compared to trying push and pull at the task the size of a mountain (a very massive, sleeping, volcanic one), and with the literal sense of ‘Chuuk’ meaning ‘mountain.’ But I really feel that in this first year we are moving Chuuk an inch closer to where it should be; however, we are only the predecessors to an amazing experience waiting to happen for future educators to continue our service. Change happens overtime, and some people forget that. We’ve met with several top-notch American government officials about keeping funding in Chuuk for this last-ditch effort to save these children’s education, and I really see it as a last chance for them to have any kind of a future. With all of my experiences during this amazing trip to Chuuk as an educator, a friend, and a volunteer, when I’m asked the question, “What island are you from?” without hesitation, the easy answer to this now is Weno.
-Jesse W. Wilson, WT Chuuk ’12-‘13