Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sometimes I wonder how many missiles fly over our heads, and how often. The US army operates a major missile-testing operation on Kwajalein Atoll, just a couple islands over from Majuro, and Kwaj’s lagoon is described by the “Lonely Planet” travel guide as a giant catcher’s-mit for missiles launched from the mainland. When the Marshall Islands were given to the USA as a trust territory after WWII, they were designated a “Strategic Trust Territory”, which means that America had defense-related ambitions out here. Because of our distance from the mainland, we are an ideal location for intercepting (or receiving) long-range missile tests from the mainland. Of course things are kept pretty secret over there at Kwaj, but there were several days last semester during class that I heard a huge noise from above as if a low-flying jet were going by overhead. When I checked my watch, it was not time for the Continental jet to be arriving (isn’t that sad that I have Continental’s weekly arrival and departure schedule memorized?). There are plenty of other planes that land at the airport to refuel, so it could possibly have been a plane, but I really wonder what the frequency of missiles overhead is. With threats from North Korea, I wonder if this “Strategic Trust” in the Pacific will become actively engaged in US national defense again. Interesting to think about…

This week has been pretty ordinary. A couple of mornings I’ve been walking to school at 8am and have walked right through the middle of morning excitement. There’s usually a traffic jam outside of Assumption Elementary and High School (which is in between my house and CMI). Cars on the main road are trying to get through while cars dropping off school children and taxis are pulling in and out of Assumption. It’s such a mess that some of the Assumption High School boys have donned orange vests and whistles and they direct the traffic. What’s funny is that everyone who lives in the neighborhood and all the schoolchildren who are arriving at school sit outside and watch in amusement all morning. This seems to be a favorite gathering spot for local entertainment each morning!

I am really, really frustrated with my credit-level classes. The students are resistant to making the change from hand-holding developmental classes to independent, dedicated work in college-level courses. Even my developmental algebra students collectively work harder than my credit-level students. I gave a review assignment to help my students prepare for their first test and in one class, only 8 out of 20 students bothered to do it. Those who worked on it passed the test, but 50% of the class scored below 50% on their test and it took me about 6 hours to grade all 60 tests because they were so bad. My other class is vastly polarized between students with strong study-skills and commitment who are fast learners and students similar to those described above who drag their feet and only give a half-hearted effort in their homework. After the frustrating results of the first test, I gave them all the option of making corrections to the problems they missed for points back. Only half of the test corrections I received were actually correct while the other half were still mostly wrong, some were late, and many students didn’t even bother to turn them in at all. I’m beside myself to know what to do. The very, very alarming thing to me is that many of the students who are only half-committed to working hard and learning good things are Education majors! This is a worrisome trend. Aside from a small handful of exceptions to the rule, our weakest students are the ones who choose to become teachers. How on earth is education ever going to improve in the RMI if we keep sending those who are not motivated and don’t particularly like or excel in school into elementary and high schools!?! Why do these students (who aren’t particularly good in school) choose this vocation?? Yesterday I found the answer: my colleague Ellie (who supervises practicum student-teachers) told me that teachers in the RMI get paid the equivalent of about $2/hour! But the ministry of education gets about ½ of the annual RMI national budget, so where is all this money going if not to the salaries of teachers?And now the ministry of education is now putting pressure on them to get degrees, but why would someone go to the trouble of getting a degree to become a teacher if they could work as a waitress at a restaurant and earn just as much!?! It’s no wonder our brightest students choose other majors! And even if bright Education students transfer to Hawaii and finish a bachelor’s degree, why would they return to the Marshall Islands when they could make twice as much as a teacher overseas?

I have a wonderful in-service teacher in my developmental algebra class who is extremely hard working and very positive about learning in class. She’s probably around 40 years old and her children also go to CMI and local high schools and are very bright. She says things to me like, “Wow, I never knew this kind of math (with variables) existed! All they ever taught us in school was adding-subtracting-multiplying-dividing whole numbers (and maybe fractions or decimals if we were lucky!) Some students here go through 12 years of school without ever seeing an algebra equation! (Other students who attend private schools take Algebra in 11th or 12th grade). Worse yet, some have been taught Math (and English) completely wrong for 12 years by, so at CMI we first have to undo the “bad math” and then start building from scratch. I have a feeling this is due to the Ministry of Education hiring teachers who never passed math themselves! If we can’t even get qualified teachers in our K-12 schools, how will CMI ever have a strong base of Marshallese instructors if we require all instructors to have Master’s degrees? Wow, what a mess. I really have to try to focus on the positive because from where I stand the future of education here looks pretty rough. The good news is that we went to read with the children in front of Alele museum this morning and among them are some really, really bright kids. A couple kids in 3rd and 5th grade had wonderful reading skills (in English too) and one was an absolute math whiz. One second grader could write his name in cursive and read very advanced English sentences, while the 3rd grade math whiz was calculating “7x5=35” while we read “The Grapes of Math”. While this gives me hope, it is interesting to note that these older kids go to private schools (two to Assumption Elementary, another to Baptist Elementary) and I’m afraid this represents a diverging in the standard of education for the haves and have-nots in this country. Others of the small children who came this morning don’t even go to school at all. A community youth outreach program provides children who are not in school with a couple hours of “school” activities each day, which is a wonderful community service. But I have mixed feelings of hope and sadness when I see the state of education here.

One quick story that is somewhat amusing: my friend Susan is a new English teacher at CMI and asked students in her listening-and-speaking class to prepare a short speech about their career goals. Sometimes it’s hard for us to understand what our students are saying because they often speak with muffled voices, and their accents are a little difficult to adjust to understanding. One student in her class addressed the class and told them he wanted to be a “Lawyer, Businessman, and Janitor” when he finished at CMI. This odd combination threw poor Susan for a loop, and she didn’t know how to respond to such a strange amalgamation of career goals. Then another one mentioned “Janitor” too, and she was very confused. Finally, she asked them to clarify, and it turns out what they were saying to her was that they want to be Senators, not Janitors! But in Marshallese there’s no letter “s” or “z”. The closest sound to “s” is “j”, so “senator” becomes “jenator”, and in my case, “zero” becomes “jero”! Ok, Lawyer, Businessman, Senator…that makes a little more sense!

As I sit here typing, I’m also itching everywhere! Last weekend Susan and I rode our bikes out to the tidepools at Peace Park (about 10 miles away, past the airport). It was beautiful, relaxing, great exercise, and great snorkeling (less garbage in the water). I got plenty of sun, too, and turned first red, and then very nice brown. On Sunday when I saw Mary I told her, “I was just trying to look a little more Marshallese, but instead I turned into a lobster!” This made her laugh. By midweek the redness had gone and I was a nice medium brown color, which I much prefer to my normal pasty-white. Well yesterday and today my brown skin is itchy and peeling off, revealing again the pasty white shade underneath. Ah, cursed Scandinavian genes that I inherited!!

I’m on my way home now. I’m going to prepare lessons for next week about personal finance and being smart about money (something my students desperately need). The common attitude here is “spend your paycheck until it’s gone and then wait for the next one”. No one has ever told them about saving for a rainy day or even about comparing prices when they shop at the store. If they have money, they spend it, and if they don’t they don’t! Thankfully none of my students have credit cards, and only a small handful out of 60 have a bank account. Even those who have bank accounts never pay attention to them and don’t really know how they work (which is dangerous considering how many mistakes Bank of Guam has made with my account in the past 6 months!) Many of them know how to take out a loan at Bank of Marshall Islands, but none of them understand how outrageous it is to agree to pay the 20% interest that BOMI charges. So I hope this will be a very eye-opening week for many of my students. I’m off to prepare now. Have a great weekend, aolep!

PS. No sight of my camera yet, sorry about the lack of pictures! I hope it arrives, but I don’t think I have very much faith in the postal service anymore.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

This morning at 7:30am, the rains finally came. I was summoned to my (3rd story) bedroom window by joyful noises below. For about 5 minutes I watched unobserved, as two young girls (probably about 10 or 11 years old) danced in the rain, completely soaked, laughing (not even close to being ready to go to school!). Nearby the barrels (lined with black garbage bags) were filling wonderfully, and there were grey storm clouds to the east for as far as I could see. This is a very, very wonderful day! Everyone is a little happier today. It has been a long, long dry-season. El Nino has made it worse. I have never before known what a blessing rain is until this past month. Although water “magically” still appears from the faucet in my apartment (my landlord must have a giant catchment), my friends and neighbors have suffered much. In fact, on Sunday I gave them my emergency supply of water in gallon jugs because they needed it more than I do. Most Marshallese homes have a rain gutter on their roof that funnels water into a catchment or barrels to save for later. When it doesn’t rain significantly for months (like the past few months) catchments dry up and people suffer. The coral reef that we all live on is too porous to retain much water, so catching all the water possible is very important. In fact, the water company in Majuro collects water from the runway at the airport. There is purified drinking water available from the Pacific Pure Water Company for $1.20/gallon, but that’s too expensive for many families to use for an extended length of time. Wow, I never really appreciated how important “El Nino” is! Growing up in California, it just meant we had lots of storms in the winter because weather systems over the Pacific shift Eastward. But here in the tropics, those shifting weather systems cause our water supply to disappear for several months and severe draughts ensue. With a large population to provide water for, the impacts of El Nino can be devastating.

On a completely different note: here is an “only in the Marshall Islands” story for you. I turned 30 on January 30th, and my mother sent a birthday package to me. It has been 3 weeks now since she sent it and it still has not arrived. It also included my digital camera which I left with my parents at Christmastime to take a few extra pictures before returning it to me. I was getting a bit concerned and checked with the post office, but I didn’t see the package. Then last week in the newspaper, the headlines read, “Marshall Islands Post Office Thefts Prove that RMI ignored the US Postal Service”. “Oh, no!” I thought, recalling that my mother had to write the contents of the box on the outside of the customs form like an advertisement for what’s inside the box. Over the past 5 years, $14,000 of money orders were stolen from the post office in Ebeye (by employees), $18,000 were stolen from Majuro, and Majuro post office was cited by USPS postal inspectors for “grave mismanagement”. This is the primary reason that we are no longer considered a “domestic location” even though we have a US zip code (96960), and why the USPS does not offer insurance or delivery confirmation on any packages going to the RMI. So I am still waiting for my camera and the gifts that my mom sent for my birthday, but I may never see them. Yesterday in talking to a colleague at work, she said, “Did you hear what happened to the international mail at the post office?” No, I hadn’t. She reported that she was waiting for her new ATM card from the Bank of Guam and upon checking for it at the post office, she was told the following story: The septic system at the main post office backed up, overflowed, and spewed raw sewage across the entire international mail room. Instead of rescuing the mail and cleaning up immediately, the postal workers shut the door tight and ignored the problem for several days. When they finally got around to cleaning up the mess, instead of trying to contact the recipients of the mail or salvage something, they wrote it off and destroyed all the international mail. So the fate of my camera could be one of four possibilities: 1) It now belongs to a Marshallese postal worker and I may be fortunate enough to see it around town, 2) It smells so strongly of sewage that I would not dream of holding it next to my face, 3) It was destroyed with all the rest of the international mail, or 4) by some miracle, my birthday box was held up in Hawaii and might still come through. Wow, well, it doesn’t take a probability expert to calculate that if the outcomes are equally likely, then there’s a 25% chance I might actually get to use my camera again one day. Hey, that’s a great problem to give my students in my Math 102 class when we start the section on probability next month! In any case, my lack of a camera is the reason that this post is the first ever without at least one picture.

We have had 7 power outages so far in the first 3 weeks of this semester, and today there is going to be another one from 9am-5pm, so I have to stop typing soon and turn off my computer. There’s many, many more stories to tell that I will add to this blog just as soon as the power comes back on again. Have a happy day everyone!