Rikaki in Majol: Teaching in the RMI
By Taylor Lascko, WorldTeach Marshall Islands 2015-2016
This past year, I had the privilege to live in the Marshall Islands. When someone thinks of living on a tropical island, they probably think of living in paradise. Some place with soft, sandy beaches, a beautiful blue ocean, coconut trees, and no worries. Is this what I expected when I signed up to live and teach in the RMI? Well, not quite. I knew that I would be living in a beautiful place filled with kind souls and a rich culture, but I also knew that there would be hardships and struggles, but that is all part of the experience.
My fiancé, Lance, and I were assigned to work at Kwajalein Atoll High School. Kwajalein Atoll is a very unique place within the RMI. Not only is it the largest atoll (a chain of islands surrounding a lagoon), but it is home to a US army base, Kwajalein Island, and the most densely populated place on this earth, Ebeye Island. When we first arrived at the airport on Kwajalein, it was like we were landing into the page of a book like The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, or The Giver where everything seems so perfect and cohesive like some sort of utopia. All of the buildings are white and the coconut trees are perfectly planted. People are riding around on bicycles, and everything looks so pleasant. It was also kind of intimidating because there are many strict rules, which made me feel nervous at times. After we were shuttled to the dock, we took a boat to Ebeye where we entered a completely different world. It was very cramped with houses, people, and cats and dogs everywhere. Also, within the blink of an eye, we moved from being a majority to a minority. It was like we were wearing big signs saying, “Look at me!”. That part never really changed. Finally, from Ebeye we rode in a pickup truck down a dusty, rocky, bumpy causeway connecting several islands to our new home, Guegeegue.
Guegeegue is a very narrow island made up of two small towns and two high schools, one of them being Catholic and the other public. Our house was quite westernized. It was nice and quaint, but definitely different than the houses most of our students and fellow teachers lived in. We had mattresses, furniture, a shower, a stove, and also a toilet and AC that both only worked sometimes. I felt somewhat disappointed and also guilty that we were going to be living in such a nice house. It was definitely harder to integrate into the community without living with a host family like many of the other volunteers would be doing.
Later we had time to explore the island and see its charm. We found many beautiful spots which became our oases from school and work, seeing as the school was only several yards from our house. We took many walks around the island throughout the year. Lance would climb coconut trees and husk coconuts for us to drink and eat while sitting in a hammock or on some rocks overlooking the beautiful ocean or lagoon. I loved watching the hermit crabs crowd around our leftovers and slowly eat every last bit. I would always look around for shells and treasures to carry back home. These were the times that I felt like we were in paradise and that I had to cares in the world. It was easy to get lost in the beauty of that place.
When it came to the school, teaching, and the students, there were many battles fought and challenges to overcome, but at the end of the day, I loved my students so much. I taught English reading and writing to pre-9th grade students and art to 10th grade students. I remember that I spent the first month or two worrying about whether or not I would be able to truly teach them anything or get their behavior under control. It was very rough for a while because I worried too much about being the perfect teacher. Finally, I learned to adopt the Marshallese phrase, “jab inepata.” This means, “don’t worry.” I started to realize that even the smallest things that I did impacted my students. Little things like giving someone a hug who was having a rough day or simply acknowledging a lonely student and talking to them or encouraging everyone to try hard even when they thought they could not do something.
I was so worried that they would not learn anything and that this year would be a waste, but I realized that they learn so much in each class, whether it’s learning how to follow directions, or practicing speaking English, or learning how to think outside the box. I did not realize how many things that they learned from me in that short year until I was nearing the end of my service, but more importantly, I learned so much from them. Every time I had to deal with students who would never stop talking, or students fighting, or being disrespectful, or stealing things from me, I became more patient and more understanding. My students also taught me about their culture and how to speak Marshallese. They taught me that no one is perfect and that making mistakes is not the end of the world.
I went to the RMI to make a change, and while I did help make some changes to the school, I was actually the one who was changed. I am more patient and I worry less. I think more about how my actions impact others and about how to look at situations from another perspective before getting angry at someone. This experience has changed my life, and I will always refer to Guegeegue as my home. I really hope to go back some day and work in the field of public health.
Basically, what I want others to take away from my experience and my story is that you should never go into another country expecting to change it. Instead, travel to other countries expecting to be changed. Remember that you are entering another culture with its own morals and values. You should try to incorporate some of their culture into your life regardless of whether or not you think it is silly or unreasonable. When you travel to another person’s homeland, you are on their turf, and while you want to teach them about your culture, always show the willingness to learn about their culture. Learn the language and the customs; make an effort. You will get so much more out of your experience and you will be respected and appreciated for it.