Marci McPhee is on a year-long leave of absence from Brandeis University, where she is volunteering as an English teacher at Kwajalein Atoll High School, on an island called Guegeegue (pronounced goo-jee-goo) in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. In July 2010 she will resume her position as associate director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis, where she oversees the Sorensen Fellowship and on-campus events.
As winter approaches at Brandeis, Marci will be experiencing the dry season from December through April on the islands. It may seem like paradise, but the challenges she faces suggests otherwise. To read her previous contribution, please refer to her blog: ”Ribelle teacher learns about sharing.“
Let’s see – 100 minus 18 equals 82, a really good score for her. She must have studied hard. I add “Good work!” in my green pen next to her grade on the top of the test paper.
Today I picked a new place for grading tests: the oceanside porch, out my back door. Nearly every house here is beachfront property; it takes 1 minute 57 seconds to walk at a comfortable pace across the island from ocean to lagoon (yes, we timed it). The populated part of the island is a 15 minute walk end to end.
After grading every few tests, I put my pen down and treat myself to a moment looking out over the blue-green sea, topped with an occasional white-crested wave. Palm trees, lazily swaying in the salty, sticky ocean breeze, dot the rocky shoreline. During the two hours I’ve been out here on this late Saturday morning, I’ve seen one pickup truck and one bicycle go by. While weekday traffic is a little more than one vehicle per hour, it feels at this moment like I have this tropical island spot largely to myself.
A chicken clucks by, inspecting the grass for any bits of rice from yesterday’s school picnic celebrating the end of the first quarter. A tiny black lizard inspects my kicked-off zories, then skitters across the porch, steering around an empty condom package and broken condom I hadn’t noticed before. I never thought to wonder what happens on my secluded back porch during the school picnics; I guess everyone has their own way of celebrating the end of the quarter.
Youth find far less privacy on their overpopulated home island of Ebeye (12,000 people on 0.14 square miles of land; one of the most densely-populated places on the planet). It’s a half-hour school bus ride on the rocky, bumpy causeway to the island of Guegeegue on which the school is located. Guegeegue is a pleasant contrast with its population of about 100 and spacious tropical forests. We teachers carefully report to the attendance officer those students who cut classes on this open campus, but I wonder if it’s simply documenting what’s already happening.
Teen fertility rate in the Marshall Islands is among the top ten in the world, with 14% of teen women giving birth every year. Condom use among all ages is very low here, with the primary objectors being women, oddly enough. If her man uses a condom, the unspoken message is that a) he thinks she’s dirty, and b) he may be using a condom with someone else, too.
But at least one couple believes in using a condom.
I shrug my shoulders and go back to grading tests on my oceanside porch.