Thursday, May 26, 2011

Final Words

Eleven days. Add one for travel time, and in twelve days, I will be "home."

In these final days, I feel a huge hole in my heart forming as Pohnpei slips through my fingers. "So... when are you leaving?" is undoubtedly followed by "So...when will you be back?" I have to say, each time, "I honestly don't know." Part of me wants to say, "at the end of the summer!" "January!" "Next May!" and tell that to enough people that I am forced to make it come true... but to do that would be misleading and unfair.

The truth is that I do not know what lies ahead. I can't even say what I will be doing at this time next month. I have no job, no definitive plans for continued education, and little direction in terms of a career path. Last month at this time, that sounded pretty exciting. Oh, the opportunities that lie ahead! Now, as it seems more and more likely that I will be taking a waitressing job for a few months, it seems silly and reckless. Why am I leaving this place that I love? This place where I have made a life for myself? This place that needs me as much as I need it? These people that I love?

And then I remember. There are people that I love in another place, who have been patiently waiting two years for me to return home. My mom, who has been faithful with a long, loving email and phone call at least once a week, often more (once during the tsunami scare, about 15 in one week). My brother, who traveled 7500 miles and spent thousands of dollars at Christmas, to travel to Pohnpei, just to see me. My aunts and Gram, whose cards and care packages of sweets, body wash, and stuffed animals keep me going on hard days. My cousins, uncles, and my dad, who never say much, but have made a point to say, "We can't wait for you to come home." My roommates from college, who will be my rocks of strength upon my return, who beg for Skype calls, but humbly resign to the fact that they, along with everyone else, come in second to my mom. My friends from John Carroll, my mentors, and the many other friends I have picked up along the way. These are the reasons I am leaving.

I imagine if I could say all of that, everyone would understand. But instead, for the most part, they see the tears well in my eyes, and that's enough for them. I am enveloped in a hug and nothing more needs said.

At the 2011 Commencement Exercise of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School, following the awarding of diplomas to our seven graduating seniors (kamwaramwar), I was given a certificate and t-shirt by my co-worker and my principal, which set the tears steadily flowing. I struggled to regain composure, failed, and delivered a short speech with tears running down my cheeks.

Here are my "Final Words"

"Today is one of our last times to be together as a whole school community, and so, to the parents and other guests who have joined us today, I hope you will not mind if I take this opportunity to say a few words to my family.

I often think that people we have loved and who have loved us become part of us – and we carry them around all the time, whether we see them or not. And in some way, we are the sum total of those who have loved us, and those we have given ourselves to.

Today, I need to say thank you to these people who have loved me and who I have loved. In less than two weeks, I will leave Pohnpei, and I cannot say with any certainty if or when I will come back – if or when I will see some of you ever again. It is sad to say, but life works in that way – there are as many closed doors as those opened, as many goodbyes as hellos.

But there is one thing I can say for certain: I am changed forever by knowing you. For the rest of my life, I will carry you with me, in my heart and in my memories.

I will remember every raised hand, every “Good Morning, Ms. Cocco!”, every smile, every “Ohsa!” when I assign homework.

I will remember every after-school conversation in the computer lab or classroom, every hug and “Hi Teacher!”, every time I was sad and you made me feel hopeful.

I will remember my Pohnpeian language lessons, especially your patience with my silly questions.

I will remember every flower behind every ear, every missing pencil, every bird that flew through the classroom during my lesson, every dance and every song. I won’t remember the bad things – only that which makes me smile.

I may have taught you how to multiply polynomials, approximate square roots, and graph parabolic functions, but really, today, I need to say “thank you” for being my teachers. You have taught me so much; more than anything I could have taught to you.

You have taught me to be understanding, forgiving, and patient – with you and also with myself.

You have taught me to slow down – you have said, “Samantha, kommoal!” and “Ke dehr doadoahk laud” and “Ms. Cocco, stop working! Kohdo mwenge!” You have reminded me of what is important.

The mistakes I have made are many. At times, I have expected too much of you. I have scolded you when you did not deserve it. I have been distant or rude when you have tried to show me that you care about me. For these things, I am sorry. I have not been perfect. But you have taught me that this is okay.

Many years from now, I will forget some names and faces. But I will always remember how you made me feel – loved, welcomed, and part of this OLMCHS family. Part of Pohnpei. On June 6, I will leave knowing that I will always have a home in Pohnpei. For this, I say: Gracias [Spanish], Kinisou chapur [Chuukese], Aisha hashikashik [Woleaian spelled very, very wrong!], Salamat po [Tagalog], and Kalahngan ong kupwuromwail [Pohnpeian]. Thank you."

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Moving Sands

April 22, 2011, 6:20am

Pisar – the island of change. Its name in Chuukese, “pi sar” means “moving sand.” It is remarkable how fitting I have found this name to be, physically. Everything looks different than ten and a half months ago when I last visited these sands. The drop-off point that we ran towards at full-speed, face-planting into the ocean, is much less dramatic (and, presumably, less fun). The southern shore at high tide is different, narrower, and at low tide, a surprisingly lengthy sandy peninsula suddenly appears. The flies have multiplied by the thousands and have an affinity for my toes.

How am I to feel? Last June, Pisar promised me nothing and everything. In one way, I suppose, Pisar doesn’t owe me a thing. By this, I mean that I fully understand that Pisar is an island. An island, in its very nature, being a mass composed of sand, a matter infinitesimal in size and multitude, must undergo dramatic change with each day’s tide. But in another light, Pisar owes me the world: knowing I would be back within the year, and knowing what  Pisar meant for me that summer, I knew what I wanted, what I expected Pisar to look like, to smell like, to give me this year.

And if I were to return next summer, would I not feel the same pull? A resigned joy at its having stayed the same is juxtaposed by a wistful nostalgia of the discovery of how it has changed. I have felt this pull in the nature of our retreat thus far, as well. We did community affirmations at the end last year, and this year, we were finished with them by the second night. Last year, the first day was in silence – this year, it will be the third. In my mind I have cried, That’s not how I remember it! That’s not what I expected!

And so it will be for me in a mere month and a half. The world I once knew and its people, smells, taste, sounds, and joys, is every changing. Its sands are ever moving with the tides of each new day.

And yet. I sit here imagining it, expecting it to look quite the same as it did when I left it in July 2009. In my anxious and longing mind, my relationships will pick up where I left them. My favorite foods, smells, and sounds will affect my senses in the same wonderful way they did when they became my favorites. And more than anything, I have operated by the misconception that I will not have changed. At “home,” two years ago, I was Samantha. When I plucked myself out of that “home” and moved 7500 miles West to discover a new name for “home,” Pohnpei, I became Ms. Cocco, Samenda, or Saman. And now I will travel 7500 miles East and I expect to find Samantha once again. And in part, yes, I will still be Samantha. But I will also be, for all time, Ms. Cocco, Samenda, and Saman. These identities have merged.

And what of my discovery that, as have the sands of Pisar, everything has changed? I may feel confused, betrayed, frustrated, and angry.

And yet. As there is comfort to be found in the unchanged, the stagnant, the  sameness, there is also great consolation in admitting that nothing worth loving can ever stay the same. In admitting such powerlessness in the face of time, we can find healing. We can accept what is now, not what was then, and search for goodness.

Everything changes, but does not necessarily fall apart, unless we allow it to do so. We’ve all heard Stevie Nicks lament, Well, I’ve been afraid of changing…the landslide brought me down. Can we alter this image? I would like to no longer imagine a terrifying, life-threatening wall of land at the hands of gravity that brings us change, but rather, in the theme of my Micronesian home, the tide. Listen this morning, and Pisar will tell you a little something about how the tide transforms…

The ‘swish’ as the water gently washes over the sands. The ‘swosh’ as gravity softly drains the water from the sand. The ‘swish’ as the water gently washes over the sands. The ‘swosh’ as gravity softly drains the water from the sand. The ‘swish’ as the water gently washes over the sands. The ‘swosh’ as gravity softly drains the water from the sand.

This exchange is anything but alarming. The great Pacific lives up to the linguistic origins of its name in these early morning hours. The water is unconcerned by gravity’s effects on it, with knowledge that it will be back, again and again.

Kobayashi Issa, an 18th century Japanese haiku poet, spoke of the longing that can plague us when faced with change. He writes, The morning dew is the morning dew. And yet. And yet--  It is said that these words were inspired by the sudden death of his baby daughter. How can we comprehend that something so important as a human life be as fleeting as the tiny, perfect world in a drop of morning dew? And yet. As the dew reappears each morning on the blades of grass and leaves of trees, the world looking ever the same but ever different, our lives must also ebb and flow in the same way.

Ecclesiastes expresses this paradox for us in a timeless way: There is a time for everything beneath the heavens. All things, God has freely given in His love, for use and blessing each in its appointed time. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to find and a time to lose. Must we choose? Can not every occasion be a time for both? To weep at the injustice of life but to laugh at its irony; to laugh at the joys of life but to weep in knowledge that they will not last; to mourn while dancing, to lose one part of ourselves while also finding another.

As I sit here now, the morning sun on my face, my body strong from sunrise yoga, my feet sinking into the wet sand, my unchanging seated position reveals startlingly how the level of the tide has changed in my short time by the water. I gauge this by the frequency with which the soft waves wash over my feet, lessening every few moments with each swish and swosh. I catch myself feeling dejected – how I wish the water would keep washing over my feet! (It keeps the flies away.) And yet. Admitting my powerlessness against the BFG* that is the Pacific allows me to exist here on this morning with unspeakable freedom.

In the face of disappointment and devastation, can we remember to smile? Can we dance?

*BFG stands for Big, Friendly Giant, as coined by the genius of Roald Dahl.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Questionable Teaching Methods

As I've mentioned before, I often get bored in the classroom. Math is just not interesting for me. I never asked to teach it; rather, it was thrust upon me, and we (math and I) have had a shaky relationship ever since. Sometimes I have trouble staying awake during my own lessons:

“So then, it should make sense that an angle formed by two secant lines cannot possibly have its (yawn)… vertex at the… ex… exterior of the…. [SNORE]”
“Wha-!? … the, uh, exterior of the circle.”

Who’s interested in that garbage, anyway? I don’t blame my students for trying to sleep through my lessons. I should also mention that I work strictly out of the teachers’ edition of the book – no provided worksheets, no overhead projector, no activities. I have some homemade Algebra Tiles to model polynomial multiplication, and some small bits of construction paper to model adding and subtracting positive and negative numbers. I have some rulers that I periodically steal from the sewing class, that I usually have to give back when it has been discovered that I stole them. I was lucky to find cheap protractors on island, but no compasses, and certainly no TI-89 scientific calculators. The Internet provides little more than a bunch of lesson plans that are much more boring than my own.

Can you blame me for trying to spice things up in the classroom a little bit? But, sometimes, it turns out, I push the envelope just a little too far.

Sometimes I show off my cheer-leading moves that I picked up in 7th grade during a short-lived week of fame as an alternate on the cheer-leading squad. Teaching an all-girls junior class means I get to really let loose. During a lesson on absolute value inequalities, I was trying to prompt the sixteen of them to say the word ‘split’ (which I must have already said twenty-five times in the span of that lesson) in reference to splitting the inequality into two in order to simplify. I prompted them verbally – “Ssss…?” Sssppppp…?” – and explored a number of other bodily movements – splitting apart two fingers, two hands, my whole arms – before resorting to the extreme: “Ready, okay!”, hands on the hips, hands together, and before any of us knew it, I was in a full split on the floor. “SPLITS!” they all exclaimed, before falling out of their chairs laughing as I struggled (and failed, twice) to get back on my feet.

My other cheer-leading move that, I pray, will remain in the hearts of my students for the rest of their lives, is the FOIL dance. FOIL, First Outside Inside Last, is the method used to multiply two binomials, thus creating one trinomial. It goes something like this: “Ready, okay! F – O – I – L! Bi– to the bi– to the tri-nomial!” Here is a diagram of my hand motions; please forgive its crude nature:
The FOIL Dance / Cheer-leading Routine.
For those who are thinking about trying it out, note that the first four beats are really a whole-body effort, similar to the YMCA dance. The last four beats are simply finger motions, similar to throwing up gang signs, which I have a suspicion is really the reason the students like the dance so much – they love throwing up “style” in Micronesia. A posed picture is incomplete without a face of intense attitude and a peace sign, hang ten, or more complicated form of “style.”

Sometimes I put mathematical concepts to song. For four days, I made the seniors sing, to the tune of “Frere Jacques”, a lovely song about the quadratic formula. Go ahead and sing along with us: “X equals negative B, X equals negative B, plus or minus square root, plus or minus square root, B squared minus 4 A C, B squared minus 4 A C, all over 2 A, all over 2 A.” They weren’t that upset about it at first, but after I made them sing it in rounds, their hatred for me was pretty solid. I thought they sounded like angels. But alas, guess who passed that test? Well, most of them. Some of them were lost causes.

Last week, I guess I took it too far. Or maybe they did. But I started it. We’re on Chapter 10 in freshman Algebra I, which means we’re talking about Relations and Functions – graphs, for those of you who have forgotten your Algebra terminology. Whenever we encounter new classification words, I try to explain them thoroughly in English and sometimes Pohnpeian so they can truly understand the new word. For example, when teaching substitution, I ask for other examples of things we substitute:

“When I can’t come to class because I’m sick, who stands up in front of you and gives you an assignment?
“Now when I come back, is Russell still here?”
“And how about when we’re cooking – if we substitute butter for margarine, do we also put in the butter?”
“Why not?”
“Taste bad!”

By these curt exclamations, I can get a sense that the students really understand that when substituting a number for a variable, the variable is no longer present in the equation.

And so, in trying to explain relations and functions, I used an analogy that I thought would be appropriate for instruction in a Catholic high school, where we teach the Ten Commandments. It started out pretty innocently.

I taught them that a mathematical function is like a functioning marriage. Anyone can be in a relationship with anyone else, just like any two variables can have a relationship to one another. But in order to create a healthy, FUNCTIONING (are you seeing where I’m going here?) relationship, also known as a marriage, those two partners need to be faithful to one another. Similarly, to create a FUNCTION (can you tell I’m excited about this analogy?), each value of the domain, or set of x-values, cannot be paired with more than one value of the range, or set of y-values.

I should have stopped there. But these adorable, sly smiles started creeping onto their faces as they always do when they suspect I’m about to get silly, and I couldn’t end there. I pointed to the board:

“Is this relation a function?”
“Who is being unfaithful?”
“How about this relation – is it a function?”
“Yes, because no one is cheating on anyone else. How about this relation – is there any adultery going on here?”
“And this one – are the partners of this relation breaking the eighth commandment?”
“Who’s a cheater?”

Well, any lesson where the whole class is excited enough to answer in unison is a success story for me. Despite their laughter, I could tell that they were really understanding it. I walked out of the freshman classroom feeling good about myself.

This past Wednesday, they took their test. I must say, their cumulative average was one of the highest I have ever seen on one of my tests – a 90%! As I graded, however, I felt more and more uncomfortable with their responses. I didn’t think they would actually take my analogy too seriously, but I was wrong.

Here are some of their answers to the question: “Is this relation a function? Explain why or why not.”

“No, three is a cheater.”
 “Not a function because the domain has many partners.”
“No because the range is fooling around with two domain partners.”
“Not a function because 1 is cheating on 2, 3, 4, 9, and 5. Geez!”
“No because one x cannot have all of the y’s. That’s not the way God wants it.”
“Not a function because x is cheating on every y variable.”
“No because the domain value is having relationship with all the range.”
“X is a lying cheat.”
“It’s a function because x is being faithful to y.”
“Not a function because one cheated and have plenty relationship.”
“Three is having relationship with two people and one of them is going to find out.”
“No because I catch somebody cheating in the domain.”
“No because everyone is cheating on everyone.”
“Yes, no adultery.”
“No because everyone is breaking Commandments.”
“X is unfaithful.”
“No because 3 is cheating on 4 with 5, or on 5 with 4, depends on who is the married couple and who is the mistress.”
 “Yes because no adultery. Everyone married. No one cheating or sleeping in someone bed.”

I guess this will, at the very least, spark some lively discussion among the parents regarding my teaching methods. Whoops! Good thing I'm out of here in less than two months..

It's true - I will be back stateside on June 6, back in the Midwest June 12. It's honestly impossible to wrap my mind around; I can no more imagine myself back in that environment than I can imagine myself NOT in this one. Pohnpei has become my home; the people I call my friends here have become my family. I don't know how I will be able to pick myself up and drop myself back in that place I used to call "home," but I'm sure it will be a challenge. I look forward, however, to the immense support I know is waiting for me.

I'm still waiting to hear back from a couple of positions - one volunteer, one a "real job" - before I'll be able to say "what's next." I seem to remember, however, a little more than two years ago, less than four months before leaving the country, answering the question of "what's next?" with "who knows!?" So maybe I'm not so far off track. Isn't age 23 the exact age when you're supposed to be allowed to have such uncertainty ahead of you? I like to think of it as keeping my options open. After all, that's the attitude that brought me to Pohnpei. And I wouldn't trade this experience for the world.

See you all this summer! Thanks for reading.