Sunday, October 7, 2007

David and the Mangoes - February 2005

When I saw that a speech unit was part of the ninth and tenth grade English curricula, I winced. Then I noticed that it was scheduled late in the spring semester, months away, and put it out of my mind.

We had been teaching at Mount Carmel High School on the Micronesian island of Saipan for just a few weeks and already our visions of being lavishly welcomed by the local people and fawned over by our adoring students were fading. True, on the morning we arrived from Guam -- a 30-minute hop after 36 hours in transit from LaGuardia -- we were greeted by a dozen people at 6 a.m. Teachers and their families called out to us and banged on the metal grate that separated us until we came through immigration. Sr. Mary Louise Balazarini herself, a Mercedarian sister from Kansas City who had been running schools in the Pacific for 30 years, drove us on a wild ride to Herman’s Modern Bakery for coffee and doughnuts and a quick pep talk. From there she took us to the three room, tin house we would sublease from the school for $125 a month.

We dumped our footlockers and suitcases and Scott’s guitar just inside the back door, the only one that wasn’t swollen shut, and took a look around our new home: a double bed made up with new sheets; a canned ham proudly upright in the center of the empty refrigerator; two inches of standing water in the second-thought bathroom. Scott, not a lover of bugs, quailed at an enormous roach in the kitchen sink. “Jesus!” he said.

A week before, still on our honeymoon, we had been lounging around the two floor suite we had lucked into at the Montcalm Hotel near Marble Arch in London.

Looking up at the half-inch gap that ran between the top of the walls and the ceiling, I said, “We need bug spray, man.”

Within a few days we had begun to adjust to the heat and do all the things that you do when you move to a new place. We bought a tiny, soft-top Suzuki jeep with money Scott made from selling his brown 1980 Pinto. We had met lots of Americans, some we liked instantly like the Catholic lay missionaries, and others we didn’t, like the supercilious government contract workers who lived in concrete, air-conditioned houses on “Capitol Hill.” We were set to work painting our concrete-block classrooms. This came as a surprise.

In July 1944, in a much-less celebrated invasion than the one in Europe the previous month, the American marines hit the beach at Sugar Dock which now lay crumbling a few hundred yards from our house. Saipan had been the Japanese command post in the Pacific and was, therefore, a crucial target. I’ve read that the average life span for a Marine gunner in the first wave of attack was estimated at 45 seconds. A swamped Sherman tank poked from the water of the lagoon and often we would swim out to dive off the turret. The combat was fierce and hand-to-hand toward the end. Tens of thousands of Japanese civilians, whole families, warned that the Americans would kill and rape and pillage, jumped off cliffs at the northern end of the island. Hundreds of Japanese soldiers jumped off Bonzai Cliffs into the sea rather than be captured by U.S. troops. The Americans secured the island and took over and, after the war, the U.S. served as the administrator under the auspices of the United Nations. Ultimately these islands formed the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas and voted to become a part of the United States. Very few U.S. citizens know this and our ignorance of their status comes as a shock and an insult to the native islanders, the Chamorros.

Mount Carmel School was founded by the Roman Catholic Church in 1952. (The American benefactors didn’t see fit to start a public high school until 1968, 24 years after they took control.) No premium had ever been put on formal education. Once our classes started after Labor Day, it didn’t take us long to realize that, with the exception of a handful of students, what we had to teach wasn’t quite as welcome as we had imagined it might be as we were flying over the wide Pacific Ocean.

By springtime finding a strategy to motivate 105 self-conscious teenagers to stand in front of their peers and give a persuasive speech still seemed beyond me. I tried to make it fun, to help them come up with interesting topics, to give them tips, to practice with impromptu word games. Besides the highly motivated students, a few of the more flamboyant slackers seemed to warm to the task. They were born talkers and salesmen. This was both fun and an easy “A.” A very quiet student, Maria Luisa, who had surprised all the adults and none of the kids by giving birth around Thanksgiving (she didn’t look pregnant!) and returning to school after Christmas, gave a very persuasive speech about various types of birth control and why teenagers should not have babies. I stood at the back of the room by the always open door on the lookout for Sr. Mary Louise. She would have had my sorry Protestant butt on the first Air Micronesia flight off the island if she had heard about that one.

But some students kept putting off the inevitable speech day. One ninth grade student named David Pangelinan personified the macho, bluff nature of his elders. “Aw, lanya, (which means darn or crap in a gentle tone or worse if the inflection is darker) Mrs. Shott, I can’t talk in front of people. Don’t make me do this,” he said to me privately one day.

From the beginning I had struggled with certain types of smart-ass students. The blatant misbehavers I could deal with, but the smirkers were harder. David and his sister Cat were smirkers, smart but disinterested in the whole educational game. They thought we were knuckleheads for teaching here and living in a tin shack in a Filipino neighborhood when we could be living it up big in the States.

“David, it’s a big part of your grade for this semester. You’ve got to do it. That’s it,” I said, walking with him down the open air corridor. “Sorry,” I said, before escaping into the air-con cool of the teachers’ room.

One by one the students gave their speeches. I graded leniently. They anonymously critiqued each other and gave wonderful, thoughtful suggestions that made me think that perhaps we had made some progress after all. David sat in the back of the room each day listening to the others, his face inscrutable.

It was May by the time we finished and our year’s gig would soon be up. We were homesick and had decided against staying the second year. Maybe the students were right: why weren’t we home in the States where we belong?

Late one Friday afternoon I was puttering around in the kitchen, the back door was open as usual to let in air and light. After the first week I had given up on bug spray, it was futile. We had quickly learned to squish ants off the table with our fingertips and flick them away as though we’d been doing it all of our lives.

There was a knock at the doorframe. I turned to see David standing there in jeans and flipflops holding a paper bag. He wore no shirt, just the deep, smooth brown of his chest and shoulders. At 14 he was still a beautiful, beautiful child, but it was easy to see that in two or three years he would transform into someone else altogether and it didn’t bear thinking about. “Hey, David,” I said, surprised. No student had ever come to our house before.

“Hey, Mrs. Shott,” he said, looking down at the back step, his in-school bravado gone. “I brought you a bag of mangoes. They’re getting ripe now.”

“Wow, thanks. I’ve been waiting for mango season all year,” I said, taking the bag and putting it on the counter.

“I can’t do that speech,” he said to my back. I turned and leaned against the cupboards.

“Can’t you try? It can be short. Just try, I know you can do it. You’re so smart.” His head was still down but he rested his arm high on the doorframe, slightly pitched so I could see the graceful curve of his shoulder blades.

“I’d feel like such a fool. Please don’t make me do it.” This was the real David, and I knew this was costing him tremendously. I thought as I looked at this exquisite, vulnerable boy, “What did it matter? In 20 years what would it matter if David Pangelinan never gave a persuasive speech in Mrs. Shott’s English class?”

“There, David. You’ve persuaded me so don’t worry about it. Thank you for the mangoes.”

I walked over to him and put my hand on his arm. He raised his head, gave me a winsome smile and nodded. He turned and hopped off the step and as I watched him walk out of our yard I could see a little of his regular swagger already returning.

I knew I had probably been conned, but at least I had a bag of ripening mangoes and a story to tell.

David's friends Jerome, Richard and Ray

Heidi with Mildred, Meibel, Velma Jean, and Dora on the day before Christmas vaca

Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.