Yes, I Do Know How To Swim

The Department of Education is responsible for classroom observations. Four times a year we are supposed to go sit in on a few classes at each of the seven schools; six elementary and one secondary school. Five of the elementary schools are easy to get to, you drive along Kosrae's one road and you pass them. But Walung is reachable only by boat or down a really steep, one year old, hold-on-to-your-stomach rough dirt road. Electricity in Walung is provided by a rarely used generator. Often Walung is sited as being the last place on Kosrae still living in the local style.

Since DOE does not have a four-wheel drive vehicle we go by boat. Usually the Walung visits are cancelled because they don't want to arrange for a boat, and don't want to walk through the reef to get to the town, and don't want to get wet, and don't want to have to sit in non-aircon-ed classrooms. But last week it was decided it was time to go to Walung. And I got to attend to talk about physical education.

On the day of the trip I wake to pouring rain. So I figure the trip is cancelled. Surprisingly Tulensru, my supervisor, pulls into our driveway. He drives a monster SUV jeep thing. I have to jump to get in the front seat. I guess we are going to Walung. I grab my lifejacket, which Peace Corps requires we wear on boats. My host father hands me a yellow slicker. As we are driving to Okat Marina to meet the boat from Walung, Tulensru turns to me with a worried voice and asks, "Sra, kom etuh kofkof?" Which means, "Do you know how to swim?" I am thinking that is the least of our problems right now, since we can't see out the windshield for the condensation and the rain is driving sideways. But I reassure him I know how to swim AND I have my lifejacket.

At the marina I see my direct supervisor, Hanson, sitting in a yellow slicker and swim shorts. I have never seen this man not in his work clothes. He is a suit-wearing deacon in the church. There is a boat driver from Walung. Most of the DOE people do not show up. So it is just me, Hanson, Tulensru, and Quartus (my through the wall neighbor with whom I share a telephone at the Kosrae Department of Education). We get in a 15-foot outboard motor boat. I am wearing my yellow slicker. Hanson is wearing his yellow slicker. My Red Sox's cap can't hold the water out of my eyes. Tulensru and Quartus say they are waterproof. Within minutes they are soaked and shivering. The only person who seems unaffected by the rain is the boat driver, Palik. He is not even squinting. I can barely see a thing.

To get to Walung you leave the harbor and drive along the reef edge for about 15 minutes. Then you maneuver through the reef to shallow coral. For a bit the driver just goes slowly. Then Tulensru uses a stick to push us. Then the men all get out and push the boat forward a bit more (I am not allowed to help). Finally we get out. The driver puts down a small anchor and we begin to walk toward the shore. It is about a mile across the shallow reef and is actually a very easy walk across the sea grass. Sometimes you get in a deep spot though and sort of sink, stumble to higher ground but we made it.

Once we reach shore we walk through the mangrove forest. At low tide it is basically mud flats with small roots looking like mini stalagmites sticking up all around. One would never believe these ugly spikes hold this island together.

There is a six-inch wide path through the mud that we follow across the beach (which belongs to my uncle Alik) to a cliff. The entire walk through the mangrove forest is primordial- the smell, the touch of the air. I expect large lizards to be around the next bend (and this is entirely possible since 6 foot Monitor lizards hide in the trees). We hike up the rocks and come to the most beautiful tidy school.

Walung Elementary School is what you imagine out in the tropics. Groomed lawn, on a cliff, an amazing view of the ocean. A U shaped building with a small grassy courtyard. The walls are white and the roof is red. The concrete posts are decorated with the tuk, for pounding taro, fish, and other local symbols. Of all the schools, Walung is in the best condition. The roof does not leak. They have potable water. They have a generator for electricity. They have one volleyball. The school bell is a large gong. There are nine rooms. Each class has about five students. There is a library developed by two previous Peace Corps volunteers. The library is full of mattresses. For exchange sleepovers with other schools?

The DOE men change into their long pants and collared shirts. I put on my nuknuk (Basically a muumuu). We observe the classes. I talk about physical education. The teachers want jump ropes. They want a basketball. There is an ocean view basketball court down the beach. They would love a volleyball net to string across the courtyard. I read several Kosrean language children's books. I write down the words I don't know. I watch the students run around outside collecting things on the ground to do a survey of what falls during the week - 117 leaves, 54 flowers.

If you take the path from the school away from the mangrove forest you descend a combination of concrete and stacked coral steps. There you reach the "town" of Walung - the church. On Wednesday the church was preparing for a singing group from the municipality of Utwe to visit Sunday. The women were cleaning the church; wiping the mildew off the windows, dusting, sweeping. The men were building a local house. Banging the bark off sticks with other sticks. The rhythm accenting the air around us. Chewing sugarcane, make sure you spit out the fibers.

The most notable thing about the return trip is that Tulensru and Quartus refuse to change back into their shorts. They insist on getting their long pants wet so they can take the rest of the day off work. I also decide to "monglac" for the afternoon and go home to eat some banana bread made from one of the 40+ varieties of banana. It is sunny and beautiful now. At no point in the trip did I have to demonstrate to Tulensru that I indeed know how to swim.

Upon returning to DOE the next day I learn that Walung school is in danger of being shut down. Due to low test scores.

The mandate for testing came with the No Child Left Behind Act, since the Micronesian government is almost entirely funded by the US government.

Kosraens must perform well on a test in a non-native language, poorly written to semi-adapt to the islands in order for the school system to get money. Is this fair? Should Walung students be sent to school by boat and board with relatives because they can't pass a test with grievous errors and confusing questions? Should an island where testing is not part of traditional learning be required to conform to western standard of education? Economically Kosraens need to speak English; the country must send people off island for representation, for money sent home. But can English be taught in a more traditional method? Teaching here I struggled daily with the balance between tradition and modernization- for Kosraens it must have been much worse. They had to think about systems they knew well and systems they believed, but did not know for certain, would benefit their families.


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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.