Mr. Bo Chamberlin
One Year in the Pacific
Jesuit Associate Bo Chamberlin is spending two years in Chuuk, Micronesia, teaching at Xavier High School, while discerning his vocation to the Society of Jesus.
This August marks one year since I moved from my last job in Connecticut, working to abolish the death penalty there, to here—Chuuk, Micronesia—where I work as a teacher at a school run by the Jesuits. For the last year I have been immersed and overwhelmed with learning the culture and language, trying to understand my students—what they need and where they come from, and trying to prepare, in the midst of all that, at least marginally competent courses in the subjects I taught: junior literature, sophomore English, and a course on social justice and human rights. As a result, I have often been much less in touch with folks back home than I would like—my apologies if I ever forgot to respond to an email or Facebook message. So, as badly out of touch as I've been, I wanted to take just a few minutes to give you all a sketch of what's been going on in my life in the time since I 'dropped off the map' (most maps anyway) about one year ago.
First of all is the students here; humble, caring, compassionate, immersed in their own traditional cultures but fascinated by the world beyond their homes. The students at Xavier High School, where I teach, come from a group of four Micronesian countries: the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia, which is made up of four districts (Yap, Pohpei, Kosrae, and Chuuk). Imagine a landmass smaller than Rhode Island spread out over a stretch of ocean larger than the continental US and you start to get the idea of Micronesia. At times it feels like our students come from a small town where everyone knows each other; at other times it feels like they come from cultures so different that it’s impossible for them to understand each other. That is part of the richness of being at Xavier; culture is not just something we talk about, it is a fact of life, something we deal with, live with, and work with every day. It is full of fascinating beauty and replete with frustrating challenges.
Teaching students who come from such rich cultures and backgrounds, I often find myself learning so much that it’s hard to think of myself as the teacher. Though I feel like I have taught the students some good things about reading, writing, and thinking for themselves; I feel like I have learned more from just watching and listening to them as they support each other, as they share what they have even if it stretches them thin, and as they struggle to navigate the challenges of life. Last year, I asked my sophomore students to write papers on one thing that they felt was most important to them about their cultures. A number of students wrote papers about sharing. Over and over they said that it was disrespectful if you are not willing to give what you have to others. It is one thing to read this in a paper, but it is something else to see it lived: if I walk without zoris, someone offers me theirs; if someone eats, they tell me to join them. Over time here, you start to learn to think of others whenever you do something for yourself, whether it’s making coffee, or sitting down to eat lunch, you always look to see if others are around who might want to join you.
Living on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has brought its challenges: inadequate resources for teaching, kids having to share books or use books that are missing pages, responsibilities that are sometimes greater than we would like due to the lack of teachers. Through it all, our students inspire us to wake up each morning and give as much as we can, sleeping each night utterly exhausted from what we’ve done during the day.
This summer I took time to live on a smaller island of Chuuk, called Udot (Ooh-duht), with the local priest so that I could learn a bit more of the local language and culture. I was also graced this summer with an opportunity to visit some of the outer islands of Chuuk. About 300 miles from the main island, life in the outer islands is often stripped of all but a few of the trappings of what we call‘civilization’. People still live in local huts, wear loincloths, and sail between the islands in the canoes their ancestors used. It was a great chance, also, to step back from the busy schedule of teaching and let all that’s happened since I moved here sink in. After this summer, I feel closer than ever to all that moved me to come out here; to serving others, to justice, to God, and to the work of the Jesuits here in Micronesia and around the world. For me, I can imagine no higher calling than the one that comes (often vocally) from those in need.
It is impossible for me to communicate what the beauty and the life of Micronesia does to your heart, but maybe just a sketch of a moment will help. When in the outer islands I travelled among this summer, I was with a group traveling on a small motorboat between two of the islands about fifty miles apart. We started out, rounding the corner of the calm lagoon of Pulluwat Island into the small channel that leads to the ocean. As we approached the waves of the ocean and prepared to go outside of the reef that protects the island from the harsh waves of the sea, the boat operator killed the engine and we sat floating peacefully in the water. After a few moments of silence the boat operator signaled (in Pulluwatese) that we were going to pray. Setting out on a fifty-mile journey across the open ocean, where an engine malfunction or a miscalculation could easily cost us our lives, beneath that menacingly beautiful sky that seems ready to swallow you alive or wrap you in its loving embrace, it is hard not to know that life and everything in it is a gift. It is hard, in other words, not to be humble.
As I start my second year of teaching out here, I am thankful for students and friends, family and loved ones, who continue to support me and inspire me. This year I’ll be again teaching literature to juniors, a new course for seniors on literature of the Pacific, and electives on the history of the Catholic Church in Micronesia (first semester) and on Social Justice and Human Rights (second semester). Thank you all for your love and support in the past, present, and future. Please be assured that you are in my thoughts and prayers; the memory of you all keeps me going when I feel stretched to the breaking point. As we say in Chuuk, Kinisou Chapur.