Mr. Tim Casey, SJ
A Reflection on Long Experiment
For his long experiment, Tim Casey taught at Yap Catholic High School in Yap, Micronesia. He is currently in First Studies at St. Louis University as a member of the Bellarmine Community.
Before I entered the Jesuits, I had been a high school teacher. I worked in two affluent school districts in the metro-Boston area and I felt confident that I had become a good teacher. I knew that there were better teachers than I, but I was confident that I was good. And so when the novice director asked what I wanted to do for long experiment, teaching was not at the top of my list. In the novitiate, I had enjoyed branching out into other ministries. I had worked in the jails and prisons of New York State, I had helped administer an annotated version of the Spiritual Exercises, and I had worked as a hospital orderly in the Bronx. I remember feeling lukewarm about returning to my former profession, and made my preferences known to the novice director about what would be best for long experiment.
The Jesuits have an old Latin expression, agere contra, which roughly translated means to go against the grain. By this, St. Ignatius of Loyola meant that if you feel a certain resistance to something in your life, then it might be beneficial for you to engage those feelings, trying to see what you are resisting and why you are resisting it. And so when my novice director asked me to teach during my long experiment, I said that I would be willing, but I was not particularly excited about the prospect. However, I did make one request of him: Could this teaching position be in some way unconventional and different from my former career? He honored my request. I was sent to a remote island in the North Western Pacific Ocean to teach in a newly established high school in Yap, Micronesia.
Yap is part of the Federated States of Micronesia, a place that has been called “The edge of the world,” by a Jesuit who spent most of his life here. It is one of four states that make up the FSM. I didn’t know much about Micronesia, except that the Jesuits ran a prestigious school on the island of Chuuk called Xavier High School. But that was not where I was headed. Where was this place?
The local church on Yap had been trying for a number of years to open a Catholic high school. In the summer of 2011, two New York Province Jesuits were sent to Yap to make good on the promise of Catholic education and opened Yap Catholic High School in August of that year. They had four teachers (including themselves), two borrowed classrooms, and thirty four students. I would become the fifth teacher, teaching Science, Social Studies, moderating the robotics club, acting as an assistant basketball coach, and doing a variety of other odds and ends to aid them in getting this school off the ground and running.
Thus far, my time on Yap has truly been memorable and very hard to quantify with words. It is an intriguing place, a place that seems to be unencumbered by the events that have transpired in the other parts of the globe. The expression, “An island onto itself” seems to be fitting in more ways than one. Yap, and in a larger sense Micronesia, is a place where the beauty of nature, the exotic tropical setting, and the hospitality of the people stand in sharp contrast with larger social ills; namely poverty, alcoholism, and governmental dysfunction. When I first arrived at the airport on Yap, delirious from the 27 hour trip from Newark, New Jersey, I was astounded to have been greeted at nearly 1 a.m. on Sunday morning by five students and all four faculty members who loaded my head and neck with nunus, the Yapese version of Hawaiian leis. Where else could I have received such a warm welcome? Certainly not at Logan or La Guardia! I do not know how many times this scene was played out again and again during my five month stay here.
The most rewarding part of my experience on Yap has been the opportunity of getting to know our students. They are naturally curious, polite, pleasant to be with, and somewhat unspoiled by Western culture. I realized this last point after several pop culture references in class were greeted with looks of bewilderment. Television on the island is available, but few are able to afford it and many of our students had never been on a computer before this year. Their world looks very different from the one that I came from, and they are curious to learn about “my world.” This school gives students the opportunity to do just that: to grow, to learn, to mature, to develop their faith and to find their deepest desires. It is a safe place, a haven for kids who, very often, come from difficult and broken family situations. I am often struck by just how many of my students come from very tough family circumstances.
Some of our students have traveled hundreds of miles, coming from Yap’s “outer islands,” for the opportunity to attend the new “Catholic High School.” These tiny atolls are spread over hundreds of miles of ocean and have exotic sounding names like Ulithi, Woleai, Lamotrek and Satawal. Some of our “outer island” students have the added burden of leaving their homes, friends, and immediate family for the opportunity to attend YCHS. They often live with relatives, cousins, or friends. I often remember asking myself: Would I have been able to do this at age fourteen? Certainly not! I am in awe of their courage and perseverance.
In addition to my teaching duties, there was a practical element to my time in Yap; the task of actually helping to build a new school. Nearly every Saturday morning, community members would gather at our building site with machetes, shovels, chainsaws, picks, and a variety of other tools. My Saturdays were spent clearing land for the new buildings, picking up garbage that had been dumped and left many years before, and driving a pick-up truck filled to the brim with volunteers who desired to help but had no transportation. Local women provided lunch on plates woven together from palm leaves. The fare: fish bellies, tarot, coconut crabs, and yams. As the Saturdays piled up, I began to realize just how much I was enjoying these “clearings,” as we called them. I began to look forward to them as a weekly event, almost like a block party. As the buildings began to rise, it became very clear how much the community was rallying around this school, taking part in its construction, and owning it. This is truly a project where many hands contributed many hours of labor. It is something we can all be proud of!
One highlight of my Pacific travels was Easter week. I had the opportunity to visit one of Yap’s neighboring islands, named Ulithi. I spent Holy Thursday through Easter Monday on the island of Falalop, which is about one mile long and one-half of a mile wide. I stayed with a diocesan priest and accompanied him on his “Easter marathon” which began with an 11 p.m. Easter vigil on the main island, a 3 a.m. Easter Mass on a neighboring island called Mog Mog, and a 8 a.m. Easter mass on an island about one hour farther to the south, called Fedraey. Although no one seemed to mind, we were several hours late for the final mass. It was a terrifying, tiring, and grace-filled experience. As we sped across the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean at 4 a.m. in a boat no larger than a family’s dining room table, I remember thinking to myself, “If this boat flips over, what could we possibly do?” We would be stuck in the middle of the Pacific, and who would know? The boat did not capsize and we arrived safely and were greeted by the peoples of both islands. Many of these tiny atolls are able to celebrate Mass only twice a year, or whenever a priest is able to make the journey. I was struck by how much the people savored the Mass and really celebrated. Their sense of gratitude was palpable. If only this were the case everywhere!
My experience in Micronesia has been a blessed time. St. Ignatius of Loyola tells retreatants in the conclusion of the Spiritual Exercises “to ask for an interior knowledge of the many gifts we have received, in order that, being entirely grateful, we may be able, in all things, to love and serve God.” Ignatius’ statement, more than anything I am able to write, best describes my time in Micronesia. In the smiles of the people whom I have met, in the faces and the daily interaction with the students of YCHS, I have witnessed the presence of God among us, the risen Jesus. What a great gift! I was sent to Yap as a teacher, to help students learn, to give something of myself and my talents. But, as the prayer of St. Francis states, “It is in giving that we receive.” As I leave Yap, I leave with a deeper knowledge of this gifted time, and of the many gifted relationships I have developed and come to value. It is here that the vowed life begins to make sense to me, and that choice is confirmed and strengthened in the faces of those with whom I have met and come to love. Although I came here as a teacher, I am comforted by the knowledge that I leave having received much more than I ever bargained for. Kammagar! (Thank You.)