Professor Susan Whitelock: Throwing off the Bowlines

November 10, 2016

 

Professor Susan Whitelock of Eastern Oregon University.

Professor Susan Whitelock of Eastern Oregon University.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

– Mark Twain

I met my first student from Micronesia in 1991, twenty-five years ago, at Eastern Oregon University.  Since then I have met many more Pacific Islander students, and among them have been several graduates from Xavier High School. These Xavier alumni have been some of my best students at Eastern, and they made me yearn to see their islands and their school.
So on sabbatical from Eastern this semester, I sailed away from my safe harbor in La Grande, Oregon and arrived in Chuuk on August 11th to teach Junior and Senior English. Here three months now, I can say that I, too, have been a student, and that the students, fellow teachers, and the Xavier staff have been my traditional navigators, helping me to see and navigate the world in a new way.

Yes, I have taught my students about academic research, how to write a persuasive essay, and how to write a rhetorical analysis. I have prepared them for the ACT and SAT (I hope).

But these lessons are unimportant compared to the lessons I have learned from those around me: that the young Jesuit Volunteers who have come here to teach are some of the most caring, creative, dedicated, hardworking people I have ever met and they give me hope for the future; that from the kitchen staff to the groundskeepers, from the housekeepers to the drivers, from the teachers to the administrators, this is a school that cares about the whole student—mind, body, heart, and soul—and that our main role is to love them, not just to teach them; that I am immersed in a culture whose center of gravity is respect, grace, and generosity which cannot be destroyed by the challenges of poverty, climate change, and westernization.

So on the days when I am teaching and the heat is wilting me more than usual, and a student, unasked, brings a fan to my desk, plugs it in, and sets it to blow directly on me, or when another student takes the chair I am carrying out of my hands to carry it for me, or when the woman sitting next to me fanning herself in church starts fanning in my direction so I benefit, I feel my dragging sail billow.

Or when, after the students have sat for hours taking their SAT exam on a hot Saturday morning, and then break into cheers when it is over and bring out the ukulele to celebrate; or when students perform their fire dance as if twirling fire is like breathing; or when they create decorations of palm leaves to welcome visitors, weaving spectacular creations; or when the girls arrive on the bus at 7:30 a.m. cheering loudly for the day to come, some of them having had to get up before 5:00 a.m. to get the bus but are still full of spirit, I know I have traveled to the right place, a place where the best of Pacific Island cultural traditions are woven together with Jesuit values to create a very special school.

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