Back to School (Spel)

View from my office

Monday morning, I woke up a little late. Did a little yoga, made a little coffee, ate a little breakfast. Showered, dressed, brushed my teeth. Scurried up to school. I was feeling rushed.

I peeked at my phone, willing time to go backwards. It was 7:15, and I’d wanted to be at the school by 7. Most rural schools in Vanuatu were probably still empty, but things move quicker in town and I knew most of my teachers would be coming in. And they’d probably be on-time. I tramped across the soccer field with my head a little bowed, stomping on the tall grass stems. It was another failed attempt at The Perfect Morning Routine, another illogical reach towards an elusive alternate reality where those two hours between 5 and 7 turn infinite and I fill them with all the self-care and little chores of my (admittedly very tame) dreams.

Rushed self-care. Running late. I shifted my backpack on my shoulders. And I hadn’t even met with my Academic Chair. I stomped another stem. She’d been on the school grounds for nearly the whole break, and what had I gotten up to? Kamp, I suppose. And a bunch of daytrips around the island with visiting friends (which, while wildly fun, were not necessarily as productive as we’d meant for them to be). I hadn’t even gone to see her over the weekend because I’d spent it cramming, brain-puking all the thoughts I had stewing onto butcher paper and hacking at them ‘til they broke into action pieces. I felt my heart putter, out of practice with morning coffee. I had certainly not been a glowing example of responsible time-management.

My only full school-year during service, and here I was coming into it feeling unprofessional, disorganized. Grumpy. I kicked one last grass stem and stepped up to the concrete walkway in front of my host mama’s classroom. All these little failures. I looked around. It was quiet.

My host mama popped out of the door, a few dust piles gathered on the floor behind her. She’d already been here for a bit, started sweeping. I grumbled at myself inwardly as she gave me a hug. I squeezed back, tried to shoo away the self-disappointment. I was late, there was nothing I could do about it now. We joked about all the friends I’d had visiting, agreed we were glad we’d have more time together now that we were back to school. I asked her where all the other teachers were.

“Ating yumitu ol fest wan ia!” “I think we’re the first two here!”

My chest loosened a teeny bit.

“Kam, bae yumitu go jekem.” “Come, we’ll go check.”

We held hands and walked together towards the main office as a few more teachers trickled in. French-style double-kissed all their faces and wished them Happy New Year, or “Bonani”(a Bislama pronunciation of the French “bonne année”). I listened as they shared gossip from over break:  where they’d spent Christmas, which teachers were coming back, who would be filling the empty positions. Because nearly everyone in Vanuatu is at least distantly related somehow, a big topic was who had died.

The principal chimed in. One of our sixth grade teachers had lost his mother a month before; we were coming up on the 30 day mark, which in Vanuatu means another mourning ceremony. She suggested that since this was the first time we’d all be together as a teacher community, we should go “share our sorry.” The other teachers agreed, and she said she’d “sing out” for us when the bus came to pick us up.

I followed some teachers to the building we share:  their classrooms, my small shared office (which functions as our unofficial squad clubhouse). The building is a plastic pre-fab thing, not designed to withstand a Vanuatu rainy-season downpour. Water puddled on the floors and cobwebs draped the desks and corners. I bristled a little. So much for a Perfectly Productive First Day Back; my action plan’d have to wait until the room was clean.

“Yumi gat wan mop?” I asked. “Do we have a mop?”

One of the teachers scolded me gently:  “Yu no wok had tumas!” “Don’t you work too hard!” Besides, she said. You should sweep out the excess water first. So I did.

“Ay!” the principal called to us. “Bas i stap kam nao!” “The bus is on its way!”

“Ale, yu jes spel festaem,” the teacher told me. “Okay, take a break first.” We moved to a classroom by the office where everyone had gathered: more Happy New Years and double-kissing faces and sharing Christmas stories. One teacher led a prayer, welcoming everyone back. Another led us in song:

God is so good/He took my sin/Now I am free/He’s so good to me.

I peeked around the room at the group of women singing, put a little extra oomph into “Now I am free.”

Take that, I thought to my morning grumps.

The grumps grumbled something about our dirty office, how I wasn’t following the plan.

Then the bus pulled up and we all piled in.

a “Christmas tree”

For the second-largest city in Vanuatu, Luganville can still feel like a village if you turn down the right roads. Our bus wound through narrow streets in a neighborhood up the hill from the school, not exactly the suburbs but then again, maybe they are. I watched through the window as we bumped past overgrown lawns, hedges of hibiscus, flowering frangipani and Christmas trees. Peeped bush kitchens and laundry flapping in the humid air. Angry dogs barking.

I’m so afraid of dogs here.

So when our big group climbed out of the bus and all the teachers were afraid to approach the house, I wasn’t exactly keen. I squeezed one of their hands as we huddled together, the teacher’s family dog growling and baring its teeth. An old woman popped out of the outdoor kitchen, shot a kick in its direction; it cowered and ran away. So often they’re like that, all bark and no bite, just scared you’re going to throw a stone. Knowing that doesn’t make their bared teeth any less scary, though. Doesn’t make them any less fickle.

We clustered by the front door.

One by one, we slipped off our shoes and filed into the cement house, the floors lined with woven mats. Our teacher was sitting on the floor in the front room, leaning against a wall, his head in his hands. An aunt and a sister on either side. Everything was quiet for a moment as we all sat down. I waited for someone to say something.

And then, everyone started to cry.

I closed my eyes quickly–maybe I was embarrased–and listened as everyone’s tears deepened, turned to sobs. My host mama had asked me once if people in the US cry the way people in Vanuatu do at funerals, and I had been surprised, told her, “Of course!” I mean, who wouldn’t cry hard at a funeral? But this was something different. I took a breath, tried to catch it in my mind. A room full of people sharing in this man’s pain. Not verbally–no spoken apologies, no sorry-for-your-loss-es. To lose your mom–to lose a life. It felt so precious, so tragic, so tangible. I held my breath, pressure building behind my eyes.

They weren’t just thinking about the tragedy. They were feeling it.

And something in me slipped and I was crying, too. Letting myself move into this communal hurt. I couldn’t tell you how long we sat there. Slowly, the sobs turned to sniffles. The room began to quiet. We waited for his aunt, this woman’s sister, the last to stop.

Our principal said a few words and another teacher lead us in prayer. We each shook our teacher’s hand, his aunt’s, his sister’s. Hurried out past the dog to the road to walk back.

The skies were gray and heavy with rain; you could hear the thunder rolling. The teachers laughed amongst themselves. “Yumi turis wantaem!” they joked:  “We’re tourists!” We strolled through the foreign neighborhood, admiring the houses and waving as students still enjoying break called out our names. I looked around curiously at the other teacher’s faces, checking for any lasting sadness. But no; that wasn’t how it worked here. Scheduled, traditional ceremonies to engage in catharsis. And then you move on with your life.

It was so different from mourning back home. Crying in that room felt like lending tears to a family that had so much hurt they needed the extra tears to cover it all. We were part of a space opened up just for them to let it all out–every last bit, for as long as they needed. And once the tears were dry, the hurt tuckered out, we said a prayer, picked ourselves up, and moved forward…

When we got back to school it was lunchtime, so we shook down some of the last mangoes from the mango tree, plucked a couple papaya. Sitting on the counters of the school kitchen, we talked for a while about ex-boyfriends and babies and sour stomachs from too many green mangoes.

Papaya, or “popo,” plucked from somewhere on the school grounds

“Okay, be naoia bae mi jes go klin,” I announced, hopping down from our perch. “Alright, I’m gonna go clean now.”

“Gas, yu spel!” one scolded again. “Gosh, rest!”

I asked her where I could find a mop and she sent me to look in her room, waving me away.

It didn’t take long; I broomed out cobwebs, shooed a few cockroaches. Swept away an ant colony. Cleared my desk. When I’d finished mopping I popped in next door to see how the others were doing, figured I’d keep catching up while waiting for the floor to dry.

I found them all sitting on a mat, sharing Scotch Finger cookies, the dirty puddles still on the floor.

“Mi mopem smol rum finis!” I proclaimed. “I finished mopping!”

They laughed, “Taem i stap yet!” and passed me a Scotch Finger. “Taem blo wok i stap yet, yumi jes stap katjap festaem.” “There’s still time to work, we’re just catching up first.” I sat and laughed with them for a minute, munching on the Scotch Finger.

My grump grumbled again.

“I’m just going to go check in with the Academic Chair, though,” I told them, pushing up from the mat.

“Yu wok tumas ia!” they chorused, laughing again. “You’re working too hard!” Always laughing. I waved my hands.

I’ll just fill her in on my plan, I thought to myself. Show her I’ve put real thought into it, make sure I’m complementing anything she’s been planning on her own…

I reached her classroom lost in thought, blinked my eyes. Inside, she was sitting at a table with our principal and two secretaries, munching on some crackers, laughing.

“Sori blo disteb,” I offered. “Sorry to disturb you.”

“No gat!” she laughed. “Kam, kam.” She motioned to a seat, pushed the crackers in my direction.

“I just wanted to show you some of what I’ve prepared for the next two weeks…” I pulled out my laptop, flipped through the outlines for the workshops I’d prepared. She nodded, remembering bits from our conversations at the end of last school year.

“Si, si, bae i taf ia,” she said, taking off her glasses. “Yes, this’ll be great.” I turned the screen back towards me. “Be bae yumi jes mekem nekis wik, lo Wednesde mo Tosde. Taem i stap yet. Oli mas klinim ol klasrum festaem.” She smiled. “But we’ll do this next week Wednesday and Thursday. There’s still time. Everyone has to get their classrooms cleaned up first.”

A secretary called up from the floor, where she’d lay down to rest. “Mi harem se mi taet we!” “I’m so tired!” I plucked a cracker from the pack, smiling to myself as the Chair agreed, as the principal chimed in. Quietly, I slipped from the room and back to my office with it’s now-dry, clean floors.

I placed my things on the desk: action plan front and center, books neatly stacked, and pens resting in a big roll of tape. Looked at the puddle-less floors and cobweb-less corners. Listened to the teachers laughing in the other room.

Grabbing a marker I drew a sun, a copy of the tattoo behind my ear. Taped it to the wall by the desk. A maybe cliche reminder that I AM NOT A MACHINE, that I need to leave space for myself at work, too.

My buildingmates walked past, called out a chorus of good nights. “Yu no wok tumas, ia!” they shouted.

I checked the time. 4:30. Zipped up my backpack, looked back at my little sun. I’d been the second teacher at school today. I’d wished everyone a Happy New Year, shared a sorry, played tourist. Had schoolyard fruits and gossip for lunch. Cleaned my office. Met with the Chair, scheduled my workshops, nibbled crackers and Scotch Fingers.

I felt around my chest for my morning grumps, for that stress about not being ready, about not being enough, but they’d melted. Today, I’d held hands with people I care about, shared in a family’s grief for lost life, and kissed the faces of people I admire. I’d fought to work, and my teachers let me.

They just also reminded me to rest.

I stepped out into the pink-y afternoon, locking the door behind me, all my school stuff inside. No cramming tonight; it’d be there tomororw. The chorus from the morning rang in my ears.

Now I am free…

I started my walk across the soccer field, humming to myself, the grass stems tickling my shins.

I say there’s not much island time here in town, but my teacher’s voices echoed in my head.

Taem i stap yet, Syd! Yu spel!

I bounced a little, perfectly grump-free.

There’s still time; no need to rush.

Rest, girl.

Taem i stap yet.

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