When I was in Milan, Minnesota, visiting the Chuukese community there a couple of months ago, I heard one single complaint repeated again and again by the Americans looking out for their guests. Many of the young Chuukese would often skip school. Not just the older ones who might have had more interesting things to do, but the small kids as well.
Why won’t the children go to school? When I asked the question of the parents, I would simply get a shrug or shake of the head. If I pursued the point, they might admit that the kids felt uncomfortable in class. Why is that? Maybe because their kids couldn’t answer the questions the way other students could and they just felt stupid. Sometimes their kids couldn’t even understand the question.
So here they were, about fifty school-age kids in a country not their own–no breadfruit trees anywhere nearby and hundreds of miles away from the ocean–forced to support themselves in the future on what they know and what they can do. But their American hosts, the ones cheering them on, can’t get them to attend school regularly because the kids, apparently, feel defeated.
Maybe these kids should feel cheated rather than defeated. Nearly all of these kids grew up on Romanum, a small island on the western side of Chuuk lagoon that was once distinguished for its fine elementary school. During the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s, when I was still at Xavier High School, we were accepting one or two kids from Romanum into the school each year. In other words, Romanum was educating kids at an impressive level far out of proportion to its small population. So what has happened to the school since those days?
If the public elementary school on Romanum has declined over the years, it’s not the only one in Chuuk that has—though the fall from its previously high level is all the more saddening. There are schools on Fefan, and Uman, and Weno, and on other islands that have also suffered declines that defy understanding in this modern day. The reason for the decline in education outcomes are surely numerous and are still being debated. That’s a discussion for another day. Let’s acknowledge that we can’t just blame the Education Department for the decline—make that utter failure—of the schools; but, we can and should expect Chuuk’s teachers, principals and school administrators to do everything humanly possible to set the bar much higher than it is now set, and deliver better education for Chuuk’s cheated children.
People sometimes ask what we expect of education in the islands. I would like to see those Chuukese kids in Milan confident enough in themselves and what they have already learned on their home islands, to be able to rise to the challenge of sitting in a classroom and catching up with the rest of the class. I’d like to see those kids graduate through high school and even college, prepared to find something better than the lowest paying job in town. I’d like to see all students, even those who remain in Chuuk, be at least as well educated as those who graduated from Romanum Elementary forty or fifty years before them.
That’s not asking too much, is it?