Re “Snapshots from PNG”: there are now photos to go with Lynda’s fine text. Check them out!
I’ve been back in my American home for a month. I may write again, but this piece serves as a farewell for now, dear readers. I am saying for myself what has meant the most in my 10 and ½ months in Papua New Guinea.
When I began the process that led to teaching at Divine Word, I wondered what my relationship to the place and the people would be. Perhaps I couldn’t expect anything more than how I felt after visits in 1999 and 2000, when I concluded that I no longer belonged. Too much had changed. Another part of me suspected there was a risk in going. I might not want to return to the US at mid-year, after the first semester of 2012. By then, I might have fallen in love again with the place and its people.
Explaining why one loves a particular person is tricky enough. Extending that to a geographic area and to people in general presents even more challenges.
Before I went, I didn’t think much about what I wanted and needed to see that would help satisfy my longing for the familiar surroundings of my childhood. Even so, when I saw them, I knew.
Large areas of tall green kunai grass, separated by tracts of jungle, cover the hills bordering the broad, flat valleys of the Ramu and Markham rivers. Difficulties in the limited free time I had prevented me from travelling to the Highlands, but seeing the kunai grass on an overland trip from Madang to Lae connected me to the places where I had lived longest as a child. So did taking in the outline of the Finisterre Mountains, visible most days from the pool where I swam in Madang and then traversed on my trip to Lae.
I went on two long hikes, one in the Adelbert Mountains north of Madang, and the other up an extinct volcano on Kairiru Island, off the coast from Wewak (part of the trip I took with one of my co-teachers). The paths snaked up the mountain sides, often stretches of mud marked by exposed tree roots that I hoped would be toeholds but could as likely begin a slide. I had been on so many similar hikes as a child.
The steep, muddy conditions taxed me beyond what I could do on my own, forcing me to rely on the young PNG men who accompanied us. They pulled me up when I slipped or didn’t have the strength in my quads to step up to the next toehold. “Sori, Sista,” they’d say. Going down, whenever I couldn’t see a place to step, one of them put a bare foot sideways into the muddy hillside, and I stepped on it. We had met only that day, and yet they showed me such consideration. It felt like love.
My early sense of loving people came from familiar images, not so different from landscapes I remembered. A baby sleeps in a brightly colored bilum (net bag), hanging from a tree branch. A woman who works at the university, smiles broadly wearing a blue meri blouse (introduced by missionaries to cover a woman’s breasts, now taken over as a national costume), with the strap of a bilum around her head.
My love for my students began with the feelings I have had for any student I have ever taught. I love them before I have met them because they are my students. I accept them as they are even as I want their best from them. From me, they get as much caring and knowledge as I can muster.
At the end of my second semester at Divine Word, a student wrote to say that he hoped to meet me in heaven. I wrote back to thank him, telling him that I love all my students, something I never say when someone is still my student. I may have said too much because he never responded.
The give and take of loving students gets tested as my relationship with them develops. At first, with Divine Word students, only the barriers stood out. I was tall, white, had the title of “Professor,” with a large, air-conditioned office, hard to find on the second floor of a building separate from the Communication Arts department. My soft speaking voice easily lost out to the flying foxes shrieking outside. I had to learn to wait while the students carefully formulated a question or an answer to one of my questions and then spoke in voices even softer than mine.
We became more comfortable with one another, although that didn’t necessarily mean that students were learning. After Easter, my Feature Writing class ground to a halt. Most students were putting little effort into their work, whether in reading or writing. I hoped the last major assignment for the semester would perk them up. They had the choice of writing either a profile or a travel piece. As one of the examples, I gave them a profile of Rob Bell, the controversial Grand Rapids pastor whose recent book, Love Wins, has attracted much comment. I also gave them the first two chapters of the book. Bell writes simply and directly; I knew they could read it and I thought they would enjoy discussing his provocative ideas about who is “in” and “out” from God’s perspective.
Only one student did the readings over two class periods. I wrote to two of the older students, asking for help. One reported back that the students wanted to read PNG, not American, writers. (This attitude surprised one of the PNG staff who knew them well.) From then on, I used only PNG examples in the class. I also suggested to the students that they needed two representatives. One had the responsibility of signaling when I was speaking too softly. The other passed on questions from students who hesitated to ask me on their own. The representatives didn’t have a great deal to do; my making the suggestions helped to clear the air.
Sometimes the struggles were comic. About a month into the semester in this class, I made a chocolate cake, frosted it, and brought it in with green cordial. The students loved the cake and sipped a little cordial.
Later in the semester, when I knew more about the drinks I could buy, I wondered whether I had served them cordial concentrate, to be diluted with four parts water to one part cordial. No wonder they hardly drank it. When I went to buy drinks for our end-of-semester party, I asked for help from an attendant, explaining slowly and carefully (I thought) that I wanted a drink that did not have to be diluted. When I brought the two jugs into the classroom, the students looked at them and laughed, asking if I had any water to mix with the cordial. “Oh no! Did I buy the same drink in March?” I asked. “Yes,” they giggled. Several students and I diluted the cordial in my apartment, which was close by, and the party went on.
The students in this class came to understand that I took them and their writing seriously. I could help them develop as writers if they wanted that. For their final, a portfolio of the major pieces they had written during the semester, I asked them to reflect on themselves as writers, using evidence from their pieces and any revisions they had made. Their answers had to come from within, not from anything I said. It was these students who later wrote to me that I had made them writers.
When I retired from teaching and faculty development work at Grand Valley, I knew I would be replaced with excellent, dedicated professionals. At Divine Word, chronically short of staff and underfunded, I knew I had contributions to make and did so as actively as I could. My personal responsibilities and relationships in Grand Rapids required that I leave, but it also felt too soon. Divine Word needs staff that will stay.
The Vice President who oversees research had an idea I responded to immediately. Would I be willing to work with doctoral students, part-time and long-distance? I now have a three-year appointment as Adjunct Professor. I’m working initially with one student, a Lutheran pastor who knew my parents in Port Moresby as a young man. I may also serve on other committees and read and comment on dissertations in their final stages. At some point, it may be appropriate for me to return for a short period to work intensively with these students.
Personally and professionally, I now have a second home in Papua New Guinea. I had gone with the best I had to offer, even as I knew I had much to learn. Gradually, my students and I moved closer together in our teaching/learning enterprise. Sometime during my second semester, I realized I belonged, an unexpected byproduct of love.