Thursday, April 5, 2012

Of Star Wars, Toads, and Hospital Tag

“Miss Catherine! Miss Catherine! Is this toad poisonous?” The eight-year-old boy raced up the creek and thrust his discovery into my face, the placid amphibian sprawled limply in his hands.

“Umm… I guess not?”

It was Wednesday afternoon, and the POC school kids and I had wandered down to the creek for an afternoon of mud fights and tadpole collecting. Although my job at the Pacific Orientation Course (POC) this past January-through-March was focused on educating the adults in Tok Pisin and PNG culture, when my housemate and friend who happened to be the schoolteacher needed to make an unexpected trip back to the States, I volunteered to step in for the last few days.

After all, I told myself, it was only one week. How difficult could corralling ten 1st-4th grade children (nine of which were boys) be?


A few of the kids... and their saint of a teacher who spent POC with16 kids in the one-room schoolhouse
I think this must be what it is like to live in an insane asylum, I mused as I listened to the shrieking ruckus of children bellowing out PNG’s national anthem in every tune imaginable (and in decibels that rivaled a jet engine). And, as I considered the day ahead, I’m not sure who the inmates are...

The children built mazes out of dominos for their pet geckos and tried to teach them how to fly in their paper airplane wars; I doled out the morning snack (and answered complaints with, life isn’t fair). We had earthquake drills (a 6.7 magnitude hit Ukarumpa, and we felt it in Madang!), wrestling matches (take it outside!) and every running game and tag variation I could think of (always less successful than I hoped in wearing them out…). We read aloud about giants (thanks, The BFG), solved mysteries with Encyclopedia Brown and discussed the important difference between area and perimeter. There were the spelling tests, the tears, the phonics worksheets, the band-aids, and the craft sessions in which glue bottles erupted like Mt Vesuvius until they pooled in the construction paper, defying all my attempts to dry their paper pukpuks (crocodiles) in the humidity. And who could forget the morning when one boy looped meters and meters of paper leis around neck and arms, and went dancing and hollering around the schoolroom in his best tribal shout? Insanity is too mild of a word, I decided.

One afternoon, for their final craft project, the kids were to make signs to thank their wasfemilis (host families). After they copied down the phrase I had written on the blackboard, I told them they could now decorate the signs with pictures or drawings or further messages.

What I neglected to remember was their current all-encompassing obsession: Star Wars.

Faster than a gecko could have skittered across the ceiling, their posters were sporting lightsabers, ewoks, droids, and X-Wing fighters. “Stop!” I shouted, “No more Star Wars! Draw something else, but not Star Wars.” They looked at me blankly. What else was there in the world except Star Wars? Nevertheless, they soon bent back over their papers, crayons in hand.

I began to make my rounds again… “Wait! Now what are you drawing??”

“But Miss Cathy—that was how they merged my name with the previous teacher’s—you said we couldn’t draw Star Wars. This isn’t Star Wars. This is Clone Wars!”

Well, excuse me. These kids could put George Lucas to shame.

“Enough! No more Star Wars, Clone Wars, or anything from outer space period! Your wasfemilis don’t know these movies.” With heavy sighs, the boys resigned themselves to this final directive from their dictator, grumbling at the injustice of it all.

But, it didn’t take them long to recover. And as I made my last lap around the room, I heard rather suspicious sound effects coming from one corner—and sure enough, I watched as the six-year-old and his friends busied themselves with putting the finishing touches on their final thank-you sign additions: tanks, attack helicopters, missile launchers, and machine guns.

I darted back to my desk in time to choke back the tsunami of laughter that threatened to overwhelm any sense of decorum I had left. I streaked the tears from my eyes and looked at the snowman mascot Jack sitting next to the pencil sharpener. One-room schoolhouse, anyone?