Saturday, July 23, 2011

Transcending Transience

(or, “Fun in the Remote Highlands of New Guinea,” Vol. 13)
In my twenties, I was part of several military communities.  In my thirties, we went to a church that not only had a high volume of seminary families, but also sent many members out as career missionaries.  In both of these situations, people came and went all the time.
Now in my forties, I am still immersed in a community where transience is a way of life.  New people arrive and/or people leave (some to villages, some on furlough, some leaving for good) nearly every week.  (
In the three or so weeks following the end of the 2010-2011 school year, more than forty families - all of whom lived only a few minutes’ walk from our house - left the country. 
Even last year, when we had only been here a few months and I didn’t know that many of them, it was in some ways a difficult time.  I think part of what made it so hard was knowing that these families were going where I wished I could go … home.  This year it wasn’t so bad from that perspective; I have adjusted to being here, and though I wish from time to time that I could visit home, I’m content.
However, I have found it very difficult to watch my children’s friends leave.  When they leave for furlough it’s bad enough – that has happened to both Andie and Evan - but when they leave for good … well, that can break your heart.  A year ago, one of our daughter’s good friends “went finish” back to Germany.  This year, another of her friends, one who she was even closer to, went finish back to Finland.  (Would that be called going “Finnish?”) 
A few days before this most recent family left, we decided to have a going away party and hosted all the girls in our daughter’s class for an evening.  On a Sunday afternoon, the girls gathered at our home and when the guest of honor arrived, they were there to surprise her (she thought she was just coming to spend the night).  First, the girls each got to make their own personal pizza (we’re still waiting for someone to come open that Little Caesar’s franchise).  Then they sat down to watch the movie, “Tangled,” and as the pizzas emerges from the oven, their personal waitress delivered them piping hot to their laps.  Once the move ended, they had dessert (popcorn, puppy chow, and mocha muffins – mmm!), and then worked it off with a “Just Dance” Wii session.  What a hoot!  The girls’ favorite teacher (besides me, of course … ahem) who had left six months earlier,  had returned to the country and was a welcome special guest for all of the festivities.
They had a blast, and made some fun PNG memories for this special girl.
On Tuesday, people gathered to say goodbye to the family.
Now, the community has come to call these weeks, “Cry Weeks.”  A couple months ago when I was cutting a friend’s hair, she told me about one particular cry week when her daughter was between grades 11 and 12.  (Paul suggested that these haircut sessions turn out, many times, to be my own form of Member Care … I think he’s right.)  Anyway, this woman was having to take her daughter home for her Senior year.  At that time, apparently, they would allow people out onto the airfield to say goodbye.  She said it was one of the worst experiences of her life … all her daughter’s girlfriends surrounding the Cessna, clinging to the windows and sobbing.  They had to force them away so the plane could take off.
Her story brought tears to my cry eyes.
Most families still leave via the airstrip, but I have not yet gone out to say goodbye there.  This family, however, left from our guesthouse via PMV (public motor vehicle) and went to Lae where they spent two nights before boarding a commercial flight.  It was hard to say goodbye, but the pain was definitely compounded by knowing that, though Finland is now on our wish list of furlough-routings, it’s possible my daughter may never see her friend again.  On top of that, this girl is very close friends with one of the Papua New Guinean girls in her class.  Seeing Evelyn’s tears made me realize something monumental – we travel around the world.  It is now part of our lives.  But this precious girl is likely to never set her feet on the soil of any foreign country, and possibly never even on an airplane.  Short of a miracle, she really will never see her again.
I felt a little less sorry for myself, all of a sudden.              

The upside to Cry Week is that it also coincides with arrivals.  In the four to five weeks between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next (we have year-round school here), many people also return from furlough.  Just fifteen days after this family left, we had the opportunity to welcome back an Aussie family who are good friends of ours.  They have three children including a girl in Andie’s class, and a boy in Evan’s class.  This time we did go to the airstrip.  About 8-9 families were represented on the impromptu welcome committee, and this time there were no tears.  When the Kodiak touched down, hands were waving wildly, expressing our collective delight to have them back.
They emerged from the plane, looking and feeling tired, but all smiles.

At one point in the movie, “Evan Almighty,” Evan Baxter’s hair grows out of control.  As he arrives at the Capitol building with his hair in a ponytail and his 14 inch beard held together with several rubber bands,   His assistant, (who would later ask, “Evan, what are you doing? You have a pony tail on your face!  What you gonna do next? Cornrow your eyebrows?”) responds with a look of shock. 
“What is that?!”
Evan’s answer to her, I feel, is fitting to how we need to respond to Cry Week and the transience of our community.
“Makin’ lemonade outta lemons.”   :)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Graduation Festivities

(or, “Fun in the Remote Highlands of New Guinea,” Vol. 12)
It was an incredible honor and joy to teach my daughter’s class this past year.  Not just because she was in it, though that was a pretty cool perk.  I said numerous times that I would take any or all of these kids home with me and adopt them if I needed to.
Yep.  They’re that cool.
While it is sort of silly, they make a big deal about graduation from grade 6 here.  I think it is part tradition, and part in keeping with the stages in the national education system.  After grades 6, 8, and 10, students in the PNG system must test to see if they qualify to continue on to the next level.  Only a small percentage make the cut, and consequently, many PNGns have, at best, a grade 6 education.
However, I think the biggest reason for the end-of-year-6 hoopla is that in just a few short weeks, these guys experience the big transition from the Primary Campus (Preschool – Grade 6) to the Secondary Campus (grades 7-12).
The class consisted of 6 Papua New Guineans, 16 Americans, an Aussie, a New Zealander, and a Finn.  They worked hard all year, and we wanted to make the last few days and graduation very special for them.
Several weeks in advance, the students began hitting me up to let them skip their last day of school.  Being the rule-follower that I am, I convinced them to give me time to garner some information, and set off to plan a “skip day” that was still a real “class” day, but also would become a special memory.
They were told that the day was a normal school day, and they would be reported to the office as absent if they didn’t show up to my house by 8:30AM.
At half-past-eight, everyone was accounted for. 
Badminton, basketball, four-square, Wii, and board games kept them busy at first.  After a while, we broke out the snacks and they all gorged themselves on cookies, popcorn, chips, gummy creatures, fresh pineapple, and the vegetables that I insisted on putting out.  (“OK, [insert name here], if you’re going to have seconds, you have to eat some veggies!”)
After a while, they were separated into teams and sent off on a photo scavenger hunt.  Over the next hour, the four teams would hunt down and capture images such as several teammates peeking out from behind banana trees, a word spelled with rope, all team members underneath a picnic table, the smallest team member standing with someone who is over six feet tall, a team member with a pink flower in his or her hair, a soda can pyramid with at least 21 cans, two team members literally stopping to smell the roses, all team members sitting in one chair, and the favorite, all team members standing in a shower or bathtub.
They loved it!  And the pictures were hilarious, so I got to love it too.  :)
We scored the results, awarded prizes, and then had lunch.  I found one group of kids with a stack of Pringles on the back veranda playing poker. 
With chips.
Since Pringles are a rare commodity, I’d say the stakes were pretty high.  :)
Eventually, we all headed to the auditorium for graduation rehearsal.  They did such a great job that we ended up releasing them about 30 minutes early from their last primary “school” day. 
Graduation was very nice.  Sweet stories from former teachers, character awards, student memories, and presentation of grad certificates.  No bouncing beach balls or releasing caged mice like at my high school graduation, but that’s another story.
After the ceremony, the kids were loaded up in a couple of vehicles and paraded around the center, hootin’ and hollerin’ the whole way.  When they arrived at the reception venue, snacks and a couple hundred cupcakes greeted them, as well as their proud family members and friends.  There was a chance for formal family photos, and then the kids quickly changed out of their Sunday best.
Families were invited to stay at the auditorium for phase 3: Australian bush dancing.  Bush dancing is somewhat similar to square dancing, but, frankly, way more fun.  There was much laughter – and sweating – as the parents, graduates, and siblings got into the, er, “swing” of things.  :)
After thirty or so minutes of bush dancing, most of the family members left.  Being a teacher, I was privileged to stay, and a few dads also stuck around to help supervise a campus-wide game of Capture the Flag.  I would get to be the jailer.
Of course, as if on schedule, at the exact moment of this transition, the clouds broke and the bottom fell out.  I have no idea how many inches of rain fell that night, but it was quite a downpour.
Did a little precipitation slow these guys down?  No, it did not! They played two full games.
And, in fact, the father who was in charge of the bonfire that would culminate the evening’s festivities was able to successfully get a roaring fire going, despite the rain.  As the kids stood in the thick mud and huddled, shivering and dripping around the fire, we decided to forego any attempt at marshmallow roasting.  Instead of being let down, many of the kids ran over to the nearest big hill and held an impromptu after-dark mud-sliding session. 
I don’t know if the kids will have great memories for years to come, but I certainly will.  :)

We are missionaries serving God and the task of Bible translation by serving the missionary community in Papua New Guinea through Personnel Administration and MK Education. We thank you for your prayers!

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(Updated 13 April 2013)