Minute With Mike - Graduation was satisfying and sad

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/10/98.

November 2, 1997
Lumi High School, Papua New Guinea

Iím still in the emotional wake of our Lumi High School graduation Thursday. Iíve been to many graduations, including my own, but none were ever so satisfying or so sad.

Graduation is never just a single day, and itís been a busy couple weeks around here. A week ago Friday was the grade 10 meal, where a huge feast is prepared mumu-style for the departing students, the staff, and guests. The meal takes a lot of preparation: collecting leaves, stones, and firewood; splitting the firewood; arranging for a cow to be flown in; buying local vegetables; peeling them; making baskets for the food; scraping coconuts to make milk; and more.

The tradition is for the ninth grade class to make the meal for the outgoing grade 10s, and stay up all night doing so. In the afternoon, I helped the boys fill the mumu pit with stones, organizing a relay race to make the work fun. Then the girls taught me how to make rice baskets out of coconut fronds. I went to bed at 10 p.m. though, and they stayed up until 5 a.m.

The meal was a success the next night. The beef was so tender you could eat it with a plastic fork and knife. The meal started only an hour late, which qualifies as on time around here. On Saturday, the grade 10s had their own party, with lots of food. I enjoyed both nights.

Things got serious on Monday. The grade 10s started their national exams in the four core subjects: English, mathematics, science and social science. Each one is a three-hour, 50-point test; English on Monday, math on Tuesday, science on Wednesday, and social science on Thursday. The results are used to determine who will be accepted into grade 11 next year. In my math class, it represented the culmination of a year and a half of teaching by me and all the hard work by them.

I wanted them to do well, and the preliminary reports are they did fairly well in mathematics. My top students said the test was easy, and canít have more than a few wrong. Having your students tell you a test was easy may be the most satisfying remark a teacher can hear.

We wonít know for sure until the official results come back, and Iím a bit worried that some students may have been tricked by the complex questions and missed utilizing all their math skills. Overall, Iím confident and pleased.

Even before this satisfaction, the sadness made its entrance. I began crying last Monday and still havenít stopped. Monday afternoon was my last math class with the grade 10s. After a final review, we ate my homemade oatmeal cookies, and I gave out presents my family had brought. The biggest hit were the class pictures.

I tried to tell them how much teaching them had meant to me. I even had a little speech planned-how difficult living thousands of miles from home can be at times, how they had pulled me through many lonely times, how seeing their 40 faces kept me motivated day after day. I wasnít able to articulate it. I said a sentence and choked up. I tried another sentence and choked up again.

I hope they understood my tune even without the lyrics.

The actual graduation ceremony was on Thursday, and everyone left on Friday. Unlike high school graduation in Minnesota, here it is mainly an end. Nobody has been accepted to college. Only a few may find paid employment. Weíll be lucky if a quarter of our graduates qualify for grade 11. Last year it was six out of 42.

In Minnesota, the sadness is offset by excitement for the future, with all its uncertainties and possibilities. Here the hope for the future is negligible, and that intensifies the sadness of the moment. The top students wait nervously to see if they have qualified for grade 11, but many students just returned to their village on Friday. Maybe for good. And because transportation is so limited, I might not see them again, even if they live relatively near.

Saying goodbye was strange. It seemed so inadequate. Funny how we rush at the end to express feelings we should have shared all along. I was deeply touched by the words of appreciation said to me, the gifts given me and the respect shown me.

I miss them already. I want them to come back for class tomorrow. And I donít want to believe that I may never see them again.

(Michael Jacobson was a reporter for the Paynesville Press before joining the Peace Corps.)

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