Payback claimed the life of my PNG cat

This column submitted by Michael Jacobson on 12/13/99.

Vanity, it turns out, killed my cat. Not my vanity, or even that of my Papua New Guinea cat, Wagug.

The vanity that killed my cat belonged to the worst "teacher" I have ever known, a lazy bloke named Harry Sumei.

I put teacher in quotes because this corrupt fellow stole his paycheck each week without teaching the students of Lumi High School anything at all, except how to shirk responsibilities, ignore authority, and cheat the educational system.

The high school where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer was a remote jungle school in a remote corner of one of the most isolated island countries in the world. As such, we were constantly in desperate need for teachers, and we too-often settled for warm bodies to parade through the classrooms.

Harry Sumei couldn't manage even that. When he wasn't sleeping off a hangover in his house, he'd almost certainly be seated at his desk in the staff room or wandering around the school grounds. Where you would hardly ever find him was his assigned classroom at the appropriate time.

The Harry Sumeis of the PNG education system are a real problem, by taking an undeserved paycheck and pushing the government in greater debt while providing no education.

Here's how bad it was. During a double-period "technology" class, Harry Sumei would assign my homeroom class to cutting grass with a machete. While PNG lacks technology and desires many things it doesn't have, one skill its youth do not lack is cutting grass by hand. All school kids in Lumi cut grass for an hour a day out of service to their school, and longer for punishment.

I didn't know about it at the time, but the demise of my cat started with some eighth grade girls poking fun at this corrupt teacher by calling him "Harry Banana." This was intolerable to him because it showed a complete lack of respect, which, of course, he completely deserved.

Without knowing about the name calling, I got involved in this turmoil while returning to school from lunch back in 1998. I met half of my next class walking towards a punishment assignment. They were five minutes late to class, they told me, and Mr. Sumei put them on punishment, which they did, but not to his satisfaction.

In my eyes, it was a total power play, and completely hypocritical. The teacher was holding students accountable for rules they generally kept but he never did.

I took the students to class and told Harry Sumei to punish them at the regular time, not mine. After all, I was thousands of miles from home to do something (teach) that he could barely pry himself from his office chair to do once in a while.

Later in the afternoon, Harry Sumei proceeded to throw a fit of rage. Luckily, he just knocked around a few chairs and tables in the staff room, and not me.

To my knowledge, this was the closest I ever came to being the victim of physical violence in PNG, and that scares me now, but at the time I was only concerned with my math lesson and the 35 eager students in my afternoon class.

That evening I remember discussing the day's events with the deputy headmaster, who informed me of the name calling, which in hindsight wouldn't have altered my actions. I remember saying that Harry's problem wasn't me or name-calling students, but demanding respect and recognition that he hadn't earned.

When the headmaster asked how I would feel if the students called me names, I said they could call me Mike Pineapple all they wanted, because I knew from their classroom behavior and interest that they respected me.

Harry Sumei was getting the ridicule he deserved and his vanity couldn't take it.

I'll spare you the rest of the details of the story, about how Harry Sumei raped a six-year-old boy, how he got chased from the school, and how he lost his teaching position nine months too late. He should have been let go at the start of the year, not the end.

As for my cat, Wagug came home injured one morning a couple months after my run-in with Harry Sumei and a couple months before I left Lumi. A student recognized his wound as being from an arrow, which puzzled me a little because I knew most of my neighbors recognized my cat and wouldn't shoot it.

After nursing Wagug back to health, he disappeared for good a month before I left.

When I went back this year, I learned from a former student that Wagug's fate was in a soup kettle at the vocational school, where some boys from Harry Sumei's village ate my cat as revenge or payback, as it is called in PNG.

They ate my cat to get back at me for my infuriating Harry Sumei months earlier. Luckily for me, they didn't do worse. Payback can be nasty.

I would pay the price again, though. I would trade one math lesson with 35 bright minds for the life of my cat.

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