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An Island School

by Jan Herron

Our middle daughter has a button, neatly laminated, that she made herself. It shows a globe of the Earth, and around the edge she has written, in tidy eleven-year-old script, "The world is my school."

The button dates from our years on the island of Saipan, where my husband and I and our three daughters, Rachael, Christy and Bethany, lived from 1985 to 1987. When we arrived there and began homeschooling, Bethany was in kindergarten. When we left, Rachael was in high school.

Our step into homeschooling was not entirely prompted by the move to Micronesia. Back home, on the central coast of California, Rachael and Christy had been attending an excellent, if somewhat large, elementary school. Both girls were participating in the school's program for gifted and talented students, and both were benefiting from dedicated, thoughtful and innovative teachers. All this changed when Rachael entered seventh grade and moved on to middle school.    Suddenly neither she nor we, her parents, liked anything about the school experience: the overcrowding, the social pressures, the lack of intellectual challenge for a bright child. A combination of research and soul-searching followed, as we considered the pros and cons of homeschooling. My husband, Dan, and I both have college degrees, and I had a little   - very little -   experience in teaching and tutoring.

So when Dan, who had been talking half-seriously for years about moving the family back to the islands (he and I met in Western Samoa), came home one cold, rainy night and said, "There's a job opening on Saipan," we were ready for him. "Let's go," we said.

Information about Micronesia was scarce, but we were able to talk to two couples who had recently returned from Saipan.    One family loved it, the other hated it, and they gave us two sets of diametrically opposed advice.    One thing they agreed on was that the school system was not one of Saipan's strong points.    Instruction in the local schools was conducted in Chamorro, which was not a language our daughters would have much use for in later life. There was an English-language private school with a fairly good reputation and a hefty price tag, but we would be roughing it on Dan's basic salary with no overseas allowances.

The decision was made for us. Feeling thankful for the research that I had already done, I started scrambling to assemble the materials we needed for a year's schooling of a kindergartner, a sixth-grader and a seventh-grader.

My two major resources were Ward's trusty old Homeschool Handbook (now out of print), and a very helpful curriculum specialist at Rachael and Christy's elementary school. Since we wanted to keep the way clear for the girls to re-enter the California public-school system, we continued to use our local school district's curriculum as the basis for their studies. The curriculum specialist gave me lists of all the books we would need for our three grade levels, and loaned me copies of all she had on hand. When we turned out to be one of the families that loved the island, and our year stretched into two, I was able to order further books directly from the publishers.

The house that was provided for us on the island was a long, low, flat-roofed concrete structure, ground-hugging, weather-stained, and less than welcoming at first glance. It took us a very short time to appreciate its design, which allowed it to withstand Saipan's frequent typhoons when necessary, while letting the trade winds provide natural air-conditioning the rest of the time. The dining room, with four chairs around a large, government-issue table, became our schoolroom. Open along one side, the room overlooked a turquoise lagoon and, further out, the indigo of the Philippine Sea. A constant parade of cloud formations, rain squalls, rainbows and occasional waterspouts carried meteorology right into our classroom.

Our plan was to deal with the basic 3R subjects in the mornings, and use the afternoons for enrichment activities. Since Dan was employed full-time and I, as a non-U.S. citizen, was unemployable, I was to do the bulk of the teaching.    We settled quickly into a routine which started with the ringing of our school bell at 9 a.m., followed by devotions.     The bell, a small sweet-toned one of the kind used to summon assistance in old-fashioned stores, seemed like a preferable alternative to circulating through the house every morning rounding up possibly unwilling students. In fact it turned out to be a popular accessory, and sparked lively competition for the privilege of ringing it to mark the beginning and end of our formal study time.

We found that with one teacher for three students, and without the distractions of a large classroom, the girls made short work of their required subjects, leaving time for thorough reinforcement of what they were learning.    (We also discovered, and patched, some holes in what they had learned in previous years.)    Mathematics, especially for the kindergartner, frequently led us into the kitchen and occasionally down the hill to the local market.    Very occasionally, when we were reading poetry or a play, all three girls were able to work together.

Both Dan and I wanted to use this opportunity to introduce our daughters to subjects that we felt had been beneficial to us. He taught them Physics; I taught them Latin. Physics had to be fitted in around his working hours, but Latin was a part of our regular schedule for the two older girls. Christy took to it like a duck to water, while Rachael hated it, but both have reported back in later years that they have found it an invaluable foundation for the study of other languages, including English.

Once we had established our nine to twelve, five days a week classroom schedule, we added more flexibility. Some days would see us leaving the house before sunrise in the family jeep, carrying a picnic breakfast, on a field trip to one of the island's many remote and beautiful beaches. And as our daughters settled in and made friends among the neighbors, we found that observing local school holidays was preferable to trying to work while visiting children were knocking on our door.

There was no bookstore on the island, and the library was old, damaged and closed. When eventually it reopened for a few hours each week, we immediately became its most enthusiastic patrons, although the selection was limited and the books were old and sometimes moldy. I'm sure it's no coincidence that since our return to the mainland three of us have been employed as bookstore clerks.

Dan traveled regularly around Micronesia as part of his job, but for Rachael, Christy, Bethany and me, our two-year stay on Saipan was punctuated by just one trip to the relatively bright lights of Guam. When people ask how we all survived two years on a 150-square-mile island, we take a deep breath, and start trying to describe our activities.

We always begin with the beaches.    There were long, sandy beaches where we swam, snorkeled among coral and tropical fish, and exercised our boonie dog, Molly (Physical Education). There were beaches on the far side of the island where, lacking a protective reef, all kinds of flotsam washed up: these were the targets of early-morning beachcombing excursions (Crafts and Environment).    There were beaches where we swam among small blacktip sharks, and beaches where we stayed out of the water out of respect for the moray eels (Natural History). There were tidepools, there were blowholes, and often a rocky promontory concealed bunkers and gun emplacements built when the Japanese Army was defending the island during World War II.

Which brings us to History. Saipan was a heavily contested piece of territory during the war in the Pacific, and has been largely overlooked ever since. Consequently, evidences of war were present everywhere:   Allied landing craft in the lagoon, the remains of a Japanese hospital in an enormous cave, an aircraft wing buried in the sand of a favorite beach. On one of our boonie-stomping excursions into the interior of the island, we rounded a corner and found ourselves facing a Japanese tank, looming up among the jungly scrub and looking as if it were parked there yesterday.    We were surrounded by a living history museum.

Disused airstrips built by the Seabees in the 1940's, and still in good condition, became our driving school. By the time we left Saipan both Rachael and Christy were competent jeep drivers, though they had to wait several years before they could legally drive again.    Interested, at fourteen, in work experience, Rachael took on a volunteer job in the afternoons, working as a file clerk in the Northern Marianas administration office;   soon she was filling in as the Governor's temporary secretary. While Christy and I learned to weave palm-leaf baskets, Rachael took lessons from a woman who made traditional Carolinian bead necklaces.

Just two months before we left Saipan, the island was visited by Supertyphoon Kim. This was one part of the island experience that we would prefer not to repeat.    Dan was in California at the time, so when the storm warning went out at four o'clock in the morning, it was the older girls and I, with the assistance of some Palauan friends, who were out in the dark and the wind and the driving rain, nailing stormboards over our windows.    Kim hovered over Saipan for two terrifying days of darkness and roaring, screaming, ear-splitting noise.    Long before the storm reached its 200-mile-an-hour peak, it tore the protective boards from our windows, and we fled to a neighbor's house. On our return home we found a scene of devastation - broken windows, sodden belongings, and several inches of water on the floor.

For two solid weeks my daughters and I worked side by side, without running water or electricity, struggling to sweep the water out of the house and carry our salvageable belongings out into the sun to dry. And in, and out, and in again, as showers came and went. We made scary trips over damaged roads to replenish our water supply;   we scraped the remains of Dan's boat off the beach; we cooked over Sterno and then, emulating our Filipino neighbors, over a small fire pit that we dug in the yard; and when nature called, we headed for the boonies carrying a shovel and a roll of toilet paper.    There were probably complaints during this period, but I don't remember them. No one said, "I want to go home! I wish we'd never come here!" And it was only recently that Rachael admitted that, rather than use an outdoor latrine only lightly screened by low, straggly scrub, she simply didn't drink for three days.    

On our return to California after two years of homeschooling, it became necessary for me to go out to work, and our daughters moved back into the public school system. Academically the transition was smooth, and socialization became easier with the move to high school.    Thirteen years later, Rachael has a BA in English from California Polytechnic State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. She is employed as a police dispatcher, has had some writing published and is working on a novel. Christy was the valedictorian of her high school class. She has a BA in English and Environmental Biology from Mills College, and works for the Port of Oakland as an environmental planner.    Bethany will graduate this year from San Francisco State University with a BA in English;   after graduation she plans to buy a truck and take to the road.

We look back on the Saipan years as a time that strengthened and consolidated our family, while the combination of travel and homeschooling immeasurably enriched our daughters' education.    Our one regret has been that we were unable to move to Fiji when Bethany reached middle school.  

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