My last day as a teacher was like any normal Monday. Our regular school-wide flag raising, less-than-enthusiastic and sleepy faces, the post-weekend blues settling like morning dew. Still three weeks away from ending our third quarter, neither I nor the students were aware that it would be the last day of school. I was crosser than usual, passing on playing with the kids during recess and telling myself that there would be plenty of other opportunities to join in on their merriments.
Though Mondays often showed up sooner than I would have liked them to, there was relief in knowing that every Monday, I would be given the gift of a break at the end of the school day while the high school’s PE teacher supervised my students for the last period of the day. That particular afternoon, when I was done teaching and my kids had left the classroom for PE, I stepped out for a few minutes and returned to find my students filing into the class, immediately sitting in their seats and looking at me expectantly. Seeing the obvious puzzlement on my face, my kids informed me that their PE teacher had sent them back to the classroom to wait for a “special announcement.” Upon hearing this, my heart jumped into my throat as I was reminded of the information that us teachers had received the weekend before.
The Thursday prior to this event, many of us had received emails from our respective universities advising us to consider returning home due to the rise of coronavirus. At this point, the concept of the coronavirus was still relatively new to us and so we were determined to stay put in Yap, in spite of the risks involved. As the weekend progressed, however, we continued to receive new information about the extremes that the world was going to in response to the virus and we began to realize the gravity of our decision. By Monday, my personal resolve had shifted from staying in Yap absolutely to at least staying for the next three weeks to finish off the quarter. That weekend, each night consisted of tossing and turning, my mind preoccupied with thinking of ways to make the following weeks memorable and getting myself accustomed to the idea that my goodbyes might have to be said two months before I had originally planned. Not once did I consider that they would be said the next time I saw my kids.
As soon as my students told me about the “special announcement,” I told them to remain in the class while I ran around campus trying to find someone to explain to me what it was that I was supposed to be announcing. I finally found my principle, who told me that school would be suspended for the week and that there would be a board meeting later that day to discuss when and if it would resume. Hearing this, I felt a certainty in my chest that this meant that that day would be the final day of school. Students anxiously peered out the sides of the classroom door as I walked back to the class, and despite my efforts to push the distress from my face, they couldn’t be fooled. They knew straightaway that all was not well. Once inside the classroom, I explained the situation. Eyes began to grow in size, tears started to fall, one of my students asked, “Teacher, is this the last time that we are going to see you?” My eyes welled up and all I could do was hug them. Another piped up, “Teacher, let’s pray.” Not knowing why I hadn’t thought of that earlier, I instantly agreed. With sniffling noses and shaky voices, we bowed our heads and took our troubles upwards, hearing the neighboring classroom do the same. Afterwards, our last twenty minutes together disappeared in a whirlwind of events as the whole school ran around in a frenzy of farewells and as those closest to me clung to me like koalas until they were forced to strip away and depart.
The next two days before I left the island were also a blur as we confirmed that the island’s schools were closed for the rest of the school year, held a small mock graduation for our 8th graders and seniors, cleared out our classrooms, and held our last hurrahs as an SM family. The mock graduation was actually a part of a last-minute sendoff party that we threw together in hopes of having a chance to say our proper goodbyes to our students. For part of the party, we planned to have each teacher give a personal statement expressing what Yap and the school meant to us. When I first sat down to write what I would say, the overwhelming emotions that I felt were ones of unfairness and disappointment. In the recent weeks, I felt that I had gained more confidence as a teacher than I had all year and that I was making significant progress in my connections with my students. I was at a peak in my experience in Yap, and it was all being abruptly taken away. Yet, as I began my writing process, those feelings faded and were replaced with an immense sense of gratitude. I hope that those feelings are apparent in the writing which I ended up with in the following tribute to Yap:
What do you do when you’re told you’ve got a day left to live
as a coconut eating island girl,
a 5th and 6th grade teacher,
a sister to an SM and Pakistani family who you didn’t know you needed until they became yours?
What do you say
when you thought you had more than two months left to look around and be present, to slowly stitch every face, every place, every interaction into your mind.
To grow and learn, to remind your humans that you love them,
to leave them and yourself with some kind of closure?
What do you think
when the unpredictability of God’s plan no longer seems exciting or awesome, but turns into something that aches and leaves you asking why?
Much of the time as a teacher, when my students ask me a question that leaves me stumped in class, I reply with a simple I don’t know,
and here the situation is no different.
I don’t know what the next move is and I don’t know how to feel.
And yes, it’ll take a while to heal from the absence of this life I’ve come to love,
but what does come to mind is two simple words. Thank you. What I can do is be thankful and what I can say and think is I’m grateful. Thank you.
Thank you to this island, to the wind that’s always blowing through the trees with their abundance of coconuts.
To the sky; the way that when it rains, it pours, and the breathtaking clearness of the stars at night.
To the flowers, which never tire of being put behind ears and being made into leis of every sort.
To the smiling faces that say hi during every ride into town,
to YCA and Aces and Toms for all the snack runs,
to the friendly neighborhood roosters that screech their good mornings and randomly run frantically across the recess field.
Thank you to this school,
to my fifth and sixth graders who not only taught me to be more patient, but also showed me how to love with Jesus’ kind of love.
Thank you for singing the good morning song nice and loud every morning for the last eight months,
for drawing me a countless amount of hedgehogs,
for eating ampan with me on our designated ampan day,
for hanging out in my classroom after school just in case I didn’t get enough craziness during the day,
for creating a classroom full of life and color.
Thank you to those of you who weren’t my students but still have given of yourselves in smiles and notes and hugs.
Thank you to my framily, otherwise known as friends who became family,
the principal and SMs who have seen every high and every low, and still loved,
and who have reminded me of God’s faithfulness over and over.
To my Pakistani family, who from the very beginning have given nothing but support and open arms.
Yap, I am grateful.
And whether we meet again here in this island home, in my U.S. home, or in our heavenly home,
being here has been the biggest gift in my life and there is no question about that.
Rebecca (Becky) Orozco, a Student Missionary from Walla Walla University, recently returned from serving as a 5th grade teacher at Yap Seventh-day Adventist School in Yap, Micronesia. Sadly, school came to a sudden close in March due to the threat of COVID-19, sending Becky and most of her fellow volunteer teachers home a few months early. Becky is taking some time to walk through her experience in Yap as she transitions home, and is kind enough to share it with all of us through this blog post series. This is the last post of that series.