My Students Are Waiting for Us to Die (Literally)

A mural of Litekyan (Ritidian) painted at the refuge by University students who were concerned when they heard our Congress lady offered the area as a place for training to the US Department of Defense.

A mural of Litekyan (Ritidian) painted at the refuge by University students who were concerned when they heard our Congress lady offered the area as a place for training to the US Department of Defense.

This past weekend was a sad one for Guam. Like many of the people around me, I’m extremely disappointed in our leaders. On August 29, 2015, the US Navy signed the ROD (Record of Decision) for the Guam Marianas Military Build Up. The ROD allows the taking of more land on the island, land that includes the ancestral land of Chamoru families, the wildlife refuge, and historically rich areas where our ancestors are buried. It allows water in the Northern area of Guam to be controlled by the US military and closure of public access to a much loved stretch of pristine beach and wildlife. The ROD calls for the clearing of over a thousand acres of limestone forests and allows for troops to be living and working behind thousands of more feet of fenced off lands (Guam has already had much of its land fenced off for the US military). Thousands of bullets will be shot through our sacred jungles every year, disturbing the peace that we are taught to respect and contribute to while moving through undeveloped areas of land on Guam. The ROD also calls for the expansion of militarization around the rest of our Marianas island chain. What most disturbs me about this was the casual way in which the people of Guam’s wishes were ignored. Throughout the whole process, the voices of Guam’s elite businessmen and the US military held more weight than the general public. Sure, they allowed us places to comment and spaces or events in which we appeared to “participate” in the “process,” but when it really boiled down to it, our privileged leaders (many of whom personally profit off the military build- up) and the United States of America did what they wanted.

Resistance against the build-up has spanned over the last few years. For my students and I, our journey with this issue began in 2009. One thing I became aware of while being in Guam’s classrooms during this uphill battle was that our youth have quite a bit to say and that the bubbles our leaders and businessmen operate in are very different from the everyday lives of our residents. This is usually the case everywhere, but when you’re in the classroom, the fact that Guam is a completely different island for my students is constantly glaring back at me. I go home and am sometimes consumed by thoughts of just how different people’s realities are here on Guam.

The rejection of build-up plans by young adult students was overwhelming for me. As a teacher, you want to help your kids address what concerns them, but sometimes you can feel helpless or at loss for another way to help them advocate for themselves. Even while grading placement essays, written by students I never met in person, one issue kept coming up with them: Disagreement with the Build-Up. (This past two years has also brought forth another topic which seems to be plaguing them, which is the invasive rhino beetle). It’s always interesting and eye opening to read their papers.  I’m envious of the clarity with which people their age can see and discuss what is right from wrong. I’m finding that as I get older, talking about those things can become more uncomfortable. You get caught up in the red tape of the social circles you keep, offending colleagues, or fear of consequences that affect your income. (Those consequences are all very real here on Guam.)

When you get a new batch of over a hundred young adults each semester, you start to figure out what they hope for and what they don’t want when it comes to their future. Unlike many of the generations before them, Guam’s current student population is more comfortable expressing their disappointment or disgust toward Guam’s relationship with the US Government. It’s inspiring (and sobering) to watch and listen to them. I have learned not to underestimate our young people and to value the wisdom that youth can bring. I sometimes catch myself being dismissive and reminding myself to listen closely to what these students are saying. They have forced me to revisit many of the ideas that I was brought up hanging on to.

When I went to many of the public hearings across the island regarding these issues, I was deeply moved by the bravery, intellect, creativity, and resolve that many of Guam’s youth displayed. During one of my class sessions, students kept bringing up build-up related issues, so I arranged for a few guest speakers to come and talk with them. During following weeks, I allowed them to work on writing and editing comments (whether in support or rejection)  that responded to DOD plans. They were all very proud of themselves for participating in the process. They were passionate about it and I heard that many other teachers were working activities like this into their lesson plans as well.

I thought of all my students when I read the news and saw the ROD had been signed. I thought of all of them when I read about how little our island leaders did to advocate for what these students said was important to them. I watched the way our island’s powerful and rich bullied and ostracized the few leaders who did dare to speak on their behalf, particularly Senator Ben Pangelinan (who is no longer with us). My students loved him. I thought of my students and couldn’t help but feel disgusted with our home’s elite, whose reality is so different from theirs. I am eagerly watching the many activities and projects our young people have been part of to highlight the issues they’re passionate about and I hope they are not discouraged by the lack of response or action they get from those in control. Sometimes, I am discouraged by it. I hope they know that there ARE people listening to them, their voices DO make a difference, and even without the support of their legislators, they have helped to change this island a great deal. They will continue to as they keep working and start assuming roles in the community. I know that sometimes it seems Guam will never change, that Guam is somewhere we just have to “leave” because it’s so broken. But with people like them, it might not be for very long.

I will never forget what one of the students here at the college said recently to her peers. She is a second year student who was very active through the whole process. She explained that she started participating in responding to the build-up in high school. Apparently, she had a Biology teacher that opened her eyes (along with many others in her class). She and her classmates continued their work even as they entered our college classrooms. She ended up with professors in English, History, and Social Sciences that worked these issues into their classrooms. What she said stuck with me all week. She said, “These 50-60 somethings making decisions about what kind of Guam I need to live in are going to die. They’re going to be dead VERY soon, guys. We will be left with their mess, but maybe we will have our chance to shape our island. Our time will come and hopefully, we don’t ruin things for our kids the way they seem to be doing for us.”  She laughed after she said this, but her peers were nodding.  They were nodding when she said they were all gonna die and they would be left with their “mess”!

When you’re a mother and you hear a bunch of kids say their parents’ generation is literally “ruining the island” for their future, it startles you. When I heard her say, “they’re going to die real soon,” I paused in horror. Will my son, despite his love, one day think I need to drop dead and get out of the way so he can have something as basic as control over his home’s resources and access to his heritage? I’ve been mulling over her words for days and I think our leaders should too. Hearing that a bunch of young adults think the world might be better when we all retire or die definitely gives you something to think about.

*Placing my hand over my heart and promising to try not to be one of the adults my students are hoping will just die or retire soon. 


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