Just A Few Questions

Today was my eldest child’s first day of school. He’s in first grade! We woke up excited and eager to escort him to his classroom, so much so that my husband even took the morning off so we could both meet there to see him start his first day of elementary. When I entered his little Guam Public School, I could not help but grin. I love our island’s children. The Pacific is stamped all over them, in the way they walk, talk, and joke with each other. They’re a particular brand of sneaky, happy, and funny that I have never seen anywhere else; and I love it. It makes me grateful to be a daughter of Guam. I waved to friends who were happily dropping their children and loved the happy back-to-school buzz filling the humid hallways. I loved the sound of chickens making noise in the grassy areas around the school. I loved the kids talking to a boonie dog through a chain link fence, and I even loved the scared little faces of students with tear-streaked faces resisting their first day of school.

As I guided my child up the stairs toward his new classroom, a woman with a camera crew stopped me. I’m wary of the media. You never know how they’re going to frame and edit you to fit their narrative. I am still bruised from past interviews with media about family land issues and the possible use of ancestral land for military buffer zones. Everyone wants our stories. Everyone wants to help us “tell the world what’s happening here.”

“Excuse me! Can I ask you a few questions about the first day of school?” the woman asked.

I paused, knowing much is happening on our island and not feeling like talking about it.

“About the kids? And the first day of school?” I asked, double checking.

My son was excited about the camera and looking up with curiosity. The woman gave me a friendly smile and affirmed that “yes,” it was just “questions about the children and their first day of school.”

I smiled and agreed. She asked me about the grade my child was entering and if he was excited. We proudly announced that it was first grade and we were excited because he’s officially in elementary school. She was warm and friendly and I was starting to have fun sharing about my son’s first day of school, even thinking how cool it would be to have this moment captured.

Then I froze, unprepared and stunned by her next question.

“With the threats from North Korea, have you spoke to your son about what to do if there is an attack?”

My heart raced. I stared blankly at the camera, smiling like a Stepford wife. “How to prepare?” I asked again, nervous. “Yes. Are you prepared? Is your son prepared?” I looked down at my son, who I haven’t discussed a possible bomb on the first day of school with. Why would I ruin his first day by bringing up the possibility of a Nuclear attack while away from his parents?

“No. No I did not talk to him.”

Desperate and reaching for words, I eeked out something about having faith and just trying to have a normal day. I said something about our island being threatened many times before and just doing our best, about how there was no real way to “prepare” for a Nuclear attack, about it not being like a typhoon or an earthquake. A nuclear attack…what could we possibly do that would really protect us?

The woman nodded, still smiling. I looked up the stairs at my husband, who had somehow escaped the reporter and was looking down at us. I suddenly felt like bolting. The hallway looked so long.

“What about the school? Do you feel the school is equipped and prepared in the case of an attack from North Korea? Has anything been done to help prepare you to leave your child here? Is the school ready?”

My mind was racing. I had no real answers.  I looked at the school.  It was a small village school with happy, but old classrooms. I thought about the “comfort kit” his teacher asked for. I have sent him with a “comfort kit” containing a favorite snack and extra water. I remind myself not to say that, because I will sound like an idiot.

“Ummm no.”

“What do you think should be done to prepare?”

I am no expert on Nuclear attacks. I was literally just trying to get my kid to the first grade.

“I don’t think we can prepare,” I say nervously. I tell her, while sweating profusely, that I just hope these threats force us to look at why we are in this position in the first place and that we look at our relationship with the United States. My son was holding my hand, confused.  He has heard people talking about North Korea, but I have never mentioned an actual Nuclear attack to him; and now that we were being asked about it, I felt as if I were hiding some dirty secret from him. The woman thanks me and asks how to spell my name. She asked how long I have lived on Guam.

“All my life. I am Chamoru,” I tell her awkwardly, trying to remember if I had just said anything embarrassing and struggling to recall the words I had blurted out only seconds ago. I ask her if that is all and she thanks me. I walked up the stairs to my husband, overwhelmed and suddenly anxious. “What was that about?” he asked.

“It was weird. Just awkward.”

I brushed it off, trying to focus on why we were there: my son’s first day. We sat in front of his classroom, talking to other parents. I watched my boy closely, hoping the conversation with the reporter did not plant any worrisome thoughts in his head. When his teacher opened the door, he rushed in with excitement. He claimed a blue chair, happily approached friends from the last school year, and we took pictures in a Dr. Seuss “selfie frame” the teacher had made. I stayed as long as possible before my son gently reminded me I could go. I gave him a hug, reminded him to be good, and took one last glance at him while exiting the classroom.

While leaving, I saw the principal. I asked where the news crew was from and why they were here, she tried to respond before the explanation emerged in front of me. It was our Governor, smiling happily and escorting his grand child to the first day of school. Another parent whispered in my ear from the side “he arranged for the foreign news team to come film today. Media opportunity to show that we’re all fine and everything is business as usual.” I nod quietly, staring at him waving and making a spectacle in the hallway. I quickly wiggle past the news team and our Governor, thinking of my son and turning around to look down the hallway again. The reporter’s questions kept replaying in my mind: “Are you prepared? What will you do if there is an attack at school? Have you talked to him? Do you feel safe leaving him?”

I didn’t have any of the answers for those questions. Didn’t North Korea say they would back off if the American President chilled out? Did he chill out? I don’t know. They’re all entrenched in the Nazi racist stuff over there. Are we okay now? Were we ever okay? Isn’t Guam always in danger as long as the U.S is here? I didn’t know the answers to some of those questions.  I still don’t. All I know is that I left my son. I left him there without any of those answers, and when I see him after school, I cannot wait to find out what his first day was like and hug him. I hope he gets through a single day at school without having to hear talk of war and possible danger. I hope he reads lots of books, plays lots of games, and gets into a healthy amount of trouble; and this is my wish for all our island’s children. I wish all our children a day without war hanging over them.

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New School Year: Bus Stop Worries

This week, our island’s public school children embark on a brand new school year.  I don’t know if being a teacher makes me extra excited about new school years or if being a nerd does, but they always put me in a good mood.  I love seeing my relatives and friends share bright shiny pictures of their kids smiling, clean, and ready for the classroom. I realize that not every morning will be like that. Somewhere along the way, in about two weeks, many of those smiling, clean kids will be getting out of their parents’ cars with a muyu and mugu in their eyes, barely awake and completely over reporting to the classroom.  In turn, parents won’t have half as much fun getting the kids ready either.  It all becomes part of the routine you’re stuck doing when you’re part of a busy household.  The novelty wears off.  But this morning, I found myself a little disappointed and thinking about another part of the school year that is very routine for many of our island’s young ladies heading to school.  It was part of my morning routine as middle school, high school, and even as a college student waiting at the bus stop, and I was sad to see that some of our back to school routines have NOT changed.  I’m talking about the sexual harassment and catcalling that occurs, almost daily, for female students waiting for their rides to school or walking to campus.

Last year, I involved myself in an incident after witnessing a GW student followed and catcalled by a truck full of men during her morning walk to school.  While driving, I watched the girl keep her head down and continue to walk, trying to pretend no one was whistling or inviting her to get in their car.  I watched as the truck slowed down and made a point of honking at her. I was deeply troubled to see how much effort it took for this girl to keep walking and looking ahead. I was scared for her when I saw that the truck was slowing to a crawl and keeping pace with her strides, the men making sure she heard every word or invitation they launched at her.   I ended up pulling over, asking if the girl was okay and shooing away the men, who flicked me off and called me a bunch of names before speeding away. To my horror, the truck full of men eventually U-turned, started tailing my car and honking at me.  It made me feel unsafe and when I shared the story with others later, people generally scolded me for pulling over and not thinking of my personal safety.  They told me that next time, I should simply call and report the incident. A part of me still thinks I might pull over again if I saw something that extreme occur. I don’t know if I’d be able to help myself.

A few months later, I saw a similar thing happening to a group of GW girls walking home along the back road (a stretch of road that is pretty remote). Again, cars slowed to shout things at the students or honk as they tried to ignore it.  I thought about the way, as young women, we are often taught not to respond, to keep walking, and do NOTHING that may anger the person hollering at you or cause him to interpret looking back as a sign of welcome.  Many young girls are taught to quietly tolerate it.  Many men believe the behavior is flattering or typical.  It’s just “guys being guys.”  Women who complain about it or find it insulting are sometimes accused of being “silly.” But for me, watching a bunch of young girls just trying to get to and from school without being harassed is incredibly disturbing.

I spoke with some of my students about this, asking them if, while they were in high school or middle school, this was also part of their morning routine.  Many of them admitted that it definitely occurred.  They all had their own individual street harassment stories to share. Some added that with classes starting really early due to their block schedules, they were out at the bus stops while it was still dark, which was sometimes scary.  Some of them laughed it off, accepting that it was “just how it is for girls.”  They reported early morning drunks lingering near convenience stores or bus stops, making comments or trying to talk to them. Harassment and catcalls on the way to school were things they expected and tried not to think about too much.  They confirmed that cat calls and harassment of that type made them feel unsafe, “icky,” or humiliated, but didn’t know what else to do.  Feeling unsafe, “icky,” and humiliated was part of their routine as young women.

This morning, I watched again as a few young girls tried to stay quiet and with their heads down at bus stops or near the road while men passing made smooching noises, clicks (as if calling a horse), or honked at them.  I know that many of you will say this is just the world we live in, but I really don’t think it has to be.  It may take time to change this particular “routine,” but my prayer and hope is that as a community, we all become invested in the safety and dignity of our kids.  I don’t believe that there is “nothing” we can do about this.  We can start by sending a firm message to the young men we raise that it is NOT cute or acceptable to humiliate or harass females. It doesn’t make them feel pretty or grateful for the attention; it most often makes them feel unsafe. So unless you want girls to feel gross and unsafe when you talk to them, harassment is a pretty ineffective way to communicate with the opposite sex.  It’s not okay to call them names or get angry if your advances are not welcome.  Is there a parent or trustworthy adult willing to hangout at the bus stop and watch over things until their ride comes?  On my street, I noticed that there is always a parent or two waiting in a car a few feet away from the bus stop, making sure the kids get on safely.  When we see drivers being inappropriate to school children, do we just keep driving and shake our heads in disgust? Maybe we can take down the license plates or make a point of loudly and clearly asking the child if everything is okay.  You’d be surprised at how often a simple, “Hey, is everything okay?” will ward off a street harasser.  There may not be one sweeping solution to the problem, but I believe there are little things we can do to create an atmosphere where it is less acceptable.  You may have some ideas of your own.  Your ideas might be better than mine.

Whatever the case, that is what was on my mind this morning as I watched our island’s kids make their way out for Fall 2015.  I’m wishing them all a productive and happy new school year and hoping that the things we consider “routine” and normal continue to evolve for their benefit.  I’m hoping the baby I’m carrying right now is a little girl.  I’ve always wanted a baby girl.  I’m hoping that by the time she is old enough to wait at a bus stop to get to school, street harassment isn’t something society will teach her to “expect.”   I don’t want to hand down this particular back to school tradition.