The worldwide Augustana College experience

Proud of My Students, Past and Present

Perhaps the two most satisfying things any teacher can experience involve learning about the successes of past students, and witnessing present students grow right before your eyes. Yesterday in Portland parish I was able to experience both.

I continue to be impressed with the Augie students’ willingness to step outside their comfort zones, seek authentic engagement with our host society, and even challenge themselves physically and mentally…they are truly living up to Augie’s goal of developing in mind, body, and spirit. I witnessed a piece of this first thing yesterday (Sunday) morning as Katie (a religion minor) and Lea (a sociology major) proposed that we attend a local church service. I suspect that their desire to attend connected both to their personal religious habits and to their academic interests. Isaac and I were game, so we walked a little way down the main road in Boston Bay to an Apostolic Pentecostal church. The church was quite small….it had five pews that could fit four people each. The congregation was also small….maybe 15 people including us and the preacher. We all agreed that the service started off a bit slow when we arrived at 10:30. It was the “lesson” portion of the service and the leader (a handsome young man dressed sharply) essentially taught the lesson by reading straight from a book. Soon after this portion of the service, an elder delivered a warm greeting to the four white strangers in the room (she described us as four “young people”…..she must not have looked too closely at me), and we received smiles and waves from everyone in the congregation, and hence truly felt welcome. Things began to pick up with spirited singing, prayer, and the occasional speaking in tongues. The aspect of the service we found most striking occurred when a woman from the congregation requested a special prayer of deliverance. She approached the alter and the preacher and three other elders waved and laid hands over her and recited four separate, intense prayers. The congregation sang loudly throughout, and when the prayer was over the woman walked out of the church crying openly. Isaac, Lea, Katie and I sensed that the collective spirits were starting to warm up when the noon hour hit. We promised the rest of our group that we’d be back by noon, so we guiltily walked out in the middle of the service. We did manage to shake hands and softly speak to some brothers and sisters in the church on our way out, and they made it clear that we need not “feel a way” about our early departure.

Upon rejoining the group, we loaded the vans and headed toward Reach Falls. We stopped at Long Bay for lunch en route, and couldn’t resist jumping into the tall waves during this stop. We then drove the rest of the way to Reach Falls, a national park with a cave system and a beautiful waterfall. I went straight to the waterfall, stripping down to my swimsuit and swimming in the deep pool at the bottom of the fall. While I was swimming (and the rest of the Augie group seemed to be fiddling with their belongings on the riverside), a Jamaican child that appeared to be 7 years old called out to me, “Excuse me, sir. Are you Michael Even?” I looked at the child with a stunned look….though she pronounced my name slightly wrong, I was amazed that this complete stranger seemed to know my name. “Yes, I’m Michael Egan. Who wants to know?” The child pointed to a woman holding a baby and standing in the shallows of the river. I immediately recognized this 30 year-old woman as Colleen, the conscientious and hard-working student I taught in Alpha Academy’s 2nd Form (8th grade) back in the ’90′s. I swam to Colleen and her adorable baby as fast as I could. Colleen and I reminisced on the good old Alpha days (in particular we spoke of our class trip to nearby Winnifred Beach…she also recalled fondly how I would bring my guitar to school on occasion to either incorporate music into a math lesson or simply to sing some songs with the students during down time on a field day). We then caught up. My former 8th grader and I now share a parental bond as we are both the parents of two young children (hers are 7 and 2; mine are 10 and 5). In addition to being a loving mother, Colleen has been successful in school and business. She holds a bachelors degree from the University of the West Indies (UWI is considered Jamaica’s most prestigious institution of higher education), works in finance, and is working towards her masters at UWI! Again, her former teacher couldn’t be prouder.

So, I was chatting away with Colleen. When we finished talking I looked around and could not see a soul from the Augie group (but I could see their stuff, so I knew I hadn’t been ditched). It turns out that the whole group, including Dr. J, had decided to tour the cave system with a tour guide. I continued to swim blissfully in the natural pool, and made some new Jamaican acquaintances. One gentleman I spoke with at length was a Jamerican….born and raised in Kingston, he moved to Brooklyn at age 20 and is earning a good living for his family with his Wall Street job. We spoke about cricket and a mutual acquaintance from Kingston, the legendary Reverend Glen Archer (Google “Glen Archer Jamaica” to learn more….needless to say, both my new friend and I were fortunate to be influenced by this great man). As we were talking and the Augie group was spelunking, my new friend said, “There’s a big cave system here, you know. It’s mostly the tourists who risk going through there….we Jamaicans tend to stay away.”

I learned from the Augie group later WHY the Jamaicans prefer not to chance it…read the other blog posts to get a sense of how harrowing their journey was. Still, the group made it out alive together. Not only that, but their cave emptied out at the top of the waterfall, and most of them took the added risk of leaping from the top of the waterfall into the pool below! I’ve climbed to the top of this waterfall a few times in my life, but I NEVER mustered the courage to jump. These Augie students confronted and overcame their fears, and took the leap. They surpassed their teacher, and their teacher couldn’t be more proud.

While traversing the cave and jumping off the waterfall pushed the students well past their physical comfort levels (and hence represented a satisfactory accomplishment), the night’s activities pushed the students into new social and inter-cultural realms. Our hotel, The Great Huts, is a short walk from the Boston Bay jerk center….a spot considered by many Jamaicans as the best place for jerk pork on the island (the chicken and lobster aren’t bad, either). We gradually made our way down and enjoyed the cuisine for dinner. After dinner, many of walked across the road to a local dive. Tyler, Isaac, and Lea sat down to a domino table and were quickly joined by a Jamaican man who completed the necessary foursome. Amanda and I sat at a second table and I began to teach her the game (the game itself is easy to learn….the strategy is the tough part). Soon a family of four walked in (father, mother, two boys under age 10….yes, young children are allowed to hang out in bars here). Amanda and I invited the boys to play. The older boy didn’t hesitate to join us….the younger one was too shy and claimed he didn’t know how to play. We played a 3-player game for a while, and eventually were able to convince the younger brother that we would teach him and play slowly. More Augie students arrived at the bar, so I gave up my seat at the domino table to allow Julia to join Amanda and the boys. I made some new Jamaican friends by now anyway, so I was happy to hang out and reason with Shabba, Syl, Winston, and Sheriff at the bar while the Augie students made new friends at the domino tables. Sheriff somehow took a particular liking to me and kept buying me Red Stripes like his pockets were limitless. I couldn’t maintain the pace, so I started handing some of my surplus beers to the Augie students (Sheriff was too hammered on overproof rum to notice what I was doing). While I was talking with my friends, I enjoyed observing the Augie students mingle comfortably with the locals. Isaac stepped away from his domino table, so now Tyler and Lea were playing with two locals. Two more female children entered the bar, so Amanda and Julia were having a grand time at the kids’ table, holding the girls on their laps while the boys held their own. By the time Sheriff bought me another Red Stripe, Tyler had walked away from the table. I took Tyler’s spot and played for a bit, but thanks to Sheriff’s generosity, my mind wasn’t as sharp as my competitive side would allow….the Jamaicans were kicking my tail….so I gave up my seat and now it was Lea and three Jamaican men. Lea held her own for the rest of the night! At one point one of her co-players began to sing the Jimmy Cliff song “You Can Get It If You Really Want” in a teasing fashion to suggest that Lea wasn’t trying hard enough. Lea won the next round and started to sing “The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall”….a perfect return volley for the trash talk! Meanwhile, the little ones at the other table had to go home, so I joined Amanda, Tara, and Julia for a game. When one team broke love (hence requiring the game to start all over), a local Rastaman Ray-I walked in, ganja spliff in mouth. I invited Ray-I to take my seat, so now the three girls were playing with the elder Rasta. Julia kept calling him “Rasta,” rather than using his name “Ray-I.” Julia picked up from the movie Rockers that calling the man by his religious identity was perfectly acceptable, so she went with it. As the game wore on, Ray-I was quick to point out Julia’s strategic errors (they were partners)….eventually Julia chose to leave the game and observe to learn more strategy. I became Ray-I’s new partner, and we schooled Amanda and Tara with a six-love (thanks primarily to my partner’s impeccable play….you can’t tell me that the ganja dulled his mind in anyway). That victory closed the night’s activity, our group engaged in the long good-bye ceremony of fist-bumps, lengthy handshakes, “wi check you tomorrow’s,” etc. until we finally made our way back to our huts.

Yesterday the group took a huge step forward personally and socially. I’m as proud of the Augie students as I am of my former Alpha girl, Colleen.

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