Spencer Rickwa – Okinawa

Spencer Rickwa
Okinawa, Bolivia

I was teaching Biology and decided to bring cow hearts to class for dissection to enhance learning. Well, two of the three 1ro medio classes were on Monday and the labs went great. The third class however, was on Thursday and the hearts were a little old when I got them, well 4 days later they were just rancid. I tried to push forward despite the horrible stench of the heart, but after 3 students vomited, I ended the lab early. It was just nasty.

Hometown: Nampa, Idaho

Education/Work: Two years undergrad at The U.S. Air Force Academy, then 2 yrs (and graduation) from the University of Oregon in Eugene with a major in Biology.

Other volunteer sites: I arrived in Bolivia as an SLM in September of ’95. There was a large group to Bolivia that year. I worked at Hogar Don Bosco and lived at Mano Amiga until moving to Okinawa at the end of January 1996.

Time in Okinawa: January 1996 – November 1997

In December ’95 I "casually ran into" Sor Antonieta driving out of Don Bosco and she asked me if there were volunteers to spare and come out to Okinawa since they had never had volunteers before. I laughed and said that we were all pretty busy. To make a long story short, Ana Baez and I went out to the school to have a look weeks later (back when the road from Okinawa to Montero was not paved and either a dust pit or a mud bog) and eventually moved into the house along with a 3rd volunteer, Sonya Montgomery.

Fellow Volunteers/Sors: In August of the first year, I was very happy for the arrival of Pat Mooney who had just served a year in New Rochelle as an SLM. There were now four of us living in the house and I enjoyed having another male around.

The sisters when I arrived, (and who actively recruited Ana and I) were Sor Antonietta, Sor Geraldine, Sor Rosario, and Sor Santa.

Sor Santa was in her 80’s and one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met, she died during that first year, which was truly a heavy blow on the whole community of Okinawa. During that first year there were also two student deaths. One at the beginning of the year was a boy in 4to medio who had a motorcycle accident, and another a girl in 3ro medio who contracted meningitis and died within a matter of days. Very sad.

At the end of the first year (Nov.) ’96 Sonya had served more than her commitment of a year and was heading home and Ana went home for several weeks. The end of the first year also brought us another volunteer David Provinsal. He had to stay at a room in the school since Pat and I already occupied one room and it would have been "un escandulo" for Ana to share a room with a male. We tried to eat lunch and often dinner together.

Teaching:

1996

Ana, Sonya, and I divided our duties initially. Ana worked at the "protestant" school and the Japanese school. We had to send someone to the Japanese school in order to get the house, the sisters had no place for us to stay. Sonya and I worked at San Francisco Xavier (SFX). Sonya taught Art (her painting in the church survives today-she spent hours and hours painting it) and some English. I taught English to segundo intermedio thru cuarto medio, Biology to 3ro & 4to medio, and PE to boys and girls 1ro, 2do, 3ro, 4to medio.

We faced many of the same challenges of devising total curriculums for our students without books, for the most part making photo copies or having them simply copy material off the blackboard. Their English skills even, 4to medio was non-existent and limited to "hello, how are you?" and "Hotel California." No kidding. Not even a little. That’s about it. Really.

About five month later, the sister received $8,000 US dollars from a donor in Italy who wanted the money spent on computers and only on computers. They ended up getting six new computers, one which stayed in the house with the sisters. I cut a couple of PE classes from my load and started teaching computers to 2do, 3ro, & 4to medio. I had 2 periods (hours) free on Thursday morning and 2 hours free on Friday afternoon. The rest of the teaching schedule was completely packed.

1997

That year, Dave and Pat took over much of the English classes. I taught English to only 3ro and 4to medio, and 1 class of 1ro medio. However, I picked up Biology teaching it to all of medio, and Chemistry to the three classes of 1ro medio. I continued with PE and computers, and Karate on the side. Somewhere along the road though I stopped going to morning prayer with the sisters and spent more time talking with Pat and trying to build community among the four of us volunteers. It takes a lot of work to build community, it will NOT just happen on it’s own. That was big lesson for all of us.

Other Activities/Responsibilities: I went to morning and evening prayer with the sister, and had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the internados. Saturdays, I usually took a half day off and spent the other half either at Don Bosco or Sagrado Corazon in Montero. Sunday mornings I worked with the Monaguillos (alter boys) and went to church and in the afternoon went and held the oratory with Sor Gerra at El Rio. I started teaching Karate twice a week in the late afternoon several months after arriving and continued and I left in November of 1997. The first year had a lot of growing pains, and we had our problems (lots of them), but we tried to stay united in our common mission of serving the children.

Memories: I did get a "reputation" as a P.E. teacher also. Mind you, 90% of the time I was down on the ground doing everything with the kids and running with them too. However, and in hindsight, I’m not sure if I’d do this again today, especially since it’s a borrowed technique from my time in the military. Though, nothing works for discipline as much as peer pressure (other than Reason, Religion, and Kindness, of course. Oh, that reminds me of one of my favorite Fr. Sesto sayings. When told we needed to work on our volunteer community and have more formation, especially with those that were at sites by themselves, Fr. Sesto responded, "The children will be your community." If that’s true, why don’t they have children live with the priests at the Salesian house? That’s what I thought.). Anyhow, peer pressure works wonders. If I tell a particularly lazy individual to participate with stretching or running most of the time it works. If classmates tell them, it always works. It’s hard to get classmates to correct and encourage one another, unless of course they have to run extra because of the lazy one, then, how quickly they get motivated to bring their classmates in line. Like I said, it hard to say what I would do differently with my new age and experience, but there’s nothing like being thrown into the fire and having to deal with it yourself, is there?

Classroom Adventures: Of course countless stories come to mind, two of my favorites are:

  1. I was teaching Biology and decided to bring cow hearts to class for dissection to enhance learning. Well, two of the three 1ro medio classes were on Monday and the labs went great. The third class however, was on Thursday and the hearts were a little old when I got them, well 4 days later they were just rancid. I tried to push forward despite the horrible stench of the heart, but after 3 students vomited, I ended the lab early. It was just nasty.
  2. This one doesn’t have to do with me at all, but rather Pat Mooney and I don’t know if he’ll tell the story. If he had a particularly difficult student, he would grab the notebooks and walk to the door, fling them flying like a frisbee into the courtyard, tell the adolescent to retrieve them and lock the door behind them as they left. He didn’t do it often, it was indeed a rare occasion, but I know who he did it to, and I’m sure . . . well lets just say what goes around comes around. Sor Antonietta put an end to that rather quickly. Anyway, it still makes me laugh.

Additional Comments: I went on a trip I had been planning to do at the end, but threw it in the middle because of the extra time I would be staying to finish out the school year. We (Pat, Erin, Gina, Kristen, and Jim) traveled to La Paz, Copacabana, and finally Machu Pichu over 1 1/2 wks and had an excellent trip. Erin and I continued on for another 4 1/2 wks traveling by land all through Chile and to Punta Arenas and then back halfway on the Navimag boat. Truly spectacular voyage and I would love to talk to anyone about this trip. Incidentally, if you didn’t know Erin is my wife today and we’ll be married five yrs in July (2003) with two children.

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