McDonald, Jean: 1954 – 1955


It was 1954 and the U.S. was at war in Korea. My husband had been called into the Navy the year before, and after training in San Diego, California was sent to Guam M.I. (Marianas Islands). Luckily I was able to join him, and arrived a few months later with my six-month-old son. I was in for a shock.

The housing available to us consisted of a room with two cots and a crib. The bathrooms were shared by many families as were the cooking and washing facilities. With luck and ingenuity we soon found a nice little house of our own and were happily settled.

My husband’s commanding officer and his wife invited us to dinner one night and during the course of conversation I was asked if I would be interested in teaching school. I answered that I was not qualified to teach and was then asked if I could read and write. It turned out that the shortage of teachers was so desperate that those were the only qualifications needed. I was then told about the few Guamanian teachers trying to cope with teaching three or four grades at once and of the eighth grade students teaching first grades during recess. I understood that there were hundreds of children having to wait all day to see a teacher for a few minutes of instruction. There simply were not sufficient teachers for the islands eight hundred students. The next day I was hired.

I taught first grade in the village of Mongmong in a quonset hut filled with 52 six year olds. Half of the children were Guamanian, the other half from military families. I had no books, no teacher’s manuals, a blackboard with no chalk, one piece of paper per child per day and one pencil per child. The playground was filled with broken glass and other debris left from the battles of World War II.

Dear friends from the States sent me cartons of books and pencils and crayons and paper and I set to work. The Guamanian children spoke little or no English, so that is where I started with them. They were required to speak English. In fact, mounted on the entryway of every school on the island was this sign. YOU ARE IN AN ENGLISH SPEAKING AREA – SPEAK ENGLISH. The Navy, much to our disgrace, burned the only Guamanian language dictionary. Guam is a trust territory under the direction of the U.S. Department of Interior.

During the first weeks of school some of the Guamanian mothers squatted outside my quonset hut all day until they learned to trust this white lady from California who was teaching their children.

As the weeks progressed, I began to notice signs of ill health among some of my students. Tuberculosis is rampant in those islands. It was estimated that about one third of the population had T.B. and because of the hot humid climate it was very hard to cure. I called on an American Doctor at the U.S. Naval Hospital and asked if I could bring my class in for chest X-Rays and was given permission. Of the 52 children tested, six had T.B. I was alarmed at the over 10% ratio and after many weeks of persuasion was given permission through the Interior Department and at the expense of the U.S. Navy, to X-Ray every child on the island. School buses were lined up and all 800 children were taken to the Naval Hospital and tested. Our worst fears were confirmed as over 10% proved true throughout the entire school population.

With almost 90 children needing treatment, the Government of Guam joined the effort and offered to give us a wing of the Guam Memorial Hospital. When the children were hospitalized and their treatment began, the question of their education was the next hurdle. I was busy setting up school programs and curriculum when my American Doctor friend informed me that if I caught the disease I would not be allowed to re-enter the U.S. when my husband’s tour ended, so we were able to staff the hospital school with Guamainian teacher volunteers.

Later that year we established a dental care program with the help, again from the Navy. I had noticed many children with black, rotted teeth and adults with no knowledge of proper nutrition for their children’s health care needs. A dental clinic was established and the natives lined up for care from volunteer dentists.

Some problems were difficult, if not impossible to correct because of economic or social habits long practiced from years of trying to survive during World War II. One was prostitution among very young Guamanian girls. Some of our 8th grade girls would leave school during lunch hour to go downtown to find an American Sailor and earn a few dollars to take home to very poor families. The poorer the family, it seemed that there were more half-American children to be left behind. One was a little boy in my class, Robert. I managed, in the year that I had him, to get him to stay at his desk all day and not run in and out of the classroom. He was a completely wild little fellow who lived with his mother and six sisters in a wooden hut on stilts with not a stick of furniture. He came to school one day with a horrible sore on his foot extending all the way to his knee. I carried him in to the office and his mother was called in. When he saw her, he held on to me so tightly that he tore my dress. A doctor was called. Everyone spoke in Guamanian and I finally learned that his mother had beaten his foot with a stick in order to drive out evil spirits; an age-old belief that still existed in the very backward, poorest Guamanian homes. I took Robert to the Naval Hospital for treatment and tried to adopt him but his mother would not consent. She told authorities that he, being the only son, would need to support her as soon as he was older. I have often thought of him.

When the school year ended, the Governor of Guam had a lovely luncheon for the teachers. I was greatly thrilled and completely surprised when he announced that I had been chosen to receive the OUTSTANDING TEACHER OF THE YEAR AWARD.

I think it was the best teaching year of my life, now that I look back after getting my degree and teaching credentials and teaching in modern, well equipped schools for many years.

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