Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Adventures in Lawyering

Since starting this blog, we’ve written about many aspects of our life in Yap, on everything from the weather, to trips to the local grocery store. However, aside from the last post, we previously hadn’t discussed one of the main reasons we’re here in the first place; namely, for work. [Note: Truth be told, work is the main reason Mike is here. Miranda just got dragged along for the ride.]

Maybe it’s just that this Island, with all its natural beauty and uniqueness, provides more interesting topics to discuss than the daily grind of employment. More likely though, after a long day, writing a work-related entry is the last thing on our minds. Nevertheless, as it may be of interest to some, here it goes.

Mike (who is writing this post) works as an Assistant Attorney General for Yap State. I’m one of only a handful of lawyers in the entire country, brought over from the U.S. because of the severe lack of locally available attorneys. While the FSM became an independent nation in 1986, the country had been a Trust Territory of the US Government since 1947. As a result of those decades of direct American control, the government and legal framework here is modeled closely on what is found in the United States. To say the least, this makes for a straightforward adjustment to practicing under Yap State or FSM law.

One major difference from the US is that the legal system here operates in conjunction with Yapese traditional and customary views of justice. These customs and traditions have been handed down from generation to generation over hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and are specifically given consideration in the State and National Constitutions. The most evident of these customs is the practice of the ‘traditional apology’ or ‘bayul’. While the specific details of this custom are still not entirely clear to me, generally if someone offends someone else (by say… getting drunk and hitting their neighbor over the head with a blunt object), they must go through a formal apology for the act which can include payment of compensation and other methods of punishment. The closest Western analogy would be a form of mediation where the parties themselves come up with a plan to compensate a victim. While the traditional justice process happens concurrently with, but separately from, any legal action, judges will usually ask whether a traditional apology has been offered and accepted as part of the sentencing process. As stated in a recently published civics handbook for high school students, the purpose of the traditional apology process is to “maintain respect, peace, and harmony within the village.”

In a nutshell, the job of Asst. AG involves providing legal advice to various State agencies and the executive branch of government, representing the State anytime they are sued, drafting proposed legislation, and serving as prosecutor in criminal matters. Included in the day-to-day tasks are criminal prosecutions and drafting or reviewing contracts of every size and kind. Just to name a few, the State generates massive amounts of employment contracts, construction contracts, procurement contracts, and services contracts. Most of these usually wind up in Mike’s In-Box on a daily basis. Since a vast majority of the financing for these purchases comes in the form of subsidies provided by the U.S., there are not only compliance requirements under Yap State law, but also controls by the U.S. to ensure their money is being spent wisely and for the greatest benefit. It’s the job of the Office of the Attorney General to make certain that all the requirements are met.

Even for a small office, and a comparatively small government, there is a surprising amount of work to be done. Just this year, many interesting legal issues have arisen. To go into detail would likely result in a book-length blog post, and due to confidentiality, the sensitive nature of the work, and that this blog may be viewed by any number of unknown readers, only generalities will be discussed.

One of the more critical problems facing the FSM is the increasing number of incidents of illegal fishing. You’d be surprised to know that these days; a majority of the worlds’ tuna population comes from the FSM. Unlike many nearby industrial nations who have exhausted the tuna stocks in their own waters, Micronesia has historically been protective of their limited natural resources. This has resulted in the FSM being one of the last refuges on the planet for tuna fish. Since scarcity has driven up prices, tuna fishing has become a very profitable enterprise. Some foreign fishing organizations, instead of bothering with the relatively simple and inexpensive requirements for obtaining a valid fishing license, reason that it’s a much better plan to simply get in your boat, and fill your holds with as much fish as possible from the tuna-clogged expanses of FSM waters. Even though the available resources for monitoring these illegal fishing operations are minimal, and catching a boat in the act is difficult, every year there seem to be at least a couple of culprits that are caught red-handed. Working in conjunction with the national government, each State is tasked with prosecution of illegal fishing vessel apprehended within its waters, which can result in the imposition of fines and penalties as well as forfeiture of the offending vessels and their catch.

Another common issue results from the explosive combination of one part boredom with three parts alcohol. Often times, the increase in criminal cases following a weekend after a government pay-day is very noticeable. Many cases involve people simply getting too drunk and making poor choices, just like anywhere else. It’s part of the job of the AG’s office to make sure there are consequences as a result of those choices, with the hope of reducing future incidents.

To say the least, each day brings its own challenges and rewards. The work is certainly never dull, and offers the opportunity to practice in a variety of different areas. The questions that arise always unique and require solutions that are not only legally enforceable but also tailored to the circumstances and limitations of a life on a fairly remote tropical island.

One of the real benefits of the job is the ability to see the effect of your work in everyday life. Back home, it could take many months if not years for a new law or modification of an existing law to navigate through the many-layered bureaucracy of State government. Here, the process is relatively short, even taking into account the slower than usual ‘island time’ pace of things. Some legislation is put into effect within days or week of being signed into law. Since the A.G.’s office is involved with enforcement of those laws, it’s exciting to be involved in a process that has such a direct impact on peoples’ lives, hopefully for the better.

To say the least, it’s been a unique opportunity and a privilege to be able to work here, and one I’m grateful for on a daily basis. Hopefully, in some small way, my work here can be a ‘thank you’ to the people and the State for their continuing kindness and hospitality during our time here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Adventures in Teaching

Without a job, the days become long and all blur together into an insipid pile of days, weeks, and even months.  After several months of working as the Girl Scout coordinator, I was ready for something with a little more of the 9-5 routine. I had heard that the high school was interested in hiring me as a classroom teacher. They are always looking for teachers and are eager to hire anyone willing to put up with Yap’s teenagers.  I attended the graduation ceremony in June and met the principal.  A few weeks later I went to the high school and met with him, for what can only be described as the world's easiest and shortest job interview.

“You have a bachelor’s degree?”

“Yes, in psychology.”

“We would love to have you work here! You are a Godsend. Fill out this application and we will get a contract written.”

Yes, he used the word Godsend! A few weeks later a contract was dropped off at the house. On August 2nd,  I began lesson planning and prepping for school to start on August 23rd. Luckily, a fellow expat that we know had been teaching the class I was assigned, tenth grade English, and gave me many of his materials from last year to get me started. 

Classes began on August 30th, after a week postponement due to a teacher shortage, with the first week being half days. At the beginning of the year we were down eight teachers. They have since filled a few of the vacancies, and have several volunteers filling the remaining positions. The half days provided just enough time to do some orientation (for both me and the students) activities.  Being a novice teacher, I needed as much orientation time as possible!

I had one day during the first week where a lesson plan I had written about study habits, test and note taking tips, and a self procrastination quiz filled the time perfectly. The lesson flowed, and while I wrote things on the board I smiled to myself.  So far, this has been the pinnacle of my teaching experience and it gave me the ardor I needed to feel confident enough to teach. I kept wondering if I had just accidentally added another possible career choice/grad school area of study to the growing list. 

Just as with my previous job, there is no typical day. Yes there is a bell schedule, I see the same 145 students each day, and I do teach English in some form or another. But each day the class order is different. I am not sure for the purpose of this, but I do have a few observations. Each day begins with home room, period 1.  On Mondays the classes go in numerical order 1-6. On Tuesday I have my homeroom class, but then I have class #3, 4, 5, 6, and then 2. Each day the second class gets dropped to the end of the next day.  Besides sometimes causing confusion on my part, it changes things up a bit.  The kids get to see me at different times of the day, when I, and they, are more alert, or more relaxed and just ready for the day to be over.  It also helps because the same poor kids don’t get stuck in my classroom in the mid-day heat each day.  I have conceded that I will never get this down, and will always have to refer to the schedule to know who is coming through the door next!

My classroom gets extremely hot starting around 10am. It sits low at the bottom of a small hill, and up against a greenbelt.  The building that my classroom is in is a row of four classrooms, ala strip mall style.  DSCN1043 It is a cinder block structure with slatted windows similar to the ones in our house, a cement floor, and has a tin roof. My room in this picture, is the one with the open door (room #7). There is no breeze in the room. Ever. At the beginning of the year I had four (and a half) functioning fans in the room. I claimed one for myself.  My argument is I’m stuck in there all day, they get to leave after 45 minutes! I positioned the other fans around the room as diplomatically as I could.  One fan was only considered a half, becauseDSCN1041 even on full power it barely kept itself turning.  My classroom is rather pallid, but I have discovered that the kids will write on or destroy anything they can get their hands on! I did put up a quote board on the back wall that contains some of my favorite and somewhat inspirational quotes.

One day I didn’t feel like giving them the reading assignment I had planned (read: didn’t feel like grading yet another round of papers that week), so instead I decided to give them a study period for the following day’s quiz.  They all were very grateful to hear that they could “rest” and study, or hang out as long as they behaved. I have discovered that these hang out days are crucial to their and my sanity alike. I chatted with the kids, graded papers, and just kept an eye on the kids. Many wondered outside to spit out their betel nut, and occasionally strayed to another classroom where other kids were doing the same. I would go outside to herd them all back towards my class, and when I returned, a fan would be taken apart.

It started with the outer shells of the fans being removed, as many of the kids claimed they were too dirty to keep the fans working properly. This action in itself made the fans stop working correctly, which gave the kids the opportunity to play with them. I do have some very handy kids, who at one point had fixed one of the fans. This time they just dismantled them.  I then had to spend the rest of the class collecting fan parts from kids. Cut electrical cord, fan blades, the metal pole that is the stand for the fan…. You name the fan part, I hid it in the corner by my desk. By the end of the day the only fan standing was mine. And they complained it was hot in there before! I might see if one of the maintenance men can reconstruct one or two from the scattered parts one day, but for now, the kids suffer!

I have been given a basic curriculum, and a few old text books to use as reference, but the day-to-day lesson planning is up to me. I recently ran out of my pre-done plans that I created during August, and now rush everyday to create a relevant lesson plan with the meager resources I have. Most days I enjoy the challenge and freedom this allows, but some days I wish I had pre-established lesson plans to use, or even a textbook for the kids!  I do have a “class set” (62 books) of a reader full of short stories, poetry, and a play. I find that the kids have a hard time fathoming how these stories relate to their lives, and sometimes are angered by how they are American textbooks, written for American kids.

Everyday the limits of my patience, kindness, and sanity are tested. I both dread and look forward to each day. I know I am growing as a person with each day I teach teenagers, but I think it will take me a long time to get used to the daily incessant clamor they create that is now my life.

Signed one exhausted teacher,


P.S. The red words are a selection of the vocabulary words I am using in my class, created from a book filled with words used on the SAT. Each week I assign them ten words to learn. I have tried to incorporate these words into my daily conversation as much as possible. Consider these YOUR vocab words for the week! Look the words up and use them to impress your friends! Do as your Sensei says! Thanks to the Japanese, the Yapese word for teacher is sensei.