MicSem Publications

Ghosts of the Past…A Vision of the Future

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1977 Education

To the tourists in the shiney Continental bus who have bounced their way over what has barely passed as a road for the last five miles, it is the pause that refreshes. An oasis of trimmed lawns and colorful hedges greets them as they come to a stop at the end of the winding entrance. But their attention is fixed on a two-story squat cement fortress that fairly glowers at them from among the shrubbery and trees, with large concrete eyebrows tinged in faded blue protruding from above massive iron shutters.

The tourists leave the bus and follow the tour guide up to the roof, remarking to one another as they go on tile pockmarks in the sturdy cement walls and the shallow craters in the four-foot thick roof. "This place was strafed and bombed by British and American planes during the war," the Trukese tour guide tells them. They are standing on what the travel brochure that they carry informs them was a Japanese radio communication station: a historic monument from World War II. From the roof of this relic they look out to the old lighthouse, now almost hidden by coconut palms, at the eastern tip of Moen Island. Their gaze shifts to the nearby islands of Toloas and Fefan in the Truk lagoon, and then beyond to the thin white line of the barrier reef. It is a breath-taking view on a clear day, and many of them reach for the cameras that hang at their side to record the scene for their friends back home.

A historic monument! Ghosts of the past hang heavy over the place, but it is not a mausoleum either. Mabuchi, as local people call it, lives on as a school. Where the radios once stood beamed on Tokyo, students are now served lunch and dinner. Not far from the cave that conceals an auxiliary generator, still dripping oil after 35 years, is a quiet pond where boys bathe in the late afternoon. What were formerly Japanese officers' quarters are now faculty rooms and the enlisted men's barracks is the boys dormitory. The Imperial Admiral's sunken bath has long since been filled and now serves as the Principal's office. To its 110 students and its staff of 14, Mabuchi is not just a school, but the school . . . Xavier High School.

Xavier has a history of its own. Twenty-five years of it. Br. John Walter, a full-bearded Jesuit with a small town drawl who still lives on Truk, has witnessed it all. He reminisces about the work that he supervised to turn the gutted, bombed cement hulk into a school. He tells about tediously clopping away at the thick concrete walls to widen the narrow windows and constructing a step-down showerhouse at the edge or the property to allow 15 boys to shower at once. The gray beard that he habitually combs when speaking was jet black then.

Bishop Vincent Kennally, now 82 and retired, remembers his long exchange of correspondence with Admirals in Honolulu and Washington before the land on which Xavier stands was finally returned to the Catholic Mission. It has ben appropriated by the Japanese military in 1940 without compensation. In 1952, seven years after the end of war, the Mission's claim was finally recognized.

The Hellcat fighter dips into its dive as it approaches its target. Ahead, nestled on the saddle of two gently sloping hills, sits an oversized bunker completely sealed off against attack. Three 150-foot radio towers encircle tile building as silent sentinels. As the Hellcat swoops in for the attack, the wooded hills on each side belch flame and smoke and steel. Ack-ack fire! The Hellcat now releases its 500-pounder, and its machine guns rake the coconut groves and then the building. A second later it is nosing its way up again out of range of the anti-craft batteries.

"There were only two high schools in the entire Trust Territory in those days," says Fr. John Hoek, the first Principal of Xavier. "PITTS, the teacher-training school that served all the districts, and Xavier. Xavier was really a minor seminary for the first year, but soon became an ordinary high school."

But not really ordinary either! The first groups of boarders rose at 6 a.m.to begin their day with Mass and ended it with common prayers recited as they knelt beside their beds. They learned to read, imperfectly perhaps, Cicero's orations and Caesar's account of a far earlier war in the original Latin. And, of course, they also struggled with more prosaic subjects like English syntax and trigonometry. Once each year, decked out in singlets and pantaloons, students would present "The Merchant of Venice" or another of Shakespeare's plays, and each month they produced mimeographed paper that they called "Three Towers." (The towers themselves have not survived, but the paper has!)

To the tourists who re-enter the Continental bus, it is just another school, the grounds better kept up and the buildings slightly more ramshackle than most. Students shuffle back and forth between the classrooms, some of them catching a quick smoke before their next class begins. One of the visitors, while waiting for the stragglers, pokes his head inside one of the classrooms for a second and notices the usual schoolsy things: blackboards wearing a thin layer of yellow chalkdust, chairs with attached writing arms, a stack of notebooks on the teacher's desk. A school is a school.

Three Xavier boys are setting up their video-tape equipment and making final adjustments on their camera moments before the Air Mike jet makes its final descent onto the Truk airfield. They are preparing to catch the landing on film to complete their video-tape documentary on present-day transportation in Truk. It is one of the requirements for the course in communications that they are taking.

Four seniors walk into one of the largest locally-owned hotels on the island. They ask to see the manager, explaining that they would like to ask him a few questions about his business as a part of a survey of private businesses on the island that they are conducting. When the manager appears after a few minutes, a stocky Yapese boy, introducing himself as the leader of the group, proceeds to interrogate him about his gross and net profits for the past year.

"We have the usual boarding school problem at Xavier," explains the new Dean of Students, a thick-set Ponapean who himself graduated from Xavier eight years ago. "Some drinking, now and then a fight, and the normal boredom. But we keep the boys pretty busy around here." He points to several groups of students some way off who are variously engaged cutting grass, repairing window louvers, painting benches, and washing windows of the study hall. There are a few girls visible, too, who have just been admitted as students this year when the school turned coed. A handful of boys are practicing layups on the basketball court, and a couple more are dragging a volleyball net out to a spot that was probably planted in vegetables 35 years ago.

Past and present blend strangely at Mabuchi. The heavy iron shutters in the boys' dormitory are still closed when heavy winds bring a driving rain from the northeast. The drops that trickle from the ceiling in the faculty rooms everytime it rains are an annoying reminder of the two direct hits that the building took during the bombing raids of 1944. Then there are exposed ree-bars, the cement shaken away during the concussion from the strikes, and the long spikes that stare out at one from the ceiling. But a school is a frenetic place and there is not the time nor the psychological distance to remain infatuated with the past. The legacy of the Japanese – the building and all else -cannot simply be contemplated; it must be adapted, refashioned, utilized, and sometimes even overcome.

It is this sort of pragmatism that turns Japanese fishponds into spare water tanks for a boys'showerhouse, and ordnance dumps into libraries. At bottom, this was the magic that transformed an abandoned Japanese radio communication station into one of Micronesia's foremost schools. "The Eton of the Trust Territory" is the complimentary way one visiting journalist put it.

How can the heritage of the past be best employed to serve the needs of the present? If this question had not been asked, Mabuchi would be a historical monument now, not a living institution.

Two long lines of boys, dressed in bright colored loincloths and adorned with coconut palm bracelets and anklets, snake their way onto the stage in front of several hundred people. One of them takes up the ancient chant and all begin slowly swinging their bamboo clubs to the steady beat. Soon the tempo increases and the dancers move in and out of the lines in frenzied motion, as the clack-clack of bamboo striking bamboo grows louder. The students are presenting one of their traditional dances to raise money to build a new basketball court.

There is a slight look of bewilderment on the faces of his students as the social studies teacher, an American, announces to his "history" class that he will be beginning with the present and working backwards. He explains that since the real purpose of history is to understand ourselves better, we would do better to begin with ourselves as we are now. A student raises his hand and mutters, "Why don't we forget about the history and study teen-age slang!"

Adaptation to present-day needs is still having a transforming effect on the school today. Students no longer kneel beside their bed saying their night prayers in unison. Instead many choose to sit in a tight circle on the scarred roof on a clear evening and share their prayerful reflections on a passage of Scripture. In classrooms where the constant drone of the teacher's voice was formerly about the only sound heard, a passerby now hears the murmur of students conferring with one another or their teachers as they work out their individualized assignments in English and math.Old pictures of the islands and historical books in the school library are no longer just curiosities to be thumbed through during spare projects. Work assignments after class are made and overseen by a student "Secretary of Labor", while the study hall and dormitory are prefected by upperclassmen, not by faculty members as formerly.

"Learning how to survive in jet-age Micronesia is what the school is all about," says one of the faculty members. "We want the students to be in touch with their traditions, but they're getting ready for life in a world that demands new skills, resourcefulness and a critical mind. They're being called on to shape the future and remake their societies."

Many of Xavier's 300 graduates are, in fact, in a position to wield influence over decisions that are made in the government and private sectors of Micronesia today. Among the school's alumni are five Congressmen, a handful of lawyers, several doctors and other medical personnel, administrators in every echelon of government service, and managers of several businesses. In almost every bank in the Trust Territory there is at least one Xavier graduate in training for a management-level position. Then there are the school teachers (including four of the present staff at Xavier itself), the mechanics and technicians, and the journalists and radio programmers.

About eighty percent of the school's graduates went on to college, even before the recent windfall of federal assistance programs made it possible for almost any high school graduate to attend a US college. Today the percentage of college-bound graduates is just about the same as it was 10 years ago. But the ones who have never gone abroad should not be forgotten either. There is the young Palauan, for instance, who returned to his sparsely populated coral island with Gilbert Highet's The Art of Teaching in hand to help educate his own people. He is still there in the tiny elementary classroom 12 years later instructing a handful of island boys and girls.

Whatever work they happen to be doing today, Xavier alumni agree that their high school experience has been as important for the friends that they have made as for what they have learned. Some even argue that the strong current of political separatism in the districts might have been avoided if there had been more inter-district high schools like Xavier, where Palauans and Marshallese could have formed solid friendships with one another and with young people from other districts as well.

This may be an overstatement. But the bonds forged at Xavier do seem to survive time and distance. When Peace Corps/Micronesia holds its regular staff meetings, a cadre of four young men greet one another warmly and immediately begin making plans as to where they will spend the evening together. They are Xavier alumni, each from a different island, and they have not seen one another for several months.

The large maroon-and-white sign that greets visitors to the Xavier campus shows the school seal and the motto: "Ut omnes unum sint" -"That all may be one." The visitor looks and wonders whether it is an expression of religious fellowship or wistful political prophecy, almost certainly doomed to frustration.

What is the future of the school as it prepares to celebrate its 25th birthday? Apart from the ever-present financial worries, Xavier faces an identity crisis regarding its role in the Trust Territory of today . . . or in the Confederated States of Micronesia of tomorrow. Shall it continue to turn out well-educated and competent Micronesians for a job market that is already over-saturated? With the expansion of the public high school system of the Trust Territory in recent years (from 6 schools with 300 students in 1963 to 16 with a total enrollment of over 6,000 today), is there a need for "just another educational mill"? In the consumer-oriented and money-conscious society that is evolving in all of the districts of Micronesia, can the school possibly succeed in educating young people committed to the service of their fellow Micronesians rather than to the receipt of their bi-weekly paycheck?

The 14-year old Freshman leans back on the long wooden bench in the school auditorium as the Friday night movie begins. As images jump across the old bedsheet that serves as a screen, the boy sees himself as an earth-shaker and worldmover. He is Superman and Hercules, a pilot and a sheriff and a priest and the President of the Republic of Micronesia, each in its turn. As his imagination soars, he rests his arm on the plywood-covered pillar next to him. This is the pillar, the story has it, that once bore the bloody imprint of a human hand after a Japanese enlisted man was hurled to his death against it in a bombing attack.

The ghosts of the past may still haunt Mabuchi, but the most frightening specters are those of the future. Can Xavier continue? Should it continue? And yet there is that peculiar vision that originally fashioned the school and has been refashioning it ever since! Like the vision of the young, it is a spirit that reaches into the future and accepts it as challenge rather than threat.

Whatever the tourists who visit Mabuchi ten years from now may find, you can bet that it will not be an abandoned war monument.