What I Learned From First Graders

A college student from the United States learns life lessons while teaching her first grade class in the Marshall Islands

From the moment I stepped off the plane, I knew that this new culture would take some adjusting to. Coming from Alaska, where the temperatures are cold and the air dry, the hot and humid air in Majuro was drastically different! I teach first grade, and daily I am reminded of the Bible verse that says: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

God gave me peace when I felt unsure. I was attending the Student Missionary Retreat with Walla Walla University. At this retreat, about 40 of us were answering the call to be missionaries. I chose to be a missionary because it felt right, although I never had a specific time where I knew without a doubt that God wanted me to be a missionary. One of the activities that we did during the retreat was to spend time alone journaling. During that time, I started getting nervous as it began to hit me that I would be leaving everything that I knew to go to Majuro, an atoll located in the Marshall Islands. I prayed for a sign that if God was truly leading me to Majuro, He would let me find a four-leaf clover. I opened my eyes, and there right before me was a four-leaf clover. All my life, I have searched to find one of these, and God knew when to show me my first one. I was overjoyed! During the rest of the process of leaving for a year, I never once felt worried because I knew that God had a purpose for me in Majuro. I have currently been in Majuro for three months. I still have not felt like I have made a great difference, but I know that God had led me here. I am the teacher of twenty adorable first-grade students. Teaching has had its struggles, and I pray daily that I will have patience to handle my students. I know that I am far from qualified to teach, however, the most important thing at the end of the day is for them to know that God loves them.

When it comes to religion, children generally have it figured out. By simplifying religion for my first graders, I have been challenged in my own faith. Often times we complicate our faith because we cannot understand why Jesus would die on the cross for our sins, when in reality it is just as simple as it seems. Even a child can understand it!  

Prayer circle in the classroom

A lesson that I have learned since arriving here is that being a Christian means giving up control. During the first couple of weeks of school, I would get frustrated and feel like I was not good enough and wonder why God brought me here. My mindset changed completely when I realized that Jesus does not want me to try to be in control. Jesus is powerful enough. He simply needs me to surrender to Him. I think that this can help people who are stuck in the same routine and feel discouraged about not making an impact. You do not have to be perfect to make a difference. Act as if what you do makes a difference, because it does! God has a special purpose that only you can fulfill.  

Majuro has been a wonderful place to be a missionary. Sabbaths are filled with outreach programs, such as playing music and telling stories to underprivileged children or bringing our music team to the local hospital to pray over and play music for the patients. During our free time, the student missionary team has a grand time spearfishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and enjoying each other’s company. I am still amazed at how 40,000 people can live on only four square miles of land. Something I have noticed since being here is that the people seem very happy. Although many of them have far from ideal living conditions, with many sleeping outside, they are very happy. It made me thoroughly ponder what is important. Most of the people where I live in the States have more than they need, yet there is an overarching sadness and stress that fills their eyes with gloom. Why is this? Could it be that we have completely missed what is important? And what is important? I still do not have it figured out, but I think that the key to contentedness is being happy with little and sharing with others.

I am amazed at how the people in Majuro, who have very little materialistically, never have a problem sharing. Of my twenty students, only 4 have a box of crayons, yet that is not a problem for them. When I hand them a worksheet to color, the students with crayons share without hesitation. I cannot help but feel stricken with guilt when I remember myself as a child. I struggled with sharing, and I still do. The kids here know that relationships are more important than having nice things.

I also am amazed at how the students love to adopt each other into their families. I was teaching a segment of social studies that involved families. I went around the classroom, asking the students how many siblings they had. Most of them would say that they had a number between 8 and thirteen siblings. I got frustrated, thinking that it was impossible and that they were lying. Later, I realized they automatically call close friends a sister or brother. On a couple of occasions, I had students come into class sobbing, with tears streaming downs their cheeks. When I asked them what was the matter, they replied: “She doesn’t want to be my sister!” After talking to the students and resolving the argument, I cannot help but smile at the strong bond that they have with each other. 

Elizabeth with some of her students

I feel very loved whenever I am on campus. When I walk home for lunch, I cannot avoid being swarmed by children grabbing onto me. It makes it impossible to walk! I feel very blessed to constantly be called, “Teacher!” I still can not fully grasp what it means to be a teacher. I have never had the desire to be a teacher, but God placed me here and I followed His calling. Daily I feel completely unqualified to be a teacher, but God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called.

For those who are considering being a student missionary, my advice to you is: without a doubt being a missionary will be a chance to learn about a new way of life, to hear God’s voice clearer, and to grow spiritually and mentally. It will not always be easy. Depending on the location, it may be hot, and you will have your share of challenges, but knowing that you are where God wants you is the best feeling in the world. Nothing causes a better sleep than a clear conscience knowing that God has me right where He wants me.

Note: There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Marshall Islands at the time of publishing. Elizabeth and other SMs in the Marshall Islands continue to serve while the local government has temporarily closed their airports to incoming flights. Pray for them as they continue to be shining lights during this time.

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