The Journey

Spokane to Saipan
By Heather Kennison

Sweat-drenching heat, typhoons powerful enough to overturn cars, and international phone calls at $2 a minute: this was not exactly what John Jenkins had imagined for his future when he left Whitworth College in 1993.

With a degree in theology and a minor in theater, Jenkins was set to start a theater career in Minneapolis.

But something about that opportunity didn't feel right. Jenkins returned to Spokane and worked for one year at Westminster House, a mission house in a low-income area that worked in collaboration with Westminster Presbyterian Church.

"I think that's where I started developing my interest in working with kids," Jenkins said. "Both my parents were teachers, so that kind of led me in the direction that maybe I should try teaching."

By 1997, Jenkins had received his master's degree in teaching from Whitworth. He left a recruitment fair with plans to go to Saipan, knowing only that it was a small, remote island in the Pacific. That, he realized later, was an understatement. With an area of about 44.55 square miles, Saipan is about 1,500 miles east of the Philippines and 1,000 miles south of Japan.

Jenkins now works at North Marianas College, located in Saipan, the largest of 15 islands that make up the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

According to the 2000 census, the population was 62,392.

"It took time to adjust to my new environment," Jenkins said.

The first few years in Saipan were the most difficult for Jenkins.

Beginning in 1997, Jenkins taught a third-grade class in a building without air conditioning. Rats and shrews regularly scurried across the floor, and beyond the chicken-wired windows was a car-alarm shop across the street, whose wares incessantly made their presence known.

With year-round moderate temperatures of about 80 degrees, closing the shutters against the noise meant unbearable heat, Jenkins said. Leaving them open jeopardized concentration.

"It wasn't a very comfortable year, that first year," Jenkins said. "It was very primitive."

Then there was his first typhoon about a month after his arrival to Saipan. These storms can last up to two or three days, Jenkins said.

"When we get typhoons, the power goes out and we have to store up drinking water and fill our bathtubs because there's usually no running water," Jenkins said. "If you're lucky, you can find a place with a generator. It's kind of like camping."

Furthermore, the fact that the school secretary operated on a typewriter and Internet connection was scarce did not help Jenkins' initial insulaphobia, or fear of remote places or islands.

"The technology didn't really kick in until probably 1999," Jenkins said. "Things really progressed; by the year 2000 everything was up to U.S. standards."

By this time, the public library had opened a federally funded computer lab.

"A lot of people [learned] how to use the Internet and set up e-mail and so forth," Jenkins said.

In October 2000 Jenkins met a young woman named Divina through a mutual friend. About a year later, they were married. Divina is from the Iloilo region in the Philippines, one of 18 children in her family. Jenkins and Divina reside in the ancient village of Chalan Kanoa, in southwest Saipan. Jenkins and his wife frequently visit Divina's family on holidays and vacations.

Jenkins sees his own mother in South Carolina about once every two years. His inspiration for staying in Saipan came largely from his mother's side of the family, many of whom were missionaries overseas, he said.

After teaching third grade for six years he transferred to another school and taught a fourth grade class for another four years. These times presented their own challenges for Jenkins.

One such challenge involved learning about a superstition called the "taotaomo'na," who are the ghosts of ancestors. Jenkins recalled the first time a student told him he'd been troubled by the ancestors and wasn't able to complete his homework – an excuse especially creative to Jenkins' North American mindset, but one that he said he had to accept. These superstitions are highly regarded even by the most educated in Saipan, Jenkins said.

Now going into his 14th year teaching in Saipan, Jenkins' experiences at Whitworth have proven useful in more ways than one. Using his education in drama and teaching, Jenkins put on several televised drama activities in his elementary classes. The dramas impressed the director of the School of Education at North Marianas College. Hired first as an adjunct and later as a full-time faculty member, Jenkins is in his third year of teaching at the community college and loves every moment of it.

But the work is far from easy. A typical workday runs from about 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., he said. The previous semester Jenkins taught 30 credits, twice the usual load.

"On the weekends I have time to do other activities," Jenkins said. "On the island they have different things like triathlons and sporting events that I like to participate in."

Jenkins' other hobbies include tennis, scuba-diving, biking, running, hiking, travelling, photography and a renewed interest in song-writing. His album "Dissolving the Distance" was released in 2008 as a collaboration with other professional artists from the Philippines. Hearing his songs being played and requested on the radio has been among Jenkins' fondest memories. The inspiration for this album came mostly from his wife, Jenkins said.

"I recently received an order from a man in Germany who also married a Filipina and ordered my CD as a result of hearing one of my songs, 'My Filipina Girl,'" Jenkins said.

Jenkins has received invitations to write more music for Filipino artists, and hopes to do more recordings.

Through both adventures and misadventures, Jenkins has remained steadfast in his decision to stay and teach in Saipan. John and Divina have discussed eventual retirement in Saipan or the Philippines.

"There were times when I wanted to look back or try something different," Jenkins said. "I decided to endure some of the hardships and realized that no matter where you go, life is going to have its ups and downs." For Jenkins, those ups and downs have over the years led to a familiar rhythm, one that's taught him to take typhoons, tropical temperatures and even the "taotaomo'na" in stride.