Recently I met an extraordinary teacher, who introduced me to an extraordinary student, who graciously agreed to share her story here.
Jessa, take it away.
I've been sitting here for over an hour trying to think of a metaphor to describe the sound of my tin roof tearing in half. While I cannot forget the sound of Typhoon Soudelor turning me into a refugee, I cannot describe it either.
The problem with tin roofs is that they only hold water out if they aren't pierced. To nail the sheets of roofing down you have to pierce them. Then the rust attacks, the holes get bigger, and soon the typhoon throws it into the jungle. In our case, the tin tore off, but also took pieces of the roof beams with it.
When the typhoon hit, my home transformed from shelter to assailant. Glass shattered and looked for our eyes, wood splintered and scraped our naked feet, and the tin tried to cut us in half. The people in our barracks, a large multi-family home, ran in different directions but many of us still ended up in the bathroom. We didn't dare to sit down because if the roof came off the bathroom next, we all had to be ready to run. That long night, August 2, I calmed my fear by focusing on how I someday would leave this island.
They call us survivors but we are just getting by. The mosquitoes are survivors, with vigor, making us their buffet. Most of the island, including our re-built tin palace, has no power or running water two months later. There's no internet within five miles of my home and the car is always on empty. I haven't slept on a bed since mine flew out of the house; we sleep on the floor of a hotel ballroom because they allow us to stay for free as long as we leave by 7am.
Since the typhoon, we have to line up for everything. We waited four hours to fill up the car. We waited at five in the morning to get a bag of ice because we are just desperate for a cold drink. We wait still for a new shipment of roofing tin to arrive. We wait for some sort of financial assistance from anyone but we get none because FEMA is for citizens and my parents are from the Philippines.
Day one of school, the teacher hands me a school supply list, as though my parents would choose to buy me paper notebooks instead of roofing nails. Kids in concrete houses showed up in new school clothes, I came to school wearing the only clothes that didn't fly away in the storm. School starts in the dark, with no internet, and I'm expected to turn in scholarship applications and write essays as though I have the same advantages of kids my age attending prep schools in the United States. My teacher tells me to write something true, show how smart I am, and convince you that I am college ready. I can do that.
Something true: I never again want to be inside a house as it is being demolished.
Something smart: Education and money are twin sisters. The poor will never have an equal starting point as the rich and my intelligence is not in question.
I am college ready: I've lived through the calm, disease, of the eye of a typhoon. Living in a dorm doesn't scare me.
I learned English at a young age because my parents couldn't communicate except through me. I stayed after school to be tutored, not because I needed the help but because I dread every day going home to my tin house in the sun; the typhoon didn't make it awful, it just made it worse. We barely have passable internet, we have no museums, and any book taken out of a library turns to mold and termite fuel. I've always felt less capable than my mainland counterparts…until last summer when I met them.
Last summer I visited Washington D.C., Gettysburg, and New York City, on a paid trip called Close Up. On that trip, intimidated as I was, I met kids whose parents went to college, whose houses were made of bricks, who slept in air conditioning, and I came to realize they are no better than me. I haven't had the same experiences, the same opportunities, but I know who I am and what I'll become. My circumstances have forced me from apathy, pushed me from ambivalence, at a young age. I will not suffer as a minimum wage worker like my parents. I will be better, stronger, smarter, and I will lift those who have raised me.
More on Jessa's path to college & the teacher who helped her get there:
Jessa Camacho is a member of the founding class of Million Dollar Scholars from Kagman High School on the island of Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands). She wrote this essay for college scholarship applications. She received a four-year, full ride scholarship, and now attends Central Washington University, where she is studying Information Technology. Her favorite food is lumpia.