Renee Billingslea

Renee Billingslea
Kiribati as seen by Renee Billingslea.

Lecturer in art

Kiribati 1990–92

Abaiang is a coral atoll 15 miles long and 1 mile wide, near the larger island of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. That is where I taught art and English as a foreign language at St. Joseph’s Catholic Boarding School, run by the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. As they were training Gilbertese teachers overseas, they used Peace Corps volunteers to fill in.

The art teaching included basic foundations in color theory and composition, how to batik, print-making, and silk-screening. My challenge was to do it in a way so that traditional customs wouldn’t be lost.

The people there have very little; getting enough to eat isn’t a given. And yet, they were, all the time, so happy. I loved being surrounded by that: open hearts and a very
strong sense of family. But it was clear from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be an island vacation. Half the volunteers in my group went home during the first few weeks of training.

I hoped that my work might touch one person’s life, and that would be enough. As I was getting ready to leave, one of my homeroom students, who was away from his island for the first time, recognized that I was also very far from home. He hadn’t spoken any English at all. He came up to me and said, “Thank you for leaving your family and country for two years to come and teach us.”

I came back a more mature, passionate person—with a larger sense of the world, more appreciative of what I have. And I found I love teaching.

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