Jul 11, 2009

Retrospectives: "Tragedy and Triumph"


Sarah (on the left with peace sign)


In the 2004-2005 school year the tragedies that befell us were great but in the light of eternity will seem insignificant. The triumphs were perhaps insignificant in the great scheme things--moments of passing greatness--but the character it took to achieve these little victories was of lasting value.

During this school year, for the first and only time during our years at the Saipan SDA School, one of our students died. Her name was Sarah, or that was the English name she'd chosen for herself anyway, and she was in the fourth grade. She had come from South Korea with her mother to learn English and had been enrolled in our school for just a few months when we lost her. It didn't happen at school, but with her family over the weekend--a jetski accident. We came to school that Monday morning and found out that Sarah was gone.

Our Saipan SDA School has always been a family, and in losing one of our kids, we grieved as a family. Even though she'd been at our school a short time, she'd already made a deep impression on her class, and her fellow students took her death particularly hard. We teachers, and especially Babs, were deeply saddened as well. I remember going over to visit the parents the day after she died, and the grief of these two, who had lost their only child was just heartbreaking. The school reached out to Sarah's family in whatever way we could with cards and letters, flowers, and special school memorial service before the parents returned to Korea. At the memorial one of the most powerful moments was when we all sang Sarah's favorite worship song, "Shout to the Lord."

I believe our school's expression of love touched Sarah's parents hearts, because when they returned to Saipan 90 days later (my understanding is that this is a Korean tradition, to return to the place where a loved one has died after, I think, 90 days) they invited the staff out for a special dinner to show their appreciation.

The 1-4 Choir at a church performance not long before Sarah died. Sarah is second from left in the back row wearing the pink dress and white half-jacket.

I also suffered a personal loss that same year, just weeks after Sarah died. My Aunt Patricia "Patsy" Saliba passed away after a long battle with cancer. Aunt Patsy was one of those pillars of my life for as long as I can remember and losing her was hard. She even had her own small connection to our life in Saipan, as she had been a regular supporter of REAL Christian Theater, sending a couple hundred dollars every year or so right to just before she died. In fact, one of the more painful regrets I had was that a personal card of thanks I'd written to accompany the official thank-you letter from the team was still in my briefcase waiting to be mailed when she died. For the second year in a row, I flew back to the States mid-year to attend the memorial for one of my family.

There's no greater tragedy than death, but I believe in a God who has conquered death, and because of that I have the hope of seeing Sarah and Aunt Patsy again someday. Thus, these great tragedies will wither into insignificance in the presence of eternal life and the eternal light of God's love. I can't wait for that day.

There were triumphs too that year. Our boys basketball team consisted of five boys--no bench, which meant no backup. All five boys would play all four quarters without a break--and they dared not foul out. This scrappy little team was AJ Babauta, Fredo Paez, Masa Yoshida, EJ Babauta, and Raymond Santos. Together these boys would beat the odds and win the Coalition of Private School's Sports Association basketball championship, defeating much larger teams (both physically and numerically) from much larger schools.

I had the privilege of coaching these boys and I take no credit--I'm not a particularly good player myself and most of what I know about basketball I learned on the fly that year. I just feel blessed to have been part of such a special season. The one thing I had going for me as a coach is that I could see what these boys had in them--I knew what they could do, and I told them constantly. What I lacked in sports savvy I tried to make up for in motivation.

So how did they do it? Well, for starters they were all pretty good ballers. They had the fundamentals down. But so did many of our toughest opponents, and in some cases our opponents might have been a little better. But we had more than skill--our boys had heart. They had a will to win, they were absolutely fearless on the court, and they gave everything they had every single time. We started out the season, trailing, but we gained ground, doing better and better each time. One game that really stands out for me was a game we lost against Mt. Carmel, the biggest, toughest team in the league from the largest Catholic school on Saipan. Something about the way my boys played that game made me realize that, even though we lost, we could go all the way. Somehow I knew in my heart that was the last game we would lose. So imagine my surprise when I called from Florida after my aunt passed away and my assistant coach Irwin Capilitan told they'd lost again, to GCA.

Turns out that was the last game they would lose.

From then, they couldn't be stopped. They rolled through the rest of the season, battled their way through the playoffs, and finally met their hulking opponents from Mt. Carmel in the championship game. I'll never forget that day. It was a low-scoring, hard-fought game. I remember seeing little Raymond Santos, the shortest guy in the league (who later was nominated League MVP) charging into the key, heedless of the MCS giants around him and somehow working that ball into the hoop. I remember EJ shooting up as if he had springs on his feet, out of the cluster of arms and torsos under the net, and ripping the ball from the air for the rebound. I remember AJ poised, graceful, as he sank another three-pointer. I remember the moment when we finally wrested the lead from MCS's grasp. I remember the moment of victory when the buzzer sounded and our supporting parents, students, and teachers erupted into cheers and poured onto the court to embrace the boys.

Of course, I suppose the triumph of a middle school basketball team on a remote island in the Pacific will be little noted. It is, after all, just a game. It's not like it's life and death. The trophies tarnish, the glow of victory fades. But the things that make for such small victories--courage, hope, unselfish teamwork, faith, heart--these things are of infinite value, are as important as life itself, and will outlast death to thrive in eternity to come.

There is one moment of that heady day--one that makes me choke up even now when I think of it--where the tragedy and triumph of that school year met in a poignant and beautiful way. When the game was over, it was time for our customary cheer. You know how it goes, "1,2,3. . .KNIGHTS!" as a nod to the other team, and another 123 cheer for your own school. But early in the season we'd changed that tradition up a little bit. And so, flush with victory, one more time, we put our hands together, and shouted with all our hearts:

"1, 2, 3--SARAH!!"

Her name had been our rallying cry at every game since she died, and we wanted to the world to know that those games, and this championship were in honor and memory of her.

Tragedy and triumph. For one brief moment they mingled as one, and one day soon, they will mingle once again. This time though tragedy will be forever banished and only the victory will remain.

Thanks to Shannon Gerber for sending me the pics of Sarah and the basketball team. Here are some other special memories from a special year:

Babs and I with our 2005 8th graders at the end of a year marked by tragedy and triumph.

Pastor Eliki Ravia takes the fall during the trust fall at our annual Outdoor School Managaha Campout, February 2005. Anybody recognize the boy in blue?

Teaching Assistant and ESL teacher, Rachel Lombard considers her level of trust at the Managaha Campout. Back then Rachel was known affectionately to all as Miss L. Now she's known as Mrs. Rachel Lombard Capilitan. That year she met and fell in love with, and later married church member, friend, and my assistant basketball coach Irwin Capilitan. Another interesting sidenote about Irwin and Rachel--they'll both be living in Columbus, Ohio where Babs and I will be settling!

Me with the 8th grade class of '05 in Bangkok, Thailand, March 2005. I wish had more pictures of our 8th grade class trip to Thailand. I took tons of photos but our new digital camera was set on some sort of "microburst" function so all the photos came out like this. I included just one photo here because they are really kind of hard to look at. But it was a wonderful, triumphant trip to Thailand. It was my first time back as 8th grade sponsor in four years and my class (four members of which were on that championship basketball team) worked really hard to make a record amount of money for their trip. We enjoyed a memorable journey to Thailand with a bonus of a few days in the Philippines as well.

Our 2004-2005 Kindergarten Teacher, Shannon Gerber with students at the Managaha Campout. Before Rhonda, before Mai Rhea, there was Shannon, the Original Kelowna Girl. Shannon, like the other two women, came to us from the little town of Kelowna in British Columbia, Canada.

Shannon at her student's kindergarten graduation.

"M" and Raymond Santos at the Managaha Campout. At this time, "M" was in the 5th grade and Raymond was in the 8th grade. Like I said, what Raymond lacked in height he more than made up in skill and heart. As an interesting sidenote, Raymond and the rest of the boys basketball team and me, arrived late to the school's campout on a specially chartered boat. We were busy winning the semifinal basketball game that day.

Xian Xian Cui, another story of triumph in 2004-2005. Xian Xian came to our school from China in 2002, when she was in fourth grade. The first four letters of the alphabet were the extent of her English language ability. But she was a hard worker and a quick learner and she thrived in our school's academic, spiritual, and family-oriented environment. At the end of her sixth grade year, she leapfrogged to 8th grade where she went on to become 8th grade class president and class valedictorian. Xian Xian continued to be a vital part of our SDA family after her 8th grade year, getting baptized not long after graduation, completing 9th grade at SDA, and continuing to be a part of REAL Christian Theater right up until her family moved away from Saipan about six months ago. The stories of her accomplishments have been sprinkled throughout this blog over the years, where she was known as "CK Girl" (standing for Chinese-Korean, her ethnicity) until she turned 18.

"K" makes a presentation at the science fair, Spring 2005. He was in the fifth grade then.

Spring 2005. Xian Xian makes her science fair presentation while Babs looks on. Below you'll see her with another familiar SDA face, the girl known on this blog as "The Treasurer." She had just come to our school from China at this time, and was just learning to make her way just as Xian Xian had a few years earlier.

My 2004/2005 7th and 8th grade homeroom class. I also had one 9th grader: Masa Yoshida, not pictured here.

REAL Christian Theater's fifth season comes to a close, May 2005. Pictured from L to R: Directors Tin Tin Win and Vince Asanuma, Myla Capilitan, Peterson Adelbai, Keisha Paez, Ayaka Yoshida, Indira Singeo, Raneeza Cano, Masa Yoshida, Xian Xian Cui, and "The Vice President" (Not pictured: Raymond Santos and director Aya Sato). Our fifth season was a tough one for REAL. This was the first year that we started accepting older members who were not students at the SDA School and wreaked havoc on our schedule as the various members from the various high schools tried to juggle their busy schedules. As a result, our touring was limited that year--we didn't do a full length play, and our off island tour ended up being a single overnight at neighboring Tinian. The next season though, REAL would be back in the groove and we'd have one of our strongest seasons ever.


Shannon said...

What a wonderful look back this posting has been for me! You know, there are moments from that year which stick with me on a daily basis. I can't sing "Shout to the Lord" without crying...I can't even listen to it! I have panic attacks when I find out that someone I love (or even just know!) is going out on a sea-doo.

Along with that, however, the basketball definitely sticks out! Those boys did great things, despite injuries and the small size (in both number and stature) of the team. What a thrilling game that was to watch!

I can help with pictures. I have basketball pictures, pictures of Sarah (and her memorial service), and pictures of nearly everything else under the sun! If you'd like any of them, please let me know.

Mai said...

I totally recognize "the boy in blue" and I think the one at the end, too!! haha, your microburst photos are funny! I teared up reading about Sarah even though I didn't know her....I couldn't help picturing my students in her place :( "K" making his presentation - SO cute!!! man, I miss those kids!!!