Boarding school was presented to us missionary kids as the pinnacle of achievement: that is, you knew you were finally grown up when you were ‘allowed’ to attend with the big kids. I’b been attending an international primary school for 4th and 5th grades and had been largely bored and lonely. My grades were good, and my folks offered to let me choose to skip the 6th grade and advance to 7th–and therefore to boarding school. I was 11. I visited the school, met with the instructors and passed their oral examinations and was welcomed to Ukarumpa High School.
Ukarumpa, the international boarding school, was situated in the highlands of New Guinea at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) near Aiyura (where the airstrip was), about 13 kilometers from Kainantu. I moved into our denominational hostel (one of several hostels on campus which were denominationally funded) and became the youngest child in a house of 12 kids ranging from age 11 (me) to 19.
The twelve of us were ‘parented’ by whichever couple in our mission drew the proverbial ‘short straw’. These people weren’t called to the mission field to take care of each other’s kids. They’d sold their belongings and moved half way around the world for the singular purpose of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. That the missionary kids required education and tending to was at best an afterthought. The couple stationed at the hostel were only assigned for a short period of time (usually upon arriving back from a year’s deputation in the US, while they were waiting for their position at the Bible College or the hospital to be vacated). We kids were a bump in the missional highway–an assignment most missionaries tried to avoid.
As such, the turnover of house parents was rapid and frequent. We would go through periods of time where we had a different set of ‘parents’ every six weeks. Often the people the mission hired to take care of us were barely older than we were (one couple was only 5 or 6 years older than the oldest ‘kid’). It was a chaotic and disruptive existence, never knowing what expectations were, what meals would be like, what might be considered funny and what might very well offend. Some people had their own children to tend to, and found the disruption of the other missionaries’ kids in the household to be nuisance. Others felt a need to save the mission money and doled out food and supplies as if there was significant scarcity. Some were not any more mature than we kids were. Many felt free to criticize the parenting style of our biological parents—the missionaries they took exception to: often humiliating their kids who were at their mercy for 10 ½ months of the year. Some couldn’t cook; others couldn’t even speak the local language and go to the market by themselves. Most had little to no theological training and functioned on a folk theology where sacrifice was uplifted as their highest calling, souls were at stake, and we were frequently told that to create problems (that is, to not behave and do what we were told, or to complain too much) would force our parents away from the work that God had called them to—the consequences were dire as souls might be potentially ‘lost’. If our parents were tending to us, they weren’t doing God’s will.
During my tenure at Ukarumpa, there was one set of house parents who stayed for a full year without disruption. They were an older couple, fresh back from furlough. Their own kids were grown and they had enough distance from them to provide some stability in our lives. They laughed a lot, spent time alone together, and cooked together. They were not perfect: his tolerance for childish nonsense was slim, and he spent a lot of time talking about “Blessed Quietness”—an old holiness song—especially when we got too rowdy or raucous. He paddled the boys occasionally when they were bad, and looked upon misbehaving girls with contempt. If we were late getting up in the morning, he’d walk down our hall with a pan from the kitchen and a metal spoon and bang until we got up. When the hostel’s dog, Beast, got old, he waited till we kids were out of the house, then shot the dog and buried him. When we cried, he told us it was ‘just a dog’.
She was lovely—tall, stately, elegant. She played the piano and the violin and had an infectious laugh which was accompanied by an impossible twinkle in her eye. Everyone loved her with a reverence which created space—quite literally. She held herself at an emotional arms-length from us, treating each of us with professional competence and the care only a nurse could offer. But she hardly mothered us. She had favorites, and I was not one of them.
They had their own living space apart from the dormitory we kids lived in. It was taboo and we kids were forbidden to enter. They would disappear behind closed doors each evening, not to emerge again until morning. Each night when I went to bed, I wrote in a notebook: a diary of sorts describing to her my day and thoughts, sometimes just the love letters of a little girl in need of a mother close by. I would slide the notebook under her door and go to bed. In the mornings, I’d find it on my desk—in pristine condition, without evidence that it had been read or even opened. Nevertheless I’d write. I think it was my way of having a little time with her alone (an impossibility with 12 kids, but also given her ‘distancing’ personality).
Years later, when I moved to Kansas City to attend Seminary, I was delighted to find out that these house parents had retired nearby. My own parents had moved to Vietnam, and I found myself ‘orphaned’ once again in a strange country. I imagined contacting these newly retired house parents, and having a place to ‘go’ occasionally and a ‘family’ to fall back on if I needed support.
It was a harsh reminder of childhood days the first time I went to visit this retired couple. Whereas I considered them “mom and dad” for a year of my life and a real source of stability, they saw me as a painful reminder of a year of lost ministry—a year doing a job they never wanted and didn’t feel called to—I was one among 12 kids who never really were theirs. The emotional arm’s length had stretched miles. It shook me to my core.
And I began to feel more at ease being the orphan, than the less-than-desirable foster kid.