Day 59: Changing my stripes

“Hey, Dad,” Brad yelled from our game room a couple weeks ago. “You know that yellow fish with the blue stripes?”

“Yeah, what about it?” Jake called back.

“It’s changing. It’s like the other black and white striped ones now.”

I found the two of them hunched down, peering into our aquarium. Brad was pointing out a fish I had caught at low tide in one of the reef pools a couple weeks earlier. When I snagged it in my net, the almond-sized fish had a yellow body with a neon blue stripe on either side, starting at the nose and extending into its tail. A black dot with a yellow ring around it sat just below its dorsal fin. I won the “best catch ever” award from Brad for netting the most colorful fish we’d ever had in an aquarium.

At the pools
Last week, we spent a clear morning searching the tide pools on Kwaj for strange and fascinating creatures.

But now, as Brad was pointing out, my best catch ever fish was changing, taking on vertical white stripes. His blue stripe was fading, and black scales were crowding onto the yellow body. It was beginning to match another type of fish I had caught in the same tide pool. Those fish look a little like a black clownfish with vertical black and white stripes spaced evenly down their bodies. They have a yellow tint to their fins and even under the black stripes, like yellow little chick scales are hiding underneath black mother hen scales. What we thought was one species of fish was changing completely to look like what we thought was a different species – a blue parakeet morphing into a orange-beaked zebra finch, or a spotted Dalmatian becoming a silver-coated wolf.

Fish that changed its stripesThis fish used to have bright yellow vertical stripes on a cornflower blue body. He changed completely in a matter of days.

What kind of fish would change its stripes from vertical to horizontal, from neon blue to white? From what I found as an professional Googler, I’m reasonably certain our fish is a Dischistodus fasciatus, a yellow-banded damselfish. Apparently, damselfish often look completely different as juveniles; they can change colors, morph stripe patterns or add/lose spots as they mature.

Two lessons from Heraclitus

“Change is the only constant.” While I’ve repeated this maxim often, to myself and others, when I’m adjusting to something new in my life, I only recently learned to whom the quote is attributed. Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived and philosophized before Socrates, promoted what deep thinkers call “unity of opposites.” The connections between these particular opposites, constancy and change, have defined my nomadic life as we move from state to state, adjust to a new school, make new friends, figure out a new grocery store, find a new library, remember a new address. Change is a reliable constant in my life.

Change is the only constant.


In the middle of my recent major change, when I left my former job as a science communicator at a nonprofit genomics research institute, a lot of my colleagues (who had also become friends) asked me what I planned to do on the island. I would answer them with something like:

“Snorkel. Float in the ocean. Learn to dive. Plant my bottom in the sand and write.”

My plan for our upcoming change of location was to continue some freelance writing, blog, work on a book project, write some stories with my kids, take thousands of photos, and spend my time enjoying the sandy and watery adventures this island has to offer.

Little did I know what was coming my way. Here’s another famously pithy quote from Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” If we delete river, replace it with ocean wave and apply it to me we get: “No woman is ever hit by the same ocean wave twice.” While I was planning two years of leisurely writing on a deserted beach, circumstances that would offer me an opportunity to change my plans on Kwajalein were gathering in the water and eventually washed up on my shore.

No woman is ever hit by the same ocean wave twice.

Heraclitus, paraphrased by V. Wamsley

Change: pain and the joy

Two weeks after our arrival here, I was offered a position at the Kwajalein Junior/Senior High School teaching English. And (after a brief bout of panic that I couldn’t juggle a new job and a new island life), I snatched the opportunity. I’m now wrapping up my fifth week teaching 7th and 9th grade English. Like my students, I had to force my brain and body to adjust to keeping a schedule. I put on a watch. After months of sleeping until I woke up, I set an alarm. I unpacked my professional wardrobe, thankful I’d decided to bring it even though I didn’t originally have plans to work on the island and also thankful that “professional” on this laid-back island is far more casual than the office environment of my previous job.

In exchange for this new discipline of waking early, following a schedule and donning attire a step up from cutoffs and a tank top – changing my stripes, you could say – my life on the island has already been deeply enriched.

As a new teacher, I’ve immediately become embedded in a community here, a process that has taken months in other places where we’ve lived. Over the last two weeks, I’ve met fifty new pre-teens and teens, more than 30 new teachers, and at least 20 new parents. When I ride my bike downtown, I always see a familiar and friendly face. My students, many of whom grew up on this island or neighboring Ebeye, are island experts. They recommend their favorite childhood diving spots or tide pools. They explain the ebb and flow of seasonal changes – the windy season, the rainy season, the doldrums. Marshallese students have offered to teach me some new words and phrases and answer my constant questions about their culture and traditions.

My new colleagues, fellow teachers, are also sharing their wealth of educational and island expertise. Like my students, some have lived on the island for years and others are new, like me. They’ve eased me into this last-minute teaching position, offering advice and a sympathetic ear. They’ve exchanged strategies for motivating our students to think independently. They know about island events (such as a regatta at the Yacht Club last weekend). Some of them love words as much as I do.

Finding balance

I took a short break from my personal writing projects so I could adjust to my new role and my new schedule, but I’m back and excited to balance teaching with practicing the skills that I teach. In this self-contained community on Kwaj, my new-found niche challenges me while also exploiting my strengths as a writer and passionate educator. The motley array of people who live here are like an ecosystem: everyone contributes, and we’re all connected. Even now, with a stack of papers to grade and lesson plans to write piled high on my desk, I’m thankful for my new place in the ecosystem. My stripes, like a Dischistodus fasciatus, have switched. Change is constant. I’m a teacher again.