"I SHOULD HAVE BEEN A GECKO," Jasmine James Taitano recalled of her high school experience on Guam. "But my mom was a Math teacher at JFK. She fell in love with the school and the students."
It was the fall of 1989, the beginning of a new school year for the then-Ordot teen. Instead of attending George Washington High School like she expected, she was ushered to the John F. Kennedy High School where her mom taught.
She didn't graduate from the Tamuning school, however, but her time there left an impression, enough to draw her back as an adult.
Today, Taitano, 41, still lives in Ordot, and has spent 14 out of 15 years of her teaching career at the high school she still loves. It was where the doors to sports opened for her, where she was given the opportunity to foster the love for one particular sport.
Taitano was a private school kid all her life before high school. Although sports pulsed through her veins courtesy of her father, her previous schools lacked formal programs for her to participate in. "I would just play in the village, ride around with bikes, play with the boys in the streets," she recalled.
High school would finally afford her the opportunity to join organized sports. And she ran with it. Initially though, there was an uneasiness adjusting to a school she wasn't prepared for. "It was hard to swallow because I always thought I'd be a gecko. But once I gained friends and connected with volleyball I really became an islander."
Back then the Taitano dynasty was strong at JFK, with four Taitanos—Joe, Christine, Norma, and Lillian—serving as teachers and coaches. "Lillian and Norma were highly influential in my life, and they were my first coaches. Lillian was also my P.E. teacher, and her daughter was a teammate and a really good friend," Jasmine Taitano revealed.
First quarter sports belonged to girl’s volleyball, and she signed up with no previous organized sports experience. Still, she managed to make varsity as a center. "It's typically not the usual thing for freshmen to make varsity, but the coaches saw a potential in my ability and bumped me up. It was mostly students older than me, but there was one other freshman who was a swing player, who played JV and varsity," Taitano said.
The JFK Islanders girls volleyball team took fourth place overall in the interscholastic sports league that year, not exactly an outstanding performance. "But in my sophomore year we won the championship on Guam and came in second at the Far East tournament,” Taitano said. “It felt like it was such a privilege to be in that position. I just wanted to learn more and more and get better. I enjoyed my teammates, I enjoyed being on the team. It felt like second nature to me, like it was where I belonged."
The young athlete's typical day would be spent in the classroom and then on the court right after school. Beyond school, she joined outside leagues, including the club Piva, which was then led by powerhouse coaches Ernie Ibanes and Bobbie Quinata. She was also part of the Guam National and Junior National teams that allowed her to travel for the sport.
But once her junior year rolled around, things changed drastically. "It became tumultuous. The coaching changed, and it was really a handful of the girls wanting a particular coach and the administration selecting a different set of coaches. It caused friction between the players and the coaching staff," Taitano remembered.
The synergy that helped them clinch first place the year before was gone. Taitano even sat out three games at the start of the season because of an injury. "I was volleyball year round. Volleyball was really important to me. I made the decision to leave JFK and attend a different school during my senior year because I didn't want it to affect my season," she explained.
It was a bittersweet move. And instead of heading to Mangilao to become a gecko, Taitano chose to attend Notre Dame High School at the urging of a cousin.
Once high school was over, Taitano would follow in the footsteps of her mother and became a teacher. Because of her love for sports, she was naturally drawn to physical education, and her first year of teaching was spent in a middle school. She learned quickly that working with that age group wasn't for her. The following year she knew exactly where she belonged.
"There was no other school I wanted to go to. I wanted to go [back] to JFK," Taitano declared. There, she applied her aptitude for sports, giving students her 110 percent. It's a familiar place where she's confident in teaching, comfortable in the environment, and grateful for what it once gave her.
"I would hope I'm giving back to this school. I love it. I love the school. The students are what I know and whom I know. The culture and the atmosphere to me are what I've grown accustomed to. I appreciate the students we have. We have excellent teachers and people I'm able to work with and enjoy," Taitano said in closing.
"There was no other school I wanted to go to. I wanted to go [back] to JFK."
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