Readjustment

I’ve been back from Samoa now for three weeks.

In that time, I’ve experienced what seems like every possible emotion succeeding after one another in what seems like every possible order.

America is weird. And hard.

But also good, I guess.

I’ve had the emotional ties of seeing my family, especially my sister and her husband, whom I hadn’t seen the entire time I’d been away. I got to meet their new cat and their brand new puppy. I got to eat a bacon avocado cheeseburger. I got to have a hot shower. I got the happy moment of getting a job offer. I got to wear jeans and jackets and layers. I got to drive a car. I got to go on YouTube as long as I wanted. I got to look at wedding magazines. I got to drink a beer that wasn’t super gross. Scratch that. I got to drink a margarita!

In short, there have been a lot of happy moments.

There have also been some lows too. These are harder to point out and explain. Sometimes, they’re obvious and expected and sometimes they appear out of nowhere.

I had to say goodbye to my fiance for an unknown amount of time (but hopefully only five months). That was pretty much the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I walked through security and outward immigration doing that crying thing where you can’t catch your breath and keep doing sad gasps in the middle of your sentences. That was the worst.

I had to acclimate to non-humid weather that makes my skin all dry and my nose all weird.

I had to deal with the time I locked my keys in the car after a job interview.

I had to clean off my foot after I accidentally stepped in a pile of hummus. Waahhhhhh.

I had to go on a job interview that ended up being for door to door sales.

I had to wander around my sister’s apartment complex for 30 minutes in high heels because I couldn’t find her building and I didn’t have a cell phone.

I had to remember that hipsters exist and are super annoying.

I had to get used to not having an immediate purpose in my environment.

I had to deal with the constant phenomenon of freezing cold feet.

I had to get used to not being independent and not having a job and not having any money.

I had to find some kind of answer to when people ask me “How was it?” about the past two and a half years of my life. Could you come up with a reasonable answer for that time span? Cause I can’t.

I have to wake up most mornings not knowing where I am until I open my eyes.

I have to go through every day wildly missing my soul mate.

I guess though, that if I average out all of it, my time back would probably be somewhere between “fine” and “pretty good,” although most of the time, my feelings are much more extreme in either direction.

I’m thinking that, over time, things will even out and my life will start making more sense. And in 5 or 6 months, I’ll get to help my fiance come and start his journey through a very similar culture shock. That’ll be the most fun.

For now, I’m trying to enjoy the little things. Not sweating all the time. Not sleeping in a mosquito net. Having a cold side to my pillow. Having a new purse with stylish fringe. Texting Faaui every waking moment. Eating cheese and salami. Game nights with my sis. Bonding sessions with her animals who are so full of personality. Planning my wedding. Having wine in the hot tub with my mom.

Readjustment is hard. And weird.

But I think it averages out to “pretty good.”

I think…

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A Samoan, Palagi, Village, Peace Corps Love Story

When I first came to Samoa, I was not looking for any romance. I had never had a boyfriend before and I was very interested in doing the work first and foremost. When I first arrived with the Peace Corps, they had us stay in a training village called Lalomauga. We quickly learned that relations between males and females here are an entirely different matter than they are in the States. In Samoa, it’s not really possible to have platonic friendships with the opposite sex. I noticed that a grand majority of the young men in the village were very cheeky and very interested in all of us white girls. It was kind of fun and kind of flattering at first, and then got kind of old.

Some of the other ladies in my group and I noticed that Samoan guys are generally pretty attractive. Working on the plantation every day and playing rugby every evening leads to a very easy-to-look-at physique. Add in the various beautiful tattoos most people sported and there was plenty of eye candy in the village. Except for the hair. Samoan men may be beautiful, but good God, the things they do to their hair are just terrible. Mullets, a long little braid that pokes out of otherwise short hair (aka the “rat tail”), randomly bleaching different spots in your hair, cutting the sides but letting yourself grow a top-of-the-head afro. It was awful. And also pretty funny.

My friends and I had fun watching these funny hairstyles and these hot bods and came up with certain nicknames for guys so that we could talk about them even though we didn’t know their names. There was Samoan Orlando Bloom, Hot Cousin, Nice Cousin, the Blonde One, and a couple more. It was a fun little way to pass the time in a village where not a lot happens besides daily volleyball.

My host family had a pool table on their land and so there would often be a bunch of dudes hanging around, smoking, and playing pool with their shirts off. Sometimes, it was awkward because I would walk from the shower stall to my little Samoan hut wearing just my wet lavalava and I could feel the stares. But other times, I liked to sit near the pool table with my host sister and enjoy the view. 😉 There were a couple of guys that I thought particularly attractive. One was very cheeky and out there. The first time he ever met me, he came up behind me while I was eating dinner and kissed me on the cheek. That was something like my third day in Samoa. Way to make a girl feel uncomfortable! And the other one I liked had these great tattoos, these super great abs, but he never talked to me. He was always around my family’s compound helping them with their chores, playing pool, making dinner, or whatever. I assumed he was somehow part of the family and called him “Nice Cousin.”

I really enjoyed learning all the different Samoan chores and “helping,” even though when I helped, things usually took twice as long. I learned how to husk coconuts, make homemade coconut jam, get coconuts out of the shells for the pigs, scrape the coconuts to make coconut cream. Lots of things involving coconuts. Well, one day, I decided to try to learn how to grate the coconut meat out of the shell so that it could be squeezed to make coconut cream. Nice Cousin was assigned to teach me and help me. It turned out to be really hard. To do it, I had to sit on a special bench with a sharp grater blade at the edge of it and scrape the inside of the coconut on it so that the shavings would fall into the bowl underneath. Well, when I tried, I ended up accidentally applying different pressures to different areas so that some parts of the coconut got all grated away and other parts were really thick. There were scrapings of the shell in the bowl and coconut still left in the shell. I was slow and not good. Nice Cousin, however, was very patient. Unlike most of my other teachers, he didn’t just give up and take over to spare me the frustration. He corrected me and let me keep trying long after other people would have just decided that it’s easier for them to do it. It was really great and eventually I kind of almost got the hang of it. I was also kind of taken aback by how polite and respectful he was of me and my space. Whereas many other guys would have relished the opportunity to come behind me and guide my hands with theirs, he stayed in his own space and guided me with words and gestures. It was a good day.

Phase one of our Peace Corps training ended and I went to my real village for the first time to stay there for 6 weeks. Then, we all came back to the training village for the two-week long Phase 2 training. When our families would come to bring us lunch at the training house, I always noticed Nice Cousin there. We never talked very much because of the whole no-such-thing-as-a-platonic friend thing but we enjoyed looking at each other. One day, one of my other Peace Corps friends had a party at his house and invited me. Nice Cousin was there and everyone was drinking. It was a good time and all the drunk dudes made fools of themselves trying to impress me because I was the only girl there. Night came and it was time for me to walk home. Nice Cousin was nominated to walk me home. It was raining and we shared the umbrella and sometime on the walk home, he started to hold my hand. I liked it but told him not to because people would see and the entire village would be talking about the rest of the time I was in the village. He agreed.

Another day that week, a small group of my host sisters and girls that lived around me decided to walk to the next village over to get ice-cream. I went with them. Nice Cousin was on the walk too. We got our ice-cream and started home. The other girls ended up staying behind and Nice Cousin and I walked home together through the jungle. It was a nice walk and we talked a little. However, my Samoan was very limited at the time and there wasn’t all that much to talk about except for the obvious chemistry between us. So on the walk home, when we were out of sight of any houses, we stopped and he kissed me. Then we kept walking. Of course, we passed by a giant group of rugby boys doing their running who all assumed that since we were walking together alone, we were a “thing.” They applauded, cheered, made jokes, and thought it was hilarious, because of course, there was a kind of race to see who in the village could get a Peace Corps girlfriend. It was awkward and embarrassing, but in a somewhat good-natured and funny way. We didn’t really get to spend any time alone and get to know each other though because we were soon back in the village.

The last Wednesday before my group left for the final time, we both sneaked away from our families and went for a walk together through the jungle. It was sweet and even though we were both awkward and nervous, we had a really nice time and got to know each other a little better. We had one more get-together before I left when a few other volunteers walked down the river to the waterfall. Nice Cousin, or as I had learned by now, Faaui, came too. We walked together, had fun swimming together, and enjoyed the afternoon. The next day, my group departed the training village for the final time. We all went to Apia and some of us stayed for the weekend. I invited Faaui to come as well. He did. We went dancing and drinking at night and swimming in the hotel pool in the day. Although I really enjoyed his company, I knew that I would be heading back to my village on the other island on Sunday and would probably never see him again. We had a little fling and it was over.

I went back to my village and went to my first day of school. It was great and hot and I sweat a lot. As I was walking home, I received a call from an unknown number. I answered and heard a Samoan woman. It was the pastor’s wife from the training village. She was calling to say that she and the pastor and Faaui were all in the car together on my island and that they were going to come to my house. They’ll be here in 30 minutes! I was horrified. On what possible business would the three of them be coming to my house together? They soon arrived and came in. Faaui had a big silly smile on his face the whole time. The pastor said that they were here for a funeral and Faaui had come to assist them on their trip. They told me that Faaui had told them about “us” and that they were soooo happy. They said that they always liked me and knew I was one of the “good ones” and that Faaui is a good person and that anytime we want to get married, we can just “pop on over” and they’ll do it for us.

I can’t even begin to explain what I was thinking at that time. I was in total shock. What I had thought was a fun little fling had now turned into marriage. This man that I thought I would never see again was here in my house, with his big smile and the pastor from his village talking about getting married. I had no words. Eventually, they said that they would leave Faaui here and pick him up at night so that we can spend some time together. When they left, I had no idea what to say to him. Why did you do that? Why would you come here to my house like this? Why on earth would you bring the PASTOR? Why do you need to make my life so difficult? For God’s sake, WHY???

Here, the story gets a little hazy in my memory. I’m not entirely sure how, but somehow, he ended up dissolving my shock and anger and turned it into affection. For the next few days, the pastor and his wife set up little dates for the two of us, which was weird. They would pick me up from school and take me to their hotel where Faaui and I would spend some time together on the beach or in the hammocks on their porch. We got to know each other a lot better and had a fun time, in spite of the weirdness of being set up by the pastor. And by the time we left, we were more or less in a relationship.

When he went home, we called one another (even though he didn’t have a phone and had to borrow his mom’s or his brother’s).

From there, we met up every so often in Apia and otherwise just talked on the phone. He helped me with my Samoan and I helped him with his English. It was really nice to have someone to talk to every day. He was surprisingly understanding of all of my opinions, problems, and amusements, even though he seemed to come from a totally different world than me. We talked about our pasts, our childhoods, our previous relationships (or lack thereof), our aspirations, and our day-to-day lives.

At some point in the first year, I invited him over to my house. This was a tricky thing to do and I was a little nervous about it. I was pretty sure that my village wouldn’t be thrilled about the idea of me inviting some guy to my house. But I did. He came over for a weekend and just stayed inside my curtained house the whole time. It was thrilling and felt very taboo. We did this a few more times during the remainder of the year although neither of us liked the idea of keeping this secret from my village. However, it was just too expensive to stay in a hotel every time we wanted to see each other and distracting to my work to leave the village over frequently.

During my first year, I knew that during the end of the year break in December, I wanted to travel to New Zealand for a few weeks. I was planning to meet my good friend from college there and travel around with her. However, there would be a few days before she came and a few days after she left when I would be on my own. I came to the decision that what I really wanted was to take Faaui with me. I had apparently done a very good job saving that year because I had enough money to pay his fare and his tourist visa, which I helped him apply for. It was his first time traveling out of the country, unless you include the couple of times he went to American Samoa, which is so similar to Samoa that it doesn’t really count. It was his first time on a plane, his first time seeing a big city, seeing skyscrapers, going on an escalator, eating a steak, eating Mexican food, going to the movie theater, going to an arcade, seeing an art museum, eating a Subway sandwich. So many new things. We had a blast exploring the city for the first five days I was there. We spent Christmas together, walked down different streets in Aukland every day, cooked our own steaks together in the hostel kitchen, and enjoyed our building’s rooftop bar. When my friend from the states arrived, Faaui went to visit his cousins for a while. He traveled to Wellington and back visiting different family while my friend and I explored the country together. We met up at the end of the trip when my friend went home and came back to Samoa together.

When we returned, I decided to tell my village about him. It had been a year and things were going really well. I really wanted my village to know about it and approve and maybe give him permission to visit me every so often. I was really nervous, but I told my pastor, who is also the president of the school committee. He is a mix between village leader, boss, and host father to me. He and his wife were very gracious about it. They were supportive, encouraging, and even gave permission for him to visit me at my house, saying that I’m free in their village and it’s up to me who I invite to my house. I also told my principal and the mayor of the village. All parties approved and told me that I’m free to invite him as I please. I was so moved to have the support of the village leaders. Faaui started visiting more openly and when people asked, I told them about him. It was official! No longer a secret! Of course, some of the women in my village still love to make very cheeky jokes about me and about him and about the two of us. I also get some seemingly rude comments about how he’s bad because he’s Samoan and I should date another white person and that I’m pretty and he’s ugly (which they somehow believe even without ever seeing him…) and that I should have a boyfriend from my own village instead of from the other island. But these comments are rare and never in bad spirits. People here, although I sometimes underestimate them, know that I am free to make whatever choices are right for me and encourage me to be happy. I am very grateful for my village. It also feels really great to be able to be totally honest with them and share this part of my life with them. Some people get very excited about it and look at me a little differently, knowing that I am able to appreciate Samoan people in the way that they do, as “us” and not “them.”

Nowadays, I talk to him every day. He visits me in my village every so often, when it’s not a distraction from community life or school. We take little vacations together. Even though I tried to keep it casual and not fall in love with him, I have. I used to promise myself that at the end of the two years, I would leave and it would be over. I even told Faaui this in case it bothered him enough that he wanted to break things off immediately. I wanted to keep my life simple. Having a long distance relationship across the Pacific Ocean would just be the worst. But now, things have changed. In the same way that he changed my mind about him when he came with the pastor to my house, he has changed my mind about the future.

I’m not sure what the future holds, but I know that he is my best friend. I know that we work every day to communicate as best as we can, overcome the cultural differences between us, and show our love to one another. He brings out the best version of myself. When we’re together, we are better than who we are when we’re apart. Each moment has meaning and purpose and seems to fit into a larger picture of our whole lives together. He makes me the person I want to be and have always wanted to be. He challenges me to rise to the extremely high bar of his excellent character. I challenge him to learn more about himself, improve himself and aspire to dreams that never seemed possible to him before. Life together is so natural and fulfilling.

I look back on my thoughts when I first arrived about not wanting any romantic entanglements. I know now that sometimes, it’s just not up to you. I am so grateful that I had a mind open enough to see him and am so grateful that he ended up in my life. In retrospect, it was and is the perfect thing.

I would not have made it through these past two years without him, and I would certainly not have made it with as much joy, dignity, and sanity as he has graced me with. People often ask me what I’m going to do once my two years of service is up. That part of my future is not yet in focus yet, but the one thing I do see in my future all the way up to the horizon line is the presence of Faaui by my side.

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For the Love of the Work

I have now been working at a Samoan primary school for six terms (one and a half school years). I have two more to go before I move on to the next thing. Over these six terms, I have learned SO MUCH! My first term, I didn’t really know where to start and, therefore, my units that term were not particularly organized or inspirational. For the next three terms, I was figuring things out. My units got better and better. But at the end of the year, when I looked back at what I had taught, it seemed random and incohesive. Sure, one unit by itself made sense, but the units didn’t really fit together. There was no big plan for the year that was being fulfilled.

So, at the end of the school year last year, I sat down and really worked on making a better plan for this year. I knew I wanted a totally separate plan for the at-risk kids than for the intermediate kids, which I hadn’t done before. I also wanted to make sure I touched on all the major literacy skills throughout the year, not just the ones I happened to think fit with a particular text that I was reading. I read all the curriculum for Samoan students years 4-6 and after a lot of work, I did it. I had two separate syllabi (one for at-risk and one for intermediate students). They had everything. Course goals, unit objectives and themes for each unit of the year, texts matched to each unit, communicative competencies that students would theoretically master, and a skills map of all the different literacy skills per unit. It was my masterpiece. I was beyond excited to see it put into place and see the results.

At the beginning of this year, I saw that I had my work cut out for me. The incoming year 4 class was a mess. All 25 of them (except for two) were severely at-risk. I started my syllabus and my new classroom management plan and I was really happy with the way things were going. I saw all kinds of improvement in all of the kids and a huge boost in the reading skills and their confidence. My biggest affirmation, however, came when I did mid-year assessments a few weeks ago. The results were phenomenal! Whereas at the beginning of the year, half the class scored 6 or fewer points on my 50 point assessment, I no longer had anyone at that level. In fact, the average improvement was 15 points! Which is twice as high as the average improvement from this time last year! Whoohoo! I even had some kids going up 24 points in two terms. Whoa. I was (and am) really excited for the kids, but also, really proud of myself and the work I had put into making a year-long plan that would be most-effective.

So now, I’m in this high place in my Samoan teaching career. My kids are moving up and moving up fast. And I am happier and more confident and less frustrated now that I’m making effective lessons that are appropriate for the reading levels of each group. Teaching is easier now because I’m teaching the right things to the right kids. And they’re now used to my much more rigorous classroom management expectations and consequences, so I am sailing smoothly. I can look at what I’ve given to my school and the kids and be content, even proud! I’ve eliminated the “severely at-risk” group from years 5 and 6, and am close to that benchmark with year 4. I have created and manage a library that has an average of over 120 student check-outs per week. I run a weekly reading club, I co-teach weekly with the year 4 teacher, and I work with students on special events each term such as spelling bee, science fair, literacy competitions, movie camps, English day, standardized test prep clubs, music video festivals, and this year, a service field trip to volunteer at the Samoan Victims Support Group. I know that this was and is the right place for me by the fruit of my work.

Sure, school can be hard and sometimes the kids make me want to peel my own skin off. Sometimes, I just can’t stand to watch another kid be hit because they wore their hair in the wrong kind of braid. Sometimes, I feel like laying face down on my classroom floor because it’s so hard to teach when all the kids in all the rooms around me are yelling and running around their rooms and hitting each other and making SO MUCH NOISE because the teachers are off drinking tea for and hour and a half. Sometimes, I flinch at the nonsense lessons that the kids are forced to learn year after year and the mind-numbingly non-interactive lessons they are served. I’m tired of dealing with kids who don’t know how to think. Seriously. With kids that have told me that the grass is red. In Samoan. Their native language. It can be wildly difficult. I used to think that I have no chance in really teaching anything because these kids have been conditioned not to learn. But a good teacher takes ownership. If the kids aren’t learning, it’s not their fault, it’s mine (even when it’s their fault). If the kids want to amaze me with how difficult they can be, then it’s my job to amaze them with how easy my lessons are to follow and how difficult it is to NOT learn in my room. I don’t always succeed. But this is my goal. And if I put myself in that mindset and take all the responsibility, then I’ll be a better teacher every day.

I may come home at the end of the day covered in sweat and chalk and hungry enough to eat a whole pig and ready to nap for 3 hours. But that is my favorite kind of day.

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Best-Selling Books and Cat Posters

If you read any best selling book or cat poster (which are usually of similar literary quality), you’ll be encouraged to believe that all things happen for a reason and that all the events in our lives and in the universe are working together to cosmically create a meaningful life for you personally.

Well, I believe that that’s a bunch of bullshit. Sure, it’s really easy to look at your life and say, “Wow! Everything in my life culminated in bringing me to this moment! Everything has meaning! Looking back, I can now understand the significance of all these events in my life!” But really, no matter what your present looks like, you’d be able to do the same thing.

I could look at my life and create a lovely and inspiring narrative that weaves together my failures and misfortunes and victories and relationships to show that I’m great and so is life (which is usually the ultimate message of bestselling books and cat posters, incidentally). And people would probably love it! They would feel inspired and comforted and ready to go out into the world and do amazing things and find peace and create love and blah blah blah.

The weirdest part is that I actually do think I’m great and so is life. I’m happy and satisfied and I have a kitten named Harry Potter. Life IS great. So why fight that central message of bestsellers?

Well, I could go with the argument that it’s a theory biased to successful people. What about the kid I heard about who stuck his head out the window of a bus and got struck by oncoming traffic and died? Did the universe conspire to create those events to give his life meaning? Or am I just supposed to use that story as some kind of meaningful anecdote that teaches me something on my way to greater inner peace? It’s a fair counter-argument. The theory that life is great and the universe loves you really only applies to people who have enough health and money and stability to sit for a long while and think about how they’re a special flower that has been nourished with the rains of obstacles. It is far from universally inclusive, and leaves out all the people whose lives have not turned into a happy montage with indie music in the background. And as Walt Whitman says, “Vivas to those who have failed!” Not “Vivas to those who have failed! And then used that failure to gain success and/or contentment!”

As satisfied as I am with the previous counter-argument, my gut feeling tells me that the best argument is that if I want my life to resemble a narrative, I’d much rather it look like 100 Years of Solitude than Eat, Pray, Love. The former is a challenging read, overflowing with too many characters and a long and twisting plot. There were moments when I read it when I thought, “Wow. This is a really meaningful and beautiful moment. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it means.” And that’s really more what life is like. As grateful as I am to Eat, Pray, Love for being one of the only books around for me to read, it was so forced. Like she had tried to force her life to fit this meaningful narrative. There was never a point in the book when I thought that I didn’t really know the ultimate message of the paragraph. Every anecdote jumped in your face and said, “Hey! Look at me! Do you get the point of me yet? No? Oh, you do? Well wait for the next sentence and I’ll literally spell it out for you!” And as much as we may want it to be, life’s not like that.

While I was reading Eat, Pray, Love, I thought that I should write about my time in Samoa! I have a bunch of interesting and entertaining stories that could totally catch the attention of a lot of people if I wrote it in the same way. And I even started to look back and use the same perspective on my life. “Well, this thing happened and then because of it, I got this opportunity. And then when I took that opportunity, this random thing happened and then I met this obstacle. But then I looked inside myself and opened a new door and magically found the solution to that obstacle from earlier! And then I looked into the sunset with a full heart and a newfound sense of love and appreciation for life. The end.” Yeah, it’s a bit simplistic. But not untrue of the general sense of books that preach universe-loves-me-and-makes-everything-meaningful ideology.

So, I’ve decided. I don’t want to write a book or series of blog posts that’s inspiring and meaningful and “makes your heart smile.” But I suppose I should be able to express my counter-ideology. The 100 Years of Solitude ideology of life. Hmm. That’s harder. Here are some contenders:

-Good stuff sometimes happens. And bad stuff sometimes happens. And sometimes it’s nice. And sometimes it’s the worst. And that’s all.

-Life is hard and then you die.

– “Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.” (WW)

But I think my favorite involves my all time best-thing-you-can-do-while-you’re-alive principle. And that principle is epistemic humility. The humility that comes from accepting that you don’t know and you can never know. The thing I see most in best-selling books is the attitude that, “Aha! I’ve figured it all out! And if you read my book, you can know all the secrets too!” And that’s what really gets me down. It’s so much nicer to read book and be with people that know that they don’t have a f***ing clue. About life. About God. About a life of meaning. Because none of us KNOW. And we never can. We can live our life and enjoy the victories and moments of kindness and love. We can cry at the tragedies of our lives and the lives of others and moan about how much things suck. We can seek peace and silence in our hearts. We can worship whatever our hearts moves us to worship. But the second that you tell me that you have unlocked the underlying meaning and purpose of it all, I call bullshit.

Why do we get drawn so often into that trap? Isn’t it enough to wake up in the mornings and breathe air? And walk to school and get my feet all wet in the dewy grass. And teach kids that will frustrate the living bejeesus out of me every day. And feel my heart soften when they come into my room and try to read every word on my walls and every book on the shelf. And come home sweaty and hungry and with an overly-full bladder and take a half hour refreshing myself with a cold shower and a glass of coke and a nap. And clean up Harry Potter’s endless amount of cat pee because he hasn’t yet learned the ways of the litterbox. And enjoy the kindness and also rudeness of my neighbors. And make coffee only to find that in the time it took to cool, four different bugs drowned inside the cup. And go to sleep in front of the fan, cuddling with the most sweet kitten. And then the power going out and getting super sleep-sweaty all night.

For me, it’s enough. I don’t have to and I don’t want to try to find the meaning of it all. It’s simply enough just to have it. Just to witness it.

So, I guess I’d sum up my own personal cat poster like this.

There doesn’t have to be an underlying meaning. Isn’t this enough?

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I Witness and Wait

As I wrote about on my last blog post, I have recently split from Peace Corps, yet I have not split from Samoa, from my village, or from my work. It has been an immensely challenging and emotional time for me. But also a very enlightening time.

The obstacles that have presented themselves to me can be briefly listed as follows:

Why am I such a huge failure? Should I have just called it quits and gone home? What if I run out of money before December? What if I can’t continue to extend my visa until December? What if the Peace Corps office hates me for staying? What if all my Peace Corps friends turn on me and make me taboo? What if I get really sick and can’t use the Peace Corps doctor? What if my village doesn’t really care whether or not I stay? I miss the conveniences, benefits, feeling of inclusion, and sense of obligation that I got from Peace Corps.

Now that I’m on my own, I have to work a little harder . My feeling of inclusion has to come from my village instead of the PC community. My sense of obligation has to come from within rather than from a contract with an employer. Thankfully, the past year and a half has made this achievable. The Peace Corps was my crutch. I feel a little uncertain without it, but after 18 months, I can get along just fine without it.

Being split from PC has also created some very positive things in my life. I have felt the love and support from my friends and family like never before with their encouraging messages and donations. I have gotten closer than ever to my parents, who have been very helpful and supportive, even though they want me to come home. I have been moved by my neighbors and community members who are all endlessly encouraging and understanding and sympathetic. I feel a sense of freedom; a feeling that I don’t have to worry about bosses watching and judging me, so I can be free to act from the joyous well of intrinsic motivation. It feels really good to be doing this just because I want to. With no outside reward. It feels more real for me and for my village. There’s something about being here just because it matters to me that is very moving, both to me, and to my friends/coworkers in the village.

Even though the logistics of day-to-day life are more of a challenge, I can’t find it in myself to complain. For everything that has been taken away from me, something else has appeared. It may not be an even trade, but it has reopened my eyes (and my heart) to some of the stuff that I had begun to take for granted.

Walt Whitman, as always, says it best.

“There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now,

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now” (Song of Myself, 3).

“I believe in those wing’d purposes,

And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing within me,

And consider green and violet and the tufted crown intentional

And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else” (Song of Myself 13).

“The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors, old and new,

My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,

The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,

The sickness of one of my folks or myself, or ill-doing or loss

or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,

Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news,

the fitful events;

These come to me days and nights and go from me again,

But the are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,

Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,

Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,

Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,

Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with

linguists and contenders,

I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait. ” (Song of Myself 4)

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Not Nearly Enough

It’s midnight on a Friday night and I can’t sleep.

As I was falling asleep, I started thinking of ideas for my new weekly reading club for years 5-8. Games that we could play and projects that we could do. And it led me down a mental path that got me really riled up.

For a moment, imagine some of your favorite learning experiences from your primary school years (K-8).

My highlights include:

  • My egg in vinegar project when I got to see the shell of an egg dissolve and was able to pick up the squishy egg innards and pop it in my hand.
  • Science clubs where we made ice cream and played with goo and black lights
  • My 4th-5th grade engineering class when we made catapults and telegraphs and boats and bridges and little cars and stuff.
  • Astro-camp when we made rockets and looked for shooting stars
  • Wax museum projects when we all dressed up as someone famous from history
  • My chariot race in 6th grade when a team of my friends and I built and raced our very own and very real and very hilarious chariot
  • Mummifying chicken legs and dissecting cow bones and digging through owl vomit to find bones
  • Watching educational tv shows and learning DIY experiments

My list could go on and on and on and on. I had a truly phenomenal education. I had books. I had puzzles. I had games. I had highly skilled and motivated teachers. I lived in a place where schools were well funded enough for field trips and extracurricular programs. It was a true JOY to be in school.

As I started remembering all of my favorite learning experiences, I thought about my students. What would their favorite learning experience be? What will they remember ten or twenty years from now when they think back on their childhood school experience?

Not nearly enough.

Suffice it to say that Samoan students are nowhere near to any of the types of educational joys that I was so lucky to have. No field trips. No hands on experiments. No building. No educational television. No books. No thought-provoking toys or materials. No music classes. No clubs. No camps.

I don’t blame the teachers. It’s not their fault. I don’t blame the government. It’s not their fault either. They just aren’t fortunate enough to live in a place where that kind of school funding and staffing exists.

In all honesty, the current kids at my school will probably look back and remember me. Not that I’m some kind of savior or something. But I came with ideas of experiential learning and tried to pass that along.

And what have I done? Not nearly enough.

I opened a library. So the kids have access to books. But because there are so few books and so many students, each student from years 3-8 has access to one book one night per week. And students year 5-8 can attend my weekly reading club and hear one more book per week.

They are so happy and so grateful and even though I get on their case all mean and strict when they return a book late, they come running back every week filling up my room and making a mess of all the shelves and causing general havoc.

I used to mentally pat myself on the back for my success with the library. 100% student participation! Students are able to take books home and get guidance from any adult who is able to read the book that they chose! Improving literacy! Doing good things!

But now when I think about it, it just fucking breaks my heart. It’s not nearly enough. Not even close.

In thinking about writing grants for my school, I was thinking about buying new blackboards so that the teachers don’t have to write around the giant holes in theirs that show glimpses of the class next door. Or writing to communities back home for packages of markers and pencils and crayons and other school supplies that we lack.

But now, I want to write grants for science camps and field trips and building projects. I want to fill that old and weathered school with board games and science sets and maps and pictures and painting supplies and art projects and jungle gym equipment.

I got so used to my surroundings that I thought we had pretty good days when the power was on and the pipes were working and the copier had toner in it. I started thinking small and so I had success and satisfaction.

It’s all gone. When I think of all the things I wish I could do for these kids and all the things that they deserve out of their education, I know that I haven’t even scratched the surface. And because I’m not a multi- millionaire with armies of skilled professionals at my disposal, I never can.

And it hurts.

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A Day in the Life of One of My Students

Earlier this year, my students worked on a project called “A Day in My Life,” in which they tried to explain what life was like on a day to day basis for a primary school student in Samoa. They sent books (and pictures) to the students of Walnut Creek Middle School (thanks for the partnership, Michelle!). The U.S. students responded with amazing books about their lives.

So, if you’re interested, here’s a brief outline of the lives of my Samoan students.

In the morning, I wake up.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Most Samoan children wake up very early in the morning to the sounds of roosters crowing, pigs squealing, and birds chirping.
They must first put away their mosquito nets, which all Samoan people use for protection.
This picture is of the bed that I slept in when I lived with a Samoan family. Most children don’t sleep in beds, but usually sleep right on the floor with a pillow for their heads.

This is a young Samoan boy sleeping the way most Samoan children sleep: on the ground. It doesn’t bother them. They are used to it and sleep very soundly.
Since children here2 wake up 2 walk to school, some of them have to wake up at 5am so that they can do their chores, get ready, and walk an hour to get to school. Some kids are lucky and live next door to the school.

Then, I eat breakfast.

3 Eat Breakfast
The most important meal of the day in Samoa is not breakfast, but rather dinner.
Some children eat breakfast at home. They drink tea and might eat fruit, bread, or noodle soup.
Most children have their small breakfast at the school, where families from the village sell noodle soup, donuts, and other snacks for breakfast.
Some children don’t eat any breakfast at all if they don’t have money that day.
Then, I get dressed.

4 Get Dressed
Samoan children always wear uniforms to school. At my school, students wear a white buttoned shirt with a school badge. Girls wear a red skirt and boys wear a red “ie faitaga,” a wrap around skirt.
On Fridays, students wear shorts so that they can play games.
Here, you can see the Samoan boys wearing their “skirt.” In Samoa, it’s not weird. All boys and men wear them!

5 Get Dressed

Then, I go to school.

7 Go to school 2
This is a picture of the school building in my village.
Students from kindergarten to 7th grade all go to the same school (years 1-8).
There are around 210 students at my school, which is pretty big compared to other schools on my island.
There is one teacher for each year.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I work with students from years 4, 5, and 6 (the same thing as 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade in the U.S.). I teach them how to read and how to speak English.

6 Go to School 1
This is a picture of students in my class learning new vocabulary words.

In the afternoon, I play at school.

8 Play Games at School
At my school, there is no playground for the students.
On Fridays, students get to play with jump-ropes, hula-hoops, soccer balls, and rugby balls.
Monday through Thursday, students run in the field and play games with each other.
Then, I eat lunch.

9 Eat lunch
At my school, the students usually buy their lunch at the school cafeteria.
Students usually eat taro (a root plant like a huge potato) or breadfruit or boiled bananas along with chicken curry or chicken soup or Samoan style chop suey.
In the afternoon, I walk to my house.

10 Walk to my house 1
After school, students walk home on the one main road that goes all the way around our island (Savai’i).

12 Walk to my house 3
There are no other big streets or intersections. If you drive in one direction for 4 hours, you’ll make it back to where you started.
After school, the sun is usually very strong and the walk home is very hot.
But the Samoan students are used to the year-round heat of Samoa.

11 Walk to my house 2
Unlike houses in America, Samoan houses don’t have walls! Since it’s always hot in Samoa, there is no need for them. The roof gives them shade and the openness lets the breeze come through to cool you off.
In the afternoon, I pick up the rubbish.

13 Pick up the rubbish
Most Samoan families have a few different huts on their land. There might be a big house where the family eats, a thatched roof house for families too big to fit in one room, and a hut used for cooking.
One Samoan chore is to pick up the leaves and rubbish that fall on the land around the houses.
Then, I clean the house.

14 Clean the house 2
Other Samoan chores include sweeping the house, doing laundry (out of a bucket!), and washing dishes like the Samoan girl in the picture is doing.
In the evening, I play with my brothers and sisters.

16 Play with my brothers and sisters
After doing chores, Samoan kids have some time to play with their family.
Samoan families are usually very large. Most families have between 7 and 12 children. That’s a lot of siblings to play with.
Also, many families live in the same house/land, so there are lots of cousins around, too.
Then, I help cook food.

17 Help cook food 1
Since dinner is the most important Samoan meal of the day, a lot of time and help goes into it.
Here, a Samoan boy is scraping coconut meat out of the shells. With the shavings, they will squeeze the coconut milk out to make coconut cream, a delicious topping for taro, boiled bananas, and breadfruit.

18 Help cook food 2
In this picture, I am helping make one of the most traditional Samoan foods, palusami.
It is made from the young leaves of the taro plant and coconut cream. You use the leaves as a cup for the cream, wrap it in leaves, and cook it.
It’s one of my favorite Samoan foods.
Samoans don’t have kitchens with stoves or ovens. They cook their food in pots over a fire or in the traditional Samoan oven, which is made of hot rocks and leaves.

19 Help cook food 3
Here, a Samoan boy helps his father put a whole pig in the oven. If you look next to the pig, you can also see the palusami, in their leaf wrappings. Next, they will put hot rocks and leaves over the food and let it cook.
At night, I shower.

20 Shower
This is a picture of the shower in my house, which is indoors and has a shower head and a curtain. My shower is unusual in Samoa.
Most Samoan houses do not have indoor showers. They bathe with water from a bucket or from a pipe outside.
All the showers are cold because there is no heated water.
Then, I do the prayers.

21 Do the prayers
Almost all Samoan people are Christians.
The Samoan tradition is to set aside 15 minutes at sunset to come together as a family, sing songs, and say prayers. This is called the “lotu.” Most families sit on the ground because they don’t have furniture.
At night, I eat dinner.

22 Eat Dinner 1
Dinner in Samoa is much different from dinner in the U.S. Samoans eat different food, sit on the ground, eat with their hands, and usually eat in a certain order.
The oldest people in the family usually eat first, along with any guests of honor. Since I am a volunteer in the village, I am always a guest of honor.

24 Eat Dinner 3
As the elders, chiefs, and guests eat first, teenagers and kids serve the food, fan flies away, and provide bowls of water to wash your hands after you eat (Samoans usually eat with their hands, so things can get messy).
Then, children, teenagers, and younger adults eat together.

23 Eat Dinner 2
It may seem strange that Samoan people eat on the ground, but there are many reasons for it.
Samoan houses are often too small to fit a lot of furniture. Samoan families are often too poor to buy furniture.
But most importantly, it’s part of the Samoan culture. They would feel just as strange eating at a table as you would feel eating on the floor.
Then, I watch T.V.

25 Watch TV
Not all Samoan families have a T.V. but the ones that do have a choice between three channels. My village is in the middle of the jungle, so we only get one channel.
At night, families watch the news and love shows like American Idol, Samoan dance competitions, and soap operas from the Philippines.
Lastly, I go to sleep.

26 Go to sleep
Samoan children sleep in mosquito nets, since not only do mosquito bites itch, but mosquitoes can spread sicknesses.
Samoan nights are cool but not cold. A light sheet is all that is needed.
In this picture, I am helping my Samoan mom put up the mosquito net so that my (real) dad (visiting from America) can go to sleep.

This is a day in our lives. What do you think?

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