Friday, December 10, 2010

Prize Giving

I remember how the end of the school year felt back at home while growing up. It was always a nostalgic time with classrooms being disassembled after a year’s worth of time with friends and teachers. The warm days of early June reminded teachers and student alike that their summer vacations were just days away. There was always an end of the school year assembly where certificates were given for accomplishments made. My parents and grandparents came and took lots of pictures and gave warm hugs for another year completed.

And now having lived in Samoa, I’ve found that the similar traditions take place for the children of this island nation in the Pacific. Although Samoa lacks the change of seasons, and is perpetually hot, I was still able to sense a change of mood at the school as our year ended and the kids prepared for their advancement to the next year.

Samoa’s schools celebrate prize giving their last day of school, although it’s an event that is a few weeks in the planning. Prize giving is a chance for parents to come and visit the school and see their children receive gifts from their teachers. Although teachers in Samoa see the parents of their students every day in the village, either while playing bingo, going for an evening walk, or stopping by the local store, they hardly ever discuss a student’s progress and teacher parent conferences don’t exist here. So prize giving is probably the one day of the year where teachers, parents and students truly connect in a meaningful way in terms of accomplishments related to school.

Prize giving is something I began hearing about a year ago. Volunteers who had already experienced it warned us about it well in advance. But now having lived through it, I think it was a great event to wrap up the school year. When I asked other volunteers in the office to describe prize giving at their school in one word, here’s what they said. Jenny C. from Group 82 said “wild.” Tiffany, also from 82 said “superfluous,” while Corina, also from the same group said “Christmas.” Lisa, from Group 79 summed up the event with the word, “emotional.” My word would have to be “thoughtful.”

Our school began preparing for the event a couple weeks before when the teachers taught the students, years 1-8 dance motions for a Samoan song. Then the older years, 7 and 8 did a dance on their own. Dance and music are a huge part of Samoan culture, so this was a great way for the kids to unwind after 10 months in the classroom. Watching the smiles on their faces as they learned the dances was exciting to see. It also taught them about working together, since it was choreographed, and the younger kids were having to watch the older kids. After listening to the same two songs play over and over and over and over for two weeks, I was one song away from scratching the CD. But now looking back, I realize that whenever I hear those songs, I’ll always remember those kids and our first year together. Just today on the bus into town, one of them was playing on the radio and I just smiled at the thought of our time together.

Food is a huge part of social gatherings in Samoa. Between the help from families in the village, and the teachers, we were planning to feed all the family members who attended the prize giving. I didn’t want to be left out, so I offered to bring a fruit salad and popcorn. Also, the night before prize giving all the kids came up to the school with palm fronds to weave traditional Samoan baskets that the food would be served on. They had probably over 150 baskets! The next morning the food began arriving in huge pots that you would see used in a kitchen of a college campus’ cafeteria. We were busy organizing all the food as it arrived and placing foil in all the baskets from the night before.

For prizes, the teachers go all out. These are people who don’t have a lot of money but splurge for the kids on this one occasion. Many of the kids who receive prizes were receiving bowls and bags of chips, cookies, or candies. I had made certificates for my year 7 English class since they were the kids who I had taught the most throughout the year. I gave awards for the top grades on the final exam (ranking students based on test results and making it public is very common for this culture), as well as for attendance, overall best homework throughout the year, as well as a certificate for the student who washed their hands the most in our hand washing competition. I gave an award for the student who was most improved. That one went to Neueli, who could barely read English at the beginning of the year, but now is doing a wonderful job and is always excited to be in the classroom!

Also, I had a competition with students form years 7 and 8 for good manners. Beginning back in late August when I started the event, I kept track of their manners each day. We had talked about good and bad manners and so this was very helpful for overall classroom management. If they had good manners at the end of the day, they received a mark next to their names. Over the past few months they would come into my room to check their progress and I could tell they were taking it very seriously. Perhaps it was because of the reward: a free trip into the capital to visit the public library and then have lunch at McDonald’s and finish up by getting a double scoop of ice cream.

At the end of November, I counted up who had the most marks next to their name and it was Kolly from year 8. I got permission from my principal who was on board with the program and then spoke to the student’s parents who were also excited for Kolly, who was making his first trip to McDonald’s (and the library). On December 1st we had a great trip and spent about an 1 ½ at the library looking over the books. It was great to see his reaction as we walked in, and especially to hear him read English books with such ease in the children’s section. He had a great hamburger with his Happy Meal and then filled up with his ice cream. I had taken pictures throughout the morning and then made a point of stopping to have some printed off to give to him, knowing he would take them back to the village and share them with all the kids and get them excited for next year’s competition.

Back to the actual day of prize giving, the dances went well and plenty of food was eaten. The principal spoke and gave an overview of our school year and what had been going on in the school. He mentioned our new photo copier and the re-painted library with donated books from New Zealand. I gave a thank you in Samoan to all the parents and teachers, for their welcoming me into the community and looking out for me during my first year.

As the students started heading out the door at the end of the day, a few students brought some small gifts up to me. Luisa gave me a traditional Samoan wooden weapon that her brother had carved. It was beautiful. One of the last students to come up to me is one of my favorites. He handed me a piece of paper that was folded up to create an envelope. On the front it had my name and it said to “open up.” I put it in my pocket, wanting to enjoy reading it later in the day once things had quieted down. But just him giving it to me was enough to bring a couple tears on as I said goodbye. Our school year was ending, although I’d probably see him later that evening on a walk through the village, it was an emotional moment just thinking of his accomplishments and how we had both matured over the last year.

After saying goodbyes to the principal, teachers and school committee, I walked back to my house, changed out of my sweaty shirt and sat down to read my card. I opened the envelope and unfolded another piece of paper written on a piece of graph paper. I read it. “I love my best friend Kyle. Thanks. Saulo.” Below that was written the date, Saulo’s class year, and then the funniest part of the whole card, the expiration date! I started to cry. I was crying thinking about how I had almost left Samoa for an easy way out when things were hard, when life was tough. There were days when I didn’t feel a connection to any of those students. But now I was holding proof in my hand of what hard work and dedication would result in: helping change someone else’s life. That piece of paper alone made every challenge I’ve faced worth it. It confirmed the fact that I had indeed made the right decision by staying here in Samoa, to do the work I was asked to do, to do the work I said I would do, and to do the work those students needed me to do. Although the card had an expiration date of 2020, I’m hoping that the memory of our time together will last Saulo, and the other students for a lifetime.

The certificates I made for year 7 English students.

Some of the food before serving it at prize giving.

With my teachers (in green), principal (in blue), and school committee members (in white) after prize giving.

Students and parents at prize giving.

Monthly manners chart, with Kolly's name at the top.

The food in the ipu kuagiu, or Samoan plates.

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