Monday, January 30, 2012

Happy 2nd Birthday, Kyle!

Kyle & Kyle
Let’s begin this with a pop quiz: Which of the following is not a typical Samoan name given to a boy? A.) Fale B.) Alofa C.) Fatu D.) Kyle

And since you all answered D.) that leaves me with this story to tell: I arrived in my village to begin my service on December 9, 2009. The very next day, there was a baby boy born in my village, and I found out that same evening that the mother had named him Kyle. I never fully appreciated what that meant at the time, but as the two years progressed, it started to become clearer.

Samoans give from their hearts. Kyle’s mother, naming her son after me, gave a gift from her heart, and a sign of respect towards me, as a new member of their community who had arrived to work within their village. As the two years passed, Kyle was a measure of my time in Samoa, as I was able to watch him grow. To tell myself I was going to live in a Samoan village for two years was an abstract concept. To watch a child grow during that same amount of time, served as something concrete.

And so the time passed…we had pictures together along the way, and I came to know their family better. As my last week in Samoa approached, Kyle’s mom came to me and invited me to join them for Kyle’s 2nd birthday celebration. It was Saturday, December 10th! Considering most Samoans don’t do much for their birthday celebration, I was so happy to see that Kyle’s dad went to town that morning to buy a birthday cake for his son. We also had a big spread of food to enjoy, before getting to dig into the cake! I had made Kyle a birthday card, and was sure to get some pictures of us together, some of which I later printed off and gave to his parents.

Now that I’ve left Samoa, I feel even more honored, to have a small child on the other side of the world, who was named after me. It’s another one of those lasting connections which will remain with me and that country I love so much. Perhaps Kyle will be able to look at those pictures when he’s older, and hear the story about a Peace Corps Volunteer who arrived in his village the day before he was born. And someday when I go back to visit my village, I hope to meet Kyle again, and remember the day his life began.

Kyle getting ready to blow out the candles on his birthday cake!

Kyle was warming up to me quite a bit on the day of his birthday, running over to me and wanting to sit near me. Here he even stood still for a picture.

Kyle and his dad.

Kyle and his mom.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Tribute to Year 8

My last picture with year 8, after
their prize giving--Dec. 2, 2011.
As I believe I've said in the past, year 8 and I had a unique relationship over the past two years. When we first started our journey together in February of 2010, I was still reaching for the reigns on teaching in a foreign country and they were perhaps still grappling at how to respond to a tall white guy who wore glasses and called himself their teacher. But nevertheless, we made it through the challenges and growing pains of the beginning and quickly came to love our time together. I spent the most time with those 8 students during my teaching assignment at the primary school. I am so grateful for their smiles, persistence and patience as we traveled together each and every day.

Looking back now, it's hard to believe that they were all strangers in the beginning--so much so that I was forced to take their pictures that first week of school with them holding their names in front of them, so I could study their faces. Now they are people I will remember for the rest of my life.

As one of my going away gifts to them, I printed off that first picture I had taken, which most of them had long forgotten about. I will share them now with you, so you can see how they have grown, comparing them to their current pictures from 2011! I'll also take this opportunity to share a little bit about what I'll remember each of them for! Congratulations to Year 8!


Penina was like the mother of the room. She was looking out for others along the way--including helping them cheat on a couple occassions. Of all the kids, I think she shows the most signs of wanting to become a teacher someday.


Salote was the one I could always count on to answer a question I had asked, or to offer to come up to the board to write out an answer. She's a great reader as well.


Christopher was one of my weaker students, but the amount he grew during our time together was so amazing to see. This kid never gave up, and he fought hard each and every day--with a smile on his face!


Luisa was my steady worker who I always could count on. If I needed to trust someone with a certain task, she was the one I'd ask.


Saulo was my translator in times of need. He also made a great aid, helping the slower learners after he was finished with his work--a very gifted student.


Neueli was the one who kept my spirits high on a bad day. He always came bouncing into my room every morning with a smile on his face and was always giving me a hug.


Perise arrived a term late in 2010, having moved from American Samoa, so I didn't get an early picture of her. She was my librarian. Anytime I needed the books organized, or supplies from the library, she was my go-to person.


In a previous blog I posted on December 3, 2011, I wrote about this year’s prize giving ceremony at my school. However, at the time I wasn’t able to post any pictures from that special day, so I wanted to take this opportunity to tie up that loose end. I’ll post the pictures below with a short description about each one. Again, prize giving is the last day of school for Samoan students where they receive their awards for the school year. This year I found myself holding back emotions as I knew that day was the official end of my work at the school. We had a great celebration, and the kids were as happy as ever!

The evening before prize giving all the year 7 and 8 kids came up to the school to decorate and clean for the event. Here the kids are placing palms around the outside posts of the school for decoration.

The national flower of Samoa, the Teuila, was used for decoration at the school. All the kids were responsible for bringing a few to help with the cause!

The kids are seated and ready for the program to begin. They were told by the principal to have their school uniforms clean for the special day. Notice that the boys and girls are seated separately.

The mayor of the village was asked by the principal to help pass out the awards to some of the kids.

After prize giving with teachers, principal and school committee members.

With teachers, Letaulau and Maria after prize giving.

Not only one of my year 8 students, Saulo was also my personal Samoan tutor, and more importantly, one of my best friends in the village. Here we are together with his going away gift to me, which his father made and he was so proud of!

The candy necklaces I received from students and parents during prize giving.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Heal the World

Last January when I started my second year as a teacher, I made the point of hanging a world map in my classroom. I knew by doing so, the kids would be able to dream a little bit larger than they had before. They might ask questions and wonder about other continents, countries and cultures. The map led me to develop our theme for the entire school year, “We are the World.” That theme idea came about from the popular song with the same name, by Michael Jackson. It often plays on the radio in Samoa, and the kids have always loved it.

However, I also knew of another Michael Jackson song which I can remember fondly from my own childhood, “Heal the World.” Riding in the car at an early age, I remember listening to it on a cassette tape which got played over and over again. This past school year I decided that it went nicely with our theme, and hoped that in teaching it to the kids, they might be able to carry a new memory with them, about our time together.

In late September I decided to begin teaching my years 7 and 8 students the song. Each week I would have them work on learning a new portion of the song, which I had written on large sheets of newsprint, as well as on a piece of paper I had made and photo copied for them.

At one point during our song rehearsals, I made the decision to choreograph a dance for the song which I would teach to them. Singing and dancing are both a huge part of the Samoan culture, although I hadn’t utilized it as much in my classroom as I would had liked to over the past two years. So this final project gave me a chance to step out of my regular comfort zone and really leave a gift for these kids to remember.

In November they were getting familiar with most of the words, and it was time to start teaching them the dance. Each night I would listen to the song over and over again on my i-pod and rack my brain on different dance moves I could create for the song. The following day I would take it to the kids and have them practice the dance with me. There were definitely moments of frustration as I tried to keep them focused. I kept reminding myself that their excitement was in large part due to the fact that they don’t always get the opportunity to do activities like this with their other Samoan teachers, and that they were really enjoying this new opportunity.

I would always get a smile on my face after teaching a particular dance move where I heard kids saying in Samoan, how cool the dance was. They laughed, argued, and made up several times throughout the two months of our project. It was a great opportunity to have them work together as a team, especially requiring them to break their own insecurities in terms of girls interacting with boys and vice versa. For example, Samoan kids will normally sit with members of their own sex; the boys on one side of the room, and the girls on the other. So when asking a girl to shake hands with a boy during our song, I first got a lot of resistance, but over time was glad to see that they got past that and worked well together.

One night while laying in my bed listening to the song on my i-pod, I realized that we needed some props to go along with the dance. I got the idea to make a huge globe to hold up, and smaller ones for the kids to use. On a weekend trip to the capital I went dumpster diving for old cardboard boxes and found some great ones to use. Once back in the village I traced a globe and used left over paints from my house to make the water and soil with blue and green paint. In class one day I had the kids draw their own smaller globes which were incorporated into the dance.

Although this was my project, I wanted to include the other teachers who had always been supportive of my activities in the past. I went to them and explained our work on the song. I told them that I’d like to record it to show to friends and family back home. They were all on board and eager to help. They had the girls make flower headbands for the day of the filming, and had the guys wear flowers in their hair too (not uncommon for boys in Samoa for special occasions).

In late November we were finally ready for the big performance. The kids came to school that morning with a lot of excitement. It was a beautiful sunny day (during the rainy season) and we began the taping. I had also taught them “He’s got the Whole World in His Hands,” and we also sang “We are the World, with the teachers assigning Saulo to be Michael Jackson and stand out in front with a fake microphone. The kids loved every minute of it.

With the ocean as their back drop and a beautiful mountain to their side, they sang and danced with smiles on their faces. As I was filming I could see my fellow teachers were enjoying the moment just as much, and I was hopeful that I had passed something on to them as well. All the younger kids from all the other grades sat quietly alongside the school and watched on. I think all of us, teachers and students alike, got chills at some point during that day, as we saw all our hard work come to fulfillment.

In the end, I was so thankful I took the leap of faith and taught them the song and dance. I later found out that not only had the song touched them, but the younger kids who hadn’t even sung or danced to it. Several evenings I would be walking through the village and hear a five or six year old singing the song with near perfect English. So many of the kids from years 7 and 8 came up and told me in our final days together that they would sing that song after I left Samoa and it would remind them of me. Now that I’ve left Samoa, and am reflecting back on our time together, I now realize that whenever I hear the song, I will be thinking of them also!

Feel free the watch the video of one of our rehearsals for "We are the World." Due to the large size of the video file for "Heal the World," I am unable to load that video to this space.

Kids ready for first note of song!

The flowers looked great that day.

"Make a little make a better place."

The boys and the girls finally got over their "fear" of holding hands!

Christopher, although one of my weaker students, had his moment to shine and did an awesome job!!

The smaller globes worked out well and they never fought over who got which one!

Great work, kids!

One of my teachers, Maria, acting as D.J.

All of us together after a very hot day out in the sun. We were all ready to head for shade!

In the classroom with our globes, standing in front of the "We are the World" bulletin board.

Saulo acting as Michael Jackson for our singing of "We are the World."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Crescendo

My time in Samoa is finished. The ending came and went like the setting of the sun, like the final notes of a grand orchestra composition. I knew all along that the final days were playing out, and that they were days I would remember for the rest of my life. Just as we realize the change in the sky’s brilliant colors before an unforgettable sunset, or hear the final crescendo on a masterpiece of music; so too, was I aware of how those last moments with my village, were marking the end of something great!

That final day in Samoa was now a month ago, which may leave some wondering why I’ve written so late about something that affected me so much. I’ve thought of this very question, and believe it took that month, to process what happened, and what it meant for me and those I left. Perhaps at times like this, I’m most concerned about getting the words just right, working harder than ever to portray what my thoughts, emotions and feelings really are. Nonetheless, today I am ready to embark on that journey, to explore those last days and relive their new place in my life.

I can’t properly bring closure to a 26 month blog in just one entry, so I’d like to invite you to continue checking in over the next couple of weeks as I tell the stories in several posts. I believe this will most accurately reflect my final memories and events in Samoa. Over the past two years, you’ve come to know many of the people that were a part of my life during my Peace Corps service, so let me tell you about our goodbyes and how we celebrated our last days together. Thank you as always for reading, and for your interest in this ongoing journey.

The Hurricane Analogy

Writing in my journal my last week in Samoa, I found a way of describing how I thought the process of saying goodbyes might play out—and it later proved to be spot-on. As the week started closing in on me, I felt like I was preparing for a hurricane. Recall those news and weather reports shown on T.V. of families and businesses boarding up, packing up, and then waiting for the winds and rains to come. When I started my packing, and later took part in multiple trips with my bags to the capital, I felt like I was boarding up, and getting things in order before the storm hit. After my house was packed and things moved out, I had a couple of days to just relax and be with my village as I tried to keep things normal, yet knew they really weren’t. This felt a bit like the waiting just before the first wind bands arrive on shore.

Later, the eve of my departure would arrive, and emotions and feelings became so great that I knew the winds had arrived. Then there was a quiet stillness that last night, before my final morning, as if the calm eye of the storm had passed over. But then the next day arrived, and the back side of the storm came and thrashed. My village and I were strong though, and in the end we were able to ride it all out, and make it through together.

Thoughtful Silence

Throughout my time in Samoa, it was common for me to have visitors to my house. They would come over, kids and adults alike, and we would visit. When the adults came over, the conversation was normally upbeat and lively. When the kids stopped by we might listen to music, dance, play cards or cook food. But during my last week, one thing that struck me as different about my visitor’s time was their longer stays at my house, and more silent presences.

I can easily remember my last week when my friend Saulo came over to visit. I was busy working around the house, doing laundry and packing things. I spent some time in conversation with him, and we played a card game, but after a period of time, when he normally would have left to go home, he didn’t want to. He said he wanted to stay longer. He ended up sitting there for two or three hours as I did my work at the house. We didn’t say much to each other that day, but I think we both knew what was on the other’s mind. It was almost as if we were reflecting in silence about our last two years together, and what it meant to us, and what the future might hold.

As the days continued, I had similar experiences from others in the village I had been close to. My good friend Milo came over and sat as I organized and sorted. They all would come over and just want to be present. They would sit and just be content with little fuss over the topic of conversation. Looking back, I realize those were really our last moments together, as friends and neighbors, before the business of those last couple of days. I am so thankful to all those who came over to visit, who wanted to be with me just because they could be.

The End of Hoarding

As volunteers, we sometimes had a tendency to hold onto things that might have been useful someday, although we weren’t sure what that use might have been. I don’t know if that instinct came about from many of us living in remote areas in cultures different than those we grew up in, but I often heard of other volunteers stashing things away for the day they might really had needed them.

I use to feel a bit embarrassed that I was saving old glass jam and spaghetti jars, until another volunteer said they were saving old peanut butter containers. I felt more secure. But in the end, I never had a use for the jars myself, so when I was cleaning out the house, I offered them to neighbors, who quickly snatched them up—especially the ones that still had lids—because they said they were going to use them to put tea in them.

Routines are Hard to End

One part of life that helps many Peace Corps Volunteers keep their feet steady throughout their service is a well oiled functioning routine. In the beginning when everything feels foreign, the routine may be the only thing that you can count on to be predictable or feel comfortable. Of course, after time, we adjust and become more in tune with the day-to-day life in the village, yet that routine we once began always sticks with us.

For me, that last week was about doing that routine one last time. That involved cooking my favorite meals one last time in Samoa, although they weren’t the most amazing meals, they were the meals that I had become so accustomed to: pasta, pasta and more pasta, and then maybe one night of homemade tortillas.

Exercise was also a huge part of my routine, so I made sure to get out for my evening runs which led me down the most beautiful road overlooking that awesome ocean. The last run I had ended up turning into a soaker, forcing me to take cover under the broad leaf of a banana tree until the rains let up.

When I first arrived at my site in 2009, I never thought that I’d have the ambition or physical strength to run some of those steep hills near my house, let alone even enjoy it. However, as with many other parts of my life, I slowly realized what I thought was impossible was actually quite doable when I set my mind to it.

Another part of my routine, which falls under the category of a “chore,” was doing laundry. I remember thinking that week of how easy life was about to become for me in terms of keeping my clothes clean. Not only was I returning to a country where washing machines are as plentiful as coconut trees are in Samoa, but I was returning to a climate where sweating doesn’t take place for five months out of the year. Washing clothes, and towels, and sheets in Samoa taught me a lot of patience. The first few times I did it I couldn’t believe it, but after a while I found it to be a nice time to think about life and reflect on the day or week. Loosing that slower part of my life that final week reminded me I was about to return to a routine that would be different.

Saulo, during one of his visits to my house the last week.

During one of my last laundry sessions.

Milo always came and sat on the water tank outside my bathroom window to visit while I did laundry. Here he is on my last laundry day.

I literally had a "bench press," as part of my daily exercise routine!