Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Brothers

During my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I gained three friends who I now call brothers. Although I gained friendships with many throughout my village, these three individuals each played a unique role in helping me through my toughest days, and then supporting me through my best. Looking back now, I see how each of us grew to become stronger people during those days we faced together, both the good and the bad. I invite you to read about how we became friends and what we learned from each other.

Milo and I met on one of my hardest days as a Peace Corps Volunteer—my first day. I had just been picked up in a van from the capital, and ridden out to my village to start my new life. When the van came to a stop on the road near my house, there he was, eager to help with my heavy bags and looking at me with much curiosity. From that first day, when I needed him the most, when I needed a friend like I had never needed one before, he was there.

From that day on, there were very few that passed where Milo and I didn’t see each other, or talk to one another. He lived right next to my house, and I quickly became like an adopted son to his entire family. Milo and I spent so many days together, that on the rare occasions we didn’t see each other, I felt like something was missing.

As the months went by, our friendship continued to grow. At school he was my student, and during my first year, he was one of the weakest students from his grade level. He lacked confidence, and relied heavily on his mom to complete basic homework assignments. But as we spent more time together, both inside and outside of school, I began to challenge him more, and he began to succeed, recognizing his own abilities and strengths. By the time my second year arrived, he was one of the strongest students in his grade level, answering questions with confidence and a smile, the same questions which kids use to laugh at him for not knowing the answer to, just the year before.

Samoans are very competitive, and this certainly holds true at school. Teachers often post publicly, the class test results and end-of- the-term rankings of students. Therefore, I didn’t feel at all out of place when I posed the question to Milo about if he would like to gain the number one ranking in his grade level and be at the top of his class. He certainly said yes, but I told him he was going to have to work hard if he wanted to get it.

Milo did work hard, and on the last day of school, he had earned himself that 1st place ranking over his fellow classmates. I’m so thankful he learned how to dream for something, and then follow through to the end to accomplish that goal. I think he also served as a great example to other kids who took notice at how he had grown, and perhaps they are asking themselves now if they have what it takes to do the same.

I remember the first time I met Saulo. It was very early on in my arrival to the village, perhaps my second or third day. I was walking down the street with Milo, and beside me was this skinny little kid talking a hundred miles an hour and then laughing at everything he said. I remember feeling a bit annoyed at the time, not understanding what he was saying, and thinking he might be talking about me. He probably was!

As a student of mine, I quickly began to realize he was one gifted person. His English was one of the highest of any of the kids at school, and his energy day after day was infectious. This kid didn’t slow down, but just kept on charging ahead. He often enjoyed reading a book at school, titled, “Keep on Trying.” In this book, a boy had to keep learning how to do new things, such as riding a bike, or playing a game and thus was forced to “keep on trying.” I’ll never forget the time when Saulo and I were walking through the village one evening and he told me he was going to “keep on trying,” to do his best at school, and learn English. It was moments like that which made me smile.

Last June, when I decided I wanted to build on my Samoan language skills more, it was Saulo whom I turned to for help to act as my tutor! Yes, there were some adults I could have asked instead, but I knew that in asking Saulo, I would be placing a trust and responsibility on him that many hadn’t challenged him with before. It ended up being a win/win situation for both of us: my Samoan, and his English.

Many afternoons, it became routine to walk over to Saulo’s house to watch him prepare his family’s evening meal. I could just sit there for 15 or 20 minutes and watch him peel the green bananas, or cut up the chicken and toss it in the boiling water, cooking over a fire he had just made minutes before. I think it was a way of me simplifying my day, and appreciating some of the hard work that goes into preparing a meal for a Samoan family.

My first memory of Neueli was during one of my classes at school. It was a time when I was still very much homesick, and doubting myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He helped lift my spirits that particular day, just by his saying thank you to me, and from that point on, I began to look at my time in Samoa in a completely different light.

I also can remember the days when I use to pronounce his name wrong. Just by your reading it, I’m sure you can tell it is challenging, although it now seems like second nature. However, I had been saying it wrong for the first couple weeks of school, until one day, he and Saulo came up to me one morning and said that they were staying inside at recess to teach me the proper pronunciation. They did, in fact, take the time to come in, and I think they drilled me for 10 minutes before leaving. From that point on, I had it down!

Neueli was always smiles. He came in to the room each morning with a cheer that other students just couldn’t quite match; he must be a morning person! Neueli, like Milo, had struggles with his school work early on, not being able to read basic sentences. His favorite book was “Little Car,” and over time he began to master not only that book, but several others I would place before him. During our second year together, it was so rewarding to be reading with a student from a younger year, and have Neueli come strolling into the room over to the side of my desk where he would start helping the students on words they didn’t know. He always got this excited look on his face, after realizing that he once was the struggling reader, but over time had learned to achieve and move to a higher level!

These kids, like most Samoans, have grown up in a very large family with many other siblings. Although Samoan parents love their children, it is still hard, and not completely a part of their culture, to spend individual time with the children as they are growing up. However, when Milo, Saulo or Neueli visited my house, I think they were able to find some of that personal attention which they didn’t always receive at home. In my house, I treated them as equals, as kids with ideas, challenges and successes. Perhaps at my house, more than in any other place, they were able to be kids—they weren’t required to do a bunch of chores, look after a younger sibling, or run an errand to the local store. They could just be themselves.

As not only their friend, but their teacher, I was left in a difficult position at school when I had to discipline them for one reason or another. I struggled until the very end to get them to understand that when we were at school I was their teacher and as a result, couldn’t goof around like we would after school. Although this was a challenge, it was one I was willing to take on, because our friendship meant so much to each of us.

We have so many memories together, both happy and sad. On the afternoon that the Peace Corps delivered word to me that my grandma had passed away, it was the three of them that came to my house to be with me, give me a hug, and then ask if there was anything they could do. We also shared so many happy times together: climbing the mountain near my house, going to the river or ocean for a swim, and dancing to music in my house.

There were also countless cooking classes, in which I taught them how to make “American foods” such as chocolate pudding, tapioca, popcorn or oatmeal. They were never shy about asking for a ripe banana or a cold glass of water from my fridge. They even were able to eat M&Ms and Peeps for the first time in their lives. When I cooked oatmeal before my Peace Corps experience, it was just oatmeal, but now when I cook it, it’s a memory of my time with Milo, Saulo and Neueli.

When I left Samoa, I left knowing that not only had I helped change the lives of these kids, but that they had certainly changed mine. I know they have bright futures ahead of them; I saw each overcome their own challenges and become better people in the process. I hope I never forget the things they taught me, like how to face new and unfamiliar obstacles, how to be accepting of new ideas, people and cultures, and most of all, how to love a dear friend.

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