Tuesday, October 11, 2011

September and beginning of October Happenings!

Ok, so I need to apologize for neglecting to write in my blog. I am not a huge fan of writing so whenever I think of updating it, there is always so much to tell that it seems like a daunting task.   However, I am excited to share all of the great, and not so great, happenings in American Samoa thus far.

We have hit the three month mark, as of today, of our service as well as the first quarter end of the school year. The past three months feels like it’s gone by fast, yet the first weeks of orientation in July feels like it happened years ago. The novelty of being in a new place and teaching has worn off; ergo the honey-moon stage is over. The last couple of weeks I’ve felt in a funk and was even sick for a few days. I’ve been told my students think I’ve changed and that I haven’t been as cheery and outgoing as I was when school began. And somehow running on a treadmill just isn’t the same as swimming. I even stopped exercising for a while which I gave myself no outlet for the many frustrations.

Last week I realized I was going through this phase and decided to make a change. My new challenge is making the monotonous Monday through Friday schedule of walking to and from school, teaching accounting and record keeping, lesson planning, grading, dealing with cheeky students, lazy teachers, etc. into something diverse and positive. The calendar in my bedroom for the month of October’s quote is “I do the very best I know how, the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing it to the end” - Abraham Lincoln. I took this to heart and am trying to live up to this. I also brought this quote to school and shared it with my students. We came to an understanding, the students and I, and we have agreed to make a conscious effort to follow it together.

Debits, credits, journalizing, posting to ledger, budgeting, and variances ran both my 140 students and myself into the ground last week. Despite the fact that midterms start tomorrow, I decided that last Friday we needed a break; we also have a scheduled pep rally that day so I wasn’t meeting with one of my classes and the school day was shortened- good day for a break. My students were to write/ask ten questions about anything they wanted to, myself included, and I would try and answer the ones directed to me. I collected their journals at the end of class and took them home and read every one. A good majority of students asked me some personal questions. They are very curious. Questions ranged from my favorite color, to my high school/college experiences in the states, where I go to church, if I ever lied to my parents, the pros and cons of having a boy/girlfriend while in school, etc. I plan on answering these questions this coming week and I think this will be a good activity that will make me more human and open a good dialogue, breaking up what a normal class is like.

There is still a language barrier that, depending on the student, can be very challenging. I have to watch myself and make sure I talk slow, give clear and concise instructions, and use simple wording. Furthermore, my students are smart and have the ability to succeed but there is a huge disconnect. If they miss school, they don’t ask for missed work, homework isn’t turned in, there is no studying before tests, projects are turned in late, etc. Whether this is due to lack of motivation, laziness, or their life at home with church and chores devours all their time, it is very frustrating. I was told that this is the attitude of the students ahead of time, but seeing how most kids just settle with bad grades, plan on working a blue collar job, and stay on this rock forever; I have never been so passionate about education and creating a brighter future for these kids. I care so much for every single one of these kids and I want to see them succeed and do great things.

The Samoan culture doesn’t raise kids to ask questions and thinking for themselves. They are told what to do all the time. This carries into the classroom. There is no critical thinking and analyzation. There is a fear to ask questions because they usually get hit by the Samoan teachers/parents if they do so. I try and create an atmosphere that is positive and safe, where it’s more than ok to ask questions. It’s kind of working at the moment, haha.

I have been trying to make an effort to get to know my students on a more personal level by attending softball, volleyball, football games, going to church with them, and having them come in for one-on-one tutoring. For tutoring, some of my athletes, like the football players, are failing my class. After notifying their coaches, we now have study parties during lunch.  It’s actually really fun despite not having a break during that time. The coaches really appreciate it as well because it is open to all football players, not just my own. After the work is done, we chat about music, movies, their girlfriends, football, college, etc. I can say now, that come June, when my service is completed, it will be hard to say goodbye to these kids. Some of these kids are huge, nearly six feet tall or bigger, big real big, and put on this front like they’re big and bad, yada yada. But when you get them one-on-one, they are harmless and very kind but have huge, hilarious personalities.  A few want to go to the new Twilight movie with me when it comes out next month, I haven’t decided if this is crossing the line, but they really want to go with me and they bring it up often. It makes me laugh.

And I always have random kids come that stop by my classroom to say hi throughout the day. I have 15 football players and they love seeing us at their games. Our JV is the best on island and our varsity is second. Varsity lost their game this past weekend and it would a tough loss, the moral is going to need some boosting! I have been bear-hugged by many students at the games and some of the boys down on the field will wave at me or chat while they should be in game mode. It’s great to be able to support these kids on and off the field. I realize I talk about my football boys a lot, but I also have a fair amount of other students that will come and hang out with me during their lunch and/or come to me for advice in their personal lives. It’s nice to know they trust me and know that I am there for them. Some of these kids would bend over backwards for me, or if I ask them to jump, they ask how high.

I reorganized by classroom the other week and they wanted to help. I pictured myself sweating, slaving away in my room by myself. But come lunch, a number of kids give up that time to be with their friends. And they came ready to work, and ready to work as they had changed out of their school uniforms and put on other clothes that are ok to sweat in. It made me smile. I also have 15 brand new computers sitting in my classroom in boxes but I do not have the room, outlets, or steady internet to use them, so its just a shame they are sitting there useless. Also interesting that I have new computers but I still do not have enough chairs and desks for all my students to sit in. Money is not allocated effectively and it’s very frustrating.

I also am trying to use Samoan in the classroom. Half the time they laugh at me when I say something, but they respond really well when I say, “soy le pisa, fa’amolemole,” which means “please stop talking.” Or another phrase they all laugh at is “tusitusi in your api,” meaning “to write in your notebook.” “Oh my gosh” in Somoa is “oka.” And I love to say that. It’s my new and favorite word. “Oka” is also a type of fish, so when I ask “oka” my kids make a squirm or shimmy motion and then say “oka Miss Kasey” back to me. My students refer to me as “Miss Kasey” but it usually comes out as “Miss” or “Miss Kase.” I’m getting use to be called by my nicknames- a bit different. And by the way, all 1300 students at Tafuna High School know my name. Kids I’ve never seen before will yell “HI MISS KASE” from across campus.  

Time spent outside of school on the weekends, we (whenever I say “we,” I mean my two roommates that are at my high school, Peter and Lauren, we were called “three’s company” by the field director of our program last year and the “three amigos”). We are a trio and do everything together. But we try and go out and do things, even if it’s taking a bus into the main part of the island on Saturday and eating lunch and then heading home. This last weekend (October 8-10), the three of us, two other volunteers, and the field director from the program last year headed over to Western Samoa for the three day weekend- thank goodness for Columbus Day. Western Samoan unlike American Samoa is independent of the US, much bigger islands, and more touristy.

Apia (one of the two islands that make up Western Samoa) is about a half our plan ride from Tutila (the biggest/main island of American Samoa). The plane we take is a small, little jet that seats about 20 people with an open cock pit. I was seated in the front row behind the pilots and was able watch them do their thing. So we loaded the plane, buckled up, and then took off in a matter of about 5-10 minutes. The accelerator to the plane is very similar to that of a ski-boat. You just push the stick down. But instead of the stick being on the side of the boat, in a plane, it’s on the ceiling. Both pilots have to grab onto this thing and muscle it together to get the plane up to full speed for flight- teamwork! The plane also has this screen that the pilots use to see the route between the two islands. It looks like the screen of an old school video game. The wheel of the plane looks like one used to play a game.

The landing strip in Apia is so small and has one small building for the airport. It is located in the middle of a village/residence area. We took a taxi to the capital- Western recently aligned their time and driving to New Zealand as they do a lot of import/export, therefore they drive on the other side of the street. But since this is new, some people forget what side of the street to drive on and some cars’ driver’s seat is on the left and others on the right. It’s kind of weird, crazy, and scary at the same to be a passenger driving on the roads there. The streets in the capital had thousands of people out about, stop lights, and huge buildings. It’s small here in American Samoa and to see that many people, all the roads was very overwhelming.

Rugby here is huge and the world cup has been going on for some time- this is the equivalent to the Olympics here. Anyways, Samoa has a team that competed and did very well and the players are viewed as heroes to both Western and American Samoa. It is like how football is in the States. People crowd where ever there is a TV to watch this brutal sport. If Manu (the Samoan team) wins, people celebrate in the street and go crazy. It so happened that the Samoan Rugby team was arriving the day we arrived in Western and a welcome home parade was in preparation. The place where we stayed is about a two hour bus ride away. As we were waiting in the bus at a stop light, here came the rugby players. They were sitting/hanging out of cars/trucks, police and a fire truck were also in line to celebrate as well. They passed right next to us and I was able get a close view. It was really great timing on our part ! And oka! they are very attractive, in-shape guys. People on the street were going crazy and so was I to see these celebrities!

Once we were clear of the parade, off we went to the opposite side of the island. Again, Apia is much bigger than Tutila. I saw forests of palm trees with lots of cows, horses (which we don’t have here), and pigs. The poverty is much worse there than here. Passing through different villages it was really sad to see how some of these Samoans live. Children don’t have shoes or clothes, huge families live in run down and rusting fales- fale is the Samoan house, it has a roof and floor and held up by the columns, no sides. In contrast, I saw very elaborate houses and nice cars. Apia is so much prettier than American Samoa. Here in Am Sam the people do not take care of their islands. There is trash all over, you can’t swim in certain areas because the water is so contaminated, we have to boil water due to e-coli (even the rain water), and the roads are terrible. We also don’t have many nice beaches. But in Western it was the opposite. The people take pride and care for their land.

The part of the island we stayed at is in a village called Lalomanu and was completely destroyed by the tsunami that happened two years ago. I meet a local there who lost 13 members of his immediate family and also helped to fetch the bodies of those lost out of the ocean. The whole village had to be rebuilt and parts are left in ruin.

We stayed at Tafoua Beach Fales. It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen- paradise. We are right on the beach with sandy white shores with the bluest waters. The fales are on the water’s edge and are given a bug net with sleeping mats as well as pillows and sheets. That’s it. Everything else you need is communal/family style. The bathrooms were across the street, which is a stone’s throw away, and reminded of me of college dorms- except in the lady’s room there is only 1 mirror and sink. This is a place where do you not need to wear shoes. Everything is sandy and clean enough that you don’t get dirty. So for two days I didn’t wear shoes and it was great.

This little resort is very isolated, in terms of being close to a big village, and two other resorts share the same beach but doesn’t stretch more than a half mile. When you make reservations, breakfast, lunch, and dinner come with it and the price is very affordable. Western uses a different currency called tala, the bills are bright colors and coins have the different kinds of staple foods, banana, taro, and breadfruit, on them. One tala is approximately 2 American dollars. When I would look at the menu I would get a startled that everything was expensive but then I was like, oka! it’s in tala.

In the main fale, the meals are served and all the guests sit together at two, long tables. We met a lot of people/families there on vacation from Australia, New Zealand, and Europe- so there were other white people! Everyone was very nice and friendly and people have asked that we come and stay with them. All the food served is caught fresh in the water right in front of the resort. Lobster, oka, other fish, etc. was so good and prepared Samoan style.

Saturday night after dinner there was a performance of traditional Samoan dance and songs. Really it was just hot, young Samoan men in lava lavas (a piece of material wrapped around the lower half of their bodies), leafs tied around their knees, and woven visors. The ending performance was of two flame throwers. Afterwards we were able to meet the dancers and we all danced together in the fale to American music. Kids to the elderly and even a couple of dogs were on the dance floor busting moves. It was a blast!

We spent our days, apart from eating, snorkeling, taking naps on the beach, tanning, finding shells, swimming, and just plain relaxing. (And when I say tanning, we came back a few shades redder. We forgot the sun on the equator is much more intense. I have never gotten so tan in so short of time.) We didn’t have a care in the world. The hardest thing we encountered was what kind of cocktail we would order during happy hour. There was no talk about school and we immersed ourselves even more into the culture, learned a few new words/phrases, making many new friends, and star/planet gazed on the beach at night- all in a matter of 48 hours. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a vacation. The six of us came knowing no one and after living in the close-knit environment we couldn’t get away without getting a million hugs. And who would have thought that I would be lying on a beach getting a tan in October. But all good things must come to an end, and we left planning on when we could go back.

Some things that I am looking forward to in the coming weeks are more football games, parent-teacher conferences, and the Tattoo Festival that happens over Halloween weekend.

I realize that is a very lengthy entry, but I hope that you get a taste of what life for me is like. I am loving life despite the not so good days. But as with anything, take it with a grain of salt and don’t sweat the small things- even though I sweat all the time here. I am here to serve and do whatever I can for these kids. Yet, I am counting down the days until I get to come home for Christmas, where I will freeze my booty off! I have days were I definitely miss family and friends (and thank goodness for skype). It will be great rejuvenation to come home in a couple of months!

Hope all is well at home!

Fa’afetia! Manuia le aso! (thank you and have a good day) And GO WARRIORS!

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