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Saturday, June 13, 2015

What's New in Pago Pago - Part II

My teaching experience in American Samoa was an exceptional one.

My classroom was once a motel room. It was very small and had no air conditioning. Three walls had openings covered with chicken wire, inviting welcome island breeze to deposit unwelcome island dirt upon every flat surface. I didn't have the luxury of a janitor, so my daily routine consisted of wiping the grime from desks, and sweeping or mopping the filthy floor - unless I could commandeer a student's recess period with “detention”, then the drudgery of those chores was skillfully delegated to a repeat homework skipper or disruptive classroom chatterbox.

6A party!

7B's card
The termites reeked havoc on the tables, chairs and desks... thus, every morning my first priority upon arriving was to remove the little piles of rolly-poly termite droppings laying in lumps all over the floor. As soon as I turned on the lights, a gecko or two would skitter across the walls and disappear behind an arithmetic poster or hide in a dark corner behind the broom and mop handles.

Little angels

7A beauties
I taught 6 classes: (3) Math, (2) History and (1) Spelling to a group of 6th, 7th and 8th graders. The pay was marginal – a person paying rent, utilities, food and the rest of life's necessities wouldn't be able to squeak by on that salary unless, perhaps, they were renting a room instead of a house and sustained on Ramen Noodles alone. And it was just a few months ago that I discovered I would not be paid through the summer (as teachers are in the USA)... therefore, my salary was quite less than I understood it would be. And if I took off time to visit a doctor because the clinic appointments were scheduled during school hours, my pay was docked for the time I missed - regardless of how many hours of unpaid overtime I had accumulated.

All the sodas and happy faces will be explained the further you read...

Yes, there was a learning curve.

The students and staff members are the only reason that every morning I kept returning to my dustpan full of termite poo. I can't say enough how much I enjoyed being amongst them.

Balloons and leis

Fragrant and beautiful
On my last day, my 6A class threw me a surprise pizza and ice cream party. This particular 6th grade group consisted of 18 rowdy boys and 4 unfortunate girls. Throughout the year, my main challenge with my 6A group was to lasso their straying focus and squelch their constant bickering. They had this thing they would do to each other that would send one or two of the students into fits of bawling, squalling and shrieking! They would “call my dad's name”.

Darling 6A and 6B girls!

Seriously - this is just the beginning of the offerings

Dear friend and colleague, Tricia
When the first complaint of “call my dad's name” came to my attention, I looked at the sad-faced victim incredulously and shrugged, which sent the child back to his desk in slow motion with tears streaming down his cheeks and ended with a lowered and heaving head on the desk for the remainder of the class period. I was stunned. Not knowing if I had stumbled into some ancient cultural superstitious island warrior voodooish hex thing (but realizing the intense seriousness of the effect it had on my sensitive students), I turned to them for guidance. "Okay, I give. What is the meaning of “call your dad's name?””, I asked the panorama of wounded faces. My 6A students perked right up and were only too delighted to explain to me the seriousness of it.

Candy leis are very popular
You see, when one child utters the first name of another child's father, it is considered a slight or injustice to the entire family - utterly dishonorable. It is the Samoan version of “Yo Mama”.

I paused, nodding my head up and down to demonstrate how well I understood this heinous grievance, and let that sink in for a couple of minutes while I conjured up a worthy response. Coming up with absolutely nothing other than a poor attempt at connecting dots, I pointed out that my own father's name is Perttu, simplified to Pert, and that if they needed to make fun of a father's name they could feel free to use my father's name. (I really didn't think he would mind and after all these years, with a name like that in Dallas, he's probably used to it anyway.) I triumphantly let that settle over my bewildered 6A Class. It worked for exactly one day.

For weeks I handed out disciplinary verdicts and punishments to deal with “call my dad's name”, and for more weeks my relentless group continued to call dad's names until I could no longer take anymore fits of pure outrage, undulating wails and shuddering sobs! I lit into them good. I made up a school rule and told them that all the teachers had banded together to form a new official school policy. As of that second, I told them, it was strictly forbidden to call anyone's dad's name and that if they continued such nonsense ever on the campus at any time that they would be sent to the Director's Office for immediate suspension – or even worse – they would “suffer me!”, a successful Stryder line I learned from the Lord of the Rings trilogy when he was speaking to a group of rambunctious ghosts. That scolding earned me the cheerful nickname “Mrs. Military Meri”, which when uttered, summoned up preteen fits of non-stop contagious giggling.

And so it was this particular group that proffered a “Going Away” party, the first surprise party of my life. Sodas, cookies, chips and all the junk food side dishes that accompany a proper pizza and ice cream party were provided at the celebration. And to get me out of the classroom so they could sneakily prepare, they feigned an outdoor fight between two of my more believable darlings. Such cunning little angels they are! And students from my other classes brought me lovely gift after lovely gift. Their generosity was overwhelming. The hugs and kisses I received were mutually returned.

My sweet, sweet kids... such delightful treasures.

I will really, really, really miss them.

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