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Christmas in America Samoa

January 20, 1990

Christmas here was a pot luck involving fifteen boats. We rented the yacht club, bought some hams as the meat dish, and split the cost. In all it cost each of us $5 a boat. Not bad for a dinner. I planned some games for the kids and adults. The highlight was a "talent show" where anyone who wanted to could take a Christmas song and add their own words about sailing or Samoa. The entire crew had to sing the song and I made prizes for everyone who performed. We had six boats take part. After that was the traditional White Elephant Gift Exchange. Bob ended up with two cookbooks for health-food nuts and I got a red and white striped tie. We got rid of both of them at a swap meet last weekend.

The days are hot, muggy. rainy and—well, like normal Panama rainy season weather, only it rains a bit more: 200 inches instead of the 130 we got in Gatun. Sometimes it is so hot at night, I have to sleep on deck to get some air. That’s really a change for us—used to driving an air-conditioned car, living in an air-conditioned apartment, working in an air-conditioned school or office. But we make do. Luckily there is usually a nice breeze—sometimes, like now, too much (15-20 knots).

I started teaching December 1. The school is South Pacific Academy a private school run by families on island who want a state-side curriculum. The public schools here are at least two years behind because the kids are taught in Samoan and English using U.S. texts by mostly Samoan teachers who wouldn’t qualify to be a teacher’s aide in the states. Anyway, there is still a hiring freeze because of the last administration’s use of funds. There are three private schools on the island (two Catholic and one parochial) where parents with means send their children for a better education, and an opening came up the middle of November at the academy when the seventh-grade teacher was FIRED!

The school is pre-school through 8th grade with one classroom for each grade level. The classes are small, twenty kids maximum. The pay is also small. It’s a good thing I’m not doing this for the money. So why am I doing it? We’re going to be here until March or April (June now that I’m teaching), and all we are doing is sitting in the harbor. I can explore and shop and read and sew and write, but as long as I’m here, I might was well do something different and this teaching experience is certainly different.

The teacher who left had the seventh grade homeroom and taught language arts and reading to the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. The school was desperate enough to put an ad in the paper for a teaching position open to anyone with a baccalaureate degree "minimum" and "some teaching experience." When I showed up on the academy’s doorstep in answer to their ad, and showed them my resume, the principal acted as if she had died and gone to heaven. I thought she’d cry if I didn’t take the job, especially after I commented that the salary would be less than half of what I had received my last year in Panama. My interview was on a Wednesday and I started on Friday—observing the sub and getting a feel for the group. I began my teaching the following Monday, the 4th. Nice! Two weeks on—two weeks off!.... for December, anyway.

The school is made up of two wings, outside corridors, an office and workspace/ teacher’s lounge, hole-in-the-wall library room , computer room (14 work stations) and sheltered area for programs. There is a field out back, no gym or cafeteria. The rooms are screened and airy, two fans per room, limited board and storage space, concrete floor. My roof leaks like a sieve and "will be repaired soon." Geckoes roam the room freely, dropping excrement here and there, mostly on my dittoes, but they do help out with the mosquitoes so I can’t complain too much. The view is spectacular with tall cliffs in the distance. Frangipani and hibiscus everywhere.

The faculty is composed of state-siders, mostly Peace Corps graduates looking for something different in foreign service and wives of men who are under a two or three year contract to some company or to the government on the island. The part-time librarian and one of the aides are also "yachties" here for the season. There are three men on the staff and one husband-wife team. The principal has been here for four years but looks young enough to be in my seventh grade. Everyone is friendly and helpful. We can be as creative as we want. It’s a new experience for me to have the secretary make out the pay checks and hand them to me at the end the pay period instead of waiting for a centralized office to send prepared checks, two weeks AFTER the end of a pay period.

My class of 18 and the 6th and 8th graders I work with are a hodge-podge of nationalities: Americans, Samoans, Tongans, New Zealanders, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Iranians, Hindus, Saudi Arabians, and mixtures such as German-Samoan. Everyone speaks English but there are some language problems from time to time. The composition makes for lively discussions since everyone is so "worldly."

I teach seventh grade homeroom—math, reading, writing, language arts, and spelling—and reading/language arts to the 6th and 8th grades. I also started three Junior Great Books groups after the first of the year that meet during the afternoon session. Science, Social Studies and P.E. are taught by the men teachers from the 6th and 8th grades. Art is taught by the preschool aide (since pre-school meets only in the mornings). There is no music instruction.

At one point I thought it might be nice to stay another year, sailing to Tonga and Fiji during the summer. But I’ve changed my mind. Working and living on a moored boat is the pits. Every weekday, Bob has to motor or row me ashore to catch the bus—rain or shine, flat or choppy—whether he wants to or not, since he’ll want the dinghy during the day. That means that he has to wake up with me at 5:30, bail the dinghy if necessary and get me ashore around 6 a.m., sometimes in a driving rainstorm. During those days, even foul-weather gear doesn’t keep me dry. When the bus drops me off after school, I stand on the bank and blow a police whistle, Bob waves from the boat (if he hears it), and dinghy out to get me. I can’t take too much work home or I have to drag it from place to place, so that limits things I'd like to do in the classroom. Bob is reduced to a "boat-husband" who has to motor or row ashore once a week to do the laundry. He hasn’t started preparing meals yet, but he will open a can of soup now and then for his lunch. Anyway, I’ll work until June and then we’ll leave for the islands to the south.

Besides being a "boat husband," Bob is busy fixing things, sending off for things, checking the mail and learning a new computer language. He wants to learn another one, "C," and is gathering materials in preparation for this.

The people mind their own business and usually won’t talk to palagis (Europeans) unless you begin the conversation, but will answer you questions politely and become very friendly. There’s no wolf whistles or psst-psst like in Panama. Women are treated with respect. Crime is almost non-existent. The big news story during the holidays came when a man at one of the villages got disgusted with a group of teenagers who were using the nearby covered bus stop as a hangout for listening to their loud music. He went after the bus stop with a sledge hammer, succeeding in knocking the concrete and wooden structure to the ground. Police were called and took the man in for a while. The result? The village banned loud music at bus stops and permission has to be obtained before having a party of any kind.

We gave in and bought a small (5 inch diagonal screen) 12-volt TV set for our Christmas present to each other. There are three channels here, all transmitted from the same station. Network news comes in live or tape-delayed via satellite and there is some local programming, but the rest comes from Hawaii. The latter, is, well, different, because it consists of one week-old tapes that have been played to Hawaiian audiences. Because of this we see commercials for Hawaiian businesses that have no Samoan counter parts and the sixty-second news-updates are one week old. Peter Jennings comes on live and announces that Noriega has given himself up and a few minutes later the news "update" announces that his is still in the embassy. Very confusing. Another weird thing is that AFRTS — yes that good old Armed Forces Radio and Television Service we knew and loved in Panama—is alive and well in Samoa. We see spots for OpSec and Stay Navy and securing quarters. These usually come with the network news or football games. We haven’t gone all out and bought a VCR, even though there are no theaters here and video stores are as common as grocery stores. One last note, the TV section of the local newspaper is a joke. At the top of the section there is the note: "Subject to change, and it usually does." We laughed the first time we saw that but don’t laugh anymore. Not after New Year’s day when "The Sound of Music" was scheduled to be shown at 7:30 p.m. on Channel 5 and appeared at 7 p.m. on Channel 4. The only thing that was correct was the day and the name of the program.

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