I was a 25-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, teaching human biology and general biology in Samoa, a coconut-tree-fringed, green dot-of-an-island in the middle of the gloriously blue South Pacific ocean.
I loved it there.
I loved the turquoise lagoons and lush vegetation and brilliantly colored flowers. I loved the papaya and mango and banana trees, laden with delicious fruit. I loved all the chickens and pigs wandering freely around, scratching and rooting through people’s yards. One resourceful hen took up happy residence in my bedroom, laid a clutch of eggs, and proudly hatched out ten fluffy chicks. I loved it.
I loved watching Samoan boys shimmy breathtakingly high into coconut trees to pluck its fruit. I loved watching Samoan girls skillfully and artfully weave baskets and placemats from coconut fronds. I loved the food. I loved the people. I loved the languid pace, the warm nights, the silvery-peachy color of the lagoon as the morning sun rose above the water.
I could have done without the big fat centipedes slithering around the house, I guess. Or the ants swarming all over the bread and Top Ramen soup packages. You learn to avoid the ants when you can, and to eat them when you must. Really, they’re just extra protein, right?
And I could have done without the night-time floors crawling with beefy cockroaches. Or finding the newly-purchased cheese moldy, or the newly-purchased box of cereal alive with wriggling worms. That stuff, not so much.
I lived with another Peace Corps volunteer, now lifelong friend, Makerita. She taught science and math at the same school, George Brown College in Faleula. Sitting at our dinner table, with plump little geckos dropping from the ceiling onto our heads (their aim was unerring; they never missed and landed in the food), Makerita and I would discuss the day’s events.
At first we were baffled, even frustrated, by our ability (or, rather, inability) to successfully teach these students. We worked so hard to devise interesting, fun, creative lessons! But English was not their strength. So when asked a question, our Samoan students would seemingly plunge their arms into their jumbled English-vocabulary hat, grab a random fistful of words, and happily shout out their “answers,” one right after another, rapid-fire.
Question: Where is oxygen exchanged? Answers: Brain! Stomach! Chromosome! Feces!
Question: What function does the kidney perform? Answers: Kill the body! Make the food! For the check of body cell!
Yes, you read that right.
We could either laugh or cry. So Makerita and I began to enjoy the absurdity of it.
“I taught them that!” we would crow to each other in delight. “I taught them that the kidney for the check of body cell, yes, I did! They learned it from me! I told them all about oxygen being exchanged in the stomach! And in the brain! Gotta exchange that oxygen wherever you can!”
The following poem was based on an actual lecture, an actual day. I remember it vividly. I’d spent the entire previous day discussing amino acids and proteins, teaching them that stringing amino acids together caused them to twist up and create intricate proteins. The next day I was going to continue with the lecture, but made the mistake of asking what proteins were made of. A simple little question, just to check the previous day’s learning and retention.
Truly, my mistake. As you will see.
All I had to do was come home and write the poem down. It was effortless. It was also the first time after writing a poem that I consciously thought, with some pride and surprise, “Wow! That’s pretty good! I think … I think I can write poems!”
In the end, who knows how much I actually taught those wonderful, impossible, complicated Samoan kids. But I know they taught me a lot about taking life a little less seriously, and about patience and humor and love.
I loved it there, with all my heart and soul. I even (especially?) loved those exasperating students who excitedly insisted that oxygen is exchanged in the stomach. And in the brain.
Teaching in Samoa
I am a teacher, and what a hard job
To silence and teach to a wild, shouting mob.
“Sit down!” I call loudly. “You must find a chair!”
And slowly, so slowly, they all are aware
That I am impatient, quite red-faced and hoarse,
Valiantly trying to begin their next course.
They finally get quiet; I start out real slow.
I ask them a question that they should all know:
“A protein is made up of what tiny things?”
“Energy!” “Bile!” “Those cartilage rings!”
“Carbon dioxide!” “Cilia!” “Fat!”
“A chromosome’s muscle!” “A big heart attack – ”
I shake my head wildly. “Think!” I command.
“Think about proteins. Do I see a hand?”
Not a hand is in sight, but the voices are loud –
“Filtration!” “No, neurons!” The students look proud
As they shout out this nonsense, convinced that they’re right.
The “answers” continue – this could go on all night!
“Amino!” I give them. “Now, what is the rest?”
They’ll never say “acid.” Their answers sound best.
Finally I tell them. I watch as they blink.
“An a-mino acid? What’s that?” they all think.
It took a whole day to return to the start.
I’m grinding my teeth when the bell bids us part.
I watch as the students all crowd through the door,
Laughing and satisfied – what on earth for?
It suddenly strikes me that they’re not uptight
About whether the question is answered just right!
The students are happy – why shouldn’t I be?
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, is my motto, you see.
So when class is disastrous – when our muscles “check germs,”
When the liver “fights air” and a blood cell “stores sperms,”
When the eye “for the watch of the nerve in the vein,”
And they think that they think with their jaw bone, not brain –
When their shouted-out answers fall hopelessly flat,
I hold my head proudly: I taught them all that!