The easiest measure of success is something that earns its own bullet point on your resume. I’ve never been too successful if you look strictly at my project description, although I do have my moments that kinda count (library stuff, sewing school, and that’s about it). What we most remember, though, are those tiny successes that only register at the personal level. These are the success stories that make the entire experience worthwhile – those moments that will shine in your memory once everything else has faded and most of the bad parts have been lost in the mist of time. Time passes fast; I can’t even remember everything about when I first got to Samoa! But these are some of my shiny moments that show me what kind of impact I’ve had and how much I have changed and learned throughout my Peace Corps experience. Some stories are more serious than others, but I’m proud of them all, and of course I saved the best for last.
I like to think of myself as fashion-forward, although sometimes I’m so far forward that my genius isn’t appreciated til years later (it only a few years ago they began making sweatshirts and jackets with thumb holes, while I had been making my own since I was 8. I’m still waiting for two watches to catch on). My fashion trends in Samoa tend to spread like wildfire, though. I had been having a hard time getting two French braids to match perfectly (center part, balanced, even braids), so I decided to go with an off-center part so the imbalance could be implied instead of accidental. It took about a week for every single girl at my school to show up with braids just like mine. Not only that, but my students also elaborate on my hairstyles. I love looking out at morning assembly and feeling like I’m in the middle of Whoville or some other Dr. Seuss creation because the hairstyles are so original and so different from anything you would normally find. Ok, so this has no relation whatsoever to any project I’m supposed to be doing, but I think it’s a fun story. My impact is obviously measurable.
One of my lower students always comes into the library by himself. I have a few students that I bring in to read individually because they are too intimidated to read in front of a group, but they will read for me. I had actually pretty much passed this student over because he was always disruptive, never did his school work, and all the other teachers had passed him over too (the students that they always send to do errands in the middle of class are the ones that will most likely end up on the plantation for life. Unfortunate, but true). One day, I was trying to make it up to him for being short with him earlier in the day (disruptive students are never on my good list), so I brought him into the library alone because he had skipped the time for his group. He couldn’t even get through the easiest Samoan book in the library, so I had him spell out each word he didn’t know and say it slowly until he knew what the word was. It took a long time, but he made it through the book, and our reading sessions have gone that way ever since. He’s been picking harder books and asking me about words he doesn’t know instead of just mumbling over them. Pretty much any time I can get students to be comfortable with mistakes is a success –it means they’re willing to try, make mistakes, and learn from their mistakes rather than cover up the fact that they don’t know.
I’m not big on going out, especially out to bars or dance clubs, but nightlife is pretty limited in Samoa. Any Peace Corps gathering generally ends with a trip to the bar, and I usually make it about half the time, and out of those times that I do make it to the bar, about half of those require a really convincing plea for me to join and I drag my feet the entire way. But going out with people in my village is another story entirely. There are quite a few beach fales down the road from me, and they turn one of them into a dance club on Saturday nights. Lots of people from my village like to go dancing there, and every once in a while, I willingly join the group that goes dancing (it’s probably about as frequently as I willingly go to bars, it just feels like it happens more often because going dancing with people from my village isn’t as guaranteed an activity as going to the bar with PCVs). The few times this has happened, I have had a blast. The crowd is always a mix of tourists and locals, and I spend most of my time on the dance floor with whatever boy has managed to get to me first for that song (everybody always wants to dance with the palagi). Then the club shuts down at midnight and we all head home for a few hours of sleep before church the next morning. The only hard part is figuring out how to officially report this to Peace Corps as an indicator of the level of integration I have achieved in my village – it may be too subjective to qualify as a subjective indicator.
I love bingo, but I’m a fan, not a fanatic. I don’t make it there on a regular basis. The first few times I went were mostly a huge learning curve – learning the timing of how they call the numbers, trying to listen for what the patterns are supposed to be, and hopefully not mis-marking my bingo games (I have a bad habit of confusing nine and five – iva and lima – they sound exactly alike if you’re dividing your attention between listening to numbers and marking them off). Eventually, I caught up with the numbers and the patterns, but that still only meant I was just barely making it through marking my games correctly. About two months into my bingo career, I had my first moment of glory. Not only had I kept up with the numbers and made no mistakes marking my card, but I knew the pattern and I saw it myself when I got a bingo! In the past, whenever I had gotten a bingo, my support crew had called it for me because I never saw it. But calling it on my own was the most exciting moment in my bingo career. Huge success, all my own.
And this other time in the library (most everything I do at school somehow includes the library), I had a group of Year 6 students. One of the lower students was reading one of the popular Samoan books (there are only a few stories written in Samoan, and even fewer that are well-liked enough for students to read them. Those few are memorized by almost every single student by Year 2). He was reading “O A’u o le Sifi o le Mauga” (I am the master of the mountain), which is a progression of animals claiming mastery on the mountain until it comes full circle with the bug hiding in the cow’s ear and the cow giving up mastery to what he thinks is a ghost. I could tell this student hadn’t read the book before because he was actually taking his time to read every single word, instead of reciting it as fast as possible from memory as most other kids do. The best part about it was when he got to the end and was so surprised to discover the bug inside the cow’s ear that he pointed it out to every other student in his reading group. I was so touched and proud about his excitement…it was just unbelievable. That is exactly what teaching is about, and I was a key factor in bringing it about. That’s amazing.