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A Day's Gift in Tonga

Paul Neville

I awoke, as I do every morning, by the natural alarm clock outside my window. Five months ago in preparation for the Peace Corps, I packed a battery-powered alarm clock, but its use is unjustified when I have roosters crowing, children laughing, church bells ringing, and, most importantly, the South Pacific sun, which I can rely on to shine every day. Still somewhat of a neophyte in this place, my initial reaction to consciousness is usually, "Where am I?" After a brief hesitation, I remember, "Oh, yeah, I'm in the Kingdom of Tonga!" This is followed by the thought, "And what amazing memory will today create?"

Still in awe of being recognized by every person I encounter while I only know the faces of a maybe a dozen people in my village, I paraded down the road destined for the primary school responding to each "Malo e lelei!" with a wave and a smile. Though my main work objective is increasing the productivity of the local youth in the village of Kolovai, I also teach English to children 10 and 11 years old every morning for an hour. On some days, like this one, it is these 60 minutes that are the most memorable.

As the old door of the classroom opened with a loud creak, I entered, looked at my students and said, "Hello, class." In quick response, the class of 30 bellowed, "Hello, Paul!" I knew that the initial quiescence following the greeting would not last long, so I quickly began my storytelling. I always start class this way, as I have come to realize that it is important for these students to simply hear a speaker of their second language. I also understand that active learning is effective and will increase if the story is engaging.

Today, my subject was skiing, a topic no doubt very foreign to children of a South Pacific tropical island nation. While the students seemed fascinated, they were noticeably perplexed at the concept of sliding on two long, flat shoes across some sort of cold, deep, white fluffy stuff (like the inside of a pillow, I explained) that buries the landscape. I drew pictures of chair-lifts dangling like Christmas lights, inching up a mountain.

Sonia smiled in wonder, Emalini squished her face in sheer confusion, Atapani's eyebrows reached the sky in intrigue, Tevita wore a confident grin since he had seen skiing in a movie, but Vahiti, a small boy for his age, stared blankly at his desk, apparently not even listening. I directed a comprehension question to him, "What do you think snow up to your waist would feel like?" His eager, but nervous eyes looked up. Straining with effort, his eyes darted back and forth, noticed the looks from his fellow classmates, and rested back on his desk. I reworded the question and gave him plenty of time, but still no response. I moved on with my story.

After several activities involving past tenses and synonyms, I introduced student participation through role-plays. Up to this point the class had never seen anyone other than a teacher stand in front of a class during a lesson. I brought my first two volunteers out of hearing range of the rest of class and gave them instructions. After we reentered the room, I asked them to begin and they started jumping around in circles, their smiles widening with every bounce. A few students raised their hands with answers describing their action in English. I rewarded the hoppers with stickers, otherwise known as children's gold.

I chose two new volunteers. One was Vahiti. I had hoped an easy opportunity to entertain fellow classmates and the lure of a sticker would inspire him to participate. Once the role-play started, however, Vahiti just stood there looking at me in desperation. I said to him, somewhat sternly, "Sit on the floor and act like you are eating something." I gently pushed down on his shoulders, but he did not budge. He remained motionless, looking as if he would do anything to make this moment go away. Though his partner was busily pretending to have a picnic on the floor, I ended the skit abruptly and handed out the stickers. Vahiti took his reluctantly.

I felt cruel. I had badly embarrassed a little boy who had otherwise immaculate behavior. I had, one, forced him to stand in front of the class; and two, asked him to perform acts difficult for children anywhere in the world to do, let alone Tonga where such practices are rare and unusual.

The class continued with a few more role-plays and other activities. As the bell ringer was preparing to strike the large metal pot that announced break, we reviewed multiple ways of saying goodbye: "See you later!" "Take it easy!" "See you next week!" "Adios, amigo!" and "Till later!" My students shouted these off as they gave me high-fives and rushed outside to play. While the day's class was complete, my usual feeling of satisfaction after giving a lesson wasn't there. I felt badly about how I had treated Vahiti. While I gathered my papers, I tried to convince myself that he was just a kid and he would get over it.

As I left the classroom, I was slightly startled by a small boy who was obviously waiting for me in the now silent hallway. I slowly advanced toward Vahiti wondering what he wanted to say. As I reached him and looked down, he said nothing, being just as silent as he had been in class. Just as I was about to ask him what was wrong, he tugged on the side of my shirt and quietly uttered in English, "Thanks for teaching me today." Then, after a dramatic pause, he tilted his head, smiled and said, with increased volume, "Adios, amigo!" Without waiting for a response, he darted down the hall to catch up with the rest of his classmates.

Later, as I walked toward my home, automatically responding to greetings directed toward me, I wondered if Vahiti knew I had been feeling guilty and, in his own way, was reassuring me that there were no hard feelings. I decided that this little boy, whom I had once thought barely understood or cared about anything I said was indeed a wise young person. This time he was the teacher.

My experience that morning was profound. I learned a little about teaching, about children, about the people of Tonga, and, most importantly, about myself. Nowadays, when the roosters, the children's laughter, the church bells, and the early morning South Pacific sun tell me it is time to get up for another Tongan day, I think not only about what new memories the day will bring, but what new insight I will gain.

Paul Neville (Tonga)

Paul Neville served in Tonga.

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