Every classroom has at least one – the loveable, horror student. In 4 Gold it is Matalena for me. She is a walking, nay discoing testimony to the obsolescence of Margaret Mead’s theories on the smooth passage through adolescence for Samoan youth. That was 50 years ago and the generation gap has since arrived in Samoa. It sneaked in through the back door amid the cans of tinned fish, tape recorders and coca –colas. With every baseball cap and electric globe it grew and prospered. The missionaries fanned the flames, the Peace Corps and the volunteers throw fuel on the fire. The young people of Samoa are breaking the chain of tradition that has been handed down for generations.
Matalena typifies the trend. A sixteen year old individualist in a conformist society. She is a leader among her peer groups and was elected class vice-captain at the beginning of the Fourth Form year. She made valiant efforts during her term of office to curb her anti –authority streak and sometimes she succeeded. Other times she was leading revolutions in the classroom. The discipline of school life tests her patience severely and her outbursts test the patience of her teachers.
“We do not come to school to cut the grass.” I can still hear those clipped, strident tones as she bellowed out her equivalent of ‘Peace, Land & Bread’. Her audacity made her a hero and spurred her on to greater height as she grabbed the burning branch of a coconut palm on the fire and ran round the yard brandishing it with glee. I must have made a comic spectacle chasing her round the shed and we played a loud version of cat-and-mouse to the delight of the rest of the class, who dropped their bush knives to enjoy the entertainment. Not much grass was cut that day and it was a round to her. The episode sent me into a ‘What am I doing here?’ bout which is common among palagi teachers in Western Samoa. The only cure is a good dose of ‘no school’ and you bounce back every time.
Cutting the grass is probably a good issue for a potential rebel to take a stand on. It is a peculiar Samoan past-time and is still widely practised although it is on the decline with each imported lawn-mower. Barring Sunday which is strictly upheld as God’s day and a day of rest here, any day walking through a village or driving along the road in the bus, you will see Samoans outside their fales or on the village land, cutting the grass. They use a long, vicious looking bush knife and they wield them with smooth, expert strokes. To see a group working in unison and chanting as they swish rhythmically together, is to see a patch of the densest growth demolished with impressive speed. An onlooker is well advised to keep a respectable distance.
Normally this chore is allotted by the family to the younger members and by the village chiefs to the various families. It is a custom conveniently adopted by schools also and the chores are allotted by the teachers. Now the Samoan system has its own built-in sanctions for transgression. For a young person who refused to obey an order, the punishment would be a hearty clip across the head or even a black eye. When we palagis take over a Samoan custom like ordering grass cutting, we do so without the use of such sanctions and are vulnerable to outbursts such as the one described.
Of course, much of the rebellion is more subtle than Matalena’s. Non-compliance is the simplest method and most easily attempted by hiding behind the coconut trees and munching on coconut meat. Feigning to cut the grass by swinging the knife around and making harmless contact with thin air, is another technique to irritate the teacher. And to infuriate the teacher, the surest way is to surreptiously steal the essi (paw-paw) from her tree and then when it’s cut up and washed, come out in the open and eat it in front of her. Never fails to get a reaction. With such Matalena inspired mutiny in the air, I seethed over the situation during the night and for punishment en masse the next day was more cutting grass. They were tired of the silly game by then and got on with the job.
If order is an impossible dream outside the classroom, it’s also an elusive reality inside. It can often depend on the whims of the ring-leaders like Matalena. Like all revolutions, a small spark can set off a major confrontation. A persistent bone of contention is speaking English in the classroom. It is school policy for students to speak English during school hours but if any student keeps to it, they’re not in 4 Gold. Naturally it’s impossible to police and the only effort other than verbal admonition is an occasional blitz using House points. The school is divided into 4 houses and points are tallied each week and the winning house plays sport during the school clean-up period on Friday. Each house in each class is given 30 points to start the week and these are exclusively for the English / Samoan area.
One day during an English class Matalena was having a conversation In Samoan to a friend sitting on the other side of the room. I deducted 2 points from her house. She lowered the volume somewhat but attempted to finish the conversation and I deducted 5 points. This prompted what sounded very mush like a string of oaths in Samoan and the one Samoan expletive I do recognize was being used quite freely. Minus 10 points. This was too much for the rest of her house and they started shouting at her in English and Samoan and bedlam reigned once again. I sat down and refused to teach and everyone was happy. Matalena was quiet with a bout of the sulks. I called her aside after school for a serious lecture and she blazed off in a tantrum.
By now you will have recognized the symptoms of the horror student in Matalena. How is she loveable? Would you believe she came back after school that day and begged for forgiveness – complete with tears in her eyes? We decided to start again on a more friendly basis. This was to be a short-lived phenomenon.
There was no really major incident though until after the mid-year exams. I was announcing the Social Studies marks and trying to explain the very unpopular action of standardizing the marks by deducting 10 percent from each paper. It is an unfair educational practice and though a few of the staff had objected, they had been over-rided. Our college is low on academic rating and to be giving students 90% for a report card, said the Principal, is to have the parents enrolling them at New Zealand schools. In that sense, high marks for my 4 Gold, could create unreal expectations and I took the point.
The college is for students from Form 3 -6 and they are streamed into 2 groups at Form 3. The more able ones go into the White stream and the others into Gold. I have Gold. Where school is taking them I really can’t see. Only the very brightest of Samoan students pass the 6th Form New Zealand U.E. exam, hampered as they all are by sitting the exam in a language not their native tongue. The cream is taken from the left-behinds at 5th and 6th Form for the few jobs offered to young people in Apia, the only town in the country.
The others are unwilling workers on their families’ plantations and the hopes raised by school life must seem very hollow. Some make the great escape and migrate to New Zealand to join the ranks of Samoans already chasing money and mortgages but sparing some to remit to family at home. This avenue is closing up and for my 4 Gold, the prospects are not bright. Such is Matalena’s future.
With all the pressure on them to do well, it is no surprise that a fierce competitiveness exists in classrooms. For those who don’t make the grade, reactions vary from passive acceptance to misplaced aggression (well, misplaced if you’re the teacher and it’s aimed at you!) Matalena was one of those who suffered a failure In Social Studies as a result of the scaling down of marks. She was not impressed. It was a blow to her pride and her anger was at herself and at the teacher and at the system. I felt for her but I could not allow another burst of profanities and chair hurling. She remained antagonistic right up to Parent Teacher Day. She’d carried a few of her cronies with her too and the combined effect was to have me lusting for revenge.
Matalena’s mother is a lovely, gentle Samoan lady. I knew her quite well as I had stayed with Matalena’s family after only a couple of weeks at school. That was the beginning of my special relationship with Matalena as she was the first 4 Gold student to invite me to her home and I was happy to go, more from curiousity about Samoan family life than anything else.
I was rather wary too as I knew nothing of the standard of accommodation and I was not sure if I could cope with an open fale and sleeping on the floor and showering in view of the whole village. My fears were unnecessary and on a wet Friday afternoon I was escorted by at least 10 girls, all clip-clopping in their thongs as they walked in the rain, down to a palagi (Western) house with flush loo, adequate shower and even a bed.
Matalena’s father is the village catechist. Religious fervour is strong in this country but there is a shortage of priests to cope with an enthusiastic laity. The country has the unique position of catechist, a sort of wet nurse priest who runs services and prayer sessions for the times when no priest can service the parish. They are trained by the Church then posted to a village for five years and given a house and an income of donations of food and money, often not substantial. Matalena’s family also has an income from family members in New Zealand. Like many Samoans, (Samoa was ranked the 25th poorest country in the world in 1975 and wouldn’t have gone up much since), they didn’t have much money but they seemed happy enough.
Tuatima, her father, spoke a little English but her mother, Julea, spoke none. The task of entertaining me fell on Faleupolu, Matalena’s older cousin, who lived with the family. Faleupolu is from Savaii, the other island, and like many young Samoans, had to leave her family to come to the mainland for her education. Her English was the best of the family and she was kept busy interpreting. They had a lot of fun trying to teach me Samoan but not much success.
Matalena’s older sister, Corlette, was the cook and she looked like one too. A fat, round-faced, jolly person, she still lived with her parents as her husband was working in American Samoa where the money is much better than here.
Each meal was a feast and I ate with Tualima and Julea with the girls standing by to fan the flies and make sure everything was in order. Probably hoping we didn’t eat it all too, as they get the left-overs! During the after dinner conversation, Tualima asked me about Matalena’s behaviour at school. At that stage she was quite good and I said so. He advised me to hit her if she ever misbehaved. I thought it unlikely! After a very pleasant introduction to Samoan family life I went to bed and for protection (!) 4 of the girls of the household slept in the room with me on the floor, covered with lava-lavas.
The following morning I spent some time watching Julea weaving her fine mat – an important handicraft for Samoan women. The mats are used as gifts on important occasions such as weddings and funerals and any respectable family has a supply ready. It is a time-consuming and intricate art and a fine mat can take up to a year to make though sleeping mats and floor mats can be rustled up in a couple of days.
I also spent some time watching the boys of the village prepare an umu – the Samoan out-door oven. They first stoke up a blazing fire using coconut husks then heat up stones. When the fire has died down, the stones are spread out and the food – taro, breadfruit and the coconut cream cooked in banana leaves – pulusami – is placed on the ashes and covered with the stones. After an hour or so, the food is cooked to perfection ready for Sunday’s meal after Church. A Samoan ritual.
I spent the afternoon with the girls watching an inter – village rugby game before Matalena and her entourage escorted me back to our bungalow in the school compound. I was sent home laden with gifts of lava-lavas and food which was quite amazing.
What a cultural experience for the weekend. The hospitality and generosity of the Samoans is overwhelming. No wonder Samoa is known as ‘The Friendly Isles.’
However, for all her courtesy and respect shown on my early visit to her home, the classroom remained a different milieu where Matalena’s various frustrations were played out!
I do believe her parents also were struggling with their young ones to maintain Fa’a Samoa – the Samoan way.