unexpected lessons in American Samoa

As of today, I’ve taught almost 29 weeks of school in American Samoa. With only seven weeks left on my plate, I can confidently say this experience has been a crazy, unexpected roller coaster. However I envisioned my past year going, it definitely wasn’t like this.

In ways, I don’t know how the people back home put up with all my updates, often in disbelief or disgust of how much my daily plans went off-kilter. Think of the unpredictability of life but amplified up a hundred notches. Whoever I was last August, I don’t know her.

I’m still firm in my stance of not recommending this to many people. Stay snuggled in your beds and instead read about it from your digital screens. Without further ado, here’s what I never expected from teaching in American Samoa.

my students are my kids.

I was never much of a “kid” person prior to teaching in American Samoa. Honestly, I always felt like kids just didn’t like me. We didn’t mesh. And most kids annoyed the heck out of me. Hello, aspiring for the dog and plant mom life.

So, actually deciding to teach, although I’ve had prior experiences with tutoring and the like, I never had a huge urge to work with kids every day. At first, it terrified me. What if they don’t like me? What if they drive me nuts for the whole year?

I wasn’t expecting what has happened. Instead of cowering and getting angsty over a bunch of 10-year-olds—mind you, I probably wouldn’t have been about teaching any younger than fifth grade—I feel like I’ve adopted all these kids. I feel like their mother, and I have that same love and nurturing energy for them. Even when it’s a bad day, I enjoy seeing them.

It will be difficult leaving them. And there have been countless times that the only reason I’ve stayed in American Samoa is for them. The education system as a whole here isn’t great and will likely let them down, but my goal in leaving them come June is that they walk away from my class as better people. They can feel proud of what they’ve accomplished, and they’re motivated to continue learning and growing.

wow. mental health.

I thought I had been challenged before with my mental health. Just kidding! American Samoa surprised me there. The way this environment affected me was very unexpected.

Of course, I walked in without many expectations. I really had no clue what I was getting myself into. There weren’t many resources informing my preparations, so it was a blind guess at everything. The one thing I did strive for was to be emotionally sound; I took the precautions for having all my medications ready and therapy self-reflection completed.

Except things in theory are far different from reality. I’ve had some very low lows here. I’ve had overwhelming anxiety that’s left me both paralyzed and ready to burst. Being physically far away from any support system—at least five to six time zones away—has made it even more challenging.

Although it’s been a tricky test of willpower, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about my mental health. For someone who thought she knew her mental health from every angle, I stand corrected. In fact, I think my originally diagnosed mental illnesses may have evolved into something new.

When I come back from American Samoa, I come back stronger. I’m proud to have made it through this year still standing. WorldTeach is not for everyone, but if you’re willing to push yourself, there’s some amazing, unexpected things that could happen.

radical self-acceptance…almost.

Like the last point, I really didn’t expect the changes in myself that I’ve seen. It’s been kind of wild honestly. Take yourself out of a familiar environment long-term, and you really unearth who you are and what matters to you.

Life thus far has been a huge rush to the next step. First is high school, then finish college as fast as possible, and then…now what? I was so busy looking at what’s ahead, I didn’t know myself enough to pursue where my true purpose and passion lies. My long series of existential crises directly stemmed from me feeling out of breath and very confused.

The American Samoan culture is not for me forever: people walk way too slow and aren’t great at scheduling ahead. However, it’s been unexpectedly necessary for me to do this. To be with myself, without all the extra stimuli, and do some soul-searching.

Turns out, I love yoga. I’m passionate enough about it to pursue a certification. I actually have a vocational path to follow—chaplaincy, a career I had never considered before now—and an opportunity to move somewhere that will support it.

more than a face and body.

My eating disorder and all that’s come along with it have always had this almost-obsessive fixation upon how my face and body look. I’ve always been hyper-aware of any “trouble areas.” I cared about how I looked compared to everyone else.

In American Samoa, I haven’t worn makeup for at least eight months. Call me a dirty hippie, but I haven’t shaved, either. (Sorry, mom and dad.) It’s honestly so liberating to finally feel detached from the mirror, something I probably haven’t experienced since early childhood.

With that extra focus taken away, it allows me greater attention and energy toward more rewarding, productive thoughts and activities. I feel like I’m an actual person with thoughts and opinions that define me more than my appearance. Sure, I still struggle plenty with the whole body image thing, but I definitely feel the forward progress.

the whole unexpected shebang.

I could probably think of many more unexpected revelations and experiences from teaching in American Samoa, but I’ll leave it at that. Luckily, this is a temporary position because heaven knows I’d need a lot of help and anxiety medication to get through. But I can wholeheartedly say that I’ve grown. I completed what I sought out to do. I fulfilled a “bucket list” item. Hoo-rah.

If I’ve learned anything from American Samoa, it’s been to just not set the expectations. Allow yourself to be open for anything life throws at you. Regardless of the setting, there will be inevitable curve balls thrown your way. How you handle those is a testament of character.

Make it work, and expect the unexpected.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Author: Allie

A flower child passionate about faith, social justice, and love.

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