That Time I Bombed at The Fijian School

Mereani looked up from her paper as I walked through the front door. “Well? How did it go?”

Fijian SchoolChildren

I plopped down on the couch. “I’m not quite sure,” I said hesitantly.

She handed me a cup of coffee. “Tell me about it.”

I sighed, thinking back to the morning’s events.

I had been extremely nervous walking up the mountainside. I didn’t know how I would get through this talk with the village children without looking like a fool. It hadn’t even been my idea, but how could I say no? A chance to meet the school children of Dakuimbeqa and possibly give them some knowledge about America? In theory, it sounded like a great experience for all.

So my flip-flops led me loudly through the village. All was quiet except my mind. Typical.

Village Laundry

What was I supposed to tell the children about America? I mean, I normally was a good public speaker and had numerous debate trophies to prove it. But since coming to this island I’d felt incredibly incompetent. My communication levels were that of a trained monkey.

Don’t believe me? I bring you instance A: Hilary Can’t Explain Las Vegas

The night before, one of the villagers had asked me where I was from.

“I’m from a place in America called Las Vegas.” I’d replied confidently.

“What’s Las Vegas like?” Someone else had asked. “Do they have villages like here?”

“No,” I’d responded, “We have larger cities. And casinos.”

“What are casinos?” One of the village women asked.

Turns out, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to explain. Especially to someone who has no concept of gambling or luxury living.

So how did I respond? “We have a lot of resorts like you have here,” I explained. “Except people go there to spend lots of money and drink and party. Most people lose lots of money but leave feeling happy about their experience.”

“Why would they want to do that? Why would that make them happy? That sounds awful.” An elder commented.

I had no answer. It didn’t make sense to me either. Everyone looked at me expectantly. I just sat there, mouth open, with no words coming out.

Like I said, a trained monkey would have done better.

The school sat in an L-shape with only a handful of classrooms total. I stopped in my  tracks. I heard something coming from the school room I was told to enter.

Dakuimbeqa School

Were they singing?

I left my flip-flops with the pile of shoes outside the door, entering to see a floor full of children sitting cross-legged, singing the most beautiful song I’d ever heard.

Fijian school hallway

There was a chair next to the blackboard. The teacher motioned for me to sit there. He continued tapping out the rhythm of the song with the ruler against his hand.

I listened to the children sing to me. Some of them were curious about me. Others looked terrified (but what’s new, right?)

There was something about this song. Something about the harmonies. They were amazing singers… fit to lead a choir or concert.

And I don’t know what they were singing about (it was in Fijian), but I felt it. I’d heard of this happening to people who visited native tribes in Africa. The songs had purpose. The songs carried energy. And here, in this tiny school room, surrounded by these little tiny people, I felt their magic.

The singing stopped and I clapped. The teacher instructed them to greet me and I heard forty little voices say, “Bula!”

“This girl is from America. And she’s here to talk about The United States.” The teacher explained.

“Do you know where that is?” I asked.

“Yes,” they replied as a group. Okay, so far so good. 

“Who is the President?” The teacher asked.

“Barack Obama.” They replied. Wow. Okay. 

“Can you tell us about the region?” The teacher asked.

“Yes I can.” Gulp. “Yes, The United States is roughly the size of Australia. Does anybody know where Australia is?”

Silence. DEAD silence.  Not good. Not good. 

“I come from a place called Las Vegas. It’s near the West Coast, right next to California. I live in an environment very different from yours. It’s called a desert.”

“What’s a desert?” A child asked.

Turns out, this is not much easier to describe than the casino question.

“Wellllll,” I started. How the heck do you explain a desert to someone who’s never seen one? “So here in Fiji you get a lot of rain. Where I come from we don’t get much. So the land is very dry. We have lots of mountains and rock, some bushes and cacti.”

I looked up. Blank stares. Gulp. 

“How many people live in America?” The teacher asked me.

“We have a lot,” I started, wondering how I could parallel it. “So on all the islands you have roughly 100,000 people yes?” Some of the children nodded. “My city alone has over two million.”

More blank stares.

I hate to say I told you so, but I did.

So I babbled, stumbled, and walked in circles for the remainder of my time there. Most of the children just wouldn’t stop staring. I doubt any of them were listening to a word I said, not that I said anything worth listening to.

The teacher asked me questions about how far away America was but I didn’t know the kilometer conversion. He asked me how expensive tickets were and I guesstimated what it cost to get me down here. He ended the lesson with, “So if you work hard and create a goal, you too can travel like Hilary from America.”

School LessonBoard

I nodded and smiled, trying to hide the fact I felt so stupid.

The children sang again before I left and I clapped one more time, thanking them and scurrying out with my tail between my legs.

District School Sign

I groaned, looking defeated at Ro Mereani over my cup of coffee. “I sucked. I don’t think I gave the ANY knowledge whatsoever… Except maybe how silly American girls are.”

She waved her hand and chuckled. “Nonsense. You were perfect.”

I was unconvinced. She folded her paper, locking eyes with me. “Hilary, these children rarely get visitors. When they go home today, and when the children from the other villages go home this weekend, they will tell their parents about the European girl who came to speak at school. They may talk about it for weeks. It may seem inconsequential to you, but it meant a great deal to them. Just that you went at all means something.”

“But I don’t just want that to be it,” I whined. “I want to change their lives. I want to help them… I want to help the community.” And then suddenly, it was resolved. “I need to find a way to get that teacher the supplies he needs. I need to find a way to keep him from making that eight-hour journey every quarter to type up his tests.”

I looked at her with conviction. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I will find a way to bring them the technology they need. Well, if that’s okay…” After all, who was I to tell them how to live?

She smiled and looked incredibly pleased with herself. “I’ll have a chat with the village elders about it and see what they say.”

And that was that.

View of Village from water


31 thoughts on “That Time I Bombed at The Fijian School

  1. Bula Hilary – Thanks to your visit – We have talked with the elders and it has been green lights – The empty class room has been given to convert it into a Computer lab/Library – We have written government asking them to fast track the 3G internet access to the village, and guess what,,, it has started something in the village – some major developments that have been put on hold or forgot about has now finally been followed up government. So from us down here Thank You!! you might feel that you didn’t do much, but you were the match that lit the fuse. Now my bit of finding computers and money for the renovations. I am sure I will find it.. 😀

    • WHAT???!?!?!?!?!?!?! Are you serious? That’s AMAZING!

      I’m so excited to hear! How can I help you guys? What do you need? Would it help if I got a petition going or something? Donations for computers? Let me know and we’ll make it happen. So excited to hear about the progress! =)

  2. As a one-off experience it’s not a big deal. For any teachers reading this blog, I think this reminds us how important it is to teach a student-centered lesson. With no technology or resources (I’ve been there!) it’s hard to do anything but stand in front of your students and “tell” them what they need to know, but it’s so much more effective, and engaging, when you give the students more power over the direction that the lesson takes. For example, you could ask each student to brainstorm one question about the USA, and then let them pose it to the class and celebrate the students who are brave enough to guess the answer. Ask how they knew the answer- did they see it on TV, in a movie, on the internet, etc? For “yes/no” questions, get the students up out of their chairs and have them move to the front if they guess “yes”, and to the back if they guess “no”. Engage them in more than lecture!

    • Thank you so much for commenting! What an amazing and creative solution! I absolutely love it! I’ll have to remember that for the next time. =)

      How did you deal with the lack of technology in your situation? What did you take away from that experience?

  3. Forget about the technology and enjoy Fiji and the village life for what it is at the moment!!! That’s what makes it so special!!! I used to think exactly the same when visiting the village and now many years later I look back and in their own time they do progress!!! I used to think how can I teach them about managing the reef better, how can I buy a better boat to get fish to Suva faster after fish drives etc the list is endless and now the reef is thriving they have better boats and they now have an those resorts!!!!! Who would have known all this when all I wanted to do was help my friends.

    • Not sure if the resorts were actually the answer or not, but I am also grateful they have better boats and that the reef is healthy. How did you help them with this progress? Would love to know more about it.

  4. I’m going to agree with Ro Mereani on this one. Sometimes you change lives by not setting out to do so, but by being yourself.

    That being said, I’m still excited to hear what you and the village elders come up with 🙂

  5. I related to your story so much. I traveled to Haiti and visited orhpanges there and could ot describe my home in America, either. And I was just trying to describe my house, not even a surreal city like Las Vegas!

    But I think your friend was right. It is not so much what you said and the rarity of having someone so foreign like you come and talk about other parts of the world that they can’t even imagine. I’m sure they loved the opportunity to meet you.

    • Oh man, that must have been tough! How did you feel after you left your visit in Haiti? I bet you’ve got GREAT answers (you know, now that you don’t need them ;).

      Yes, Vegas is an incredibly difficult place to describe, as I’m figuring out. But seriously, who logically decides to come to Vegas? I guess the answer is no-one? Lol!

      And thank you. I hope it was good exposure and you know, not the kind they’ll need therapy for. =)

  6. Ha! You put a big smile on my face explaining Las Vegas – but why would they lose all their money on purpose and be happy about it, Miss Hilary? LOL!

    I’m sure you did an excellent job shedding light on our crazy country we call home. The kids will share your stories with many, I’m sure.

    • Hahaha! Thanks, Britt! I’m so glad you enjoyed my humiliation (I can laugh about it now, but in the moment I was HORRIFIED). And yes, that will be a question that will haunt me forever. Logic favors the villagers, I’m afraid, not the tourists of Las Vegas LOL.

      And thanks for the pep talk. I’m sure they’re saying the most interesting things about me now!! If only I could be a fly on that wall… and maybe understand Fijian more fluently so I could actually comprehend it. 😉

    • =) Fingers crossed, Juls! I hope that’s the case anyway.

      Sometimes I fear missing opportunities or looking back on my life realizing I had unfulfilled potential. Do you ever fear things like that?

  7. The reason these questions were tough is that the children/people don’t have the same life/cultural references as you do. I’m sure there are things in Fidji that they could talk about where you would have difficulty making a connection. I don’t think you should beat yourself up over your visit. Perhaps if you talked about your school experiences in comparison to what you see there at the school. It can take time to find common ground when you meet somebody new. After talking a while, generally commonalities are discovered. If you spend more time with the class you will feel more comfortable and so will they.
    I think your plan to assist with improving access to technology for the teacher is terrific.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and wisdom. You’re right; it’s tough to explain things when there is no point of reference. Hopefully on my next visit I will be better able to explain myself and my American culture.

      And thank you so much for the vote of confidence. Fingers crossed I will find a way to bring it to fruition!

  8. That was so frustrating. It’s so easy for me to sit back in my chair with no pressure what so ever and toss out the answers.

    Vegas is a gigant village made up of smaller, yet still villages around it. We call the mess a city.
    Casinoes are like a market place but instead of buying and selling goods, people buy drinks, and lose lots of money in the hopes of winning more in an act of chance.

    Why? because it makes them feel like rich royalty for the moment with the ecxitement, attention, and distractions around them.

    It’s so easy without being put on the spot so don’t doubt yourself. You went in there without really knowing what they would ask and did well. I bet you already made “mental notes” to describe things the next time you do this. (Which you will.)

    I also see your determination peeking out and am looking forward to what happens next.

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