Tasi lives on an island in American Samoa in the South Pacific Ocean. And because the village where she lives is on the opposite side of the island from the main town, those who go there must travel by boat.
All summer Tasi watched her father and brother help build the new school in the village.
“The school has boxes called televisioni,” Father told the family. “The boxes show pictures of teachers in the town making lessons.”
“The TV teachers are Americans like us, but they are not Samoans,” Brother added. “They are Palagis (white people) from the United States.” He laughed and said, “Palagis are strange people. They talk loud and fast and smile little.”
Brother and Father worked in town with Palagis. They knew all about them.
“The principal of the new school is a Palagi lady with a title and two names—Miss Rebecca Hall,” Father said. “But do not call her by her true name as we do in Samoa—only say Miss Hall.”
Walking to school the first day, Tasi wondered what it would be like to have a Palagi living in the village. Tasi had not seen many Palagis. They made her feel shy. She felt sorry for them, too, because their faces looked faded, like old dresses when the color has washed out.
At school the children sat on floor mats at low desks and stared about, eager to see what the “televisioni school” was like. They saw a green wall with white writing on it and a brown wall with pictures stuck on it. They saw the televisioni box with the glass face that made picture lessons. What a strange school! Everything about it was different.
The children had many things besides lessons to learn at the new school. Miss Hall was impatient with them. She talked loud and too fast. She did not know how hard it was to get used to Palagi speech. She did not know how hard the English and math and social studies were. She wanted the boys and girls to do everything right the first time.
The children began to be nervous and frightened when Miss Hall came into their classes for their English lessons. They huddled together at playtime and talked about it.
Tolu, one of the big boys, said, “Today I stand to speak. I use the respect language because a teacher is the same as a chief. But Miss Hall say, ‘Never mind the fancy speeches, just answer the questions!’”
The children listened in shocked silence.
Tasi was troubled.
Why is Miss Hall unhappy? she wondered. She never smile, never visit the families at home in their fales (hut or home), never come sing and dance, and she never go to church on Sunday. When is no school she is always going to town on boat.
Every day Tasi worried and wondered. At last she decided that her teacher was sad because she had no family in Samoa, no father and mother, no husband and children, not even anyone to call her by her true name. When Tasi thought about being away from Samoa without her family, she had to push tears away. She tried to think of some way to make Miss Hall happy in Samoa.
Maybe I can make a Samoan present, she thought. I have not yet learned to weave mats and baskets like Mother or catch fish like Father.
That night Tasi decided what present she could give to Miss Hall, and early the next morning she splashed along the shore in the shallow waters, searching, searching. She lifted stones and looked underneath, then put them carefully back in place so the sea creatures under them would not be hurt. At last she found what she wanted and ran off to school.
When Miss Hall came Tasi held out a hand holding three small sea urchins and said, “A present for you, Peka, to make you happy in the fa‘a Samoa.”
Miss Hall did not know that Peka was Tasi’s way of saying Rebecca. She did not know that fa‘a Samoa meant the Samoan way. Thanking Tasi for the sea urchins, Miss Hall smiled, so Tasi felt sure she had done a good thing.
The next morning Tasi saw the sea urchins on the ground by the teacher’s house. “She threw them away!” Tasi cried, shamed and angry. “She just threw them away! She doesn’t like us. I know she doesn’t!”
With a sob Tasi ran home. She told her mother she had a stomachache and cried herself to sleep on her mat.
The next morning Tasi still had a stomachache—and the next, and the next.
On Sunday after church Tasi’s older brother found her playing on the beach. “What is wrong at the new school, Tasi?” he asked.
She stopped and looked at him in surprise.
“Mother says you have stomachache every day and cannot go to school. But yesterday and today is no school and you run and play. So I am thinking school is the stomachache. Are you going to have your stomachache all the days of school?” asked Tasi’s brother.
Tasi hung her head in shame and told her brother everything. When she had finished he said, “Miss Hall did not know the sea urchins were for eating. Palagis do not eat such things. She put them in an ant bed, I am thinking, to clean them out. Palagis like only the shells.”
“But the shells are trash!” Tasi cried in astonishment. “Why would anybody keep what is thrown to the pigs and chickens?”
“Perhaps they see beauty in the life that was there,” Brother smiled. “They have shells in their houses, but they do not eat the meat from them.”
“How can they be so foolish and so wasteful!” she exclaimed.
Brother’s eyes twinkled and he grinned. “Perhaps the Palagi teacher does not know the sea urchins are good to eat,” he explained. “Perhaps she does not even know how to get them out of the shells. Why not show her?”
Tasi beamed. “That is what I will do so the teacher will know it is fa‘a Samoa to get food from the sea.”
Early the next morning Tasi went splashing around in the tide pools again. She was waiting when Miss Hall came out of her house.
“Tasi,” exclaimed the teacher, “I am glad you are well again. So many children are out with stomachaches. Come into the school and see the nice shell collection I started with your sea urchins.”
Tasi held out a handful of sea urchins and small shells.
“I do not know what is ‘co-le-sioni,’” she replied. “In Samoa, shells have meat in them for eating. I will show you.”
She laid her shells on a flat stone and gently hit them with a rock. She picked away the broken shell bits and held up a handful of sea treats.
“Now,” Tasi explained, “it’s ready for eating.” She ate one herself to show how good it was, then offered them to Miss Hall.
“They’re very good, all of them,” Tasi invited, “but the sea urchin is the best.”
Miss Hall stared at Tasi and the small, live shell animals. Tasi ate another, smiling with pleasure.
“It’s very good to eat Peka,” she urged generously.
At last Miss Hall took the smallest bite and ate it, smiling bravely. She began to talk, not loud, not fast, but quietly to herself.
“Who’s the teacher here, Tasi,” she asked, “you or me? I wanted to teach English quickly so I could go to town and be at the TV studio. And here you are teaching me that I don’t know how to live in Samoa at all. That’s why I’m so miserable and why I make everybody else so miserable with all those stomachaches.”
Then Miss Hall laughed a strange little laugh and put her arms around Tasi and hugged her hard.
“Thank you, Tasi,” she said. “You just taught me a whole semester of psychology.”
Tasi didn’t understand a bit of what Miss Hall was saying. She just reached her arms around the teacher and gave back the nice hug and they both burst into happy laughter.
And that was good because as Tasi told her brother later, “Here everybody understand hugs and laughings. It’s fa‘a Samoa.”