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Monday, July 30, 2012


I am leading a course in effective teaching, and last week’s class included a discussion on making students feel safe in our classrooms.  I want to share one story shared with us during this part of the course.

I will call the student Siaosi (See-ah-OH-see).  He is in Kili’s homeroom, and she has a delightful relationship with her students.  She is definitely the boss of her classroom, but her students look forward to time in her room.  Her homeroom students begin the day with a scripture, a hymn, and a prayer.  Kili watched through the beginning of the school year (remember, school begins in January here), and after a few months, she noted that Siaosi, who is not LDS, was comfortable with the routine and began asking Siaosi to participate in the devotional routine.  He accepted, and contributed well to the good feelings in class.

Well, a while back, Siaosi missed three days of school.  When he returned, he explained that he had been in jail.  He had been waiting for a bus to school, and some boys from another school started teasing the Liahona boys, and the teasing turned to bullying, and the bullying resulted in a fight.  Even though Siaosi had been on the sidelines, he had been taken in by the police and kept overnight.  
Bringing 1200 students to school on privately-owned,  unscheduled buses means a transportation headache for anyone, even under the best of circumstances.  Throw in some teenaged impulsivity and you have an even larger problem...

A lot of students get transported to and from school in the open air!

When he was released, he walked to his home, only to find his clothing in a pile outside the front door. His mother, talking to him through a closed front door, told him she didn’t want him at home any more, because he would be a bad influence on his younger brother.  

Siaosi found another place to stay, and continued to come to school.  After a few weeks, he asked Kili for help.  “I trust you,” he told her.  After a long discussion, he picked up the telephone, and dialed his mother’s number.  “Hello, mom.  It’s me, Siaosi.  I just called to tell you I love you and I miss you.”  He hung up the phone softly - his mother had said nothing. Kili assured him that she would continue to support him, and promised him that she would help him find a way to make things better. Siaosi left her classroom encouraged by her words and actions.

A few more days went by, but then one morning Siaosi stopped in to whisper to Kili, “Thank you very much.”  No further details were given – the class was about ready to start and both teacher and student were unavailable.  But when all the classes took their lunch break at 1:00, Siaosi came back to Kili’s classroom to explain:  “I’m back home!  My mom let me come back home, and everything’s better.”

Students who feel safe in Kili’s room know that she will do everything I her power to keep them safe, physically, intellectually, and emotionally.  What does that say about effective teaching?  What can I do for one student today, for one person, to make them feel safe, to make them tell me, “I trust you?”  I think those are the three most powerful words a teacher can ever hear.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Sometimes you choose, sometimes you’re chosen.
Jim and I chose to come to Tonga.   We continue to choose to be here.  We choose to work in education.  We choose to strive with these teachers, to help them make progress in becoming more effective teachers.  We choose to work with some very humble people, people who don’t need material items in order to choose to be happy themselves.  We choose to struggle to understand these people whose social habits are so different, who mature at different rates, who come to expect very different things of themselves than do most middle-class Americans.  And we continue to choose to learn from these people, to listen to them, to try to understand their viewpoints, so that we can be effective in our work with them.

But there is another missionary couple working here in Tonga who did not volunteer for this country.  They simply put in their application with the comment “send us where we are needed.”  Elder and Sister Bean are a humble, loving, considerate pair of people who would blossom anywhere they were planted, but there is a design apparent in their assignment here.

Some years back, Elder Bean’s father Eugene, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, got to the point where he needed a companion caregiver in his home.  The family hired a ‘Ofa, a young mother who happened to be Tongan, to come live with Eugene. She brought her young children with her, and was paid to attend to Eugene’s needs.  The experience of having young children in his home made Eugene’s last years very sweet; there were days when he didn’t know the woman and her children, but he didn’t care, for he had people around him to offer his love to, and to receive their love in return. The bond between Eugene and this young family grew very strong.

In time, Eugene passed away, and in his memory, ‘Ofa gave the family a gift; a very warm mink blanket.  Elder and Sister Bean took the generous gift, and placed it across the guest bed in the basement bedroom, where its warmth would be appreciated.  The blanket became known as the ‘Ofa blanket –  along with being her name, ‘ofa is the Tongan word for love.. The blanket became a favorite both of the Bean’s small grandchildren and their adult children, and was prized by all in the family.

The Beans filled out their mission application, and were called to serve here in Tonga.  Smiling at the memory of their association with the young Tongan mother, they looked forward to serving others like her.  But when they got to their little apartment here at Liahona, they had one more surprise.  The ‘ofa blanket was spread across their bed.  

No, it wasn’t the exact same blanket, but it was the twin of the one that had represented the love of a Tongan family for Eugene.  Now Elder and Sister Bean have a sweet reminder of the hearts of the Tongans in their home here, and that reminder has strengthened their commitment to serve.  

Another senior missionary, in her parting message to us last Sunday night, counseled us that “a lot of Palangi people try to change Tonga.  You won’t change Tonga, but Tonga will change you.” The longer I am here, the truer that statement becomes.  We thought we had chosen Tonga, but perhaps, just perhaps, like the Beans, Tonga chose us.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Near the northeastern end of Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga, is a curious prehistoric structure that still has people guessing as to its origin and purpose.  The Trilithon, or Ha’amonga, is Tonga’s miniature Stonehenge.
Welcome to the Ha'amonga, an as-yet unsolved mystery here in Tonga.

Made of coral that matches that of Wallis Island, some 670 nautical miles north, the three huge pieces that make up the Trilithon predate any written history of the islands, but oral tradition and careful sifting of the stories has led most Tongan authorities to conclude that it was built about 1200 A.D.  Each piece had to be cut and shipped on the small Polynesian sailboats that have navigated these waters for who knows how long.  How do you float a piece of limestone that weighs 12 tons?  

Oral histories attribute this particular part of the island to the eleventh Tongan King, who may have had the structure carved and created.  The bottoms of the upright slabs are eight feet thick, and each upright is precisely notched to balance the crosspiece.  Oral tradition tells of this ancient Tongan King setting himself up against the structure with a long staff, which he wielded against any comers, fearing assassination.  His name even translates to “King Strike Knee”.  

After 800 years in the salt air, the limestone coral is pitted and scarred, but still stable.
Theories have linked the Ha’amonga to the rotation of the sun, for a “W” shaped etching on the top stone lines up precisely with the sunrise at both equinox and solstice points every year.  So similar to England’s Stonehenge, this may have been something of a solar calendar.  Whatever the history, the Ha’amonga is a fascinating structure.  Though trees now obscure the view, it is obvious that 800 years ago standing on the structure gave a clear view of the sea.  Interestingly, if you could stand on the top of the stone and look straight out to see, you would be facing exactly magnetic north. (But no one’s allowed to climb up on top any more – 800 years of wear and tear and all that…)

The popular name for this structure is Maui’s Burden.  Maui, a popular figure in Polynesian legends, is supposed to have fished up Tongatapu from the sea floor.  To most Tongans, this immense structure represents the burden of work placed upon Maui.  When you see the huge upright pieces placed in the ground, with the incredible crosspiece secured between them, you do get a sense of the scale of the work needed to create just this island – then multiply it by a couple million and you have the South Pacific.  Kind of puts our days in perspective.

 Brother Van Johnson standing up against the Ha'amonga, to get a sense of its size.
This little jewel of an island, glittering in the diamond seas of the Southern Hemisphere, is a source of joy and delight for me.  Although her history is reshaped by generations of retelling, it is still rich and wondrous, and I love my life here.  With a grateful heart, I echo the words of the psalmist: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; [and the wonders thou hast allowed man to build and last through centuries], What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?  For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.”  (Psalms 8:3-5)

Monday, July 2, 2012


PART TWO:  Continuing my thoughts of life lessons learned in a somewhat unusual manner, I share the lessons I have learned from the other countries where Jim and I have been privileged to live.
Thomas Paine, author of "Common Sense", was born in
the part of England where we lived.

We only had one year in England, but we have had many years of friendship with English citizens, and this lesson is prime material in the English soul.  Their sense of propriety and respect for the lessons of history (even for events that didn't turn out as well as they hoped), has given me an appreciation for the importance of priorities in my life, and the impact of my actions on others.  Whether it was choosing to go to the village’s public soccer field to play rather than in the street, or being willing to drive slowly down a narrow road behind a tractor-towed cart full of carrots for some farmer’s horses to feed on during the winter, or being able to watch Siberian swans as they wintered in the wetlands where we lived, or being able to learn the English stories from English citizens (and true, we did get a slightly different story when we visited Scotland – think New Jersey and New York!),  we learned that all things have their place in our lives, all things have a purpose in our lives.  

The WWII American Cemetery at Margraten, honored
and preserved by the Netherlanders
The people of the Netherlands are totally pragmatic (and please don’t call them Dutch).  Perhaps it has something to do with being a nation of only 17 million people.  Or perhaps it has something to do with half of their country being below sea level – the Low Countries is what their country’s name really means.  But in any case, the time we spent there taught me to stop wishing for a fairy godmother and get to work to find a way to succeed in whatever task I undertook.  We had friends there 25 years ago who had problems finding work, but that didn’t keep them from working.  Husband RenĂ© would find odd jobs here and there, and do them extremely well, and wife Donna would take housekeeping jobs, waitressing jobs, and others, in order to feed themselves and their children.  Another friend had been a child in a Japanese POW camp during WWII in what was then Dutch Indonesia, and she had a trembling right arm due to the terrifying experiences she had endured there, but she raised a family and served faithfully in church, never complaining of her past.  She found a workable solution.

Seven years in Korea helped me understand even more how much our Heavenly Father loves all his children, and how much I have to learn from them.  The women in Korea are the most gracious, most understanding women I have ever met.  (And the most beautiful.)  They accept their lot, enduring hardship and suffering, and persevere – they work harder than any group of women I know of.  They love beauty, and beautiful things, and they have their values right.  While I was there, I was told that Koreans value two professions more than any other; the warrior and the teacher.  The warrior (the soldier) protects the present.  And the teacher protects the future.  I was honored for being a teacher, and protecting Korea’s future, by shaping, guarding, and creating understanding in the next generation.

Italians, especially those who live in and around Naples, are famous for their zest for life.  But hey, you’d enjoy every single day too, living in the shadow of a volcano that is about 20 years overdue for a significant eruption.  Our neighbors used to call us out onto our veranda to watch the “Michaelangelo sunsets”  - and the sky did look like a master artist had created it.  Nobody does a nativity scene like the Neopolitans – models where the humans are only a couple of inches tall could fill a room.  Their music, their love of the free beauties of life, their enthusiasm for thousands of years of history – every day was an exercise in appreciation.  And when a car broke down on the highway, it wasn’t ten minutes before someone (and often several someones) had stopped to help – because the next day it could be them on the side of the road.  When I was in an accident, a family ran out to me, got me safely out of the car, took me inside their home, gave me a drink, and helped me contact the military police – all without me being able to speak Italian or them being able to speak English.  For all their challenges, political, economic and moral – the people of Naples hold a special place in my heart, because of the way they flavor their passion for life with compassionate service.

These people spent hours on a Saturday pulling up about
a thousand two-foot long yams at a church farm, then donated
300 of them to this noblewoman's family, in gratitude for
the chance to work her land.
I haven’t figured out all the lessons I will learn from the Tongan people, but I know one: that it is better to live simply and express gratitude for the blessings I have, than to waste time wishing I had a different life.  Rather than comparing their poverty with the relative affluence of the developed world, the Tongans I have met simply want to share whatever they have, and express gratitude for that opportunity.  “A Tongan’s mountains are in his heart,” says the proverb, meaning that though the land is flat, the mountains climbed by Tongans, and the victories won, are ones of character, ones of inner challenge, ones which shape the spirit and soul of these people.  May I live to cross mountains of the heart.  May I live to reach the summits of opportunities that will mold me into the kind of courageous, thankful and selfless people I have surrounding me during this time.