An old black chalkboard
In the 2010 movie “The A-Team”, Liam Neeson grins, lights a cigar, and says just as the good guys win, “I love it when a plan comes together!”
I had a similar experience here in Tonga the other day. Okay, I didn’t light up a cigar, but I grinned and told the Mission President “I love it when a plan comes together!” as 16 missionaries helped load desks and chairs to take to a needy school.
As part of the humanitarian work we do in Tonga, we help schools get needed equipment. Most of the time the equipment is basic like desks, chairs, and books.
Since we arrived in Tonga three months ago, we have been working on a small project trying to jump through the hoops to help Tupou High School get some desperately needed assistance.
I worked for the federal government for 30 years, so I know how to jump through hoops. I have more experience jumping through hoops than anybody I know. I invented hoops. I love hoops.
I have a tattoo of a hoop on my chest. Okay, that isn’t true, my youthful enthusiasm got carried away, I don’t have a hoop tattoo.
But if hoop jumping was an Olympic Sport, my time with the BLM would make me a gold medalist.
For two months we have been working on getting chairs and desks to Tupou High School. The Vice Principal, Atunaisa Fihaki (Atu), asked if we might be able to help them out. First, we had to clean out a warehouse and organize it.
Part of the glamourous work we do as missionaries is clean out and organize old dirty spider and roach infested warehouses. It took a week, and my too kind and loving wife was right there by my side for two weeks until she saw a spider the size of my hand crawl out from underneath a pile of junk.
She suddenly, had some important office work that needed her attention. We discovered underneath the piles of junk and spiders that we had 401 desks, 367 chairs and 45 tables.
But the plan came together, and we finally got to deliver desks and chairs to the school. The desks and chairs they had were far and few between, were broken down, worn out, and non-functional. Many of the kids had to sit on the cement floor.
So with the help of 16 young missionaries, we delivered enough desks for 80 students and helped clean five classrooms and set up the desks and chairs.
The furniture we are providing is used furniture from New Zealand, but it is in much better shape than what they currently have.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised that these kids are sitting on cement floors and using broken-down chairs. The teacher uses an old black chalkboard to teach and lecture about the principles of high-end math.
I was so amazed I took a picture of the old black chalkboard. As Americans we sometimes think people are ignorant, uneducated, or unintelligent because they have an accent, don’t speak English very well, or look different than us.
The poor conditions these kids find themselves in does not deter their determination to earn a better life and excel. The chalkboard is covered with formulas and equations, but as you look at the entirety of the classroom, there is evidence of human resiliency that can’t be captured.
As Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”
When ordinary people do extraordinary things, miracles happen, and lives are changed. I came here to help change the lives of the Tongan people and yet again, it is me that learns a valuable lesson and it is my life that is changed.
I gain an appreciation for people struggling for things that we often take for granted. What some of our American youth pay for a pair of high-end sneakers would pay tuition for a kid including room and board for a month.
When the kids come back from their semester break, they will find a classroom with a completely new feel. I don’t know that it will make learning calculus any easier. They won’t know how hard their principal worked over the semester break to give them a decent learning environment.
The other days of Atu’s break were spent painting a few classrooms. They won’t know about the 16 missionaries that came and delivered equipment and cleaned classrooms, or the endless number of small miracles that aligned perfectly so this day could come. They won’t even know about the Olympic Hoop Jumper who hopped around like a rabbit for two months.
Sure, they got a desk and a chair to sit on. But the real change was for all those that helped make it happen. We got a peek at how much better it is to give than receive. We gained a little bit stronger testimony that there is a God who answers prayers.
Atu is a big strong Tongan man who played football for Utah State. There was a tear of gratitude as he told us, “All you good people are an answer to my prayers. I want to help my students. I want to give them a chance. I want them to grow up better than I had it. We have been looking for years and today God answered my prayers.”
We were all reminded that the Lord answers prayers from all people; the school is not associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In fact, it is run by the Free Wesleyan Church.
So once again I learn more than I teach. I am blessed more than I am able to bless another. I feel more love from a God in Heaven than I give to my neighbor, the sick and afflicted, or the poor and needy.
My efforts are small. Truth be told, the missionaries did all the heavy lifting, in fact, all the lifting. It is rewarding to feel like we make a difference to the kids here in Tonga.
But, it is humbling to know that I am far from a finished work and the eternal principles I am learning today are not easily captured on an old black chalkboard, but are as real as the desks and chairs we delivered.