The boy knew the desert sensed his fear. They both spoke the same language. – Paolo Coelho.
I have just finished my fourth day teaching at Bunditnoi 2 (two is pronounced song). Before the end of my first day the job had already become far and away the best thing about this journey. In less than a full week I have had an immensely rewarding experience that I do not thing I could soon forget, nor will I ever want to.
The day begins very early. I arrive at the school at, or even before, 7:00 AM. This week I have been driven to school by Oi, a man who teaches the Thai equivalent of Home Economics as well as Human Duties, in which students learn about their obligations to family, friends, country, employers, and the Sangha (the Buddhist monkhood). Oi has very respectable English, and we hold friendly conversations in the car on the way to school. He asks me about my family and my girlfriend (he occasionally calls her my wife and I must remind him I am not married), and in turn I have learned a little about his family and his education. In the car with us are his wife, who works in the office at school but speaks barely any English, their son Ik, who is in second grade, and their nephew who is in kindergarten.
Oi’s nephew is one of several students who stand out to me. I never teach kindergarten but I have come to know him in our car rides. He is small and has curlier hair than any other Thai child I know. He is also the master of sassy poses. The English word he knows best is “no,” which he uses frequently, but always playfully. When we ride in the car, we do not need language to communicate. Some games are universal. I put my hand down, he puts one hand on mine, and I try to slap it before he can pull it away. He puts a ball of tape in my palm, and I pass it back and forth and make him guess which hand it’s in. He enjoys the Rubik’s cube I sometimes show him, and although its purpose is something I have yet to convey, he enjoys twisting the different pieces.
When we arrive at school, I spend an hour outside in the sunny entrance greeting the children as they come in from the bus. Thai school busses are not like ours back home—they are vans packed to the limit with children. Watching them emerge is like watching a magician pull a scarf from his sleeve. They just keep coming. When they pass me by me I say good morning, which most of them say back to me, and give them all a high-five. High-fives are something Teacher Ben, my cousin, has been working on teaching them for a semester or so. I’d say they have it down pat. The motion is understood, and although most of them merely tap my palm with the strength of no men, a few can really get my hand stinging. I like standing out and greeting the children. Not only does it help them practice their English greetings of “good morning,” and high-fives, but it helps them get used to me. I am the newest teacher at school by the factor of one week.
At around 8:00 AM the morning assembly begins. Here, the students line up by class, sing the Thai national anthem, chant for a few minutes to the statue of Buddha in the courtyard, and then drink some milk. This is also the time when, on the first day, I introduced myself to the school. “Good morning,” I said. “I am Teacher Paul. I come from America. I just graduated Rutgers University. I write books and I look forward to teaching you English!” A couple days a week, Teacher Mann, a native Thai who teaches music, will lead the assembled children in some, for lack of a better term, exercises to get the blood pumping.
My schedule after the assembly varies day by day. I teach anywhere between two and five classes a day, always to the students of first grade through fourth grade. There are three first grade classes, and one each of second, third and fourth on my roster. Classes all last 50 minutes. I serve mostly as an assistant to Teacher Lheaw (pronounce Lee-oo), the English teacher at Bunditnoi Song. I help Teacher Lheaw with his pronunciation and spend a lot of time writing English words on the board and leading the students as they spell each word together. Another common activity is writing words on the board and having the students copy them into their notebooks. Some words we worked on today in grades 3 and 4 were “baby,” “balloon,” “January,” and “about.” Then I will go through the rows of children (each class has approximately 20 students) and check their spelling. Yesterday I began to individually quiz each child. As I check their work, I will point to a random letter and ask, “Arrai-dee?” (What’s this?). If they spell their words correctly and know the letters I point to, I give them a high-five. More so than in the morning, getting a high-five for a job well done makes the children very happy. They smile, giggle, sometimes even jump up and down.
Lunch is served at noon every day, and I feel lucky that teachers eat for free. The cuisine is never elaborate but to me it is extraordinary. Rice, noodles, rice, Tom Yam soup, and rice appear to be the cooks’ favorite dishes to serve.
Whenever I have a free period, I spend it reading in the blessedly air-conditioned office (they also have cold water from jugs, not from tap), or else spending time in the school’s small library with Teachers Ben and Hannah, the two Americans. Collectively we are farangs (pronounced fuh-longs), which is essentially a term for white people.
School ends at around 3:00, but us farang teachers have to stick around until 4:30. I have yet to get a handle on why that’s the rule. The Thai teachers tend to stay until 5:00 (and because Teacher Oi is my ride, so do I). So after school is basically like another free period. I’ll read, or sing songs while Teacher Ben plays guitar, or shoot hoops in the courtyard basketball hoop, or pass a soccer ball with Teacher Kenny, who is from Nigeria and speaks perfect English. Today, as I waited for Teacher Oi, I got to play with his nephew in the courtyard. We did our usual hand-slapping game, and then I signed for him to put his arms around my forearm. When he did, I lifted him up high, and spun around while he kicked his legs about and laughed louder than I’d yet heard him laugh.
If there is a universal language that all people understand, laughter is an important part of its vocabulary.
More on everything to come!