Thursday, March 22, 2012

I had lunch for dinner

The school year has ended.  I was grading  English tests until late last night, becoming increasingly discouraged by the idiocy (spelling and grammar errors!) of the exams themselves and the obvious difficulty that this school has in meeting the national mandate to teach English with a teaching staff that is obviously uncomfortable with the topic and a student body that has absolutely no context to practice. In a cloze test exercise on the fifth grade exam, students routinely completed every sentence incorrectly.   Fortunately, the Director sprang for the motorcycle food lady who generally shows up at the school gate around 5pm anyway  to bring the goodies over to the conference room and let us have whatever we wanted from her baskets. 

On Monday, Kim talked to me about a new program that they would like to launch for the new school year in May and asked me to write the copy for the brochure.   This would be an “Expert English” program comprised of the three classes--Art, English and Math—taught entirely in English to only 20 tested and pre-qualified first grade students in an air conditioned classroom.   I would be teaching this curriculum with a yet unknown Thai teacher.   Parents will pay 8,000 baht ($260)  for this for the entire semester, all inclusive except for textbooks.  The prospect is enticing for me, especially in light of the potential of extending my stay here for the rest of the academic year and having an opportunity to design and implement a program.  On the other hand, I am weighing the burden of comprising a whole new series of lesson plans in an evolving curriculum.  I am also laughing myself silly about teaching a Math class.

I was always horrible with numbers.  While my sister was acing calculus and playing as an all star field hockey champion in her junior year of high school, I was barely passing algebra in my freshman year of college.  There are also a lot of times when I have no idea what to do in my classroom and find myself trying, failing, adapting and trying again.  Compounded by the unknown factor of my co-teacher, this new responsibility could be very challenging.    If this program actually launches, I will see selected members of the Anuban Saam (Kindergarten three) class that graduated today in a very intensive next semester.  It was bittersweet to bid their cute little red kerchief uniforms goodbye this morning.

Thai people do a great job with events.  The school cafeteria was decorated with bolts of shiny polyester fabric in bright colors, tied with wire to form draped garlands and bows.  The stage was constructed and covered with vinyl flooring, the audio system rigged with nary a peep of feedback, and gold skirted tables were staffed with gold shirted teachers who staffed the tables with flowers, balloons and trinkets for sale as presents the parents could provide their children. As parents filtered in, the Man Who Loves the Microphone kept up a monologue on how great the Anubans were and what a nice, well-deserved occasion this was for all concerned.  The snack shack was stocked with baked goods, colored sweet waters and ice, and small containers of rice and fried chicken wings surrounded with plastic wrap.  Before long,  the first “song and dance review” launched the program.   Watch this little video on youtube!

After a few other demonstrations of student talents, I was lined up for my part of the show to  “say a few words.”  I was  supportive, but also realized when I came to school that I wasn't as perfectly coiffed as I would have liked.  I could feel the sheen breaking out on my forehead.  The past couple sleepless nights had generated a sagging face that no powder could correct.  I stumbled my way through a few platitudes in Thai, repeated what I said in English and was not surprised when Kim joined my side not only to re-state what I’d already said in Thai (so the parents could actually understand it) but also sell the new Expert English program to these prospects. 

Before long, the Anuban lined up for their diplomas.  This step means so much for these five year olds. In just five weeks, they will be joining the morning assembly in the gray and blue unformed rows of the older students.  They will be tested quarterly. Coloring will only be a small portion of their academic worlds.  And, most tragically, they will not have an afternoon nap on the fold-up blanket/pillow bedrolls that they used to bring to school on Monday mornings.
With their diplomas in hand, the students line up in front of the decorated archway in their graduation robes.  They are handed a bouquet of tulle and a stuffed animal and each child is handed a plastic bag that contains at least 1000 baht.  They pass through the row of their teachers, who touch their shoulders in a soft and gentle farewell to this stage of pure innocence.  They proceed under the archway, to a waiting crowd of parents, photo opportunities and the bigger world around them.

In May, I will return to a changed world. My housemate Tuy and my good friend Gam are leaving their jobs here and I will miss them both.  I will have some new opportunities to refine whatever teaching skills I started to hone on the last round.  By the beginning of June and as the midnight sun arches over Alaska, I will decide what I want to do in the next 12 months.  I’ve been mulling over the forces that are supporting and opposing my decision to stay through March 2013:  the sunk costs of my colored uniform shirts I wear on designated days, the majesty of the ancient ruins and elderly trees that surround me here, the loneliness and isolation of being one of a handful of foreigners (and mostly likely the only middle aged single white woman) in the province, and the fear of returning to the states where the costs of health coverage and re-establishing myself present gnarly obstacles.  There is also the winter solstice of 2012, which could be exciting.

On Friday night, I will board a train at midnight in an overnight sleeper car headed south with the exciting of prospect of camping out in wild places for the week ahead.  Then, I return to Kamphaeng Phet for a thrilling “turn and burn” involving laundry, re-packing, cleaning and sorting things out in preparation for some visa business enroute,  a few days in Bangkok and a long overnight flight Tanzania for my 3 week long 50th birthday celebration.  Lots of time for thinking, experiencing, sharing time with my best buddy Carrie Evans and my family who is joinging us for a week-long safari.   I shared a quote, pinned to the wall above my desk in Anchorage, with my Fellow Teacher Friend in Tak recently. It deserves to be here too:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Power of Love

I was in love with 14 second graders on Thursday afternoon. The alpha cohort of seven year olds, comprised of 13 girls and 1 quite overweight boy, are consistent high performers in my teaching roster.   In fact, they are generally so eager to engage in conversation practice that I had to innovate a lottery system to ensure fair opportunities for participation.  Not only does this save me from the chorus of pleas, it’s also a  game of chance and luck—something that Thai people love.  
At lunch,  my Thai co-teacher mentioned she wouldn't be coming today as she had to cover another class.  “Mai bpen rai (no problem)” I said, "Nakrian dee mahk. (The students are very good).  As we began,  I gave them the end of the school year quiz and was able to answer their questions in sign language and meager Thai.  Afterwards, we played a game.  The students matched  the words in the basket (pulled by the current round of the lucky winner) with the pictures in their hands.   As they lined up at the door at the end of class to say, “Thank you, teacher”,  I high-fived everyone on their way out.  It was one of those moments when everything flows, life is easy and you feel you are exactly where you should be in the Universe.

Later that afternoon, the Director’s daughter Kim invited me to attend a funeral for a student that evening.  Apparently this 14 year old was hanging out with some friends of friends over the weekend.  Gang members were involved on the periphery of the gathering, there was retribution from a previous disrespect, shots were fired and one missed its intended target to enter the young boy’s abdomen.  After three critical days in the hospital and despite a proud blood donation from Jee Jee the ladyboy teacher, the young man died.  I didn’t know him, but I was interested in witnessing  the ceremony.

the temple was just up the road, through the gate pillars with the dragons on the top and the glass building with an enormous Buddha statue facing the road.  As we slipped off our shoes to enter, I noticed the tables piled high with food.  The Director was welcomed with a wai and muted conversation.  We were escorted to the front and seated on couches in the premier spot; a young woman brought us glasses of water. The mother comes to visit with The Director, who hands her a fat envelope.   The boy’s coffin is enormous, green and gold and reaching nearly five feet off the ground.  The coffin is surrounded by plastic evergreen arrangements, each punctuated with a myriad of twinkling colored lights.  His framed school photo is featured to the left, on a pedestal, the somber and uniformed head surrounded by a blue background. It crosses my mind that this might have been the only photo of him that his family had.

A bell gongs. The boy's mother and her supporters take their praying positions in front of the boy's altar.   A man wearing a white t-shirt with a colt 45 logo scurries about and I’m certain he had no idea of the English meaning.  Four monks file into the temple.  The Director, the Man Who Loves the Microphone and the teacher of the second grade alpha cohort are invited to light candles and incense at the three stations in front of the monks.   The mother moves to the boy’s station in front of his coffin and does the same.

The monks begin their prayers. As I sit with my palms together and close to my heart, I begin to meditate in earnest. What can I conjure up that will foster the healing?  An image of a lotus flower comes to mind.  I ask, “what colors” ? Pink, with a touch of lavender, it answers.  With that, images begin to swirl in my mental space as the chanting continues in a rhythmic litany of tones in Pali, the ancient Buddist language.  Colored vapors surround the people in front of the boy.  A carousel of connected lotus flowers undulates around them in slow moving circles.  The image moves and shifts and the entire group is in the center of the flower, with the petals opening and closing to surround them with light, peace, a salve to heal the grief and pain.  It erupts to the ceiling of the open air temple, drifting down to the other teachers, family and friends. lined up in the plastic chairs around the temple    This meditation comes so easily and so powerfully that I recognize that something significant has occurred.  I notice my own contentment and peace as I leave, observing the supporters of the family counting out the donations received from the mourners.

The following day, my classes are cancelled as I’m requested to fulfill my role as Marketing Assistant with the Anuban (kindergarten) open house.  The Director surprises me midway through the presentation to parents and asks me to say a few words in Thai which I stumble through.   The Man Who Loves the Microphone adds a bit of commentary afterwards.  The kindergartners do a series of song and dance revues, abacus demonstrations and public speaking opps.  Afterwards, I walk around and participate in a few projects, saying simple hellos to parents and smiling a lot.   The school bell rings at the end of the day and I’m doing my usual “meet and greet” with the masses of children running, playing, walking to school bus or lining up at canteen for snacks.

Nid, one of the second graders from my Thursday class, runs up and hands me a fabric flower.  I look at it and experience a sudden rush of recognition, validation and wonder from last night's meditation.  I am awed and a bit giggly, humbled and confident. I give her a shoulder hug to my hips. “Of course”, I say to myself, “it has returned.”   Thank you Nid.  Thank you Universe.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tests and other torture in Thailand

On Tuesday afternoon, I watched while five of the third graders got their ankles “slapped”  by their homeroom  teacher’s wooden pointer.   The gang of five boys in this class are challenging, even with a Thai teacher that maintains order by her mere physical presence.  Without her backup on Tuesday, they’d taken the stuffed animal I use to teach “in, on, under” and were pretending to have it jump out of the foam brick box and then tossing it about the classroom.  This actually was quite imaginative and creative, but their delivery was a bit off.   The girls were intent on their own conversations and scornfully mocked the boys as their physical antics intruded on their personal space.  Two shy students made eye contact with me and looked pained; one covered his ears.  
We're doing practice dialog around shopping in the "store", but my Thai co-teacher put the pigtail on the male student who's hair she thought was too long.
We're doing practice dialog around
shopping in the "store",
but my Thai co-teacher put the pigtail
 on the male student whose hair she thought was too long

As soon as Dian entered the classroom, silence fell and nearly all students froze in place.  Dian is my age and has never married.  Tuaw, my good friend who is the one teacher that speaks passable English , told me that her finance died long ago and she never found another.  Dian had come to check on me, thankfully, knowing that the usual teacher was administering  exams for the upper level students.   She assesses the situation, utters admonishments in Thai and demands that the miscreants fess up.  The girls point fingers.  The boys make sure that everyone who’s had a hand in the shenanigans are included in the line up.  In a line at the front of the room, the boys raise their feet for punishment and the switch is delivered in several short raps to their ankles.

Thai people  consider the feet as a dirty part of the body.  With an uninformed detachment that I bring with much of the cultural elements witnessed here in Thailand, I watch this incident unfold.  I had little sympathy for the gang of five.  After Dian left, I resumed again with different tactics in hand and was relieved when the bell rang.

The school year is drawing to an end: the third level kindergartners had photos taken in their mini graduation robes, and both National and school exams are being administered. Thailand’s educational system is notoriously poor among the ASEAN countries.  To address the concerns using home grown tactics, Thailand instituted a new government entity to write and administer the O-Net exam about five years ago.  The test provides a benchmark for Thai language, social studies, math, English and sciences (including sexual education) and upper level students take the test for University admission.  This year was rife with the recurrent annual controversy over the exam, with parents, teachers and students shaking their heads over the structure and content.

Here’s one cited as the most egregious example of ludicrous and ineffective testing:
 "Locals have found a bizarre item. It is round and soft. If it is not fed water, it shrinks and becomes a hard object. This hard object, when given water, will return to its soft, bigger condition. What is it?" The alternatives were: a) The egg of the Naga (ed. A Buddhist deity); The egg of a giant salamander; c) Quartz; d) Flour balls in milk tea; or e) Hydrogel.

With the preparations for closure in progress, my elective English classes are not ranking high on the teachers’ lists.   Over the past week, I had five classes not show up. Of the remaining eight, six were conducted without the steadying presence of my Thai colleagues.  That’s been challenging on a personal level, causing me to question the wisdom of living here in this small town where my main support system is virtual.   In the midst of the increased fervor of the beginning of the end, the male students are fighting among themselves and the girls are tittering.  Even Diyo, the Man Who Loves the Microphone, seems to be losing his patience with increasing frequency.  In the morning assembly on the volleyball court, he  paces amidst the rows of students looking for violators.

In two consecutive mornings this week and once during the morning prayer to the Buddha, Diyo latched onto second and third grade boys as an example.   It starts with his exclamation of wrong doing.   The students fall silent.  I look to Tuaw with a question on my face, she slowly shakes her head as the rest of the teachers continue their morning gossip on the sidelines.  Diyo cuffs the boy on the head, raising his voice in what I can only assume is a tirade assumed for effect.  The boy hangs his head in shame, I can see his body shaking with sobs as he maintains his place in the line of his classmates. Diyo grabs him by the elbow, drags him to the front of the assembly and makes him face his fellow students, all alone.    Diyo assumes the microphone  from the usual upper level student MC and continues his proclamations on the misdeeds of the seven year old.  By now, the boy’s shirtfront is soaked with tears.

I take another in a series of deep breaths, mustering the only power I can exhibit at this moment with a Tonglen meditation.  "May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be strong, may you be at ease" circles around my brain with an image of a superhero cape draped over the boy’s trembling shoulders.   I ache for him.   The morning breeze lifts the branches of the trees around campus.  I search the sky for signs of birds and look across to the school’s garden.  The teachers line up in front of the student body for the ritual student statements of honor to us and to each other. We do the morning love meditation with the hand movements and the singing.  The boy remains behind us, standing off to the side of the student MCs.  Alone, exhausted, overwhelmed, humiliated.

Over the past couple weeks, a persistent haze has settled over the northern region of Thailand.  It was thick enough last week to delay a flight into Lampang, about  three hours north of here.   It’s the thick of the dry season.  Forest fires in National Parks (likely intentionally set), the usual trash fires and the annual “slash and burn” clearing of the sugar cane and rice fields have created this mess.  Letters to the editor in the Bangkok post lament over this annual problem.  The government issues a press release stating the King's displeasure and that the initiative to seed clouds and create rain is currently underway.   Yet, the trash fires continue, protective masks are recommended in many Northern provinces and the officials look the other way.    The sunset and sunrise is a spectacular red glowing orb in the sky.

Despite the change in the air with my students, there is a sense of timeless stagnancy with the issues that surround their future.  I wonder what will create change in this country, so fiercely proud of their “never-colonized” status yet also falling far behind countries like Laos and Cambodia in English education.  Thailand is also ranked behind many other countries in the overall educational performance yet spends a staggering amount of money in bureaucratic “oversight” that creates ineffective systems.   And in this small rural school, the practice of using humiliation, coercion and force to maintain order amidst the monkeys in the classroom is likely repeated in many others around the country.   The outliers reach deep into the depths of abusive power.  The school janitor takes the trash to the burn burn each day around five.  On Friday's bike ride in the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street, I look to the sky at sunset to see 1-3 inch cinders drifting town like a brief macabre snow.  I finally realize that this is likely the product of the sugar cane plant located about 20 miles out of town.

It’s late on Sunday night.  Tomorrow is a new day and the beginning of the three weekend countdown to the end of the school year.  I found out on Friday that I can take the last week of March off, which I hope will bring me to the northeastern part of the country pending smog/haze/smoke considerations.  Or maybe splurge on a train across the backbone of the country, south to the beach. Over the weekend,  I found a set of smiley hair scrunchies that match my school uniform colors for each day of the week.  They are worthy of a 7 year old's attention, like something the next kid who is standing at the front of the assembly next week might appreciate.