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."

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