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.   

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