Thoughts At The End Of My First Week Of Thai School
I began my first day at school well, I arrived early and wandered around campus for a while not really knowing what to do as children bowed to me and parents smiled. I figured that I was pretty much doing what I was meant to be doing since it sometimes seems that our main reason for being here is so that the school can put our faces on billboards and show off to perspective parents that they can afford western teachers. The school is a good school though despite the slightly disproportionate worth attributed to a white face. Eventually I was found by a tiny teacher with a bright smiley face wrinkled as a walnut. She introduced herself as Teacher Pad and I have affectionately started referring to her as MyPad since the head of English is also called Teacher Pad and it gets confusing. “You Teacher I-la! You with me, follow follow,” she took my hand and led me round the kindergarten section of the school before ending up on the central thoroughfare between the parade ground and the main hall. The smallest children were lined up to face each other in neat rows either side of the road, girls on one side and boys on the other and officials were in the process of setting up a beautiful arch covered in flowers in the centre. MyPad explained that this year’s new starters (K1) were in the hall with their parents and that soon they would walk out and under the archway applauded by the year above (K2) to begin their new school lives. A local stray decided to prove that nothing was sacred to the dogs of Lop Buri by cocking his leg against the archway and snuffling at all the lined up 5 year olds; he was chased off. After a while the director appeared at the head of a long column of children and everyone cheered as they passed under the archway and were led to their new classrooms. I realised that a lot of the children who passed under were definitely much older than 4 and therefore couldn’t be the new starters.
Anuban Lop Buri is two schools on one campus; a government school for local children and a private school for fee-paying ones, their school experiences are quite different. What I had just witnessed was the government educated children lined up to applaud the return of the fee paying ones. I would love to see them try and line up kids from Brixton to applaud the return of the ones from Kensington and Chelsea at the start of each school year. Gotta love Thailand.
Ten minutes later my K1s passed under the arch, gripping their parent’s hands and, for the most part, beaming excitedly. MyPad told me she was going to show me my classroom and ushered me up the steps and then in through the door where I found 35 children and their parents looking at me expectantly. My heart leapt into my mouth at the idea that just like that I was supposed to start teaching in front of all the parents. “Hello class!” I said as enthusiastically as possible, my mind racing as they chorused back “hello”.
Seeing my face, MyPad whispered encouragingly from the door, “tell them who you are!”
I waved, “I am Teacher Eira!” Figuring I was here for the long-haul I put down my bag with a feeling of dread weaving a knot in my stomach and the parents chorused the name back – Teacher I-La.
My Pad gestured at me to get out of there, “you no teach now!” She laughed. “Not for two week, children no learning for two week, just get used to school.” I wondered what on earth I was going to be doing for the next two weeks whilst relief flooded through me. She took me to a little table set up outside a classroom with a plastic clown print cover on it and told me to sit then disappeared. My ‘desk’ is outside in a sort of open corridor with no power so I pulled out a notebook and started brain-storming lesson plans. After about an hour she came back and gave me some breakfast which consisted of a fruit that looked a bit like a pear but had no core and tasted more like an apple with a hint of cucumber and celery – it was very pleasant. When I asked her what it was she said it was “like an apple; same same but different.” I also had a little carton of strawberry yoghurt drink and a square of cake. Round about 11 when the temperature was really starting to rise a teacher invited me to sit in her classroom in the cool which I gladly took her up on. At lunch time after some kerfuffle trying to explain what I meant by vegetarian I was brought the most delicious deep-fried omelette I’ve ever had and MyPad continually gifted me fruit; including an entire vine of lychee-like things. I won’t need to buy food at all if the teachers keep feeding my like they do; I’ve had all sorts of obscure Thai delicacies from them. I gave the teachers an hour’s lesson at lunch time since they’re all keen to learn. They want me to sit with them and just talk when they’re not teaching. Sometimes its fine and sometimes it’s a bit awkward when we run out of conversation topics. MyPad apparently has a son my age studying art at the local university who she’s pretty keen to set me up with, but magically all the teachers seem to have corresponding sons and daughters for their allocated westerners! I spent the day mostly killing time and drew a rainbow for Katie’s class since she’s teaching colours.
I started getting stomach pains in the afternoon and by the evening I was hugging the toilet which is not what you hope for when starting a new job. The next day I found myself mostly sitting around again trying to make the children smile at me when they came out of their class. Mostly they just stare in dumbfounded amazement; I’m pretty sure for most of them I’m the first falang they’ve ever had any close contact with. They also do an awful lot of crying which seems to spread faster than yawning and head lice combined. One little fellow spent the best part of the morning sobbing fit to bust and slurping snotty tendrils from his top lip. They don’t comfort crying children here unless they consider the reason genuine. Missing your mum or wanting a cuddle or not wanting to play ball are not good reasons and will result in being shushed or ignored. If, however, your neighbour clonks you on the head with his shoe or steals your milk then you can have a cuddle. When Katie had finished her lessons she sprung me from my classroom and we took refuge in the air conditioned Lotus room which seems to be a staff room used only by falang teachers during the day. I spent the afternoon intermittently napping and dashing to the loo and feeling ever more unwell.
Thus far my only real interaction with the children has been on gate duty in the morning and evening when we have to stand at the entrance and show off our expensive faces to the parents. The children are so lovely though, they’re unabashedly affectionate and will approach us to give us cuddles for no apparent reason whatsoever; even the older children who are about 12. I cannot imagine a British 12 year old running up to cuddle a teacher in front of all their friends. Waz and I even had a few children come after us on bikes outside of school so that they could give us hugs and kisses. There aren’t enough cutesy adjectives in the English language to describe Thai children. They are completely uniform, all the girls have pudding bowl bob cuts with straight fringes and the boys have crew cuts and they’re always immaculate. The only thing that has really surprised me is the number of fat to very fat Thai children. I would say that the proportion of chubby kids is pretty much the same as it is back in Blighty; which is definitely not what I was expecting given that Thai people are known for generally being very slim and delicate in build. A reason for this is quite possibly the mini market of food, slushy and sweet stalls that appears at the entrance each afternoon at the end of school.
Day 3 was a non starter; after having spent 90% of the night on my bathroom floor clutching my guts I didn’t have much choice but to call our contact who told me to stay where I was and not worry. What a good impression – a sicky already on day 3! I hope they don’t mind too much, Katie pointed out that if anyone was going to be sick it was most likely to be at the beginning when we’re all still adjusting to the food and the heat and the whole otherness of it all. My primary suspects thus far are Tuesday’s school dinner (the tinned fruit cocktail interestingly included kidney beans) which immediately repeated on me or large quantities of Thai furry red balls (fruit I have no idea what is actually called). There’s no obvious culprit though as I didn’t eat anything the others didn’t also eat and they’re all fine. Who knows! Back in tomorrow to be extra specially great and redeem myself.