So in my last post I talked about an ordinary day in Thailand, but there are other ordinary moments, notable in their very non-notable-ness (yes I just invented a word) that I couldn’t fit in. So here are a few more examples of what my life is like here, on a day to day basis. These don’t really fit into any kind of coherent thread so I’ll just throw them out there one by one.
My Third Graders Really, Really Love Me:
Okay now first let me say that in general most of my kids like me. This is not to toot my own horn. I am the equivalent of a bright, shiny object to them, new and different and interesting to look at. I am their American, pale, blonde farang teacher and there is only one of me and about 600 of them. As a farang teacher I would have to be really, really lame for them not to like me. Trust me, if you ever need a self esteem boost come to Thailand and teach English at a primary school. It’s hard to feel bad about yourself when there is a chorus of “I LOVE YOU” and “BEAUTIFUL” following you around everywhere. This could mean that at this very moment all of this is going to my head and I am turning into a vain and pompous person, but I hope this is not the case. Like I said, I could be deformed and painfully boring and smell bad and these kids would still like me. But my third graders, well for whatever reason, these 150 or so kids LOVE me, to an almost creepy and inappropriate extent. I’m not sure if someone told them I was some famous American actress before I came here, or maybe they’re just really good at sucking up, but these kids act like I’m a rainbow made of puppies covered in candy.
I walk into the class and I barely have time to get my bearings before I am mobbed. Little arms and hands clutch at me from all directions. I get hugged from the front, from the side, from behind. There have been times where we I am literally swept up in the sea of nine year olds and moved several feet along the floor, all of us one tangled mass of limbs. I try to disentangle myself and this takes about five minutes. Usually I end up having to pry tiny fingers off myself, and this is no easy feat. These kids are small but they have death grips. And it’s not even my own well being I’m worried for. There have been times where I’ve thought to myself “wow, this is about two seconds away from being one like one of those stampedes you read about on the news”. All the while the Thai teacher is usually still in the room at this point, a bemused expression on her face. I try to smile and shrug my shoulders, all “what can you do? Kids right?” but I’m pretty sure that all my face shows at that moment is wild panic.
The same thing happens at the end of class but usually it’s even worse. I’ve been picked up off the floor on several occasions by the stronger ones in the grade. And let me tell you it is hard to maintain teacherly dignity and poise when you are being picked up by your student. I usually try to make a quick exit toward the door, hoping I can get out without them noticing, but they always notice. And suddenly I am back in a mob, only this time they’re really hanging on for dear life because I’m leaving. I try to point at my watch and mime that it’s time for me to go. I try to explain that I’ll be back next week, that I’m really not that cool. But they’re not having any of it. I am their shiny thing and they don’t want to let go of their shiny thing. There have been classes where I’ve had to cover my head with my arms and literally run from the classroom. And on these occasions it’s very possible I might have screamed like a little girl.
My third graders also love to give me things. Now I have several friends who teach and I’ve witnessed them bring home gifts from their students, cards, little store bought trinkets, even a Kate Spade make up bag. I don’t get these kinds of gifts. I get random, crumpled pieces of paper, a midget pencil that’s worn down to the nub. I’ll see kids come up to the desk and put things inside of my little plastic briefcase, little stickers or rulers (I try to tell them, seriously kids, keep your ruler). They’ve given me little Thai comic books, miniature little toys. I’ve gotten candy (often unwrapped). One kid even gave me a random assortment of paper flashcards (in English and Thai). Sometimes I don’t even know if it’s a gift or just them showing me something. They’ll come up to me an English workbook and hold it out with an expectant look on their face. What do they want me to do? Read it to them? Finish their homework for them? Take it home? Is this some kind of offering or just them being weird, little kids. I never, ever know. I have gotten every strange little kid item under the sun and it never ceases to amaze me what they come up with to “give” me.
But the strangest part of my third graders love for me has got to be the signing. As in me signing my “autograph” for them. It started innocently enough. One class a few weeks ago, one of them came up to me, handed me a blank piece of paper and a pencil, and said “name.” I stared at them for a few moments, confused. “Name” they repeated, “write name.” Finally I did as commanded, wrote “Elizabeth” on their piece of paper, handed it back to them and tried to continue with the lesson. A couple of minutes later another one came up to me, same deal, only this time they wanted me to write my name in a little notebook. And then another one comes right after. Okay, I thought, this is getting ridiculous. But before I could think too much here comes the mob. Suddenly I am engulfed by screaming nine year olds, like I’m Miley Cyrus at a mall full of preteens. Pieces of paper were thrust in my face, notebooks, random pieces of cardboard that looked like they were ripped out of the back of notebooks. I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t really think how to say no without sounding really mean. And seriously how could you say no to a bunch of kids who are acting like little nutjobs about getting you to write your name on a piece of paper?
And this has become a tradition. It doesn’t happen every class, but every once in a while, that one kid will come up to me, often at the most inopportune moment, like when I’m trying to go over flashcards. And as soon as that one kid starts, here they come. I have been backed into a wall by these kids and their requests for me to “sign.” I have been shoved into a corner, trying desperately to fend them off. They elbow each other and hit each other in the face with their notebooks. I’ll try to sign one piece of paper and five more are shoved at me. I’ve had to turn my back on them and write on the wall, but even this doesn’t really stop them. I’ve had kids beg me to sign their hands (this is where I put my foot down, no way am I stupid enough to sign my students and have them go home to their parents that way). I cannot tell you how bizarre this is. I want to say to them, “look kids, I don’t know what you’ve been led to believe, but I am not famous. I am not cool. I am just a random American and trust me, there are plenty of us.” But at the same time, of course it’s a little endearing. Of course it’s a little flattering. Again I warned you, this whole experience might be turning me into a terribly vain person. At the very least I’m getting well prepared in the event that my life takes a strange twist and I’m suddenly famous (my guess, my fame would come from falling into a tiger enclosure at the zoo or something equally embarrassing).
So that about sums up my third graders. They are completely, unreasonably, head over heels in love with me and I have no idea why. They blow me air kisses and hug me and cling onto my arm if I walk past in the hall. They cheer when I walk in a room and try to prevent me from moving when it’s time to leave. They ask for my autograph for God’s sake. And I would be lying to you if I said their bonkers, silly, very sweet behavior wasn’t one of my favorite parts of this job.
Thursday Nap Day:
Oh Thursday. I could write a poem about you. I could sign you a song. You are so beautiful...to me. But seriously, Thursday afternoons have become sacred to me since I've been teaching here. I look forward to them almost as much as I look forward to the weekend, because napping on a weekday is just so much better than napping on a weekend, isnt it? There's something so decadent and improbable about it. And my Thursday naps are the epitome of decadent.
Here's the thing. I can't nap Mon-Wed. I start work at 8:30 and go until 5:30. Not techincally I have a break in the middle of the day where I could nap. But on some of these days I'm busy doing teacher stuff, going to town to make copies, buying supplies, making lesson plans, etc. And even if I do have nothing to do I'm very wary of naps where I actually have to wake up for something. I'm not good at waking up period, but waking up from an afternoon nap, not a pretty picture. I'm usually so disoriented that I can't even remember what time it is, or what day it is, or you know, my name. Half the time I think the alarm is in my dream and I am come this close to sleeping through it. If I do manage to wake up, I'm always groggy and cranky and that is no way to take on my extra class (which requires full alertness and minimal crankiness, seriously if I go into this class cranky there's a good chance I might throw one of my kids through a window). So napping is kind of out for the first three days of the week. But then comes Thursday, oh Thursday. I start at 8:30 like every other day and teach four classes. These happen to be my most taxing classes of the week because three of the four are first graders. First graders are nearly impossible. English wise and age wise they're only a step up from kindergartners (but with the first graders I have no help) but attitude wise they might as well be preteens. And they always cry.
I hate the crying. I never see what starts it, but am suddenly surrounded by a gang of first graders all talking in rapid Thai and pointing to about five different people as the "cause." Even if I did see who started it what can I really do? Wag my finger at them? Lecture them in a language they don't understand? I could techincally send them to sit in the hallway but that makes me nervous. I don't want to be that farang teacher who sent a kid out into the hall one day only for that kid to never return. So usually I walk over to the crying kid (almost always it's just because one of the other students call him or her a name or took his or her pencil, and they definitely play the tears up), pat him or her on the back a few times, console them (once again in a language they don't understand). Then I look very sternly at whoever I think is responbible (and who the heck knows if I even have the right kid), and walk back to class and try to commence teaching. Sometimes this works. Sometimes the kid keeps on crying and I somehow ridiculously try to keep teaching while 99% of the class is occupied with the crying student. Sometimes the kid who caused the crying starts crying also either out of guilt, embarassment or because I made them give the other crying kid back whatever he or she took in the first place (and who knows who it actually belongs to, I can never really know for sure). And so then I have two kids crying and I feel like some heartless robot for continuing teaching but my only other option is to sit down on the floor and start crying myself. So what can you do?
I deal with physical fights amidst my first graders, way more than any other grade. They clobber eachother. The other day this one adorable little kid in glasses was standing in the back of the room with a heavier set, bigger kid. The bigger kid just wallops the glasses kid, sends his glasses flying across the room. I yelled in a very loud voice at the bigger kid and tried to make them sit on opposite sides of the class, but about five minutes later the same thing happens, and then again about five minutes after that. I don't know what tiff was going on between these two, what blood feud was started between PE class and arts and crafts, but they were locked in mortal combat all fifty minutes of the class. My first graders don't understand me. I don't understand them. It's a very tricky situation. And so I crawl through three fifty minute classes of this on Thursday. By the end of it I am a battered human being. I have literally been through war, and war between six year olds is not a pretty thing. Who knew they were so violent? What are they feeding kids these days? Steroids? Can a first grader have roid rage?
So anyway, I make it to the end of the day, and unlike Mon-Fri when I have an extra class at 4:30, on Thursday afternoon there is nothing in my way. The afternoon stretches before me like an endless rainbow (yes I just used the word rainbow, but such is the depth of my love for Thursdays). I walk home, the heat weighing me down, my feet sore from running to the back of classrooms to break up fisticuffs. I get to my building, walk up the stairs, down the hall. I get to my room, turn the AC on, change into a tank top and boxers. Then I lie down and in an almost horizontal position eat a giant bowl of cereal (weirdly being a teacher has returned me to my student habits, I always pigged out on cereal after school when I was younger). I maybe watch a few minutes of a TV on dvd show. And then when I'm full and the room is cool, I climb under the covers, close my eyes, and instantly I am asleep.
There is no alarm on Thursday nap day. Alarms do no exist on Thursday nap day. I sleep until my body wants to wake up, or more often than not until my stomach gets hungry for dinner. I rarely sleep less than four hours. I've napped for five. I could nap longer but my hunger wakes me up. This is no nap sprint. It is a marathon people, one that I have trained for my whole life. All of my naps have led me to these Thailand naps. Before napping was just an hour or two, a little break, a siesta. Now my naps are intense, coma-like states of being. I love these naps the way a fat kid loves pie. Sure I usually can't fall asleep on Thursday nights until midnight, but since I have no class until 10am on Friday it doesnt matter. Its as though the whole universe is working to give me the perfect scenario for these naps. And it gets even better. Since it's rainy season there's always about a 75% chance that it's going to storm in the afternoon. And if you're a true napper you know there is nothing better in this world than napping during a storm. You lie there as the thunder and rain starts, comfy as can be, and suddenly every little worry fades away. The only important thing in your life is that you're dry and warm, and never before have you truly appreciated those two things the way you do right then. You have no where to go, nothing to do. Other people might be scurrying around outside with umbrellas and wet shoes, but you, you are in bed, hours of sleep stretching before you. The roar of rain surrounds you and you close your eyes. Heaven. Oh, just my little, perfect slice of heaven. I'm fairly certain naps may never again be this good.
One of the reasons little kids are way more awesome than adults:
They haven't gotten good at hiding who they are. Because really that's what people do. The older you get the better you become at keeping your mask on. Sure you might show glimpses of your true self, to family and good friends, but isn't it true that we're all in some way, at most times, acting? You change who you are, even if in small variations, depending on who you're with. You're yourself, of course, but not really your self, that indivisible, untarnished self that we're all born with, that informs all of our decisions, but which is covered up by words and habits and all of the debris we accumulate through life.
Kids start to learn how to be other people, even at a young age. The way they act with their friends to be cool. Their ironic attitudes, the over it thing. I see all of that even in my youngest students. But here's the best part about kids. They haven't perfected it yet. Their masks, their alter egos, the faces they want to show to the world, all of those things slip. They can't keep it up all the time. Their true, perfect, little kids selves poke through, despite all their best efforts. Like when the two second grade boys in my extra class, who spend so much time joking around and acting up and acting tough, get intently, earnestly into coloring and cutting out paper butterflies. Or the fourth graders who ignore me on purpose most of the time, and sit with bored looks on their faces, suddenly get really into a game to the point where they're jumping up and down and screaming. Even my "thug" kids, the ones who start fights and hit and act like little monsters most of the time, they have these moments where all of that fades away and suddenly they're just themselves, beautiful and honest and perfect. You can see it in their eyes, or the careful, precise way they unpeel a sticker to put on an art project, or their wide, toothy, smiles when I give them a high five for winning a game. Kids may start learning from a young age how to be different people, how to construct these masks we humans make for ourselves, but the best part about kids is how often they forget the masks, how often they let that guard down. Sure two seconds later they're screaming at each other or trying to take things off my desk behind my back, but you kind of put up with it because you've seen what's underneath all that. You've seen who they really are, and you realize how rare and wonderful that is.