01 February, 2016

It takes a school to raise a child

Ariel Stenger is a Kentucky native and earned a BS in Economics and Asian Studies from the University of Louisville. Ariel is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA in Chaing Rai province in northern Thailand. She brings two years of teaching experience from Teach For America in the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. Ariel's home in rural Chiang Rai allows her to connect with students and their families outside the classroom at community events like weddings, merit-making and weekly markets. After Ariel's exchange program, she will continue working for cross cultural understanding while promoting gender equality.

"Neung, song, Sam, See, ha, hok, jet , bet, gao, sip," 60 students cheered while doing synchronized hand movements. Each student was wearing a matching colored shirt, the same style of gym pants and had their eyes glued to one student standing in the front. This was sports day. Imagine 600 plus students organized by multigrade color groups packed in bleachers surrounding a grassy soccer field. 

The blue team sitting in solidarity preparing for their cheerleaders.

Each group is led by students, who create cheers, hand movements and a theme for their color cohort to carry out. This year, themes ranged from Pikachu, to witches and included traditional Thai style. Each color group organized a parade march as well. Students nominated their princess, dedicated their lady boys and created a walking dance to entertain and compete for the sports day awards. 

My second day in Mae Lao, a small village in northern Thailand, I was catapulted into this energetic, organized and fun day. I walked around with my host teacher, visiting students who shared a variety of fun facts like, "I love you!" and, "I can't speak English." 

Joining the student parade, the drumline and cheerleader princess show respect for Thailand and excitement.

Walking around the school campus allowed me to see students busily preparing and perfecting each dance move. But one thought crossed my mind as I took picture after picture: where are the teachers? Where are the teachers directing this circus of events? To either side of me, both of my host teachers stood taking just as many pictures and encouraging each color group during their performance. Amazing. A smile spread across my face and I realized, the teachers were teaching by empowering older students to mentor the younger students. All the while, my teacher friends were gently directing the leader of each color group. Leading my teacher friends, were the mentor teachers with a plethora of experience and wisdom. This chain of support and empowerment is so prevalent within Mae Lao Wittayakom both during and after school hours. 

Taking a selfie with a fellow teacher and supporting the Pikachu team.

The enthusiasm for the beginning of the second semester didn't stop there. My housemate and colleague, P'Pui, eagerly welcomed me to our new home. She showed me how to use the two tub washing machine, offered me house shoes and confirmed three times that I had everything I needed. Even now, two months later, i enjoy daily meals with her and our fellow teachers. One night after our dinner, the older high school students were soaking in every last minute of soccer practice time. P'Pui and three other teachers stopped to say hi to the soccer players. It was quite late and the sun had set, so the teachers kindly told the boys to wrap up their game and head home. Each teacher expressed their concern for the boy's safety and we waited until they had hopped on their motorbikes, gently wai-ed** each of us and went home. 

It takes a village to raise a child. 

In my case, I am witnessing an entire school community that helps raise a child. Teachers and students look out for each other. Students offer to carry materials for the teachers regularly, and teachers make the slightest movement galvanizing students to complete a task or tuck in a shirt. Experienced teachers dote on younger teachers, mentoring and mothering them during morning assembly and lunch. When one person wins the lottery in the school office, everyone wins! We celebrate together and we mourn together. 

Our school dog, Lung, has only one eye. About 10 years ago, some students found a little puppy in very poor health. They started a campaign and had fundraised enough money to save the little puppy. Everyday since, lung has been the school dog. There's not a day that goes by when I don't see a different student buying a little hotdog treat to give to lung to make sure he's fed. When lung was hit by a car, everyone banded together again to cover the medical costs. 

At a teacher and student dinner, our school dog Lung waits patiently for the hot pot leftover.

The sense of collective community and compassion for each other is heartwarming. To be welcomed into the Mae Lao family has been wholesome and, at first, a bit daunting. How would I fit into this village family? Little did I know that the collective would care for me. With my host teachers, I have been the mentee, English mentor, niece, daughter and friend, and with the students, I have been the teacher, mentor, older sister, karaoke partner and liaison to the English language. But of all the roles I've had so far, I'm happiest to be a sister and daughter. Family in our village is welcoming, supportive and unassuming. 

Sunday night "framly" dinner: when your friends become your family, you have a framly 

**Wai is a very important aspect of Thai culture. It is a way to offer respect and acknowledgement to the other person. Typically, younger students "wai" their mentors, teachers and elders.

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