22 July, 2016

A Lesson in the Rain

Kayla was born and raised in Southwest Oklahoma. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2014 with a degree in Elementary Education. Kayla is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant at BanKumuang School in Ubon Ratchathani where she teaches 3rd through 9th grade. In her free time, Kayla likes exploring Ubon with her host teacher P’Nuan, and eating all of the Thai food she can. After Fulbright, Kayla hopes to bring a little bit of Thailand back to an elementary classroom in America, and share her experience with her future students.

Wednesday, June 23, 2016

This morning I woke up to the sun shining much too bright, much too early. The days often come and go with the mediocrity and monotony of any other job anywhere in the world. Today I didn’t wake up with plans to change the world; I really didn’t have any plans. These past 9 months I’ve actually learned a lot about letting go of plans, and embracing the sabai sabai, or go with the flow lifestyle. There have been days when I’ve been whisked away by my host teacher after a long day of school, only to return sometime after dinner with several things checked off the to-do-list I didn’t even know I had. Therefore, I keep my daily goal as simple as “have a good day” – whatever that may mean (seriously, it could be anything) and wherever the day may take me. 

Attempting to fit all of 6th grade in a self

Although it is a simple goal it is not as easy to accomplish, as it may seem. I have this agreement with Thailand. We never go to bed angry at each other, but Thailand is much better at keeping that agreement than I am. For every good day there is a crazy, exhausting, “what just happened?!” day, and sometimes at the end of such a day I can’t even decipher the roller coaster of emotions I felt. There are some days I am so ready to give up on Thailand and I want to be mad, I really do, but I never mastered the art of holding a grudge. This day in particular could be classified as a tough and grudge worthy day, but Thailand refused to let me go back on our agreement.

Students trying to keep me warm on a cold day (about 45 ºF)

“Good morning!” I shout to my room of 8th graders. I spot a large, poorly hidden body lying under the floor table, and another group of boys sitting against the wall, their sweat streaking the black wall behind them (insert the smell of 30 sweaty eighth graders here). They are desperately attempting to be invisible as they stare at the ground. I swear I can hear their silent thoughts pass through their heads, and they are not thoughts of English. I hear a few “good mornings”, and I cheerily shout again, "GOOD MORNING STUDENTS!!” The disarray of bodies, much too large to be sitting on the floor, attempt to untangle themselves and look in my direction. Ahhhh, now I kind of have their attention. 

Soccer in the mud with my students

"Good morning teacher, how are you?" echoes the sing-songy phrase that every Thai student in the public school system memorizes in kindergarten. I pause, directing my best teacher look at the student slithering out from under the table, but not before a laugh escapes my mouth. It’s a new laugh that’s developed over the past 9 months. A layered laugh: One layer of frustration, one layer of exasperation, one layer of genuine humor at my life. Here is one of my top students, an eighth grader, on his belly sliding out from under this tiny table. I am exasperated before my lesson even begins. 

My well thought out lesson plan gets off to an enthusiastic start--99 percent of that enthusiasm on my side. Then, slowly but surely, these 14 year olds, sweaty and bored with the performance I’m giving, begin to talk over me, and the chatter of 30 teenagers drown out my voice. My thoughts go something like this: “are they listening to me, no they definitely aren’t listening to me, they can’t understand me, someone, anyone please make eye contact w….” my thoughts are interrupted by a girl in the back screaming because she’s been squirted with a makeshift water bottle water gun. I have to hand it to them - Thai students are very innovative. I confiscate the “water gun” and put it on my desk, only to turn around a few minutes later and notice it is gone. Thai students are also good at teamwork, even if that means working together to get the culprit his water gun back. 

Pausing a takraw game to pose for a photo in the rain

I stop, exhale, and feel the weight of my responsibility as an English teacher. Oftentimes when I’m standing in front of my students this overwhelming feeling creeps in and I feel lost somewhere in the vastness of my own language. There are so many things I want to tell my students, but I know the language barrier is much too big for this conversation. I feel all these words sitting in my chest, then rising to the tip of my tongue desperately wanting to escape, but I know these words will dissipate into the air. So we go back to going over the simple words I’ve chosen for this lesson. The class is rambunctious, and at the end I feel I’ve had enough. The students and I both leave the room with little accomplished. 

Playing in the rain at school

After class I am at a loss for what my next teacher move is. I’m mad at myself because I feel like I have failed my students. I’m mad at my students because I didn’t see any effort. I’m mad at Thailand. Why is it so different than America? Why aren’t things easy? With too many answerless questions I head to the bench in my office to embrace the sabai sabai lifestyle and take a quick midday nap (okay, maybe my life isn’t that hard). As soon as my eyes are closed a rare cool breeze blowing papers off my desk in my office wakes me. Within seconds the rain is pouring down, a sound that cannot be ignored in an open-air school with a metal roof. After months of blistering heat I rejoice at the sight of a storm rolling in. I often joke that I moved to the Oklahoma of Thailand. The sun’s unforgiving rays drain the energy and motivation from students and teachers alike, but this crack of thunder floods my mind with different memories of Oklahoma: of running outside with my siblings pots and pans on our heads, or calling up my cousins at the first sign of a thunderstorm because we knew the red Oklahoma clay would make for great mud to play in. With all the differences, rain still smells the same in Thailand.

The flooded soccer field

I grab my umbrella and walk outside, unsuspecting of what I am about to see. My students, the same ones that found me wildly uninteresting 30 minutes ago are playing sepak takraw (a popular Thai sport) in the rain. It’s pouring, and everyone is getting drenched and laughing. I take my shoes off, tie up my long skirt, and head into the downpour with my umbrella. My students are surprised to see me walking into the rain and stop their game and say hello and then pose for a photo. Now I’m laughing. This time a laugh layered with gratitude, joy, and understanding. I’m laughing at myself and how ridiculously caught up with the differences and little things I can get, and realizing how Thailand and America really are not that different. I am not really that different than my students. Not long ago in a small country school in Oklahoma I was once entertained more by my friends then my teachers, and excited by a thunderstorm. The weight of the pressure I put on myself during today’s lesson is lifted and the rain washes away my frustrations. Sometimes I forget that my presence at Ban Kumuang School is for cross-cultural exchange, not just as an English teacher. I am content with that thought. I’m not here to ‘change the world’ and my students will not become fluent in English. It is my job to play in the rain with my students, braid their hair, give them hugs, high fives, and handshakes, take endless selfies and most importantly to be present. 

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