Elizabeth (Edie) Wilson is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at Muang Chaliang School in Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai, Thailand where she teaches students in Mattayom 1-Mattayom 5 (Grade 7-Grade 11). She graduated from Hamilton College with a concentration in Anthropology and minors in Economics and Government. Prior to coming to Thailand, Edie worked as a Research Assistant at ICF International studying the effectiveness of US education programs. In her free time, Edie can be found running through the rice fields, writing in her journal, attempting to decipher Thai, drinking green tea, or eating yummy Thai food with fellow teachers.
Thailand has given me so much. So much love. So much life. So much food.
I cannot even begin to successfully express my gratitude to Thailand or all the wonderful people who have made it home to me. I will never be able to fully describe all of Thai culture I have learned about this year—from large life-changing experiences to tiny nuances. In this chunk of text, I do hope to express my thankfulness for my greatest teachers (and cheerleaders in my quest to learn Thai), the Muang Chaliang School students.
While teaching at Muang Chaliang School, I’ve noticed the way that students show both reverence and respect for teachers in a way that I haven’t seen in the United States, along with breaking down boundaries of the teacher-student relationship. Students thank teachers after every class. They help get teachers lunch and move desks around the classroom. They braid teachers’ hair and play with the office cat. Teachers visit students’ houses and chat with their parents or grandparents.
The way teachers and student interact in Thailand feels like a family relationship to me. To support this claim I can say, without a doubt, that the students and teachers at Muang Chaliang School have become my family this year. So I let me tell you a little bit about my family.
The first day feels like I am watching a movie of my life take place with little control or knowledge of what will happen next.
Filled with a flight and multiple van rides. Get on, get off, get on, get off. Take a photo. Meet the director. Look around the school.
“Hello!” A student calls. I assume he’s a student since he wears a bright pink uniform shirt and navy blue pants with MCL stamped down the side. He knows me before I know him. I don’t know what the appropriate way to respond is. Do I wave? Do I wai? Do I say hello back? Sawatdee kah? Kah? Hi? Hey? Yo, wassup?
I’m supposed to be the teacher, a leader, and I already am at a loss for words.
“He said hello,” P’Oy, the Fulbright representative who has been designated to go with the Sukhothai ETAs on our first day, looks at me expectedly. I take a deep breath and go for the wave.
“Hi,” I smile. He smiles back. From that moment I become the waving teacher, and my students greet me with a wave and a melodious “Hello” or “Hi” whenever they see me.
I’m scared, but more confused than scared. It’s my second day in Si Satchanalai. I think I’m supposed to observe today, but I keep getting lost looking for the”M1/1” class that I’m supposed to attend. I walk along the long outdoor hallway peering into classroom after classroom. Some students stare back.
“Teacher, can you speak Thai?’ A little girl with a bowl cut bounds up to me.
“Pasa Thai nit noy” At that point, I’m pretty sure those words, along with hello and thank you are the only Thai phrases I have memorized. And that one is actually not even a full phrase.
She throws her head back and lets out a hearty laugh. Not unfriendly. Simply, loud.
I learned that her name is Mew, and she is without a doubt the most enthusiastic student I meet. Every time I see her around school she yells, “TEACHER!!!” and runs up to me. Sometimes, I’ll be writing on the board, and I will look back to see Mew standing on a chair, waving both hands in the air, ready to respond to a question. Then I call on her. She gets so excited that she forgets what she was going to say. I wait for her to remember. She laughs that hearty laugh at herself. A few seconds later, she remembers and shrieks her answer. I learn to laugh at myself full heartedly from Mew.
It’s February, and I miss my sister. I miss her a lot. I miss her kicking me out of bed to watch the sunrise. I miss her dancing around to When Your Best Friend’s All Strung Out. I miss her hugging me. I walk outside to go buy cookies at the school store. Two tiny girls run up to me and wordlessly throw their arms around my waist. I feel so thankful.
“Will one student raise his or her hand to read the questions?” It’s a ritual at the beginning of each class. At first I read the intro questions, but a few weeks ago I passed off the duty to my eager students. There’s a smart, outspoken boy who always volunteers. I see his hand shoot up. I smile. Someone new today. When I don’t call on him, it’s like the parting of the red sea. Everyone turns his or her head to a girl in the back, right corner. “Yeen” “Yeen” “Yeen” they whisper. A girl who has been quiet up to this point stands up and comes to the front. She reads flawlessly. I feel like I’ve missed something as a teacher for not seeing her more clearly sooner.
The next day, after school, Yeen comes to the classroom, three girls looking less than enthusiastic are in tow.
“Teacher, I want to play Crossword.”
I look at the Bananagrams bag resting on the corner of my desk that she is motioning toward.
Two of the other girls join us. One laughs and shakes her head no. She looks at the stack of student work with which I’ve begun decorating the back of the room. Then she goes to the back and begins taping papers for me.
M3 Graduation Day for some of Crossword players. My school celebrates graduation for M3 students
moving up to M4 and for M6 students leaving school for university or work.
Yeen often comes to the room after school with a group of girls. She always wants to play “Crossword”. And she’s good the game, often thinking up words I don’t see at first.
Yeen is one of the few students I keep for a second term, and in the new semester our ritual of after school Crossword continues. Sometimes, she brings friends. Other times she shows up in the doorway alone. Many times, she will come when I’m in the middle of grading papers or checking attendance against stacks of nametags.
“Teacher, are you busy?”
“Oh no,” I drop whatever I’m doing because spending time with my students is always of greater importance to me than classroom organization—and more fun.
“I distract you,” Yeen laughs at my eagerness to forget my work.
Playing Crossword with Yeen is also an ongoing Thai lesson for me and English lesson for her. We never play for points against each other—it’s always a joint effort to come up with the most words together. Practically every word I ask her…
“How do you say this in Thai?”
When she doesn’t know the English word, we whip out Google Translate to find our answer.
We share our desire to speak each other’s language, as well as our frustration.
“I don’t speak Thai well. I want to speak Thai well,” I tell Yeen in choppy Thai, exasperated with my own inability.
“Teacher, I want to learn English. I cannot speak English well,” Yeen empathizes in English. Her English definitely outpaces my Thai though.
Through our Crossword interactions, I continue to get to know Yeen. She tells me her favorite class is English, and she wants to be a policewoman. I have no doubt Yeen will keep the people of Thailand safe.
Yeen teaches me about the true friendship that can be formed across age, language, and culture.
Selfie turned Class Portrait
We finish class laughing so hard that a few of us are close to tears. I don’t remember what it’s about, but most likely it was I, trying to translate something into Thai and failing miserably. You see M4/2 has taken it upon themselves to be my 30 plus personal Thai tutors on Friday afternoons. I teach them a new word in English, and then they teach it to me in Thai. I’m learning a lot, but sometimes I mispronounce a word so horribly, that something very inappropriate comes out.
I regain my composure. “Please collect the nametags, and give them to me. Thank you. Good Bye. See you next time.” I complete my standard class closing.
Students bound up to me with stacks of nametags in hand. One girl pulls me aside.
Since the first day, students, teachers, random strangers in the marketplace have asked me to take photos with them. Photos have so much become part of my life that I myself don’t think I go a day without catching a snapshot.
I lean down—all of my students are shorter than me.
“No…sun....” She trails off into quick Thai that I don’t understand, but I allow myself to be turned around, and pushed between more girls. She shakes her head, unsatisfied. Then gathers everyone who hasn’t already left the class and takes us outside. Two girls take my hands and lead me down the stairs as though they are leading a blind puppy. On the way the girls shout to the students who are heading off to their next class in Thai.
The students survey the situation, trying to choose the most appropriate backdrop and settling upon the white wall of Building 1. They recruit two timid looking M1 students, ordering them to take a good photo and not mess up. I find myself in the middle smiling authentically through a series of serious to silly class photos.
|M4/2 pose for a spontaneous class photo after an hour filled with English learning.|
The class photo shoot makes me feel honored and accepted. M4/2 teaches me that a class can be a family.
Around the Track
The school track is my front yard. I spend a good amount of time running, walking, and staggering around it. In the evening it is often a slow walk that starts out with my ear buds playing Coffee by Sylvan Esso or Ezra Klein’s latest podcast. During every walk without fail, the ear buds come off. I strike up a conversation with a local elementary school teacher, make friends with a baby, or am joined by my friend, Bom, for gossip time. It was on one of these evening walks that I met Frank.
I’m walking along, listening to music, when she bounds up.
“Hello,” I smile.
She starts talking in very fast English, like she already knows me. She doesn’t even start with an introduction. However, I’m sure I haven’t seen her in any of my classes before. I have to check to make sure though.
“What class are you in?”
Okay, I don’t teach her, but by the end of our conversation I know all about her extended family, her hopes to travel, and how she ended up moving here from Bangkok. You see, more than just her amazing bilingual ability, Frank has this way of making you her best friend in a matter of seconds. Her body language, her familiar tone, and her frankness make her an instant companion. She helps me translate. When something bad happens at the school, Frank tells me, without hesitation and without sparing any detail. When she sees me, Frank runs up and pokes me or taps me on the shoulder—a gesture of familiarity that makes me happy.
Frank shows me that being unafraid is the best way to connect with people.
I could continue to write all day about my wonderful students. About Ice and other M2/3 students teaching me Isan dialect and trying to get me to sing the school song. About playing Simon Says the one brutally cold week in Thailand with M4/1. About conversation exercises with M3/6. But I’m afraid your eyes might be getting tired.
I’m worried that leaving Muang Chaliang School will feel like moving out of my hometown to go to college all over again. Brutally emotional. Ranging from excitement for the next chapter to sadness for not seeing the faces I’ve come to know and love every day.
|Students gather around the bulletin board posting warm fuzzies-kind English notes-to teachers and peers|
for a Valentine’s Day lesson.
Emotions aside, I will leave with two important lessons from my students. Firstly respect and familiarity are not mutually exclusive. Secondly, a community can form the truest of families.