Teaching Kindergarten in Thailand While Contemplating Fortune Cookie Fortunes Found In My Purse

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When you’re not afraid to do it wrong the first time, you’ll eventually get it right.

The first week of teaching kindergarten should be equated to a level of hell. The kids are fresh from a month off of school, ready to play and not sit still, so I try to wear them out by taking them out to the playground and playing some of their favorite songs to get them dancing, but moving around gets them more worked up, not cooled down. The worksheets I draw are too easy, or too hard, or too boring. I develop gray hairs. They will not listen to me, even when we play bingo for prizes, and pretend they don’t know what the word “quiet” means.

At lunch my Thai co-teacher says, “I do not know what you do in United States, but students are not learning.” I have been working so hard, trying to get things right, and now I feel my confidence crumble. After school I go back to the classroom, apologize, and have a very un-Thai crying breakdown because I am tired and spent and do not understand what I’m doing. I’m not homesick, I don’t want to go back to the United States, I want to get this right.

My co-teacher looks alarmed because all Thai people look alarmed when someone starts crying, so she tells three girls who are still waiting for their parents to “Go hug Teacher.”

I think my students are allowed to cry sometimes, they understand tears and frustration, so they hug me with small arms as my Thai co-teacher assures me that things will work out, mai ben lie, I am just learning. I blot my eyes with toilet tissue and hug my students back. There will be another day, another week, another month, in which I learn it’s okay, five-year-olds are not an exact science.

***

He deserves paradise who makes his companions laugh.

English vocabulary is not the most exciting thing in the world when you’re five years old, except for words like “candy” and “cookie” and “ice cream” and “donut,” but we’ve talked about food and we’re moving on to clothing. When convincing Thai kindergarteners to learn the word for “pants” I have to be creative, saying, “These are pants. Where do we wear pants? On our heads?” I slide the gray yoga pants over my head so the legs hang down like disappointed rabbit ears, and the kids burst out laughing like this is the funnest thing ever.

“No!” they scream.

“Do we wear pants on our elbows?” I say, mixing in body part vocab they already know and dangling the pants from my arm.

“No!” my kids yell. “On your legs!”

“Yes!” I say, like this is the greatest discovery known to humankind. I take the pants off my elbow and hike up my skirt so I can pull them on. “We wear pants on our legs!”

We learn the word for “hat” and how it does not go on knees or hands but on our heads. We learn the word for “shirt” and how it does not go on legs or heads but over our stomach. Silly teacher does not know where we wear pants, but maybe they’ll remember pants and legs, hats and heads, shirts and stomachs, giggling all the way to lunch with shoes on their hands.

***

People's Republic of China 1995

You add an aesthetic quality to everything you do.

At Thanksgiving I explain the idea of turkeys to my students since turkeys do not exist in Thailand, at least not in abundance and not in the freezer section of the grocery, so I tell them how turkeys are not chickens or ducks or peacocks, but very large birds that we eat in America on Thanksgiving. My Thai co-teacher translates these ideas, then I tell them that “feast” means “a very big meal,” and we will have our own feast at school with sushi and sum tom and pizza and donuts. There will be no turkey, sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, green bean casserole made with cream soup and fried onions, or pumpkin pie with whipped cream, but that’s okay. My students do not need to know these details. They just need to know the word “turkey.”

We make a cooperative turkey in class, each kid tracing her hand twice on white paper, coloring the handprints and cutting them out and bringing them to me, Teacher. I am armed with a glue stick to engineer the turkey assembly and glue all the handprints to a big sheet of posterboard around our turkey’s body. It is shaped like an overweight bowling pin with eyes, feet, and a beak with a wattle (the kids do not need to know this word), but when all the handprints are glued down, the turkey is a thing to behold.

“Soway ma,” says my Thai co-teacher.

“Very beautiful,” say my students. Our turkey is truly a work of art, bright and bold and completely unafraid because people do not eat turkey in Thailand. We gather around the chalkboard for a picture with our turkey, which is not a chicken or a duck or a peacock but something lovely and completely itself.

***

Give yourself some peace and quite for at least a few hours.

Four-thirty in the blessed afternoon, quite tired, all I want to do is walk out the school gates, down the street crammed with motorbikes and songtows and white vans and the scent of curry, past people burning trash in their fields, to my home in the coconut grove where I don’t have to talk with anyone except lizards clinging to the kitchen walls and the crickets chirping outside my room. They make Thailand sound almost but not quite like Ohio in August, though living here makes me feel like I’m lost in an eternal summer that doesn’t involve a county fair. Every day small wars break out among my five-year-olds who excel at the art of annoying each other through poking and prodding and crayon-stealing. They don’t quite kill each other so I call continual truces over blocks and books and who hit who. Running outside or in the canteen they fall and skin their knees over and over and over, then howl like they’re quite sure they’re dying. I can’t quite remember everything about being five, but it was something like this: wanting to run and dance and play when I needed to sit down and learn something. Now I appreciate naptime and solitude and a few moments to reflect on how today was another adventure when Milk chased Igkiu, the five-year-old Goliath who looks as big as a fifth grader, both of them grinning and giggling as they ran around the room. I’m not quite sure how that happened since he’s twice her size, but I never quite understand what’s going on in their world and I guess that’s okay as I settle into my quiet, quite contented.

***

Giving will make you smile.

I need to buy Christmas gifts for my kindergarten students, so I go to the nineteen baht store which is kind of like a dollar store except everything costs nineteen baht, which makes it one of the most wonderful places in the world, or at least in Thailand. They have pens and plastic totebags and plates and spoons and hair barrettes, great if you don’t have a lot of money but want to feel rich, so I buy packages of little notebooks and already have stickers and some candy at school, so I sit at my desk during lunchtime and write “From Teacher Teresa” on the back of each notebook and cut out small sheets of stickers so each kid gets ten, because they can count to ten and fairness is important when you’re five. I tape a piece of candy to each notebook and tape the stickers inside on the first page, and when I walk into the classroom with my plastic bag of gifts you’d think I was handing out gold pieces for the way my kids mob me. I have to tell them, “Sit down, sit down, sit down,” because only students who are quiet and sitting in their seats on the floor will get Christmas gifts.

I tell them today is Christmas, and when I was little I would get presents from Santa, that big fat guy we have been learning about in class who says “Ho, ho, ho,” and for a second I remember coming down the stairs with my sister, seeing the stuffed stockings, and knowing that was real magic.

It’s good to recall how it felt to be five, when Santa’s annual episode of breaking-and-entering made sense, when getting your own notebook with stickers and candy was the biggest thrill in the world. Small people know tiny things can be important things, and every day is full of discovery, like how plants emerge from seeds and red and yellow make orange. My students are tiny scientists who are unleashed on the world with wonder and notebooks and gratitude in the form of high-fives, hugs, and I-love-you’s, because they know there is so much out there to love.

***

Dalian, People's Republic of China

Expect much of yourself and little of others.

Sundays are for preparation, sitting in a chair in the corner of my friend Annie’s hair salon, listening to Thai news and reality shows on TV as Annie chatters with her customers and I draw worksheets for kindergarteners.

Sometimes Annie orders, “Speak Thai to my customers.”

I say “Dee chan chu Teresa. Chan tam nang ti rong rien Wat Dontong. Kru aunobahn, ka?” My name is Teresa. I work at Wat Donthong school. Kindergarten teacher, yes?”

Annie’s clients smile and I feel like a trained puppy. I can speak a little Thai, but my kindergarten students have better control of English. The ladies want to see what I’m drawing, what I’m teaching, so I show them pictures of hats and coats and pants, or owls and hummingbirds and penguins, or hot air balloons and parachutes and pinwheels. Every picture has a word to trace, dotted lines forming the English letters since my five-year-olds also have to learn two alphabets—English and Thai. Annie’s customers smile and say “Soway ma,” very beautiful, and go back to having their nails done or hair colored.

When I am done with this term I’ll have enough worksheets to publish my own kindergarten workbook, but I know what will happen in class tomorrow—Unging will color everything pink, Muk and Milk will be the last ones done because they want to make sure that absolutely no white paper shows through, and Hero will rush through his drawing at warp speed and scribble outside the lines because he wants to play with blocks.

When I was their age I was like Hero, my first grade teacher chastising me for coloring outside the lines of my pink flamingo.

“Is this beautiful?” she asked me.

“Is this beautiful?” I ask Hero. I peered down at my messy flamingo in shame, but he just smiles and nods, a boy who wants to play with blocks. I wanted to read. Hero is a smart kid with dark brown hair and huge Anime eyes. He knows someday he’ll be a real heartbreaker, and I know asking him to make his drawing more beautiful will result in scribbles, so I let him play, the drawing stuffed in his portfolio for later as I tuck the memory of flamingos in the corner of my mind.

***

No matter what your past has been, you have a spotless future.

Five-year-olds are forgiving, which makes it possible to teach kindergarten and not go insane. I alternate between personas: Glinda the Good Witch who gives hugs and I-love-yous, and the Wicked Witch of the West, rapping my ruler on the desk and demanding quiet. That works for about ten seconds. There are morning of chaos when my Thai co-teacher leaves the room and something close to hell breaks loose and I have an ice cube’s chance in Thailand of getting anyone to listen, so I herd everyone to the activity tables, distribute worksheets, and pray that learning happens eventually. There are tragic afternoons when the kids won’t be quiet for their nap, and I smack Igkiu on the shoulder because he won’t stop making farting noises. After I tell him three times to please be quiet, my angry hand has a mind of its own.

“Sorry, Teacher,” he says. I feel the sting in my palm and my heart and tell myself I’ll never do that again. This is teaching, a learning experience with evenings spent agonizing over all the things I did wrong, but in the morning when I walk into the classroom I am greeted with hugs from Popea and Saipan, Grace is wearing a tiger hat and roars at me, and Igkiu has to show me his Angry Birds pencil case, which he explains is red and yellow and blue. I tell him it’s beautiful and slap on my smile, praying for the best as we walk through another morning and learn how to grow redemption.

***

Be patient, in time even an egg will walk.

Every kindergartener must pass the oral speaking test, a list of questions about numbers and colors and shapes and vehicles, which animals fly and swim and walk. Some kids like T.J. are English all-stars, identify every animal on my testing sheet before I can ask him any questions. His dad lived in California for years and says T.J. has an easier time with the English alphabet than the Thai alphabet, but I’m the same way. Other kids are too accustomed to the morning routine of questions and have memorized orders for their answers. I ask, “What is the day today?” and they say, “I am fine, and how are you?”

But then there are kids like Pugun, a girl who speaks in whispers and is camera-shy. Some kids love being videoed, and others stare like the camera might unleash angry gremlins. Pugun is in the latter category, gives me a troubled gaze when I point to the picture of the boat and ask her what it is. Does it float on the water or fly on the land? Can you point to animals that swim? Which animals fly?

Intent on camera gremlins, Pugun does not pass her test the first time. We take a deep breath and try again, and I dole out high praise when she identifies the orange triangle and says that airplanes fly and points to the number seven. I give her high-fives like she just won a gold medal in the Olympics, because sometimes learning another language is that kind of epic feat. She grins at me when I turn off the camera and reward her with a sticker, a kid who fought the English language, came out ahead, and can move onto another level.

***

The man who does more than he is paid for will soon be paid for more than he does.

I don’t know how much I should earn for wrangling thirty-six Thai five-year-olds every day (save weekends and Buddhist holidays), guiding them through songs and vocabulary words and coloring worksheets and crafts when we make windsocks and the kids decide they are hats and necklaces and wear the wind socks around their necks like giant paper squid. I don’t know how much I should earn for trying to negotiate a truce in the horrific colored pencil wars, when my kids stalk from table to table, stealing colored pencils from other tables’ baskets to make sure their own table has enough, because god forbid they have to resort to an orange crayon. I don’t know how much I should earn for hopelessly attempting to translate the tearful whimpers of a crying child who doesn’t know enough English to tell me what’s wrong. Did someone hit her? Does her stomach hurt? Is she missing her mom or big sister? (Where are you, Douglas Adams, you and your babel fish that would have made this so much easier?)

But I am paid in stickers at lunchtime as girls press flowers and hearts onto my cardigan and declare that I am beautiful with my sweat-sticky bangs plastered to my forehead. I am paid in tiny chocolate bars and crab-flavored corn snacks and sips of sweet green tea my kids give me, wanting to share treats and standing there to make sure I eat them. Even the crab-flavored corn snacks. I am paid every day by three girls who come to my office after school—Aomsin and Ingfa and Bow–knocking on the door because they want to get another hug and say “I love you” in English and sign language. I am paid as a mother is paid, and for a few hours every day, that’s what I am.

 

Photo: People’s Republic of China, 1995 — Mark Wyatt

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About Author

Teresa Milbrodt is the author of a short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories (Chizine Publications), a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press), and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories (Pressgang). She is addicted to coffee, Sherman Alexie, long walks with her MP3 player, George Saunders, and frozen yogurt, in that order. Read more of her work at: http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/

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