by John Phelps
As I sat in an empty Prathom 3 classroom at the end of the day, I wondered at the soft sadness that unfolded over me like an old blanket. Sounds of children playing “paper, rock, scissors” slapped the concrete walls. Like any other day, I had sweated completely through my clothes and was gulping water by the liter. At the end of any school day, I can hardly think about more than a cold bucket shower and a nap. But today, the last day of class, was different. I kept thinking about the squishy hugs, origami hearts, and thumb wrestling matches of the last few hours. I realized I was going to miss all of this, even though I was only leaving for a few months.
When I started other teachers had told me this would happen, but I didn’t quite believe it. I had always been annoyed by school teacher friends in the US who said things like, “Oh, I just love my little guys.” I imagined they must have grown up dressing one too many stuffed animals and having tea parties. When I came to Thidamaepra School at the start of the second semester, I worried that I wouldn’t measure up to the classes’ previous teacher. My first day of class, when I split the class into teams, a few named their team after him. The kids had his name written all over their notebooks and pencil cases. I was sure a few had tattoos somewhere with his name in an arrow-pierced heart. I imagined myself as a bumbling substitute teacher saying things like, “Now, settle down class” like a pull-cord doll.
The first few weeks of the term, I spent hours designing lesson plans with tactics perfectly-calculated to increase speaking ability, generate endless fun and create a perfect teacher-student relationship. Then, in class, a militia of 55 would outgun me and trample my expert plans. One of my classes was so loud that I could not hear a student speaking to me from less than four feet away. I felt like they thought I had come half-way through their year to ruin the party. I could pull various tricks to get them to be quiet, but after holding their attention for about two minutes, the roar would return. They were right to call the class “Intensive English Program,” I discovered.
Some time in the first few weeks, I decided to adopt a new policy. I would up my level of generally ridiculous behavior in my class by 100 percent. I would become an inescapable spectacle in class. Also, I had noticed that some of the craziest kids were some of the brightest. Maybe they were acting out because they weren’t being challenged. I began to think of ways to channel their energy. At the same time, I would lay down a tough few rules and enforce them as fiercely as the valiant defenders of ‘No Liquids Over 8 Ounces on an Airplane.’ I began to make games that involved a risk of a bouncy ball to the head for those not paying attention. There were some showdowns with a few of the most stubborn troublemakers, and some days I wanted to simply walk out of class and not come back. However, I began to fall into my style in the classroom as a pantomime-comedian-meets-drill-sergeant. It was around this time when I started hearing “Again, teacher,” after a game in class. Looking back, I realized I did not have to be someone else to be a good teacher. All I had to do was just be natural, and put on a strict face if something got in the way of that. I moved through the day with a quiet happiness, because I knew there would be more rewarding moments than unpleasant ones. The knot in my stomach before my toughest class of the day was gone, and I laughed myself almost to tears a few times with them.
Then, stick-figures and cartoons featuring sometimes-accurate caricatures of me appeared in their notebooks. Sometimes I would leave the class with my chalky hands filled with candy, gifts from kids who I didn’t even think cared I was there. As I rode my bike through town I got the occasional ‘wai’ from a student on a back of a motorbike. The last day of class, a girl who I had to almost pull out her chair to get her participation in games came up to me. I expected her to ask to see her grades or point out the chalk stains on my face. Instead, she timidly held out a bright pink “Hello, Kitty” memory book and asked me to sign. She would be leaving Thidamaepra to go on to high school, and she told me she would come to visit me next year. All the small struggles to get her to come out of her shell had been worth it. Scared to speak a word of English when I had first met her, there she was talking to me confidently. My heart was slowly melting in a microwave. So, after my last class of the term, I sat waiting for the joy of a two month vacation to set in. But, I began missing the ‘little guys,’ I mean — uh, the students — already.