by David Modini (May, 2009 – March, 2010)
It’s about 7am and my alarm starts buzzing. Too bad I’m already awake thanks to the undetermined amount of roosters near my house. The only thing between me and a stringy, handmade, rooster stew (other than my aversion to killing with my bare hands) is the fact that when I really stop to consider it, I would much rather be woken up by these noisy birds than by my lifeless alarm clock.
Stumbling out of bed provokes the first instance of sweating I will experience today. Immediately I’m confronted with a crucial decision. Should I use the nearby upstairs bathroom or the downstairs one? The upstairs one has the luxury of a proper sit-down toilet, but the downstairs one will welcome me with a warm shower. Yes, the prospect of a warm shower easily outweighs the minor discomfort of using a squat toilet. With that dilemma resolved, I continue my waking-up process. After the warm shower and a not entirely un-western breakfast, I go upstairs to get dressed. What day is it today? Oh yes, it’s Monday, which means I’ll wear my yellow polo shirt to work. And this is the blessing of an unofficial national uniform.
Forty-five minutes after my alarm buzzes (and about eighty after I woke up), I strap my helmet on and head down on the motorbike to the end of the soi with Sarah. One of the most exciting parts of the day is riding my motorbike against traffic for about 50 yards so I can take advantage of a shorter route to school. Not that it feels dangerous at all, it’s just that it’s the first time I get on my motorbike today. Also, even though it’s routine for the Thais to cut corners on road rules, it’s still a novelty to me.
It’s 7:55am and I’ve carefully navigated the traffic of parents in cars, SUVs, motorbikes, and feet to pull into New Thida early – just how I like it. I park the motorbike where it’s sunny now, but will be covered with shade when I leave later on in the day. Now Sarah and I will weave through more walking traffic to stand in front of our teachers’ office. Just enough time to drop off my bag and helmet and find my place outside the office when the national anthem begins playing. Everyone stands still, except for maybe the odd 4 year old running bewildered across the main indoor courtyard. The rather short national anthem ends and the Lord’s Prayer in Thai begins.
After that, the children sing along to the school anthem. I sit back down in the office while other teachers trickle in before 8:30. Actually, maybe I’ll say hi to Nom first. He’s the father of one of my students who studied at university in Kansas and Texas. Emily and I make sure to be in class right by 8:30am. Did I mention our three daily classes at New Thida are air-conditioned? It makes me the envy of every other English teacher in Surat.
The first class of the day is the Prathom 1/1 class, which means they’re six to seven years old. I see them everyday, but they still look at me like I am the most exciting thing in the world. Emily and I head into class and we hear a singular student cry out with carefully parroted inflection, “Stand up, please!” The other students stand up and yell out, “Good morning, teacher!” Emily and I respond simultaneously, and as always, “Good morning, class! How are you?” With all their stored up energy, they all shout together – “I am happy!,” building to a crescendo where they demonstrate “happy” by jumping and throwing their hands up in the air while screaming “Yay!” At this point, half of the class knows what’s coming and are sitting at the end of their seats when Emily calls for her group to line up at the front of the class. Once they’ve left for an empty classroom down the hall, I make sure my half of the class is consolidated and that the troublemakers are not sitting next to each other. I use the term “troublemaker” loosely because, come on, how bad can a six year old be? This is one of the many times during the course of the day I am glad that I made the minimal effort to learn every single name of the students in my three Prathom 1 classes, including those that go with Emily.
This class will be split into two teams, with the children choosing the team names. Team Doraemon and Team Butterfly are rather predictable team names for today. Warm up begins, with the students answering questions from anything we’ve gone over recently. “Who is he? He is a policeman!” “What is her name? Her name is Pearl!” “Can he fly? No, he can’t!” Now they have a visible amount of points which I can manipulate to my own whims. We begin on the target for today, which is “I like __.” I ask them to brainstorm some foods, and I break the ice with “ice cream.” “KFC! French fries! Pizza! Cookies!” After about a dozen foods are up on the board with the appropriate illustrations, I ask a student from each team to come to the front. On the board, I write, “What do you like? I like ___.,” even though today it’s probably unnecessary. I barely need to instruct Eng-eng and Krit on what to do and they are able to ask each other and answer the question perfectly. They give me the obligatory high-five and find their way back to their seats. Ben and Phai handle it well, as expected. So do Cream and Bell. Maybe I should ask some other students? O-Leang and Beam need a little coaxing but in the end, answer it satisfactorily. Well, they’re starting to act out a bit. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, ZERO!” and they are all quiet with their hands folded in front of them. Very good, class, and a few more points go up for each team. It’s time for a game now, and the only democratic aspect of class. What do you want to play? I ask them. Hearing more suggestions for Snakes and Ladders than not, I draw a numbered grid on the board and fill it with ladders and some pretty ruthless snakes. Out come the smiley face magnets and whichever team has the most points gets first choice of color. A student from each team comes up and watches me hold the dice in front of them, while their teammates loudly whisper to them the number that will allow them to climb up that prime ladder. “Team Doraemon, 1, 2, 3!” I shout, with Team Doraemon confidently asking their representative, “What do you like?” Ya-moo quietly answers, “I like cake.” She rolls a 5, which is a plain square this time. Same process with Cindy, except she rolls a 4. Team Butterfly erupts in cheers as I move the magnet to square 23. This drama continues for 4 more rounds. I see Emily leading her class down the hall and I get prepared for the slightly chaotic reunion. “Everyone sit down! Get out your Gogo books! Page 23!” Calling students out by name and using the countdown, we manage to get everyone seated with their books out within 30 seconds. Emily leads the class in reading the dialogue from the book aloud while I carefully write the three questions and answers the children will write into their notebooks.
When the dialogue is finished, I lead them in reading the questions I’ve written, and their ability to fill in the blanks on the fly gives me that warm fuzzy feeling. There is a soft murmur as the students write, look for their rulers and erasers. Some of them have a tense, unspoken competition to see who can finish the fastest without having the teachers erase any untidy handwriting. Immediately I make my way towards the back of the classroom, where I’ve noticed some students like Cream sometimes get distracted easily. Some simple coaching goes a long way with Cream and soon enough, Mind approaches me with her finished writing. Other than a missed full-stop which I point out to her, I give her a high-five and wait for the onslaught. At 9:30am precisely, we say goodbye to the class, with another scripted “Stand up please!” “See you tomorrow, class!” we say to them as we head out to P. 1/2.
That’s how the three classes go this Monday, with the brief interlude for a sweet pork donut after the second class. After the third class, it’s time for lunch. Oh good, they have those fried pork and vegetable balls with that orange, green bean curry we like! We love the free lunch at Thida. Seven of us Super English teachers usually eat lunch together, some of them coming from Old Thida. I wolf down the first meal and go for seconds as the students trickle down from eating lunch in their classrooms. After finishing my seconds, I wash my plate and utensils and make the arduous journey through hundreds of curious children towards Old Thida. About a dozen hangers-on and five dozen high-fives later, we break free of New Thida. It’s a rather warm day, which makes me really appreciative of the air-conditioning I had in my previous three classes. Unfortunately, my next class will not be as luxurious. Sarah and I discuss the Prathom 5 class I will be teaching and I brace myself for a rather different experience…
There is a big difference between Old Thida and New Thida . New Thida is more comfortable but a little more sterile. It’s a big, cool, circular building with a lot of natural light tempered by the off-white hues inside. Old Thida is big, square, concrete, and doesn’t care if you are hot or not. Even though the students here still seem to be amazed at the sight of a westerner, they are older and have a bit more attitude. I won’t sugarcoat it – this P5 class is not the same as my first three classes. I’ve only just begun teaching them, and I only see them once a week. I know about 4 or 5 names in the class, and all of the students are very rambunctious. All of my wily tricks I use with the six year olds don’t work on these ten to eleven year olds. Points? They don’t care so much. The countdown gets a very mellow response as well. Once inside the rather warm classroom, I position myself under one of the fans while the children welcome me much like my P1 classes did. For a warm up, I ask them, “What did you do this weekend?” The responses vary from the perfect, “I did homework.” to the not-so-perfect, “I go to swimming.” A little coaching always guarantees the correct response this time. I ask them, “What is the weather today?” “Hot! Cloudy! Warm!” I write their responses on the crinkly board. It’s warm, but there’s a nice breeze blowing through the room. They are noisy but as long as it is below a certain level, I let it slide. “Let’s play Hangman!” The one thing to truly capture their attention. Some of these students would actually do surprisingly well on Wheel of Fortune. They will need to work on their past tense. I write the question “What did you do this weekend?” on the board and I bring up two pairs of students to ask and respond to the questions. There are some troublemakers in this class, but it’s more important right now to keep the ones that are paying attention focused on me. On the board I write two copies of a column of present verbs. Each team (this class likes to split up as boys vs. girls) sends up a representative to see who can write the past equivalent of each verb. My voice is strained a bit more in this class, that’s for sure. There are a few mistakes, but overall, they do a good job. Next, we play some run and touch. I write some past tense verbs on the board and they have to touch the correct one when I say out a present version of the verb. With about 10 minutes left in the class, I think they’ve earned a bit of writing. They are more than capable of handling ten sentences. When they finish, they ask me not just to check it, but to sign off with a red pen. A little different than my P1’s, but that’s ok. A girl has finished her writing and is looking at a English/Thai conversation book. It has definitely been written in Thailand and is filled with errors. How can I in good conscience let her read it the way it is? For about sixty seconds I take my red pen to that book. I only hope that she appreciates what I tried to do and not leave her thinking that sentences like, “I don’ t like romance movie” are correct. I leave that class a little quicker than I leave my P1 classes. It’s hot and I have an hour before my hospital class, so I spend some of it in the air-conditioned internet café.
I always get to the hospital about twenty minutes before class starts. I make my way up to the conference room on the second floor, hoping that it hasn’t been usurped for purposes other than learning English. I walk through the first room, quietly ducking my head as ten nurses turn to see who has interrupted their Powerpoint presented training session. Oh good, no one is in the conference room and my favorite dry erase board is there. I erase everything on it and make sure to have everything ready for my hospital English class. It’s inevitable that the students trickle into class up to 15 minutes after it’s scheduled to begin. After all, they are busy hospital employees. There are twelve students, and half of them are nurses that speak pretty good English. The rest are pharmacists, front desk assistants, customer service representatives, or cashiers. On a Monday especially I try to have a fun warm-up game. Today it’s an “odd one out” game. I write about ten groups of four words on the board. The fun part about this game is that there is not only one correct answer for each group of words. “Bird, helicopter, airplane, bus,” has at least two solutions right off the bat, and it is really nice to see some of the reasonings the students come up with. The nurses tend to dominate the discussion, if only for their superior English skills, but I always try to coax answers out of the more bashful students. It actually takes a few moments for me to change from teaching younger children to teaching adults. I find it more comfortable if I see myself more as a facilitator than a teacher. They are similar to the younger children in the sense that they enjoy games just as much, and they tend to help each other formulate correct answers. After the game, we dive right into the meat of the lesson – the exciting topic of insurance.
The hospital English class is as much a learning experience for me as it is for the students. After all, they have to explain to me their processes in the first place. Even though I worked at a hospital for five years prior to coming to Thailand, there is much that I don’t know about how a hospital works. But what it boils down to, is that the students want to be able to handle the problematic situation in English. So, when they want to discuss insurance, for example, they want to be able to explain to the foreign patient why they will need to pay up front.
We run through a few scenarios, the ones that concern them the most, and while I try to wrap my head around how they deal with foreign insurance companies, I come up with strategies for answering the issues the foreign patient might have. For example, if there is a problem obtaining a payment guarantee from the foreign patient’s insurance company, it comes down to one of two possible responses they can give. The best moments are when you’ve understood the process they explained to you and when you can provide them with a way to respond to a difficult situation. Some of them will parrot what I write on the board, but as long as they know to apply it in the correct situation, I will have considered it a success. That’s what makes the hospital English class such a different organism from the younger students’ classes. It usually feels like there’s not enough time for each hospital class, but I consider that a good thing, because the students there are always filled with questions.
At 4pm, my Monday is officially finished. More often than not, I will head to the night market for a delicious takeaway dinner of Soup Lady’s wonton soup and some spring rolls. Those delicious spring rolls are also a perfect vegan compliment to whatever kind of salad Sarah will make once we get home. The hot Thailand day demands another shower as soon as we step foot in the door, but not quite yet for me. I will relax for an hour or so before I head back out on my motorbike to meet up with Alex, the shop owner and friendly neighbor to the Super English house on Chalokrat Rd. To say Alex is the nicest Thai person I have ever met says more about Alex than it does about the always friendly Thai people. I could gush about Alex for hours, but suffice to say, I meet up with him to jog. Around 6pm we head to the stadium, which is a short walk from his shop and house. “How many laps you do today?” he asks me. “Two if I’m lucky,” I respond. Alex is a very healthy 52 year old man that does not look a day over 40. And he jogs 8km a day easily. We start off jogging together but after about 50 meters he’s already sped far ahead of me. I see him pass me a few times while I stumble my way to almost two jogging laps. By the time we finish, he’s jogged 6km and is sweating much less than I am. That’s alright, he’s always very supportive. He offers me a seat at the table outside his shop and gives me a bottle of water from his stock. Alex always jokingly threatens bodily harm when I offer to pay him money. He’ll sit with me as we recover from the jog, talking about everything from his favorite soccer team Liverpool, to teaching me a few new words in Thai, to telling me a little bit about his effectively bigamist neighbor, Bang. It is not legal to have more than one wife in Thailand but many, many husbands have mistresses they call ‘Giks’. Bang only has one ‘Gik’ and one wife. Another friend of Alex, Woon, has two ‘giks’ and one wife. After a sufficient cool down, I get back on the motorbike to enjoy the delicious soup that’s waiting for me at home. This time, the upstairs bathroom wins the shower sweepstakes. The cool (not cold) water is very welcome, as well as the western toilet. While I slurp down the soup, Sarah and I will watch a few episodes of whatever TV show is on my laptop at the moment. Some days I might be interested in going to Casa or another restaurant for a drink and a chat, but usually not Mondays. They’ re already as full as they can be for me. At this point, most people would say something like, “One down, four to go,” referencing both their aversion to their job and the anticipation of the weekend. As for me, that never really crosses my mind.