Sorry for the delay in writing this entry. There was a lot to post, including editing a video, so I wanted to complete it all before writing the entry.
It may seem like the events surrounding my teaching at Bangkhonthiinai School never quite come to an end, but a step was taken in that direction Friday with the farewell party for Ajarn Yai. As she leaves her job as director of the school to become an educational evaluator for the Ministry of Education, she leaves behind a nine-year legacy of building this small country school (sixty students, five teachers) into the number one rated primary school in Samut Songkhram province and a model for rural school throughout the Kingdom.
Kobfa, Ken and I were not certain what to expect when we headed down to school on Friday, although we knew it would be a long day. To be sure, the party was much larger in scope than I had imagined and if ever Ajarn Yai was feeling unappreciated, the day’s events surely set her mind at ease on that count.
The main teacher’s room had been emptied of all its furniture and was decorated with colorful bunting and photos from Ajarn Yai’s career and education. Students were dressed up and running around, helping with preparations.
Below: Chris and Ajarn Yai pose with a collage of pictures from her school years. This is the first time I’ve seen her in anything other than a yellow “I love the King” shirt!
Above left: Collage of photos related to my teaching at Bangkhonthiinai School; right: Ajarn Yai as class president in secondary school.
The students all had flowers for Ajarn Yai and a few of them had brought flowers for Kobfa, Ken and I, too. Beginning with some parents who had stopped by, we each presented flowers to Ajarn Yai (in this case, jasmine garlands that Kobfa had purchased), wai’ed, and then poured a small amount of water on her hands as a blessing, below.
We had some time afterwards so as everyone was waiting around, we took some pictures with students and settled down for several rounds of bingo.
We had our artistic moments, too. Below, one of the children came charging at me while I took his picture, demonstrating his kung fu moves. Interesting very tight area of focus right around his face and fist. I wish I had shot from about a foot lower, though.
There was also an interesting picture of wet footprints on the wooden decking outside the classrooms. It had been raining earlier in the morning and the children would run around barefoot, leaving their impressions on the floor. As the children were lining up to present flowers to Ajarn Yai, I grabbed on of them and pulled his foot into the frame of my picture to compose this shot, below.
Pied Piper of Amphawa
In the afternoon after lunch we had a few hours to kill; the students had headed home to ap naam (shower) and rest before getting ready for the evening events. Ajarn Yai was talking with her boss, who had stopped by. So Kobfa, Ken and I set out to go into town, searching for some iced coffee.
I’ve become quite familiar with Samut Songkhram province, having driven there every week for a year and having bicycled through it three times. So I conducted a little tour for Kobfa and Ken, stopping by some of the more prominent temples, the King Rama II birthplace park, and the town of Amphawa which is known for its nighttime floating market.
When we arrived at the King Rama II park, there were four busloads of primary school children (b. 5-6, I think) offloading in the parking lot. They entered ahead of us with a few commenting about the farang and saying hi. A bit later, as we were walking through the nicely-manicured grounds of the park, we began to gather a small following of students.
At first it was just a half-dozen or so boys who were following us, mimicking my Thai accent as I spoke to them, and being typical pre-teen boys. But the crowd grew and soon there were a dozen or more following. When we sat down in a shaded area with benches, they sat down near us and as their bravery grew, so did their numbers. “This reminds me of that scene in Jurassic Park II where the little bird-like dinosaurs surround the girl,” I mentioned to Kobfa and Ken.
Within a minute, we were surrounded by about thirty students, some of whom tried practicing their limited English. Some were game while others would shyly duck behind a friend when I asked them their name, what their favorite sport was, or where they were from.
It turns out they are from Samut Sakhon, the province in between Khrungthep and Samut Songkhram. And, speaking briefly with their teacher, English is given even shorter shrift there than at Bangkhonthiinai.
After about twenty minutes they headed off back to the bus, but one boy wandered back to ask my name again. When I answered, an older girl yelled out, “bpen khatooey” as if to warn me that she thinks the boy is gay or transvestite. “Mai suphap leuy!” I scolded her – not polite at all.
The students waved to us as their busses pulled away, and we walked back over to the floating market area to drink some iced coffee at a breezy outdoor table alongside the khlong.
Transforming from students to angels and flamenco dancers
When we returned to the school about four in the afternoon, we found a dozen of the students in the midst of makeup application and hair dressing, as they prepared for their performance later that evening.
The girls had been made up into little angels with over-teased hair and too much makeup. In fact, I couldn’t recognize a few of them and had to confer with Kobfa to figure out who was who.
Right, Kobfa with the angels-to-be.
The boys had also been made up, their hair spiked with gel and glitter, their faces powdered and lips painted. It wasn’t until later when they changed into their costumes that I figured out what they were supposed to be.
Some of the boys seemed pretty comfortable with their new looks while a few of them – one in particular – really was unhappy with being dolled up. Funnily, I took pictures of him being made up both Friday and then at Children’s Day last spring that show him with the same pouty expression.
Left: The boys (again, with the exception of Jaturong – guess which one he is) were pretty insistent that we take lots of pictures of them, wanting to pose with Kobfa, then Ken, then me.
As the sun began to set, guests began to arrive at the neighboring temple where the festivities were being held. Public schools in Thailand are usually located next door to temples as when public education was first mandated by King Rama V, this was the plan he set up. At that time, the monks were usually the teachers. Nowadays there is a civilian team of teachers and the monks teach only religious subjects.
Reviewing these pictures afterwards, I felt very wistful, curious what path their lives will take and hopeful that they will be happy. It is feelings like these that make me want to just quit my job and go to teach in the public schools full-time, although I know that would open up the door to all sorts of burn-out and frustration. It just seems like an important way to contribute to society and help the next generation.
After we headed across the foot bridge to the temple, I checked in on the students who were getting ready to perform. The transition was taking shape and their costumes finally matched the elaborateness of their make up!
Above: practicing my Raam Thai – classical Thai dancing; Below: the boys in their flamenco outfits dig into dinner under the watchful gaze of the student body president, who was charged with making sure they didn’t dirty their costumes.
I don’t know how many people I thought would show up; I hadn’t given it much thought. But I was surprised to se the series of tents filling the temple grounds, under which were ninety-six banquet tables, each seating ten guests. The tables were full so we had nearly one thousand people there to wish Ajarn Yai well. This must have been the social event of the season for this small community as the event was attended by the chief of education for the province, the governor, and several other phuu yai – big people.
In addition to performance by semi-professional singers and dancers who must perform on the temple fair circuit, as well as classical Khon style dancing, the students played the angaloon (a traditional Thai instrument), did classical Thai dancing, and then performed to several more contemporary Thai songs. There were speeches by all the phuu yai and gifts were presented to honor Ajarn Yai as a slide show of her accomplishments and pictures from her career played on the back of the stage.
Kobfa, Ken and I were privileged to be seated at the VIP table, front and center of the stage with Ajarn Yai, her boss and his boss. Other previous students stopped by to pay their respects to both Ajarn Yai and us, and Ajarn Yai had a nearly endless stream of guests. She said that she was disappointed that Tawn, Pat, Dick and Sandy and other people who have previously visited her school, were unable to make it.
Below, the students performing for the crowd.
As the evening concluded about nine o’clock – twelve hours after we had arrived! – Ajarn Yai thanked us again for everything we had done and assured us she would let us know next time she would be in Khrungthep so we could meet for lunch or dinner. She also told us, in all seriousness, that she would like to visit the United States with us sometime in the next year. So all you readers who have come to know her, let me know if you’d like to have Ajarn Yai stop by and be your guest!
I told Tawn afterwards, I know I have no choice but to accompany her on that trip. It seems to be some kind of karma that I met her in the first place, had the opportunity to teach at Bangkhonthiinai, and have had these great experiences. So I have to pay that karmic price and make sure she has the opportunity to go to the United States, something she was never able to do even though she had been accepted to study at the University of Michigan.
Heading for the parking lot as the crowd started thinning, we took the opportunity to conclude one final piece of business that Kobfa and I had been considering for several weeks. One of our students is clearly different from the rest in his own special way, and regularly gets picked on by some of the others, especially a cousin of his who calls him the very impolite word dtoot, which I won’t translate for you.
Seeing him as we were leaving, we pulled him aside and said goodbye to him. Using a tag-team combination of English and Thai, Kobfa and I told him that if there are times that he feels different from the other children and picked on because of it, that he needs to know that it’s alright to be different.
Hopefully at the right time in his life, that message will resonate with him. I know that if someone had said that to me back in late elementary school or early junior high, it would have made a world’s worth of difference.
Below, a four-minute video compilation of sights and sounds from the day.