Teacher: Hi Jame, You wahn come meet my clahs?
James: Yeah sure!
Teacher: Hi students, this Jame. He new teacher. Thank Jame. (Exists room)
And that, that was my first ever class. I was 22 and had decided to do something crazy when my University studies were done. And it only got worse. I once had a class of 55 students, and ended the 45 minute session with 4 (they had snuck out every time I turned my back to write on the board). I also occasionally taught a class with no students, but that wasn’t nearly as bad!
Although initially offended at the number of “volunteer” opportunities that required a commitment of several thousand dollars, I eventually stumbled across Volunthai, a grass roots organization based in rural Thailand that seemed committed to sending foreign teachers to some of the poorest schools in the country. We’re talking no desks or chairs in most classrooms and kids who wake up at 5 am when its 10 degrees outside to have a cold shower and feed the chickens.
“You’re going to look back on this as one of the best things you’ve ever done.” said one of my mum’s friends, encouragingly. And he was right. But it took me a long time to get there. I recall those 6 weeks as some of the most intense encounters with loneliness I’ve ever had.
“What are you going to say?” asked the teacher who had hung me out to dry the week before.
“To what?” I said.
“When the director introduces you to the parents.”
“What?” It’s not every day you get to introduce yourself to 50 Thai parents, in Thai, when you don’t speak Thai.
And so I was given a 5 minute crash course in introductions, and still to this day I am convinced I walked to the front of that hall, sat down, smiled nervously and politely but incorrectly ordered number 35 special noodles with fishballs.
But that gnawing question, “what the hell have you got yourself into?” was persistent until my last day. I had a distant belief that I had involved myself in something worthwhile, something that was good, but I hadn’t been able to explicitly identify what it was that warranted such conviction.
On that final day I stood in front of the school at the flag ceremony (held every day before classes began) and was witness to a breed of thanks and gratitude I’m not sure I will ever see again.
There was the notebook and pen, bought by one year 8 student, with his pocket money, and the note he wrote on the first page. “I hope you don’t forget me.” It said. And the hand-made scarf. And the flowers. And the cards. It was a moment that stayed with me for the months that followed, until my girlfriend’s dad suggested I try teaching as a career.
“You liked the program in Thailand.” He said. (For the record only moments later he reminded me “those who can do….” and I wish more than anything I could now throw this in his face).
The further I get from that day, I look upon it more fiercely as one of those moments that changed my life – for it was the moment I truly learned what it means to make a positive difference in people’s lives.