Sunday, January 19, 2014

Adam Knighton - Father of the Year

Thailand has an absurd amount of holidays. As a teacher, this makes me happy. We get every holiday off. Not only that, but there are lots of arbitrary days where there is no school for no apparent reason. Sometimes there's a "meeting" that I don't have to go to. Other times the teachers have decided to go on a road trip, so there is no school. No matter what the reason, we're always celebrating something or other.

Oftentimes there will be a holiday celebration at school or somewhere nearby. This means going to school, but no actual teaching. Transportation is not very difficult because there are maybe 100 total students in the school. For the nearby locations, they load all of the girls up in to vans and slowly move them all to the other area. The boys are all thrown in the back of the janitor's pickup truck and moved while standing. Watching them leave reminds me of those horse trailers you see on the freeway sometimes. There are a few horses standing unsteadily with bewildered looks on their faces while moving at 50 mph. Well in this case it's 20ish students standing unsteadily with bewildered looks on their faces.

Boy and Girl scouts are very big here. Every Thursday, students must wear their uniform to school. After my last class, they practice marching, play instruments, and get yelled at. Sometimes they have to do push-ups as punishment. I always find this amusing, because if there's one thing a Thai 10 year old lacks, it's upper body strength. They invariably end up looking like the following picture.

Sometimes everyone is forced to do push-ups at the same time. It's an odd sight when you turn a corner and see 40 students in uniform, waving their bums in the air.

The students also play their instruments as a part of their Scout routine. The girls love to play this odd instrument called the melodica. It's a weird combination of a piano, harmonica, and accordion. It looks like this:

They blow into it while holding it with one hand and playing it with the other. It's not the most lovely sounding instrument-kind of a fusion between an accordion and a bagpipe. 

The boys usually play drums. As I mentioned before, the these children lack strength. So for each drum player there must be a designated drum spotter.

Doesn't look like much fun, but the good news it that they switch halfway through so at least it's fair.

Anyway, back to holidays, activities, and general horseplay at school. We're always doing something or other instead of actually teaching. One time it was an hour long Christmas party that ended at 10:00 a.m., and all of the students just went home after. Then there was the New Year's party where half of the students wore makeup and did dances. And finally, the most uncomfortable one: Father's Day.

School unexpectedly ended after lunch one day. Generally no one tells me about any special activities that are happening. They just kind of happen and I get caught up in all of it. I walk to the auditorium area and notice all the students are sitting in lines and there's a ton of Thai men behind them sitting in chairs. Everyone goes ahead and does a prayer for the king and the Thai dancing starts. I ask my coworker what this has to do with Father's Day and he just laughs.

When I look out at the students I notice that some of the girls are crying. My coworker says that their fathers probably aren't here,  but it started off a chain reaction of sadness. Some girls start crying because their father isn't there, then more girls start crying because their friends are sad, then even more girls start crying because everyone is crying. I look over there and start to get choked up because someone's sad that someone's sad about someone being sad. Lousy four degrees of separation sadness.

They set up a bunch of chairs on the stage and call one grade level's fathers up. After, the students from that class go up and kneel in front of their dads. But what's this? There is a student whose father isn't there. I feel bad for her because she's clearly heartbroken and sitting up there trying not to cry.

Up until this point there had been a fairly consistent stream of Thai being spoken by the director over the speakerphones. I generally ignored it. They speak too quickly for me to understand it properly, so I just pick up certain words here and there. But just then I heard a word I was very familiar with: Adam. I froze, furrowed my brow and slowly turned my head toward the director. I had no idea what was happening, I just knew I shouldn't be involved. The director smiles at me and says "Daddy Adam!". I stifle a scream and start walking to the stage.

I plop down next to a Thai man that I totally dwarf and look in the eyes of a weeping 7- year- old. She's not even my student, so I'm basically a stranger to her. I smile and try to telepathically communicate "Sorry I'm not your dad" to her. I don't think it worked.

Then things got even weirder. All of the students are already on their knees in front of their fathers (or Caucasian stand-ins). The director said something and suddenly they're on their hands and knees with their forehead on the ground. I like to think they were channeling positive, youthful energies into their elders, but I can't know. The director says something else and suddenly the girl's head is in my lap, face down. I recoil a little bit and look around. If I were a teacher in America and someone saw a 7-year-old girl's head face down in my lap, I'm fairly certain I'd be put in jail forever.

Quick side note about me. I like to play the cool, tough guy who is unaffected by anything. That's just to cover up the fact that I'm basically in a constant state of panic. My face may look calm and collected. Possibly even smug. But inside a storm is raging.

Well, my poker face must have cracked because I heard the now familiar "Daddy Adam" over the speaker system. I look over at the director. She's motioning for me to rub the child's head. Thai people are laughing at the befuddled white man, but I start rubbing her head and my face shifts back to Mr. Cool Guy.

The director says something again and the girl is standing with her arms outstretched. Everyone starts hugging, so I do the same. I held her for what felt like forever, and started to release. She began backing away, but I saw out of the corner of my eye that everyone else was still hugging. I was not about to look like a fool again! Right when she thought she had escaped my clutches, I pulled her back in. The end result was one of the most uncomfortable hugs I've ever been a part of. She was struggling to escape by the end of it, but I'd be damned if I wasn't going to execute the hug for the appropriate amount of time.

The students left the stage and the parents left shortly after. I sat down again relieved that it was over. Suddenly, I understood 2 words over the speaker system, "Daddy Adam".

At the end of the day, I was well practiced at hugging and rubbing the heads of pre-teens. I think my grand total was 4 adopted daughters and 2 adopted sons. I suppose the moral of the day was that I'm not quite ready for fatherhood. but that's more just a confirmation of something I knew already.

As a reward for reading this far, I present you with a picture that shall receive no context.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

How Many 5-Year-Olds Could You Beat Up?

Living in Thailand has really cleared up some misconceptions I've had about the world. Since I spend so much time with children, most of these revelations relate to them. I taught 13 to 15-year-olds in Bangkok. Now I'm teaching 10 to 12-year-olds and 3 to 5-year-olds. Some of these students are so sweet and kind, even though they can't really communicate with me. Sure, each class has a kid who acts up for attention. But I have learned about myself and grown as a person because of the time I have spent with them. There is one key fact that I have learned about children during my adventures. 3 to 5-year-olds are, pound for pound, the most malevolent creatures on the planet. 

I'm a young, large male. I walk down dark alleys with impunity. I fend off ladyboys with one hand. I stub my toe and don't even cry that much. When I'm about to walk into a class full of thirteen 5-year-olds, I feel something that used to be totally foreign to me. A dark vacuum in the pit of my stomach. Fear. I know that the next 30 minutes are going to be filled with with screams, sneak attacks, and malice hidden behind toothless smiles.

It wasn't always this way. My first few days of teaching I was in charge. Back in those days, they were the ones who were afraid. I'd hand out worksheets and they'd come back complete. Now, they come back as paper airplanes. One girl would cry every time I walked in to the classroom. Now, she sees me as the greatest jungle gym ever. Her daily goal is to climb to the top of me.

Yes, the bad ones are bad. They scream. They don't do their work. They harass me with a sociopathic emptiness in their eyes. There is no pleasure or disgust in their actions, there is only a deep, animalistic urge to make me miserable. It is something that must be done.

But the good ones can be even worse. The ones that attack me with adoration cannot be screamed at or punished, because they hurt me with their love. Multiple examples come to mind. I'm sure you're aware of how children live their lives: in squalor. They smell weird, their noses are always running, and I swear, there's one kid who actually has flies around him all the time. I thought that only happened in cartoons. Plus some of them have bad breath. How can you have bad breath if you don't even have any teeth? Plus, students in Thailand are forced to bring toothbrushes to school, so they can clean up after lunch in addition to any extra-curricular brushing they may enjoy.

I'll walk in to the class room, sit down to set up the alphabet song for them, and the second I turn my back, they strike. I feel something clinging to my shoulder. This isn't out of the ordinary; if there's one thing every student has in common it's that they must constantly touch me. But then I feel a cool ooze on my cheek, accompanied by a sucking sound. I look over to see a cute grinning child. Under the child's nose are strands. Strands of infectious nose slime that are attached to the side of my face. What can I possibly do? Scream at the child? I don't know enough Thai to tell him that biological warfare is against the Geneva convention. Can I look him in the eyes and tell him that he better not show any affection to anyone else again? Nope. All I can do is turn, half-grimace half-smile, and stifle my gag reflex.

Did I mention that after the first few weeks of teaching I had to stay home because I had a crippling stomach flu? It's not a huge mystery where it came from.

Fortunately, after 2 months I've been able to convince them that they love me. We play games, we have fun, we share infectious diseases. It's actually pretty enjoyable.

But with this love has come a great blow to my ego. Three months ago, if you asked me how may 5-year-olds I could take, I would have scoffed at you and said "an infinite number". Now, you'll hear a sullen "I don't wanna talk about it". One day we were learning the English words "up" and "down". So I was squatting down, screaming "DOWN!", then standing up, and screaming "UP!". Suddenly, a child jumped on my back while we were in the "DOWN!" position, so I went "UP!" with him on me. He giggled, I giggled, it was all great fun. So I went back "DOWN!". Then the Thai 5-year-old hive mind made a collective decision, and the children swarmed me. Suddenly, there was 300 pounds worth of children keeping me glued to the ground. I literally could not stand up. To make matters worse, one was grabbing only onto the collar of my shirt. His entire weight was pushing on my jugular and crushing my windpipe. Could I reach back and tear him off? No. Each arm had two other children attached to it. I looked over to the Thai teacher with tears and desperation in my eyes. She returned the glance with a smile, thinking it was cute.

Somehow, miraculously, I escaped. The fear and lack of oxygen apparently made me black out, but I am still here today, so I must have wrenched myself free.

One amusing thing that the children do is ramble at me in Thai. I can't understand most of what they say, but that doesn't discourage them. When they decide they must tell me something really important, I remind them "put pasa Thai mai dai" (literally "to speak language Thai not can",  meaning "I can't speak Thai"). The amusing thing is that some of the kids will look at me after I say this with an expression that says "What did you JUST do, then? Didn't you JUST speak Thai, you big white liar?" So I just smile while peering out the corner of my eye on the lookout for another snotty kiss.

Behold, the little monsters.