Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Day in the Life

The calm, early, dawn stillness is shattered by the shrill sound of a whistle blown forcefully, three times. It's five in the morning, and even the sun is not yet awake. The floorboards of the wooden and tin dormitory begin to creak under the weight of small feet, and the building shifts from their movements. I pull the covers over my head to shield myself from the brisk morning chill, but as the voices began to fill the air, I rise from my mat in defeat and acceptance of the start of a new day.

The children are downstairs, their voices are joined together, singing their usual chorus of morning songs. The older ones are groggy and wrapped in the warmth of their blankets. The younger have already began to roughhouse, much to the disapproval of Auntie who glares at them from the corner of the room. Auntie is the one in charge, and clearly respected by all of the children. She seems to see everything, and her voice can be heard every few minutes throughout the grounds. Once dismissed the children run off to eat their morning rice and dress themselves in their purple, school track suits. A gentle voice reaches out to me,

"Teacher, coffee?"

I sit cross legged on the straw mat to enjoy my three-in-one instant coffee, along with the elders who manage the dormitory and its twenty or thirty inhabitants. Auntie's husband, known as grandfather to the children, begins to ask me about my day in broken English. He is a strong, old man who spends most of his nights awake, completing chores around the property. He blames his inability to sleep on his age. Grandfather's sister still sits in the only bed in the home. She is speaking Karen to an Ipad app that repeats her words back as if they were spoken by a baby. She periodically chuckles from the makeshift bedroom. Auntie chimes in with a raspy command,

"Teacher, eat rice."

Her youngest grandchild cries out from the hammock swinging in the corner. Auntie's daughter appears not a moment later to feed him. Once satisfied, she lowers him to the floor and he begins the tedious task of learning to crawl. Every movement is a satisfying struggle for him as he makes his way for the tin box containing his grandparents' beetle nuts. Grandfather laughs as he moves the box just out of his reach.

At seven-thirty the children make their way down the dirt path towards school, but not before offering a standard Thai greeting to all of the adults in the home. For a few moments it is quiet aside from the scraping of the straw broom against the concrete. I finish my coffee and prepare to meet them in the classroom.

Grandfather's sister and I share the same morning routine. As I brush my teeth I can hear her singing and talking to herself in the next stall over. Her melodies accompany me as I splash a bucket of cold water over myself. Her song is still echoing from the bathroom as I leave for school.

The school is set in the mountains and palm trees. From a distance I can see several children who have chosen to play a game of tag in the courtyard, rather than attend their morning classes. The school secretary bellows announcements over a loud speaker that can be heard throughout the entire village. Dogs wander about the building, searching for food and friendly children.

In the classroom sit twenty young, Karen students, more eager to see their new foreign teacher than they are to study English. There is never a moment of silence in the classroom, and any attempt at discipline is futile. As I teach, little faces begin to gather at every window and doorway in the classroom. More curious students, who decided their time would be best spent outside of their classrooms today. After class, a line of students forms around me, requesting that I write my name on their hands before I leave. I oblige, a bit confused by the request. As I walk through the grounds the students stop to greet me.

"Good morning, teacher," they say with big smiles, although it is now the afternoon.

At the dorm the adults are resting. Grandfather and his sister take an afternoon nap. Auntie spots me from the concrete kitchen and yells out,

"Teacher, eat rice."

I motion at having a full stomach, but I walk towards the kitchen regardless. Here, Auntie and her son's girlfriend are preparing the evening feast of pork, vegetables and rice over the open fire. A family of chicks wanders about the room feeding off of any morsel that falls to the dusty floor. In the back of the building are the pigs, calling out for their evening meal. I go to talk them and grandfather appears, telling me that they will be big enough to eat earlier than expected.

The students begin to trickle home from their day at school. The boys rush to their rooms to change into their best football gear. Most of them are donning hand-me-down cleats that they have yet to grow into. The loose shoes fly through the dust each time someone makes a firm strike on the ball. Some of them opt to just play barefoot.

The youngest boys begin to climb a tree near the makeshift pitch. The smallest positions himself on a thin branch, while the others pull it back and launch him forward like a slingshot. It's the same tree that a boy broke his arm in last week, and their actions will later earn them a quick switch to back of the legs from Auntie. To them, it was well worth it.

In the background of the pickup football match, the girls begin practicing for a dance contest in April. The soft ballad spills into the air from an over sized speaker. They spend hours each night practicing the intricate, synchronized hand movements. Their quest for perfection means that music is paused and restarted from beginning every few seconds. Their laughter can be heard even over the yells of the boys.

The whistle sounds once again. This time it is the call to dinner. As I walk back towards the house I can once again hear Auntie's raspy voice.

"Teacher, eat rice."

We all squat down at the short wooden table to share our meal. I struggle to sit in the squatting form that even the oldest members of the dorm can rise in and out of with ease. Bare hands dive into the helpings of Karen curries. Most of the students also snack on whole tomatoes and cucumbers for extra sustenance. I finish my plate, and Auntie motions to me to get more rice. When I assure her that I've had my fill, she mutters something to her granddaughter in Karen. Paw La Hay translates for me.

"She thinks that you do not eat enough. You are too skinny."

"She wants me to be fat," I joke, as Auntie nods in stoic agreement.

Everyone finishes their food well before me. They empty the remainder of their food into a bucket for the pigs to feast on. I can hear their terrible squealing as Auntie dumps the slop over their heads. The students run out to resume their games before the last light of day slips away.

Around seven-thirty the whistle chimes one last time, signaling for everyone to gather in the main room. The students pass the baby around like a doll. He laughs in excitement from the attention. Babies are quite accustomed to the embrace of an outsider, because to the Karen, it takes a village to raise a child. Auntie yells to me to sit down, although now I can barely make out what she says, due to the large pouch of beetle leaves she is chewing. Red spit drips from her mouth as she yells out commands to the children.

Once again, the same songs of the morning ring out through the dorm. The sound is beautiful, only in the sincerity of it. Most of the children are screaming rather than singing. Once they finish their prays, they begin to roll thin mats and blankets out onto the floor. The ground is once again riddled with tired bodies and the noise of the day surrenders to the call of geckos and the distant barking of dogs.

A few of the older students stay awake watching Thai soap operas. Grandfather listens to a radio show through thick static. The noise is enough to keep me from drifting to sleep so I go into the courtyard, where I am greeted by the house dog. I speak fluently and share a small snack with him. The moon is now high and stars are bright in the mountain sky. From behind me a small voice whispers,

"Goodnight, teacher."


"Even though I, I grew up in the suburbs.
I didn't really grow 'til I learned how so many others live."

- Ben Sollee


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