The Drowning Pool

March 19, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

When I was a child growing up in the panhandle of Florida, one benefit of being the kid of a medical professional was that my parents could afford to build a swimming pool in our back yard. Twice. Both of the homes we lived in during the years between 1975 and 1987 (when I moved away back to Michigan) had large enough plots for us to have an in-ground, outdoor natatorium, complete with diving board, and in the first instance, a slide.

Example only. Not my childhood swimming pool.

This was a very nice perk, as the tropical heat in Florida is pretty oppressive. My brothers and I were constantly in the water, swimming laps, having diving competitions, and playing Marco Polo with friends whom we would invite over. If we weren’t in our own man-made swimming hole, we were out at the state park swimming in the springs, lakes, or rivers (along with the occasional water moccasin and alligator).

The Blue Hole swimming area at Florida Caverns State Park.

My brothers and I learned how to swim at a very early age. So early, in fact, that I do not remember taking any lessons or my parents teaching us. It seemed as normal as walking or climbing. It never occurred to me that other kids might not have the same experience. As far as I knew, all of my friends were able to swim. None of us were Mark Spitz (yesterday’s Michael Phelps), but at bare minimum we could do a basic doggy paddle and keep our heads above water. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I became aware that there was a large company of people who were unable to swim. Much of this non-amphibious population was made up of minorities who, because of segregation laws and practices of the recent past, never had the opportunity to learn, as they were not allowed to so much as dip their feet into a public swimming pool.

Thailand is also a land of tropical heat. It regularly exceeds 38 degrees Celsius (100F), many times rising into the 40s. That kind of swelter can make life miserable. So I’m lucky enough to have found a nice apartment with air conditioning and a good-size private swimming pool to help escape the heat.

I get to ride the pink unicorn in the pool at my apartment.

There are public pools as well, but I am admittedly a snob when it comes to these, having grown up with pools where we controlled who peed (or rather, hopefully not) in the water.

An informal poll of the kids whom I teach reveals that many of the 7-8 year-olds have not yet mastered the ability to swim. So, it seemed a good thing back in August of last year when workers with jack hammers and backhoes showed up at the school and began breaking up part of the grounds and building forms for pouring concrete to build a pool. Our children would be introduced to proper training for this vital life-skill.

However, as a group of foreign teachers, we were less than gratified to see the construction begin. The reason wasn’t because we are anti-swimming. It’s because the school administration has constantly been claiming how little money they have. “No, sorry, there is no money for the supplies and basic equipment you are requesting.” “An English lab sounds like a wonderful idea, but we just don’t have the money to give you an (already) vacant room to set it up.” “We don’t have money to give you a meaningful raise.” The reason for the swimming pool is nothing but cosmetics. There are larger schools in the area which have cinemas and swimming pools, and our director feels that his school should have the same. It’s not about the education of the kids. It’s about bragging rights. Lipstick on a pig, is what we call it in the West. But, as I have discovered in the past year of living here, much of Thai bureaucracy is more interested in form than substance.

At any rate, we were able to witness the slow progress of the pool construction every day. This pool is above ground, made of concrete, using different construction methods than I am used to seeing. What I did notice, as they were pouring the walls and floor, was that the depth remained the same throughout the entire basin. There is no gradual incline as you would expect to see in a pool of that size. The height of the walls, from bottom floor to the top, where the walkway surface was set, measures about 130cm (50+ inches) by my estimation. Which is taller than many of the students that I teach.  As in over their heads. Yet, construction continued. A steel roof and ventilated enclosure was erected over the pool. The walkway was tiled. Steps leading from the school grounds to the top of the pool surface were built, complete with crooked guardrail. Shower and changing rooms were constructed. A filtration pump was installed, with only one (I counted) circulation port, which was positioned almost right next to the intake. The interior of the pool was painted blue. Yet, no one seemed to notice that there was a problem with the design. During one of our foreign teachers meetings I brought up the matter again in a rather dark way as I suggested that we place bets as to when the first kid would drown.

Sometime in December, the pool was finally filled with water.  The circulation pump ran for a few hours, the jet pushing water out, and the intake sucking it back in almost immediately. The water at the far end of the pool remained still. After a few days, a greenish cast could be seen on the water, which also seemed to contain particulate matter. Chemicals were introduced, and portable auxiliary pump was brought in to help move the water around. During the four-day New Year’s holiday weekend, one of the assistant directors (whom I call Aqualung- we’ll get to that later..) reportedly visited the pool with some guests and had a small private party. Perhaps that’s when the issue was discovered. In early January, I witnessed Aqualung standing up on the pool deck with the school director. They were looking down into the pool and not saying much. I saw the director move his hand in a horizontal fashion, making  imaginary perpendicular lines. I knew immediately what he was conjuring.

The next day, the pool was drained. Workers returned and began drilling holes into the interior walls, near the top. They returned a couple of days later and installed chrome railings around three sides of the basin, leaving the fourth side bare, as that entire wall is for the spill-over filtration intake. So now, the kids who are unable to stand up anywhere in the pool without inhaling water will be able to grasp the rail and make their way around to the single metal ladder which is the solitary means of ingress and egress to the tank. Did I mention that there are no graduated steps to enter/exit? Did I mention that there IS NO SHALLOW END to this fucking pool!!!????

Perhaps you can make out the ladder at the far end. The railing is visible on the left.

A few weeks ago, the regular morning ceremony was extended by 90 minutes for the pool dedication/blessing. The students were sitting on the concrete walkways and driveways, plastic chairs were set up for VIPs in front of mountains of flower arrangements, and a group of orange-clad monks were on hand to perform ritual chants in between grandiose speeches from the big-wigs. I didn’t stick around to witness this. I went home instead, and returned in time to teach my first class at 9:50am.  The pool continues to not be used. It has since been drained and refilled twice. The other day, a new swimming coach was introduced to the gathered students and faculty at morning ceremony. A young woman, fresh out of university. She, among all of the other prospects got the job, not because she was the most qualified, but because every other experienced applicant took one look at the pool and walked away. I’ve been told that the pool is going to be open only on the weekends, and to those who wish to pay for the privilege of using the unique facility. I will have to wait to see if this is true or not. But, as a betting man, I’m wagering that the pool will last less than a year before it is closed again. Hopefully before someone dies.

I can’t wait to see their plans for a cinema.

Gladiator

May 29, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

I’m in a love-hate relationship. Not with an individual, but with a group. Actually nine groups. Nine groups of 32-38 little individuals that are in my charge for an hour at a time twice a week. I’m supposed to be teaching them how to speak, read, and write English, but at least half of those hours are spent being a cop, judge, and prison warden. It’s exhausting.

First Contact

My job as a teacher at the local government school started on May 16. That was the day that approximately 1500 students, ranging from Kindergarten to 6th grade, began walking onto the school grounds through the front gate at 7:15am.

Students performing the “wai” at the entrance gate.

Each day, they queue up single file into small groups of perhaps 10 or 12 before the Thai teacher who has gate duty stops the line. They are then obligated to wai* in the direction of the teacher as they greet her (usually a her) with the standard “sawaddee ka/krub”, then turn around and repeat the formal gesture in the direction of the small Buddha altar at the entrance of the school.

After that, they are free to walk to the commissary/cafeteria for breakfast or to play on the soccer field or in the outdoor gymnasium until time for morning ceremony. Every other week, I am the foreign teacher scheduled to be there to greet the students with “good morning!”, or “hello!” so they remember that English is an important part of their curriculum.

Pageantry

The morning ceremony begins at 8am with all of the classes lined up around the soccer field with their respective teachers and assistant teachers. That is unless it is currently raining or the field is still soaked from a previous downpour.

Morning Ceremony. Some of the first and second graders I teach.

The ceremony consists of the Thai national anthem, played by the school band while two students raise the Thai flag up the pole. The goal is to have the flag hit the top of the pole at the exact moment the anthem finishes. But this rarely happens. Usually, the white, blue, and red striped standard rises in a jerky slow motion until about two meters from the terminus, then when the music ends, it is hoisted up at a frantic clip to an abrupt stop.

After that, some Buddhist prayers are recited, a full minute of silence is (mostly) observed, and then the King’s anthem is played and sung. If there are no speeches or awards to be given, the ceremony is over in about ten minutes. If there are speeches, then it can drag on for twenty. Bureaucrats everywhere love to listen to themselves drone on, and Thailand is no different. Even if nobody is paying attention.

By 8am, the sun has been powerfully making its presence felt, and it can be stifling unless there is a breeze.

Morning Milk

I’ve witnessed kids passing out in the heat as the school director bloviates about mostly meaningless and inconsequential items. Well, I’ve been told that it’s mostly unimportant stuff. I don’t understand any of it yet.

After the speechifying has completed, and there is no further business, the restless children are now herded back to their classrooms, where they are given a plastic pouch of milk and a straw with which to puncture the container and sip the contents through.

Rest Period

I retreat to the little office that I share with Hans, another English teacher from Holland. It’s not air-conditioned, but is somewhat open-air with vented block masonry. The openings on the lower portion of the wall are covered with tape in an effort to keep rats or other animals from intruding. I doubt that it really works, because the other day my black dress shoes, which I leave at the school, smelled like a cat had peed in them.

I stay in the office until first period ends at 9:30, as I have no teaching assignments during that slot. I’m pretty happy with that. I sometimes work on creating flash cards or other learning materials, but most of the time I’m busy on Facebook. The plastic resin chair that I sit on is uncomfortable for long periods, so I’m going to try to find a nice, cushy, second-hand office chair that reclines.

Because I can spend up to three hours at a time with no classes, I often choose to go out for a coffee during my breaks, or back to my apartment which is only a short distance from the school.

Heading Up the Tunnel

As I head to the classrooms to begin the instruction, I feel both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I enjoy interacting with 1st and 2nd grade kids who are brimming with eagerness to learn English. Dread, because there is a scarcity of those.

The Thai government has seen fit to require one hour of English instruction each day for all classes from 1st grade on. And that’s great, because Thailand lags far behind most other ASEAN countries in English fluency and understanding.But as we all know, mandating something does not automatically make it work.

There is very little support for the teachers who must now add this to their repertoire of lesson planning. I’m lucky enough to be a native speaker of English, but the Thai faculty assigned to this don’t always speak the language well themselves.

I had to ask repeatedly for a copy of the schoolbooks that the students are using. It seems that there is no teacher’s manual for the books being used in the class. I ended up with used copies of last year’s books that had belonged to previous students. More on those later.

I have yet to be introduced to the Thai teachers who are assigned to the classes on the alternating days that I’m not giving instruction to a particular classroom. It makes it impossible to coordinate a comprehensive lesson planning strategy. It feels like the school is not really taking the teaching of English to their students seriously. So how can I expect the kids to take it any differently?

Combat

“Hello, class!” I call out as I enter the front of the classroom. This is a lovely bit that I borrowed from my CELTA classmate, Danna.  “Hello, class!” has been the standard reply from most of them up until now. I strain to listen for and recognize the small voice giving the correct response, “Hello, Teacher Bob!”

From this point on, it’s usually all on me to maintain order and discipline to the class of almost three dozen children. The form (or homeroom) teacher usually quickly heads out of the room to escape for the next hour. I can’t say that I blame them.

Depending on which grade I am teaching, I attempt to alter my lessons. Each class gets a little bit of introduction training. We work on “My name is..” and “what is your name?” Some kids get it. Some still don’t. I drill them on the phrasing as a class, and also individually. I will walk between the cramped rows of desks and stop in front of a random student, crouch down to their level, and say, “My name is Teacher Bob. What is YOUR name?”

Much of the time, I get a blank stare as they try to comprehend what I am saying to them. I find that this is equally true for both 1st and 2nd graders. Sometimes, I am gratified to hear them reply, “My name is POOM” or “My name is MIMI.”

I will say that it’s much easier for me if they have chosen a nickname from the English language. Although, it does lead to some weirdness. “My name is Apple/Cherry/Beer/PingPong/Icy/Mean/Earth.” Beer? I’ve met three Beers since I’ve gotten here. And they were all female.

The Good

Honestly, the Thai kids are beautiful. They are generally very nice and polite. And they really do look up to their teachers, especially the foreign ones. The desire to please is definitely there. If I give an assignment to write their names, fill in blanks, or draw a picture, they are constantly walking up to me with the book or paper to show me what they have done to see if I approve.

Happy Children

I am mobbed from the time I walk into the general population before and after classes. They shout greetings in English to me, run up for high fives and hugs. It feels so weird still to be hugging or even touching a stranger’s kid. I know I’ll get used to it, but I still find myself suppressing the urge to look over my shoulder for the disapproving parent.

I sometimes also will be greeted after school or on the weekend when I’m in one of the local shops or cafes. Here’s my problem: I don’t know the kid’s name. I cannot remember if they are even in one of my classes. The truth is, I have a very difficult time telling the children apart.

I know this will possibly sound cliché or racist, but they kind of all look the same to me right now. Obviously, there are some who are smaller, taller, rounder, skinnier, or with different teeth, but it seems like there are the same dozen kids and their older/younger clones running around the school. It doesn’t help that they wear uniforms. Most every boy has the same short haircut. Practically all of the girls have their long, black hair parted in the middle and braided pigtails with blue ribbons on either side.

The Bad

On the flip side, the kids can also be monsters. Some days, half of my time is spent putting kids back in their seats, confiscating their rulers or other objects being used as swords or alternative distractions, slapping a metal ruler on one of the old, wooden desks to recapture the attention of students who continually turn around to talk to their neighbor. I got myself the metal ruler after shattering one of the plastic rulers that I took away from someone. I felt pretty bad about that.

I’ve had to put repeat offenders in time-out in the corner. Truthfully, I understand why a teacher might be tempted to tie or duct tape a kid to their seat. I’ve seen the Thai teachers smack the kids with their hands or with a bamboo rod when they misbehave.

Time Out

I grew up in the southeastern U.S. at a time when corporal punishment was acceptable in the classroom. I am not going to go down that road, however. I am attempting other means to control the classes.

I’ve proposed the idea of having my own classroom, an English lab, where the kids would have to come to MY turf, where I am in control of the surroundings. If I can control the environment, I will have a much easier time with classroom management.

So far, the assistant director of the school is amenable to the idea, but also non-committal, as he needs to ask the school director and probably go through some labyrinthine Thai bureaucratic quagmire to get it done. I’m going to be patiently optimistic for now. Meanwhile, I’m fighting the battle for supremacy in the coliseum.

The Ugly Truth

I cannot really be angry at the kids. It’s hot in the rooms. The building where my classes are has no air conditioning, and the outside temperatures can easily reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There are fans, but they only do so much. The classroom doors stay open, as do the shutters on the other side, but in addition to allowing a slight breeze to flow through, the openings also allow for distractions.

Another problem that I have discovered is that the kids may be under the influence of sugar. The commissary, in addition to providing a hot meal, also sells snacks. I’ve seen kids eating popsicles, cookies, and candy for breakfast. I’m pretty sure that is not conducive for a proper physical and mental state that is needed for learning. And I’m also pretty sure that the school makes a profit on the sale of these stimulants, so complaining about it will fall on deaf ears. But it can make my job hell.

So I look forward to my alone time in the small, fan-only lounge with the uncomfortable plastic chair, or my air-conditioned apartment where I can take a respite from my gladiatorial battles with the army of Lilliputians. Speaking of which, it is time for me to take up arms and go forth to the arena.

*wai:

The Thai greeting referred to as the wai (Thaiไหว้pronounced[wâi]) consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion.   (wikipedia)  The wai is altered depending on the social status of the individual to whom you are greeting. If they are higher status (monk, government official, work superior, etc.), then your hands go higher, maybe up to your face. If you are greeting an equal, you place your hands below your chin. If to a subordinate, you may put your hands together at a chest level. It’s all very complicated to foreigners, and the Thai locals never expect us to get it right. 

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Learning the Ropes

February 10, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’m sitting at the desk in my new studio apartment (hotel room, in actuality) looking out at Doi Suthep, the mountain that sits on the northwest corner of Chiang Mai. In the foreground are a few semi-tall buildings, some smaller structures with corrugated roofs, and a lovely green copse of trees that hides most everything else. It would be very peaceful, were it not for the bit of noise from traffic on Huay Kaew Road, and the constant roar of commercial flights taking off from the airport just to the south. The butterflies that are flitting around the trees below seem not to take notice. There is a bit of haze from the city that hangs over the landscape, but otherwise the sky is blue with a few wispy, white clouds in suspended animation.

Nick, my friend and former classmate, and I have just returned from a late brunch at one of the myriad little cafes in the area. For 80 Thai baht ($2.31), I enjoyed a plate of pad see ew and an iced coffee. The portion size was a little small by American standards, but I’m learning to adjust my intake. I’ve got quite a few adjustments to make in order to savor life here in northern Thailand. Some of the things that I must get used to are the sidewalks, the dearth of paper napkins, and the constant temptation to eat the endless supply of street food in front of me. The sidewalks tend to be narrower than what I’m used to, and there seems to be no uniformity in height from one block to the next. A pedestrian is perpetually dodging and weaving between concrete power poles, street signs, and food vendors. It’s many times easier to walk on the street facing the oncoming traffic. It would be maddening to a civil engineer from the west.  As far as the paper shortage goes, if you get napkins at all, they tend to be what we in America would consider toilet tissue. You learn to do the best you can and not make a big mess with your food. This would definitely not work with BBQ ribs. Last night, I went to dinner with another classmate from Shanghai before she left for home this morning. Catherine and I walked to a real-life Italian restaurant that served one of the best Caesar salads that I’ve ever eaten. What I marveled at the most, however, were the proper linen napkins that we had at the table. It’s funny how the otherwise insignificant things make such an impression when you’ve done without for a while.

I’ll have to start a new paragraph for the street food. I’ll keep it short for now, but it will definitely be a topic for at least a few individual posts in the future. It’s almost impossible to walk a city block here without passing a temporary food cart or tiny stall hawking some meat or fish grilling on sticks. Others serve various types of fruit or fresh-squeezed juice. In the evening, the streets change as the vendors come and set up temporary stands complete with gas burners and grills, home-made fans to keep the flies at bay, and folding tables surrounded by colorful plastic stools for customers to sit and eat the dishes that are cooked to order. The smells are a combination of strange and mouth-watering, and it’s difficult to not try something. These ad hoc food courts would NEVER be allowed in America, at least not anywhere I’ve ever been. Many westerners have expressed disdain or concern about unsanitary conditions and unrefrigerated product, but I am starting to believe that we have become too coddled. I’ve lost count of how many times that I have paid 10 or 20 baht for something that looked too good to pass up, and I have yet to get sick.  This is a definitely a place where you can channel your inner Anthony Bourdain.

As I mentioned earlier, I now have a semi-permanent address. Nick, who is from Arizona, and I both wanted to remain in Chiang Mai to teach and live. We decided that it would be good to team up and tackle the challenge of learning a new culture together. After spending the better part of the week partying and hanging out with classmates, we took Tuesday to look for accommodations. We ended up renting two separate studio apartments on the fourth floor of the current place for a month, to give us time to find jobs and look around for a more permanent housing situation. Our goal is to find a furnished two bedroom at an affordable cost, so that we can split the rent and save money for the other things we want to do. Nick is a pretty-well educated naturalist with a masters degree in something-or-other. He’s chill and very easy to get along with, and we hit it off pretty much immediately during the training program.  It’s interesting for me to watch him deal with the fact that all of our former classmates have moved on and back to their home countries. He’s a sensitive soul, and I can tell that it’s a bit distressing for him to lose people that he’s become very close to. I feel it too, having developed deep friendships with those whom I went through so much challenge and stress, but I have moved so many times in my life that I have become a bit inured to leaving friends behind, or vice versa. That being said, I’m really glad that he’s here, because without his company, I’m pretty sure I’d feel more lost than I already do. We’ve been helping each other with our resumes and discovering how to maneuver around our new city. Which leads to a funny story:

Yesterday, Nick got a haircut and a beard trim at a local barbershop recommended by the lady who runs the apartment building. I was very impressed by the job the barber had done, so I decided that I would get my beard trimmed professionally as well. Over the weekend, I had already treated myself to a haircut and a mani-pedi (hey… I do what I like) at another salon close to our hostel. The problem is, I don’t speak Thai, and the lady spoke very little English. So it was difficult to tell her exactly what I wanted. It turned out okay, but she did cut the hair on the sides of my head pretty short. So, you think that I would have learned a lesson from that. Not exactly. I happened upon another barbershop in the alley behind our apartments, and they offered beard trims for 60 baht (less than $2). I sat down and told the lady that I wanted just a nice trim and shaping. She smiled and nodded, and I sat back in the comfort that I was in the hands of a professional. Then she proceeded to take the clippers and shaved the left side of my face down to the bare skin. Another lost in translation moment. I’ve not been clean-shaven since 2013. The lady did ask me if I wanted to keep the moustache, and I VERY carefully showed her that I wanted to keep the chin part, too. So, now I have myself a nice goatee. And the knowledge that my beard will grow back. It was also my very first time being shaved with a straight-razor. I’m not sure why that made me so nervous. I couldn’t help but think that all the lady had to do was to slide the blade across my throat at a certain angle, and I’d be done for. I tried to comfort myself with the realization that the woman who cut my hair in Chicago could have easily driven the shears into my temple had she had the inclination, but that most people aren’t homicidal like Sweeney Todd.

Another plane just roared overhead, and I realize that I still have much to accomplish today. Nick just texted me to suggest that we leave early tomorrow morning (while it’s still cool) to hike to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is the golden temple on the top of the mountain. We’ll see how that goes. I’m already sore and winded just thinking about it. Please remember that my wishes are to be cremated if I don’t make it back.

Breakdown

January 20, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

It was 7:18am when it finally happened to me. I had been warned by other friends who have taken or taught the CELTA program that there comes a point in the program for every student where they break. Some begin screaming, throwing things, or sobbing uncontrollably as the pressure of the tasks become too much. Many have the feeling of helplessness, that they just cannot continue, that they may as well just leave, because there’s no way that they will make it through.

I’ve been dealing with the pressure of classes, teaching practices, and writing assignments for almost two weeks. On Tuesday evening, I taught the class using the materials provided for me. I felt during the lesson that I caught my stride, and that it was going fairly well, despite my nervousness which I kept hidden. But after the lesson was over, I realized that I hadn’t asked them any follow-up questions to see if they had absorbed the material. I beat myself up about it overnight, then went to the feedback session on Wednesday morning, fully expecting my instructor and the classmates in my group to point that out. But that didn’t happen. In fact, later in the day, one of the other instructors mentioned in front of the larger group that he heard I had done an excellent job of teaching my lesson the night before. This made me feel good, and gave me a boost.

However, on last night’s teaching assignment, I found myself completely unprepared for the lesson. I had been struggling all day to concentrate on writing my lesson plan and collecting the materials that I would need to use in the classroom. I was distracted and not making much progress, with the deadline looming. I was supposed to have filled out a grammar analysis sheet for the lesson, which was on the use of comparatives and superlatives (e.g. good, better, best; fast, faster, fastest) but I ran out of time. So, I went into the class armed with only part of the knowledge that would be needed to do a concise explanation of the rules of grammar.  After a moderately long period where I used the whiteboard to show the concepts, I gave the students a quiz. And while I was crouching down to their level at the desks to monitor their progress and provide assistance as necessary, I discovered that they did not have any idea what they were doing. It dawned on me that I had completely forgotten to explain to them that when using comparatives between two objects, that we use the words “as” and “than”.  As in, “Bob is not as good a teacher as the last one.” “This lesson was worse than any other we’ve ever had.”

Fortunately, I didn’t allow the rising panic to freeze me in my tracks. I made the quick decision to tell the students to put down their pens, and I admitted to them that I had forgotten to give them a key piece of information. I spent the next few minutes at the board free-styling an explanation with examples of how to use the language. I then let them work in pairs to finish the exercise, and did a shortened version of the review that I had planned. I had to jettison the last activity that I had prepared for them, because I was now out of time to do anything else but to thank the students for coming and telling them that it had been our honor to teach them for the past two weeks.

I don’t remember tasting my dinner after that. I joined a group of my classmates who walked down the road to a place we refer to as the “hay bale bar”, which is pretty much a group of hay bales lined up against a long table facing out on a rice paddy. Local beers were purchased from a small, tin-roofed store across the street from the “bar”, and I sat with my friends, trying to forget the dismal lesson that I had just finished teaching. I went to bed in a funk, and woke up in the same state. I knew that I had a self-evaluation to write, and all I could think to do was to be completely raw and honest in it. In the section asking what were my key achievements in the first half of the course, I wrote that I had accomplished “fooling people into thinking that I actually belonged here.” And I started to think that this was a waste of my time, that I never would accomplish this, that I wasn’t cut out for it. I felt that all of my friends who had told me in the past that I would make a great teacher, that I would do well, really didn’t know me like they thought. They didn’t know the scared quitter that lived inside of me. And I started to cry. Not loud sobs, just quiet tears running down my face and tickling my cheeks on their way to the floor. One of my friends messaged me to ask how I was doing, and she told me that I would be fine, that I just had to endure, that this was my dream job. Which set off my tears again, because this is my one shot at having the ability to support myself as I travel the world. I cannot go back to Chicago, back to the existence that I am trying to escape. I turned on Spotify and chose Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” to inspire me.* It seemed to help me through my paperwork.

I walked into my feedback session like I was heading to the gallows. I was supposed to give constructive criticism to the two classmates who taught before me the last night, and I managed to say a few things that I remembered, because I hadn’t really written much down. When it came time to have my lesson dissected, I was stunned to hear that my classmates thought my lesson went well. My instructor, who had the copy of my self-evaluation in his lap, said that he thought I was being too hard on myself. He said that the decisive action I took in cutting short the quiz in order to teach what I had missed was actually a positive. He made a point of mentioning that I showed a real interest in the welfare of the students. And he gave me a passing score. Later, during my private review of my achievements during the first half of the course, he said that I was to standard, meaning that I was where I should be at this point. He didn’t return my first required written assignment for resubmission, meaning I somehow passed on the initial attempt. I walked out of that meeting in disbelief. The cloud that had been following me around in the morning dissipated, and the sun came out.

This evening, after we sat through the class watching the instructor teach grammar points to the new group of students whom we will be with for the next two weeks, our “old” pupils from the first half of the course took us out to an outside bar/cafe not far from the school. We sat under the stars at a long table with our student/friends, laughing as we spoke to each other in a mixture of Thai, English, and Chinese. We toasted each other with continuously-refilled glasses of Singha beer with ice cubes. We shared communal plates of chicken, seafood with vegetables, French fries with ketchup and mayonnaise, and even tried some bugs, which led to some hilarity. Our Thai friend, Max had taken over the bar’s sound system, playing music from his phone, and we eventually got up and danced a bit, not feeling the least bit foolish as we butchered the moves to “Gangnam Style”.  It was a perfect few hours spent with good people, some of whom I may never forget. And I somewhere during all of that, I realized that this is exactly where I belong.

*

                    Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity                                         
               To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment                                   
                        Would you capture it, or just let it slip?                                               
                                                  Yo                                                                          

 Eminem, (2002)

Schoolboy Again

January 6, 2017

Bangkok, Thailand

This post will be rather brief in comparison to my usual writing as I’m a bit short on time. I’m sitting in an open-air lobby at a hostel in central Bangkok, listening to the strange birds calling and enjoying the cool morning air. The daylight has just begun to break, and I also hear traffic on the street behind the building. From yesterday’s experience, I know that the sidewalks are lined with food vendors just waiting to tempt me with their offerings. I can’t wait to get out there and try something new.

I promise to write a post in the future about the street food that I’ve been enjoying, and the wacky traffic and incomprehensible bus schedules, but as I have been in a grammar refresher course yesterday and today, I simply cannot afford the precious minutes. My class was interesting yesterday. I was surrounded in a small room with 11 other students like me, who are planning to teach English. We are a multinational group. A few Americans, two Canadians, two from Singapore, one from Thailand, a New Zealander, and an Aussie. My first partner of the day was a woman named Munara, from Kyrgyzstan. (I had to look up how to spell that) Our instructors were Ukrainian and British. The accents alone in that room were enough to spin my head. I can only imagine what a potluck dinner would be like.

We discussed parts of speech, how to properly identify verb tenses, what modals are. The instructors, Diana and Tim, were very good at controlling the class, allaying our fears of ignorance (as many of us haven’t done this in quite a while), and helping us to learn by using games to elicit responses. The sessions seemed to go by very quickly. I’m looking forward to today’s class as well.

It’s time for me to pack my belongings, check out of the hostel, then head to the bus stop with my backpack. I’m sure I’ll grab something tasty along the way.

Make Some Goddamn Coffee Already, Asshole!

October 21, 2016

Chicago, Illinois

One of the perks of my job is the free coffee that is available throughout the day. It is a godsend in the morning when I need some assistance in joining the world of the conscious. I’m not trying to say that it’s Starbucks or Peet’s quality coffee. We don’t have a Keurig machine.  Our coffee gets delivered to the shop in white boxes from a coffee service which also infrequently maintains our antique Bunn restaurant model drip coffee maker. It’s actually pretty simple to use. Lighted toggle switches turn on and off the hot plates on which the glass pots rest. Another switch is pushed once to begin a cycle that sprays heated water over the ground coffee that rests in a paper filter held by a removable basket. The coffee itself comes in prepackaged bags that are just the right amount for one pot of the liquid version of the “magical fruit” that is thought to have originated from Ethiopia back in the 11th century.

For some people, the drink is an addiction. The mild stimulant effect of the caffeine contained in the fruit of the plant we know as coffee helps much of the world function normally when somewhat sleep-deprived. And after the dependency sets in, withdrawal symptoms tend towards harsh. Monday mornings without our brew can be hell on earth. So when your workplace makes it accessible at no cost, it’s a very nice benefit indeed.

It’s not uncommon to watch my co-workers make trip after trip from their work area to the coffee maker during the day. White disposable Styrofoam cup in hand, they walk through the shop, pour the hot brown liquid to the top, or perhaps leave room for some sugar, milk, or the scary powder made up of ingredients that are NOT milk and probably known to cause birth defects in laboratory animals. On the way back to their assigned task, they often stop and talk to a co-worker for several minutes about whatever topic is of interest, but most likely not about the job itself. Because having a cup of coffee is really a social ritual, isn’t it?

Our employers don’t seem to mind if the workers take advantage of this freebie. No one has ever complained that we drink more than is necessary. We never run out, because Angela, the office manager, makes sure that the supply cabinet is stocked with the boxes from the service. No, the only complaint that arises is when some entitled jackass feels no need to spend a small bit of time making a fresh pot after draining the last of the previous one. These guys have been here long enough to know at which level they should brew some more. But way more times than should ever happen, I walk over to fill my mug, and there is less than a half of a cup left in the pot. I tend to get a little bit irate. I’ll either call down evil upon their mothers and pets while performing the task of making more, or, if it’s later in the day and I won’t actually die from not having it, I’ll simply put the pot back on the burner, say “fuck it!” and walk away.  I probably let it it bother me more than it should.

Although the coffee maker sits within my line of sight for most of my day, I rarely ever catch the culprit(s) who leave the pot empty. There is, however, one miscreant whom I have seen on more than one occasion. One of the engineers, Paul, starts his workday at 8am instead of six. His name isn’t really Paul, but his Eastern European name is unpronounceable to most Americans, and the last syllable sounds a little bit like “Paul”, so it’s just easier. At any rate, I’ve watched Paul enter the shop, punch his time card, get a cup of coffee, and walk into his office. And many of those times, I’ve gone to refill my mug and found the pot damn near empty. Being an engineer means you are smart enough to figure out the process of making a pot of coffee. And being an engineer by no means makes you exempt from that task.

So, when I have witnessed Paul being such a dick to his fellow workers, I tend to call him on it. Twice, three times, maybe more, I have brought the pot into his office to show him how awful a person he is. He really doesn’t like being called out, and one day made the mistake of vehemently arguing back about how I shouldn’t be concerned about whether or not he makes coffee, because it’s NOT. HIS. JOB.  Okay, asshole.  I got your number now. You just made it MY job to make your life a tiny bit of hell.

Every day for the next two weeks, I made a concerted effort to watch the clock, even setting my phone alarm. I would wait for 7:55am to come, then spring into action. Grabbing the pot of coffee, I would fill my own mug, walk it over to my co-workers in the vicinity and offer a refill or top-up. If there weren’t enough takers, I would empty the pot into the drain, until there were perhaps two ounces left. Then I’d go sit back down and wait for Paul to walk in and try to pour himself a cup. It was hilarious to see him look aghast at the tiny remaining amount in the glass container. He’d look around in bewilderment, then proceed to his office. The next day, the same scene would play out. Poor guy had just fought traffic for over an hour to get to work, and no coffee to greet him. I didn’t feel a bit sorry. I would raise my full mug in a toast to him if I caught his eye as he walked past. After first week, he actually began to make himself tea instead of what he really wanted. His stubbornness was a joy for me to behold.

On the third week, I allowed myself to get distracted, and the show ended for a while. But at some point it happened again, and I walked into Paul’s office and asked him pointedly what made him think he was above making coffee like most everyone else. He looked at me and told me that he didn’t know how. Seriously. A manufacturing engineer who has worked here at GND Machine for well over a decade, who designs complicated machinery, who seems to believe that he knows more than anyone about everything…says he doesn’t know how to make coffee. I swallowed my instinct to berate him for being an educated idiot, and instead I gently offered to show him how. He had no other choice but to meekly follow me out to the Bunn and watch as I explained the simplest of tasks to him.

We’re good now, Paul and me. He makes coffee when it needs making. Because he knows damn well I’m watching.