The morning sun glared garish on the school’s purple walls, igniting the blacktop and flaring against my eyes as I stepped into the schoolyard’s awakening beehive. Thai teachers in tan military fatigues were marshaling uniformed students into lines that stretched across the tarmac soccer field for morning assembly. I walked under the far-flung shade of a shingled pavilion which ran along the courtyard’s perimeter, slinking between circles of students who lounged and gossiped before the bell rang. This would be my community as soon as I introduced myself to someone, though for a few moments more I remained a complete stranger, one who could regard its people relatively dispassionately.
The lackadaisical attitude of seemingly all the students and even teachers struck me as increasingly absurd, considering their army garb and backgrounds, not to mention the fact they were preparing for a flag-raising ceremony. The teachers joked with their students while lazily waving them into line, and as for the students themselves, they displayed none of the discipline that American military school cadets carry in their every gesture. Quite the contrary, the girls fast-chattered excitedly over one another while dragging along their otherwise ragdoll bodies, whereas the boys lied with their heads in each other’s laps, apparently talking aimlessly about anything other than Western gender norms. It was as if everyone tacitly agreed that the morning assembly, the entire business of running the school, was a lark, though one upon which the very substance of their society depended. But in fact the opposite was true: their lifelong devotion to King and Country was grounded in such bedrock certitude that they could carry themselves upon that conviction with conscience-clean calm.
Only the older teachers seemed interested in barking out strict discipline, especially a sixty-something-year-old, ruler-wielding woman whose hair — a gel-upheld wave of sharp pink arching over her head — could have been a Dr. Seuss landscape. She menaced up and down the courtyard, a guardian of the assembly’s sanctity whose decades of classroom management under countless cycles of military coupes had undoubtedly ingrained in her a fearful awe for the ever-present threat of teenage insolence, which quicker than a crack of her ruler could transform the pageantry of their existence into a carnival of insignificance. Her hair embodied the school entirely: it obeyed its own sacred regimen, evidently apathetic to any outside detractors, whose cultured cynicism would never understand let alone admire the caricaturizing commitment required to maintain such a symbol of self-assurance.
Needless to say, I was one of those detractors, and — cultural differences be damned — was so astonished by the teacher’s hair that I could not even laugh, but instead parted my mouth in disbelief. I had elected to work in a Thai public school, to immerse myself in a community and thus explore a more authentic — that ever-elusive word — Thailand teaching experience, and now this seemingly half-hearted assembly preparation and hair from a parallel universe had presented themselves to me. That universe was so removed from my own due not to its flourishes of cultural difference, but rather to the self-contained logic which undergirded it. For my world was one defined by ceaseless self-doubt, since I remained perennially sensitive to the various ways in which my every belief and action could be regarded as ridiculous, and no assurances from religion, country, or even family could abate my anxious awareness. This sensitivity was my principle strength and sorest weakness, bringing me to life-affirming heights of ecstasy but also black holes from which seemingly no self-worth could escape. Yet my worldview also rested upon certain assumptions that allowed me to behave as I did and thereby appear no doubt ridiculous to others.
For example, if my employers or students had known that I was a child of privilege who had opted to slum away my youth in exotic abstraction, they would have scoffed at each of that fact’s foundational prepositions. Everything I stood for, everything that justified my existence, would be to my new school’s community far more ludicrous than any hairstyle, though potentially more dangerous. But I was not here to teach those students that my way of life, despite its obvious shortcomings, could in fact be a viable and even rewarding one. Instead, I was simply there to teach them English as a foreign language, and one that would remain foreign once they enlisted in the military, and became the defenders of a nationalism which embraced globalization only in so far as adopting its trappings served to distract from the depredations of its rule. But of course as a white guy touring and teaching in Southeast Asia, I was perpetuating and profiting from my own country’s neocolonialism.
These reflections passed through the frontiers of my mind without announcing themselves at the time, since I remained in the first blossom of my love for that questing lifestyle, and was not yet ready to explore the unconscious reasoning behind that exilic romance. Rather, at that moment, my concerns were uncharacteristically pragmatic: I was searching for the surest entryway into that community, and after a confused three or four minutes I found it. Far off on the other side of the courtyard I spotted a huddle of foreign teachers, who were all the more intimidating given the impossible distance separating us, and the would-be rank-and-file of the student body in-between. Nowhere in sight were the matching uniforms found at Enjoyable Words; these four teachers were dressed in pants and button downs or polos, and — when I first walked towards them from across the courtyard — they could have been mistaken for (relatively) young professionals. Of course, they would turn out to be an even more motley parliament of eccentrics than the ones I’d fallen in with at Enjoyable Words — my first job in Thailand, which I had left after three weeks — as our very first interaction made abundantly clear. Then again, Star Wars tote slung over one shoulder, I must have made quite the impression, myself, when I walked up out of apparently nowhere and greeted these unexpecting strangers.
‘Hey, how’s it going?’
‘Good,’ the tall white one replied. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Matthew, I’m the new guy.’
‘New guy?’ the short, Black one repeated, in an unmistakably American accent.
‘I didn’t know we were gettin’ a new guy,’ the tall Black one said, in an unmistakably British accent.
The sickly, black-haired one smiled. ‘Well, I guess this means I’m fired.’
‘Oh damn,’ the short, Black guy said, raising his eyebrows.
The tall white one was lost. ‘What are you talking about, Colin?’
‘Apasra has been on my ass all month, threatening me, saying she’d fire me. And I guess it’s finally happened.’
It was awkward. Everyone assembled felt horrible, though also knew they had been spared from the guillotine of Ajarn Apasra, the CEO of the agency that had landed each of us the job. The group offered a few words of support and disbelief, but nobody put a hand on Colin’s shoulder or even crowded closer to him — he was a drowning man.
‘Dude, I’m sorry,’ I began.
‘It’s not your fault. You just got a job. I’ll be fine,’ he replied, though he was visibly angry. ‘C’mon, I might as well show you your desk — I gotta get my stuff out of it.’
Exchanging glances with the other teachers, who remained huddled together after we left, I followed Colin along the lines of arriving students and towards the school building. Already Thai announcements blared over the loudspeakers, whipping the students’ steps and thundering out the halls as we advanced up the school’s stairwell exoskeleton. By the time we reached the 3rd floor landing, I could see the entire student body and faculty arrayed below, everyone facing the anonymous administrator who stood on a pavilion while orchestrating the ritual celebration of blood and soil. Immediately my mind unsurfaced a memory long since suppressed: the morning assemblies at my private elementary school, where we saluted and sang the Star Spangled Banner without really knowing what all the opaque American mythology meant. I had been born into that world as these students had been born into this one, each sustained by its own myths, as I still was by mine. Of course, Colin’s ceaseless complaining on the walk upstairs about the school, its administrators, and its students made my own self-stories (being an expatriate novelist, etc.) increasingly difficult to sustain, and he believed seeing my desk would make me abhor the place as much as he did.
But Colin was wrong. When we turned into the dark, teak-walled room crammed with filing cabinets, and Colin showed me his desk, which was now mine, I suddenly regained my weeks-lost sense of purpose. For the first time in my short waking life (if it can even be called that), I had been entrusted with a desk of my own, and I finally felt that, despite the militant absurdity of the environment and my own obvious inexperience, I might have a chance to be a real teacher here, after all. It was a beautiful vision, and one which ended when Colin — in the middle of emptying his desk — checked his phone.
‘Oh man,’ he gasped, looking up at me, ‘Apasra is coming, right now. I’m definitely getting fired.’
‘Holy shit… What are you gonna do?’
‘I don’t know, man — I gotta go. But good luck.’
And he was out the door, leaving me alone. The sudden silence of the office, and stillness of the particles suspended in its shafts of sunlight, was at once relieving and depressing. I knew this spell of serenity would stop as soon as the assembly did, so I sat down at my desk and took a breath. Slowly my hands ran across the tabletop, and I saw my sepia reflection in the windowed door before me: short brown hair, spectacles, and a button down shirt with — crucially — a tie. Yes, something about the tie made it official. Four years ago I had been a high school student, and in this all-too-quick today I would be teaching hundreds of them. I would be the figure at the front of the room, the adult. Again my memory collaged with the visages of various teachers I’d had throughout my life, but I could not indulge in nostalgia — the bell rang.
Soon enough, a half dozen Thai teachers burst into the room, with a few pilot fish students swimming by their sides, and they all eyed with minimal surprise the new foreign teacher who was flipping desperately through a workbook. For my part, I was so anxious about the upcoming class I had to teach that I did my best to avoid eye contact with them, instead attempting to pull a last-minute lesson plan out of the workbook’s pages. The only apt exercise I could find was one in futility: the book was from the 90’s, hopelessly bland, and featured examples — suburban America soccer moms, pagers, Air Bud allusions — that were as antiquated as they were alien to 21st Century Thai students. Taking out a notebook I’d bought for the occasion, I began to desperately sketch out an impressionist rendering of a lesson plan, until Darryl — the short Black guy, whose named I’d learned at some point — peacocked into the room like a savior from on high.
‘Darryl, oh my god, man,’ I began.
‘Yo, what’s going on?’ he asked, lifting up his shades.
‘I’m trying to plan out my first period.’
‘You got the wrong workbook. Let me see that.’
‘This is the one Colin gave me…’
‘Pfft. Colin is tired,’ he said, pushing aside my workbook and flopping another — which he revealed from who can guess where — in its place.
‘Is this for me?’ I asked.
‘Yea. You gonna need that for your second period, and the rest a’ your schedule is right here.’
It was a piece of scrap paper with a grid outlining my workweek period by period, and it would become the blueprint for my professional life.
‘Use this workbook for the M3’s, and this one,’ he pulled another out of the desk drawer, ‘for the M6’s.’
‘Thank you. But what do I teach them?’
‘Just ask them which page in the workbook they did last week, and do the next one. Teach them the vocab, ask them the questions, then give ’em free time, or whatever.’
‘Dude… I was gonna introduce myself, as well.’
‘Oh yea, you can do that, too — that’s good. They’ll like that. Let them ask questions about ya, where you’re from, yea.’
Then the bell rang again — class had started.
‘Could you show me where my first period is?’
Darryl was already waiting at the door as I grabbed my things and followed him through the student-streaming halls, trying to memorize the rights, lefts, and flights of stairs we ascended in our itinerary across the school. Whenever we passed the open door of a classroom — and seemingly all of the wooden doors were ajar, in lieu of air conditioning — I glimpsed varying scenes of disarray: students swarming around lockers, classrooms forsaken by all but two or three lounging students, and teachers corralling students into their desks, monotoning coolly in a period-spanning pontification I did not understand. I could draw rough equivalences between these scenes and countless I’d lived through as a student in the States, but nothing in my experience had prepared me for teaching in such an alien, apathetic environment. Before Darryl even led me into my classroom, I could hear the students’ guffaws and shouts from outside, and the scene I discovered inside did not disappoint. A crowd of boys in the back of the room were jostling amongst each other like figures in an ancient Greek frieze, while the rest of the fifty students egged them on — until one of them pointed at Darryl.
‘Gay teacher!’ he shouted.
Darryl shook his head as the class broke out into celebration. ‘These are your M3’s, they’re horrible,’ he confided, before challenging the room. ‘Yea yea, gay teacher, that’s right, I love me some yum yum.’
The cheers got even louder.
‘Alright, kids, Colin is gone. You’ve got a new teacher.’
There were still more cheers.
‘Now just write your name on the board, ask ’em where they are, you know,’ Darryl said, ‘I gotta go.’
‘Thanks,’ I replied, watching him leave.
I was electrified. In a moment, I had become a celebrity. Turning to the board, I wrote my name: ‘TEACHER MATTHEW.’
‘First name Teacher, last name Matthew,’ I explained, which got a laugh. ‘My family name is Matthew, and when I was born, my mother said, “He is going to be a Teacher…”’
The kids ate it up. They wanted to know where I was from (Florida), how long I had been in Thailand (one month), whether or not I had a girlfriend (no) — and that was more or less it. Their interest was quickly dwindling, so I improvised by going around the room and asking each of them their names, one by one, greeting them personally with a wai, or short bow. Only later that day would I learn that bowing to students was a terrible breach of etiquette, even more embarrassing than the fact I greeted each of them not with ‘sawat-dee-krop’ but instead with the feminine ‘sawat-dee-ka’, which from a man’s mouth carried connotations Darryl understood all too well. The entire charade of greeting each student personally was of course a means for me to postpone actually teaching, as the students were well aware, but I seemed to be in the clear — until halfway through the class a visitor joined me.
Ajarn Apasra slid into the room and took a seat in the back just as I was in the middle of introducing myself to each of the students as a social inferior and a gay man. She remained silent for the entire class, but afterwards — introductions with all fifty students having lasted the entire period — she scolded me in front of everyone.
‘Why aren’t you teaching them?’
‘I have to introduce myself first. If I don’t, they won’t wanna learn from me.’
She wasn’t buying it. ‘Ok, take five minutes to introduce yourself, then start the class. They have to stay on-schedule.’
I nodded, then proceeded to spend the rest of the day introducing myself to each of my students, and complaining about her to my new colleagues as soon as I got the chance.
‘She showed up during my first class. I mean, Jesus Christ, what the hell was she expecting?’
Grayson — the tall white guy — shook his head. ‘She’s a bitch.’
(Of course, we were the ones being douchebags.)
‘Don’t worry about it, man,’ Darryl said, ‘she ain’t gonna do anything about it. It’s your first day.’
That day went by quickly. And Darryl was right: afterwards, Apasra did not punish me or even say a word to me about my teaching — or lack thereof.