Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A time to heal

Ready or Not!

The first month of teaching was a relatively smooth and productive one for me. Where other volunteers were faced with many difficult conversations with their co-teachers, or situations that made work nearly impossible, I was met, for the most part, with enthusiasm and support. I teach 4th-9th graders (Bprathom 4 to Matayom 3) for three hours each every week. The only thing I lack, besides enough lesson planning time, is a classroom to call my own. My co-teachers and I travel to the classrooms, so there isn't much I can do in the way of bulletin boards, though I have created reward programs that are portable enough. A language lab for English would definitely be on my wish list, but for now, it's just a challenge that is out of my hands.

Fast forwarding through my three months at site, I have been involved in 9 camps (for District Office Employees, Principals, Teachers, English Teachers, and Students). The success of each camp varied by the individuals that attended them as well as the planning time allotted for each. Those that we had time to plan and decide subject matter seemed to be far more profitable to the attendees. On the other hand, the ones that were winged, felt winged and though they may have still been fun, I'm sure people took far less away from them, unfortunately. All in all, I've learned a lot about both how things are expected to go, how they actually go, what has worked, and what has not.

Also, within these months, I've made friends in my village, improved my Thai, gotten the lay of the land (in our tiny village), and been inundated with bugs and weather challenges of all sorts, not to mention a few health hiccups as well. It's the Peace Corps. It's Thailand. It's going to happen, but I feel I'm through the worst of it on that front.

Deep Breath

And now, the past week. As you may have gathered from my last post/poem. Our community lost a very special little girl a week ago today. Nachaporn Sanpuan (or Baitoey, as everyone called her) was a smart and loving 5th grader with a real talent for English and an adorable fascination of me. She was very eager to volunteer in class, which is decidedly against the norm, and had an awkward charm about her that most teachers I know would have fallen in love with, as I did. She went for a swim after school last Wednesday with her best friend, and drowned. I find little solace in knowing she died doing something she loved. She was far too young, far too smart, far to loving, I say to myself. But all of my arguments won't bring her back to life and with the community in mourning, I joined as well, hoping to find peace within the madness.

The Thursday after her passing felt like a haze. I walked to school a little earlier than normal with my host nephew. On the way, we crossed paths with Baitoey's best friend who had gone swimming with her the day before. Her sorrow was deep and when I hugged her, she shook with grief and cried more openly. I told her what comforts I could in Thai as well as a few in English and asked where she was going. She said they wanted her to go home and eat something, so I urged her to try to do the same. As I continued on my way, I met with the mayor of our village and we spoke of the tragedy briefly. I passed by her house, blasting music, but was on my way to school, so didn't stop in yet. 

As I entered the school grounds I was brought to tears almost immediately by the hundreds of students cleaning and greeting as normal routine required. I spied a group of kids sitting under the tree talking, and crying, and joined to console as I could. The principal arrived as the students gathered on the field, and when he got out of the car he approached me saying, "Today, I am very sad. My child. My daughter." I shared my sorrow as well, and praised him on his English, knowing it was difficult to get words of any language out. The flag was raised and lowered in Baitoey's honor, and then the morning activities continued as normal, until the principal went up to address the school. His voice broke as he relayed the news, and he had to step off the stage to gather himself and his thoughts, as most of the students wept silent tears as well. 

As the day progressed, students and teachers visited Baitoey's grandmother's house in groups (her mom and dad live and work in Bangkok, but she and her younger sister go to them on their longer breaks). Whether walking or riding in the back of a pick-up, most of the school visited throughout the school day and very few, if any, classes were held. That evening, the community joined together to pray at the house. I met her parents, mom in deep grief, and dad in denial, then paid my respects to her grandma with an envelope of money, a deep bow, and some shared tears. Then, the monks that had joined led us through about an hour's worth of chanting/prayers. I returned home as others ate together (being vegetarian and having the stomach flu on top of it all, made eating with everyone nearly impossible last week).
The 5th graders on the way to Nong Baitoey's house on 
Thursday morning.
Friday came, bringing similar happenings as the day before. Less community members came by that night, but more family from Bangkok came up, so there were as many people as ever in prayer spilling out onto the street in their black and white clothing. Come Saturday, it was time for the official funeral, so we headed to the temple in the early afternoon to the loudspeaker blasting music and announcing the time had come. Most attendees dressed all in black, but those in the immediate family, as well as her best friend, Tai (Pronounced more like "Dtie"), wore white and black. To go into all of the details of the funeral in precise order would be a bit too long of a post but I'll sum it up. The boys of the village who had already done training as monks shaved their heads and wore their robes (three from the 5th grade class, and a few others). Monks from all the neighboring temples as well as the parents' temple in Bangkok that could come, did. In all, I counted 21 monks, if memory serves. 

Prayers were led and kind words were said by the two elder monks. Different family members and leaders from the community (including yours truly) were called up to present/offer gifts to the monks and receive private blessings. Everyone was given a paper flower and filed up to see the picture of Baitoey in her most beautiful Thai outfit in front of a golden box carrying her remains. The flowers (some people had incense instead) were placed on the box and on the way down, the family offered each of the guests a small gift. As people poured through, there were very few dry eyes to be found, and I offered my love and hugs where they were needed the most.

That evening, more prayers were said, at grandma's house. And the following morning, the last of the funeral proceedings were finished up in the early morning and people gathered at grandma's house to clean up, pack up, and return her home back to the new "normal." Baitoey's mom and dad have stayed an extra week to mourn, spend time with their surviving daughter, and take it all in. On my walk to school, they drove by and asked if I would ride with them. They must have seen me walk past their house because five people were crammed into the backseat and the front seat was just waiting for me. They told me, on our short trip up the street about how Baitoey shared about English class and her new teacher a lot in the past month or so. I choked back tears, said my thanks for the ride and memories, and went in to work. Every class still reminds me of her, but I can't say that's a bad thing.

In the past few days, I have had some time to think, since my stomach bug was hassling me and I needed time to rest. I thought about how precious life is, which I always knew. I thought about how precious my students are, which I can sometimes forget. I thought about how much I love my family, which I'll never forget. But mainly, I thought about how important relationships are. What love means. Where it grows from and returns to. There is such a fear of saying the word in some circles. As if it makes us weak. Perhaps it does show a vulnerability. A vulnerability that we, as humans, share however, and we should be happy and free to show. To make sense of death is a task I choose to let someone else take on. What I will do, is honor my sweet student's presence in my life, and be grateful to have been touched by all of the unique qualities that I loved about her.
The last clear picture I have of Nong Baitoey smiling 
during a march against smoking a couple weeks ago.
Accepting that love has helped me to begin to heal.


  1. Baitoey will live forever in your heart and your memory. What a beautiful blessing of life. Her love of learning and joy of spreading happiness wherever she went will always be cherished.

  2. Indeed she will be. Thank you for reading.