Friday, December 6, 2013

Tough Conversations

Sometimes conversations here aren't just difficult because the language is not easy to master. It's not always the words that get in the way, but the entire way in which I view the world which can sometimes be so very different from those of my friends, students, and co-workers here. At times, it feels heartbreaking. At times, I don't know if I can handle the frustration of it any longer. At times...I am amazed at the transformation that takes place through these tough conversations that I have to brave, though thankfully not always alone. Here is one such example...

At the Encourage Choice, Empower Gender camp that I attended with three eighth grade students and my co-teacher, we played a simple game that spoke volumes. Questions dealing with everything from substance abuse to public displays of affection, and sexual choices to personal preferences were covered. At one point the scenario, "eating dinner with someone who has AIDS," was posed. I found myself in the 100% comfortable realm at the center of the circle along with various students, volunteers, and counterparts, some stood in the 50/50 range, and way on the outside of the circle stood my teacher, eyes wide at the thought that such a thing would be comfortable for me. I almost got mad. I definitely got shaken. I wondered how this sweet woman who not only teaches English, but health as well, could be so close-minded. I admit it. Internally, I was being quite judgmental.

As the camp continued, my fellow PCVs and their counterparts did a phenomenal job at touching on such taboo subjects with a lighthearted but straight-forward approach. My co-teacher took copious notes in every session. She asked for copies of all of the lesson plans, teaching materials, and any other guides that covered these topics in order for her to supplement her health curriculum. When I asked her how she talked about such issues as sexual health with the students, she said, "It's very difficult," a nice way of saying, "I basically don't."

On the last day of camp, the same scenarios were posed. I witnessed the change in responses from question to question, but was floored when my co-teacher proudly joined me in the center of the circle and shook my arm to have me notice that she would sit down to dinner with a person who had AIDS with a grin and loud, "Of course I would!" I saw my joy mirrored in her proud eyes looking up to me for support, for approval, for acknowledgement that she had learned and stood up for something new, now. What a powerfully transformative weekend the GAD committee provided for us!

Some time later, Peace Corps Director of Programing and Training here in Thailand sent me an email that she was impressed by the willingness of my co-teacher to participate so eagerly in discussions at the camp, and extended an invitation for us to attend an event at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in honor of World AIDS Day.  I was excited by the news, but still uncertain about how my co-teacher would respond. I mean, a camp setting is far different from submitting for approval from our principal and attending an event in Bangkok to raise awareness about AIDS. As we talked about it, she was nothing but honored by the idea and rushed to speak to the principal about it within the hour.

The event was a mixer, with many people from all walks of life within Thailand, various NGO representatives, and embassy personnel. As we mingled, speaking to nurses, educators, aid workers, and business-types, I witnessed a dramatic shift in my co-teacher. She wasn't afraid to let her guard down and ask questions if she didn't understand. She listened as I did, searching for ways to teach our students more valuable and accurate information in a community that is impacted on a palpable level by HIV/AIDS. Our students made it onto the poster that Peace Corps submitted for the event, and was hung at the entrance to the event, which was a very pleasant surprise. We spoke with pride about our sweet kids to the ambassador, and as my co-teacher spoke about the lessons they learned, I saw the value of education. I saw the sustainability of this program that focuses on teachers and students alike.

“Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”  
~Robert Louis Stevenson


  1. Indeed, quite a transformation for your co-teacher! That's one big hurrah for the Peace Corps Volunteer for creating this opportunity for her growth and understanding.

    1. Some days the growth isn't overnight like this, but it's nice to be able to witness such light bulb moments.