Kindergarten: Bangkok by Peter Bracking

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The English language is relatively static. Grammar and spelling rules have been entrenched for centuries despite attempts at change. More than ninety nine percent of the vocabulary has babbled on for as long. The English language is not like history because history eventually changes and there is something new to teach. To teach the English language is boring.

One major boredom factor is that speakers of other languages rarely seem to overcome the simplest major errors. In Asia, most languages have a single written symbol or word that signifies both he and she. The distinction is only in the spoken tone. English has no tones. I spent hours in every fifty minute class trying to convince the men to call the women: she. And the reverse. I never discovered a way, a method, a trick that would ensure ending gender confusion.  And this type of simple error could end up badly in some situations.

If the class didn’t understand that English grammar demanded that the adjective precedes the noun and never got it right how could that be rectified? So what if the vocabulary in that expensive book has no relation to the lives of the adults and older children, my students, most of them skipped those lessons for the same reason I hated teaching them: boredom.

Boredom does not pay very well. Boredom pays nothing at all in Bangkok, the City of Angels. Ending up being eaten away by boredom in order to eat and keep the rain off my head was not part of my tropical hopes. I hoped for simple rewarding work, cheap booze and a lack of snow. There had to be a corner I had never looked round.

An interview with what turned out to be a family corporation that owned five massive K1 to 12 schools around the metropolis employing countless falang teachers and I was offered the position of librarian or teacher of K3. I love books. I love to read anything, words in a line. Books are my amusement and life joy but I could not envision me reading the books on the shelves being any part of the job.

I chose K3.

Please remember that every day is fourteen degrees north latitude hot.

Thirty six shiny screeching uniformed children wei ‘d and greeted the two Thai teachers and me, their personal falang. The kids were loud, excited, crying, staring. I was all of the same except for the crying part. The kids all knew how to say hello and goodbye and thank you and burger and that was about it. The women I taught with had to help. We had to become a team.

All the courses I taught previously had been dictated by a book written by foreigners for immigrants entering a country surrounded by English. Never so where I taught and I found the books cumbersome, limiting and in the end simply stupid. Here in K3 there was no book. The students were to learn to use about two hundred words in as many conversational situations as possible. The words were related to health and math and family and time. There was a list of verbs. No verb, no sentence. The alphabet, numbers, basic reading skills, etcetera. I had one year to accomplish this in any manner I saw fit. Hurrah. Yeah. I was going to take the years toiling and put the ideas spawned to use.

In any manner I saw fit included the use of the other books. The workbook, the colouring book, the math book, the comprehension book; the regurgitation requirement. These kids were overbackpackbalanced with these books. The Thai are very serious about learning. There was time still to work things out.

Five year old children are language sponges. The brightest respond the quickest and then teach the others. Mimicry works. A lot of time was spent with a crowd on the floor. I could be a clown. I could be a silly old man. I could be the teacher. I could be the dunce. I could use time any way I wanted to have the children understand and use the words and ideas. I could be deaf. I insisted the children speak in sentences. Two words a sentence makes and they learned. I could be devious. I could add a word or two to a sentence doubling the vocabulary sponged in an instant.

Once I learned how quickly the children learned I squeezed more into a lesson. Circle is a useful word. The circle can be a red round balloon floating in the sky. The sun is a very hot yellow circle very far away in space. A family is an important circle. The class sits in a small circle. A mouth in a circle means surprise. There are brown circles in the teacher’s eyes. I did for fun tell them that a cycle is really an invisible circle and that snared me into the tangle of attempting to explain the ad lib.

On the first day I showed the kids how I could be polite in Thai. By this time I had a stupid semi-fluent concept that I could be understood in Thai. After this demonstration I insisted that they learn, now, how to be equally polite in English. Proper little ladies and gentlemen they were smartly.

They learned and I continued to be amazed. I plowed on with the English alphabet. The kids have to learn both the sound and the symbol of the letters. This is where there is a separation in the brain. All of the children had a little problem learning a word phonetically and glomming onto the meaning from the times I would be mime. Similarly the translation of numbers from fingers to figures is a stumbling block. These kids needed more time out of the thirty six that needed attention, a tissue, a pencil. I would get down on my creased knees and do my utmost to open the door for the child, with words they could not understand. All I had to do with each lesson was to decide how I would approach the material. I could use a song and the guitar. Kids love songs. Or there could be a game I could make up. Charades is a winner. Whichever flashed into my head was the path we plunged down into learning. I have had easier jobs.

These thirty six children are locked together over the next twelve years of educational development. At barely five they have become a small part of a large intimidating school overflowing with people, noise and rules. A cramped concrete jungle. Kindergarten is the very time that all of the rules that the kids will encounter over that eon of school must be learned. No talking in class. Line up two by two short to tall. No hitting. No talking in class. Show your elders respect  Do your desk work. No talking in class. The thirty six plus three had these rules to learn as well as the entire rest it.

All of this, and I taught only half the day.

They learned to say: Please Teacher I want more lunch. That was the only way they got more lunch. It took ten minutes the first lunch period. They learned to say a great many things. I made a point of teaching them how to ask questions, hundreds of millions of questions if I possibly could to spark imaginations. They all became excellent charades players each trying to outverb the other.

This is the only satisfaction in the teaching profession. To watch and listen to the minds of the students explode with understanding. To take the idea taught today and to latch it onto the idea taught yesterday and suddenly have a lot more to say with greater confidence tomorrow. To see a child look into your eyes with the smile that tells you that three plus two will be now eternally five.The other requirements of the profession sucked, the tedium of marking, stupid meetings that lasted hours and accomplished nothing, morning ceremonies that could last an entire morning costing me another hour and irretrievable time waiting for the last bell instead of imbibing under a tree on a corner. That stuff really sucked. O well. The teachers I worked with were old kindergarten hands. They were not as amazed as I with the progress.  They were amazed only because they had never taught with a clown before.

We got through it all the thirty nine of us. Through the numbers, the shapes, the colours, family, and time, the way we eat and stay healthy, the way we learn, the cascade of rules. Most knew the alphabet and could write words.  Some could read. All knew numbers in symbols and figures. Some could do arithmetic. From there to here through the words and the verbs and verbs and verbs. And on K3 graduation day the kids introduced me to parents in English. Kids asked me what I would do for winter. Kids thanked me for making them laugh and told me silly stories. Then they went on and out full of smiles and the joy of being alive.

This is when I did the crying part. Bit of success caught in my eye.

live in may

Peter Bracking tells tall tales. Earth point:  Vancouver, Canada. Words have been published by more than a dozen presses in four countries on two continents including: Existere; Megaphone magazine; Feathertale Review; Merida Review; floor plan journal; Thrice Fiction; streetcake magazine; Maisonneueve. The only occupation he regrets leaving is beach bum. Peter is the artistic director of Utter Stories. 

Self aggrandizement:  http://utterstories.wordpress.com

[Black board photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pareeerica]