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“Right, let’s kick off.”
So began my final lesson as an English teacher, or ajarn, in Bangkok. My students from the city’s Ramathibodi Hospital respectfully turned their heads towards me as I embarked on the day’s topic. It was, coincidentally enough, a lesson about farewells.
I had moved to Thailand 15 months earlier with a great deal of enthusiasm and a TEFL qualification under my belt. This change was a great way to live out my dream of working abroad.
After all, how hard could this teaching lark have been?
Extremely, as I soon found out.
It’s a strange kind of pressure that comes from encountering a classroom of expectant, judicious faces: on at least a couple of occasions, the urge to run away had the strength of Hercules.
It was sometimes difficult to maintain people’s, and my, interest over a six-hour Sunday lesson. Moreover, it was always trying keeping excitable children under control on a Saturday morning when they’d rather be anywhere than sitting with a strange farang forcing crosswords on them.
And yet my love of the work grew with every lesson. To see a student apply what I’d taught them warmed my heart, as would their smiles and wais at the end of a lesson.
Now I had the chance to experience the daily ebb and flow of life in Bangkok, a city where the small things seemed to resonate the most. A motorbike taxi ride from Victory Monument BTS; watching the Sirat Expressway racing by in the distance at Chulalongkorn University; walking down a jampacked Sukhumvit Road; dodging the shoppers at MBK or Siam Paragon; or stopping for Kuey Teow Ped along Thong Lor on my way home from work.
Tiny moments, admittedly, but it was those details I’d notice and cherish as I took in the sights, sounds and smells of the metropolis.
In terms of human interaction, it was the students who most helped me settle into BKK life.
It was through them I had my first taste of many staple Thai dishes. And it was the students who explained the tradition of wearing yellow shirts every Monday in tribute to the King and the day of his birth.
Their generosity of spirit was humbling; any special occasion saw me inundated with cards and gifts. It was the first time I’d ever received a Valentine’s Day card signed by 25 people, for instance. I felt guilty spending the following hour explaining to them the finer points of modal verbs. It never felt like a fair swap.
And as my final lesson wound down one of my favourite students, Pan, unknowingly summed up my experiences and skills as an ajarn in Thailand: “Khun Tom, thank you so much for being our teacher. Khun Tom, I will never remember you.”
It took a few seconds to compute what was said – irony and sarcasm not being my intended lesson for the day – but I appreciated the sentiment.
It was well-meaning, but a most definite work in progress. I could not have said it better myself.