Carrying a Big Stick
Technically it’s not really a stick. It’s a meter long piece of bamboo a little less than half an inch in diameter. One end is wrapped in black electrical tape. The other end, one might refer to it as the “business end” is a wee bit frayed from hard use. This is after all no “swagger stick” carried for snobbish effect. This is an all purpose, Swiss Army knife of a rod, and I have to say that it serves me well.
I originally found it lying on the ground near a rubbish pile at our school. It certainly wasn’t a pretty thing, sticking out of a pile of leaves, but it was exactly what I needed that morning. I was in desperate need of a pointer. My Thai “scholars”, many of whom could barely read, were having a difficult time with some English dialogs that I was attempting to teach them. A pointer could help focus their attention on the sentences I was having them recite. If nothing else it felt good to be wielding the damned thing! I suddenly felt imbibed with god-like authority. Well not really, although I think you’ve all had the experience of picking up a stick while hiking, and finding it difficult to put down. It’s similar I suppose to why small children seem to be incapable of walking around without clutching some favorite treasure.
In any case, once I started using this piece of discarded bamboo, I starting finding dozens of small things I could use it for. Around the house it was just the thing to whack my way through some thorny brush where I wanted to plant some tomatoes. It was equally adept at whacking other things, such as some particularly nasty soi dogs, and a cow that was attempting to breech our garden fence in search of something tastier than its usual fare. Despite being lightweight, it was strong enough to push Sam around the block on his push-along car.
Of course it was in the classroom that the virtues of this stick really shone. In addition to being an adequate pointer, it was a superb attention getter. Brought down hard with a flourish on the desk of a student who was yakking with a neighbor, it was a perfect “attention getter”. “Do I have your attention now, Benz?”
I have to say that my methods of attention getting have evolved considerably over the years here. I can still remember my first class of Mathayom 4 students (10th grade). I thought that I’d inadvertently entered an asylum where the inmates had gained run of the place. You really do have to experience the utter bedlam to believe it. I was still “wet behind the ears” when it came to dealing with discipline in a Thai classroom. I naively thought that if I simply smiled a lot and spoke louder than they did, that things would turn around. What the hell had I been smoking? Left unchecked, Thai students will without a second thought run roughshod over your pathetic farang ass! Over the years I’ve tried all kinds of stratagems in an attempt to preserve a fig leaf of order. I tried marching naughty students down to The Powers That Be with the expectation of some of them getting a new posterior orifice drilled. That worked out as well as you might expect in a Thai bureaucracy, that is that nothing happened. Not only did the students never even receive a mild rebuke, but I was made to seem the fool.
Clearly alternate techniques were in order. The “make them write until their wrists are swollen to the size of melons” technique has had some success. After writing “I must be quiet in Ajarn X’s class” 500 – 1000 times, even students who bear a striking resemblance to “Satan’s spawn” will think twice before enduring a second round of “penmanship enhancement”. That doesn’t of course stop them from being quietly surly or heaven forbid make them pay attention in class.
It’s too bad that the Thais have never heard of that good old fashion American institution called detention. Being a “good boy” in my high school days, I never had the dubious privilege of remaining behind after the rest of the students had been dismissed. Nevertheless, the school cafeteria generally had a dozen or so unruly students sitting morosely while the minute hand of the clock moved with glacial slowness. It was always the same kids there day after day, theoretically contemplating the “error of their ways”. Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, these “young scholar” never quite grasped the idea that their behavior brought an inevitable response. All they had to do was simply shut up and they could be enjoying the freedom that the rest of their classmates did. I recall Einstein’s definition of mental illness was repeating the same behavior over and over again…expecting different results.
Corporal punishment was a widely accepted practice in Thailand until fairly recently. I mean the real deal. A serious thrashing was not unheard of. I would imagine that fear kept all but the most recalcitrant students in line. All that remains of that disciplinary tradition is the stick that almost every Thai teacher carries. The teachers may not be able to beat a student to within an inch of their lives, but a whack or two (or five) is still common practice. Not a day goes by that I don’t see a few sharp whacks being administered. These “love taps” can be delivered to variety of body parts, with the hands and buttocks being popular. Most of the troublemakers are generally boys, but girls get their fair share of punishment as well. The offenses range from not paying attention in class, to not handing in an assignment or having their notebook with them in class. You would be amazed to see the transformation that gentle, soft spoken academics go through when seriously pissed off. It ain’t a pretty sight.
I of course as a farang would never even dream of whacking a student…okay, I admit that are a few that really and truly need a “trip to the wood shed”, but it certainly won’t be me who administers one. I can just imagine some brat telling his parents that the farang ajarn “beat” him. No doubt I would be in a world of shit over any physical contact with a student. Well, luckily I would never hit anyone, even if I could get away with it. It’s just not the kind of person I am. My parents never spanked me as a child, and I have never spanked my children. Oh, I have given a little slap to the buttocks, but only in circumstances when my kids were in danger of killing themselves. And this was only after repeated warnings to stop what they were doing.
The fact that I would never strike a student doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t hesitate to startle the hell out of them. As I said earlier, a stick slamming down on a student’s desk often gets the desired effect I’m looking for. So does blowing a whistle a few inches from their little ears. Oh do they jump when I do that! Now just raising the whistle to my lips can often do the trick. I think my students know that although Ajarn is a teddy bear most of the time, it is wise not to piss him off too often!
It seems that my stick will be relegated soon to a mere pointer. I have just learned that I will not be teaching Mathayom next term. Apparently the few weeks this year I taught at Anuban (kindergarten) this year made a favorable impression, so much so that the teachers there pleaded for me to stay full time. So next year I’ll be teaching kindergarten full time along with some Pratom 1 and 2 classes. I look forward to teaching kids who are ecstatically happy to see me. So my bamboo “sword” will be beaten into a “ploughshare” at least in the classroom. I have no doubt that a soi dog or two will continue to get a well earned whack from time to time.
Watching the way Thai teachers liberally dish out physical punishment is one of my earliest memories of teaching in Thailand.