You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover – Unless You’re Illiterate
I’ve just celebrated my third year working for TEFL International here in Thailand, so I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, even valedictorianish. I’ve seen so many eager students enter these hallowed portals, portals entwined with bougainvillea and wall geckos, to commence their new career – hundreds of men and women from the mean streets of Chicago, the rolling hills of Kent, the sparkling green cricket fields of Limerick, the baobab-infested kopjes of South Africa, the billabongs of Australia, and the frosted fjords of New Zealand. All of them with the same goal – to slowly go mad trying to teach the Thais to say ‘cannot’ instead of ‘no can’.
It warms the cockles of my heart (I’m only the second person, after Winston Churchill, to have used that phrase within the past 100 years!) And . . . yes, it brings back tender memories of when I took the TESOL certification course here in dear old Ban Phe eight long years ago. It was a regular Good-bye, Mr. Chips affair.
The Ban Phe bus still leaves from the Ekamai bus station in Bangkok every hour on the hour – except when the driver doesn’t feel like it. Your luggage is stowed in the belly of the bus in a manner suggesting forcing fruit through a cheese cloth jelly strainer. Your gracious bus host – a young woman with the disposition of a wolverine – gently guides you to your seat, using a cattle prod, and then kindly gives you a bottle of water and a sweet bun – which is so stale it can be used as a paper weight.
Three hours later you alight in the small Gulf of Thailand port of Ban Phe, where you are immediately assailed by the mingled scents of dried squid, more dried squid, and too much dried squid. It will make your mouth water for a hearty swig of Pepto Bismol.
The Thais are delighted to see a farang tourist in their midst; they flock around you, offering frankincense and myrrh, and taxi rides to depraved gin mills on the waterfront.
And then you arrive at the world headquarters of TEFL International – an imposing 4-storey townhouse on Suan Son Beach Road, where your studies begin!
How well I remember opening my text book that first morning of class. I can’t remember a blessed thing that was in it – but I definitely remember opening it up.
There were fifteen in our group of prospective ESL teachers. My classmates were an eclectic blend of dreamers and rovers.
There was a retired couple from Alabama. He had been a noted surgeon, she his receptionist. I sensed he still missed the ‘hands-on’ feel of his craft – whenever one of us had a stomach ache he was quite eager to offer his opinion that it might be appendicitis, and he would be glad to slit us open for some free exploratory surgery. I always declined, with thanks.
We had a Rhode’s Scholar from New Jersey, who eventually went cross-eyed looking down his nose at the rest of us.
A British gentleman from Hong Kong, who boasted he had not had a glass of water to drink since moving to the Orient thirty years earlier.
And then there was Kat – short for Katherine. A buxom, blonde Australian lass. She had spent the last five years being a tour guide in places like Kathmandu and Beijing. Now she was going to try her hand at teaching.
I had a crush on her. Her flaxen hair; her broad, pink features; her twanging accent. Crikey! She was my beau ideal. She liked coffee – I brought her some hill-grown coffee from Chiang Rai. She adored flowers – I made wreaths from the abundant roadside posies for her. She lost her cell phone – I loaned her mine for the duration of the course. I was her slave.
But, like most TESOL romances, this one lasted no more than one month, the time it took to study and test for our TESOL certificate. And then, like the autumn leaves, she was blown helter-skelter in one direction, and I was blown willy-nilly in another direction.
But enough of this maudlin meandering! I must disengage myself from this self-pitying twaddle in order to give you one last snapshot of those halcyon days in Ban Phe, when we drove out early each morning before the mist cleared from the hills, to do our student teaching. We drove up into the hills, passing rubber plantations and fields of burgeoning pineapples, with an occasional long-tailed macaque gazing impudently at us from a tree branch, until we reached a glistening Buddhist temple that had a small school attached. After respectfully greeting the monks, we went to our classrooms, which were not air-conditioned but were very well cross-ventilated. Outside the windows of the school loomed the jungle, with all its attendant sibilants and howls from the animals and the untamed smells of orchids and other untrammeled flowers. The children trooped in, I began my lesson with them – and a tremendous monsoon downpour enveloped the school. The noise of the heavy rain shattering on the roof made it impossible to do anything but close the windows, sit in a circle, and smile at each other for the next twenty minutes.
That is when I decided that there may be better places in the world to live, but none of them were as suitable to my spirit and personality as Thailand.
I may have to be buried back home in Minnesota, but my heart, and my TESOL certificate, will always belong to this strange, wonderful, compelling land.