If You Are Absent Today Please Raise Your Hand
Let me say right up front that I have no idea how Thai public schools figure out their annual budgets. I have had it explained to me by minor Thai government functionaries, by Thai school administrators, by Thai teachers, and by Buddhist monks. Everyone has a different story, sometimes merely a theory, and they are all different. And conflicting. And confusing.
It is my own personal belief that there is a roulette wheel somewhere that gets spun on a regular basis; whatever number comes up is multiplied by 27, then divided by 3, and then rounded up to the nearest tical, and there you have your school budget for the year in Thailand.
Be that as it may, in some of the schools I’ve worked at in Thailand I have been solemnly assured that part of each year’s budget was dependent on classroom attendance. Not a bad idea, really. If you’re sitting in a classroom full of cobwebs, not students, you don’t need much of a budget, do you?
One of the very first schools I worked in here in Thailand had very high standards as far as attendance went. Students were rewarded for perfect attendance. I was issued a large, leather bound, attendance book, rather like the ponderous tomes my own teachers scribbled in back in the States when U.S. Grant was still slugging it out with Robert E. Lee. Each student had a line corresponding to the monthly calendar. When present, I was instructed to write a check mark in blue ink. When absent, I was instructed to write a zero in ominous red ink. All holidays and weekends were clearly marked so there would be no confusion. My school administrator told me not to leave the attendance book in my school desk, but to take it home and guard it zealously against any egregious tampering.
Needless to say I lost the damn thing after two months.
I was new to the teaching game in Thailand back then and naively thought of my boss at school as a colleague who would laugh briefly at my ludicrous dilemma and then issue me a new attendance book to fill in as best as I could remember.
No such luck. Grounds for dismissal, is what I was told. I had lost the Sacred Attendance Bible and Must Be Punished. Luckily, back then, I still possessed a winning smile and personality, and my boss decided that it would be easier to verbally flog me than replace me. So I was issued a second leather bound attendance book and, though it was never put into writing, it was intimated that if this volume were to disappear under suspicious circumstances . . . . so would I!
Now any experienced teacher in Thailand will tell you that, all things considered, taking attendance, especially in a class of 30 students, can go fast or slow, depending on how the teacher feels that day. On days when the teacher is hot to trot and the lesson plan seems to sparkle a teacher can race through attendance in about ten minutes or less. On other days, a teacher can dawdle, consciously or not, and wind up taking nearly the whole class time just to figure out who’s in class and who’s not. All Thais have their regular, legal, name, and then they have a nickname. Mostly, the Thais go by their nickname. Shrimp. Rain. Dog. Cat. Pig. Or Big Pig. Small Rabbit. Skinny. Fatty. And so on. My attendance book had the legal names of the children, not their nicknames. But some days when I would massacre their name in Thai they wouldn’t even know who it was, so couldn’t respond, until I remembered what their nickname was.
“Is Mahasomsuck Phuttapoon Brawat here?
“Uh, maybe I’m not saying it right. Maha – Somboon – Phutt – Aboon – Bray – Wat. Are you here?”
More dead silence, or a few snickers.
“Darn it, Chubby are you here?”
And so it went. The other hazard of attendance taking is that cousins and friends of someone who is absent are extremely anxious to let you know why that someone is not in class. A brief note from the student’s mother or father is not considered good enough. The teacher must know the back story. It’s never a short explanation, such as “he’s sick today” or “she fell in the klong and caught cold”. It’s always something that Tolstoy might have included in War and Peace.
“Teacher, Piggy isn’t here today because his mother’s cousin from the first marriage stepped on a snake – it was a big snake, sent by a witch doctor that was hired by his neighbor because their water buffalo ate the rice shoots last year – he stepped on the snake and the snake bit him and he had to go all the way to Khorat to the hospital because the local doctor is against Taksin. So he died in the hospital and now they are cremating him in Trat so Piggy has to stay home with the two cousins who can’t take care of themselves, but Piggy knows how to cook rice and will go to the market to buy barbequed pork and – Teacher, do you like barbequed pork? I like it with sticky rice and somtum. But Piggy can’t make somtum because they lost their pestle when some thieves broke into their house and the police wouldn’t do anything about it . . .”
To this day I have never learned how to tell a Thai, man or woman, to shut up.
I think that’s why my Thai fiancé still likes me . . .