Several years into my teaching career in Thailand I found myself at a school in the Klong Toey district of Bangkok. This was, and still is, a noisome slum area that breeds disease, despair, and plenty of good old fashioned juvenile delinquency. It is a place where startling mansions and emporiums nestle cheek by jowl with the most wretched dwellings anywhere on earth. A textbook example of what Karl Marx would call the inequality of capitalism. Everyone hustled 24/7 to get out of that cesspool – some of them honestly, some of them not. The children there had to grow up fast, or get run over.
It was a fairly modern, well-built, school building, and the kids, dressed in their cute frocks and blue slacks, looked as innocent as goslings.
At 16 years of age, they were anything but.
The teacher before me was a former prison guard from Australia. He lasted just 3 weeks before he either jumped or was thrown out of the classroom window and never returned. (Depending on who you talked to, he either went stir crazy and went out the window himself, or was helped out the window by several of the toughest boys in class.)
This was not a class I was looking forward to teaching, but the wallet was thinning fast and the school had a reputation as both a death trap for farangs and a school that paid salaries punctually. So I took a chance.
The first day of class was a classic disaster. The girls huddled in one corner, gossiping and experimenting with makeup, while the boys lounged near the windows, giving me the once-over to see how much effort it might take to jettison me into the courtyard. Luckily I was fairly heavy, even for a farang, so the boys did not immediately decide to wish me bon voyage.
No one paid me the slightest attention, so my lesson went nowhere. When the bell rang the 16-year olds trooped sullenly out, not even bothering to bow or offer me the obligatory wai.
I do not claim to be an Albert Schweitzer or educational genius, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I needed to keep that job till something better turned up, so after school, as I was riding the asthmatic bus back to my apartment, I hit on a plan.
There was a sprawling greenhouse next to my place, which sold all sorts of plants and trees at prices that would make a Western gardener wallow in drool. I bought a dozen of the cheapest potted plants I could find, and when I told the old lady who ran the place that the plants were for my classroom, she tossed in 6 more, gratis. They were weedy, sorry-looking things, and I had no idea what they were. But I took them all to school with me the next day, springing for a taxi.
When my girl students saw the plants on my desk they immediately perked up, putting away their little compacts (thankfully this was long before the days of the ubiquitous cell phone) to cluster around, demanding to know what the plants were for.
Let me halt things right here to say that is was then I learned first-hand just how much Thais really do love plants and flowers. The Thais may lie to you, cheat you, abuse you behind your back, but, by gumfries, they’ll always give you a blossom or a potted plant first! They all have green thumbs, or think they do.
I told the girls – while the boys continued to pretend to be totally uninterested over by the windows – that I had to give them an English lesson each day, and that if they would help me through it by at least trying to do the things I asked them, we could spend time after the lesson, before the bell rang, taking care of the plants, and that at the end of the school year I would be happy to distribute them to the most helpful students.
The girls immediately began classifying the plants and advising me on how best to take care of them – this one needed lots of water; that one needed direct sun all day; and this one had leaves you could eat – and, miracle of miracles, some of the boys even came over to get in on the palaver.
I kept my lessons short. All the girls, and some of the boys, enthusiastically entered into the spirit of the thing, and as the weeks rolled by I brought in more and more cheap, sickly potted plants, which the kids immediately began nursing into bloom.
Of course, there was a hard core of boys who refused to have anything to do with my scheme. I could not get them to participate. The pleasant time I was having with the rest of the students seemed to goad them on, until one day one of these tough guys picked up a sapling off my desk and hurled it out the window, then tried to stare me down – daring me to do anything about it. The girls set up such a ruckus that the assistant principal came caroming in to see if I had been lynched. I explained what happened, and she turned on the tough guy with a fury that only the female of the species can summon and sustain. He, and the other tough guys, cowered before her. I found out later that basically what she had said was “I don’t care what you do to the farang teacher, but how dare you destroy one of these beautiful plants! I can promise you that if another one of these blessed plants is disturbed by any of you hooligans I will personally have you roasted alive!” She stalked out, and then my girls took over. They ganged up on the tough guy and physically forced him out of the room to go retrieve the damaged plant from the courtyard below. And they were not gentle about it. And their language was – well, let’s just say I picked up some interesting new Thai vocabulary that day.
After that incident all the tough guys were thoroughly cowed by the girls in class. The girls saw to it that the boys were alert and responsive, so the lesson would get over fast and the plants could be tended to. Any boy who tried the tough guy business again was in for a tongue-lashing and, perhaps, after class, a beating, from the girls. The plants prospered under their care. One of them was a Thai eggplant, which actually produced some small, green, barely edible, fruit. But the plant that had the leaves that you could supposedly eat never tasted any good to me.
After several months I was able to finally line up another job in a much better school. I’d like to say that my students in Klong Toey gave me a misty-eyed farewell, expressing their sorrow at the departure of a truly wonderful teacher. But truth to tell, all they did, when I told them I was leaving, was to divvy up the plants between them faster than you could say “Bob’s yer uncle”.
Moral: In Thailand, when teaching, say it with flowers . . . and use girl power!