As part of our duties as Foreign English Teachers, H and I each had to greet students at the gates in the morning and give a short talk to the entire student body. Gate duties were to be performed twice a week while our morning talks were held on Mondays. Greeting students at the gate I was perfectly fine with, I was less excited about the Monday chats.
I stood at the front gate on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I walked to school near 7:30 to take up my post next to the Assistant Director and whatever other teacher might be there that day. The first few weeks I was always there at 7:30 or before. When I noticed that I consistently beat the Vice Director and other teachers, I started taking the start time a little less seriously. Seven thirty in Thai Time meant that you could start heading that direction at seven thirty, not that you necessarily had to BE there at seven thirty.
We lined up along this step next to the gate-keeper’s shelter and greeted students as they arrived in the morning. When large groups showed up at the same time on the buses and songtaews they were directed to line up in front of us and everyone performed the wai together at the same time. The wai is the Thai greeting, like some cultures bow or shake hands. To perform a wai you place your hands palms together in front of you and bow slightly. The higher your hands are and the deeper your bow the more respect you show. As teachers we were not required to bow to students, but we could reciprocate. Hands in front of your face and a big bow would befit a greeting for a monk, while hands above your head and an excessively deep bow were reserved primarily for the King. The teachers also wanted us to greet the students in English so they could practice their English. So instead of saying sawatdee ka (how women say ‘hello’ in Thai) I usually smiled and said good morning. The kids who didn’t respond would often be told by the Thai teachers to say ‘Good Morning Teacher’ to me.
On my way into the school each morning I also passed the uniformed traffic cop directing the school traffic and the gatekeeper. I wai‘ed them upon arrival, too, but it is not required to wai someone after the first time you see them that day. When we first learned how to perform the Thai greeting, H and I started doing it every single time we met someone or passed someone on the street. Apparently this is not necessary. When our head English Teacher took us to the doctor to get our medical paperwork signed she noticed this habit, and told H she didn’t have to wai every single person we passed on the street, we weren’t celebrities, and adults don’t wai children. Maybe we weren’t official celebrities…but everyone in town certainly knew or learned who we were pretty quick. We just didn’t want to come across as rude or ignorant. Better overly, ridiculously respectful than rude. We were told, though, that it is better to not wai than to perform a bad one – but one handed was acceptable when you carrying things in your arms and don’t have both hands.
So that’s the wai, which was only a small part of gate duty. While I thought the greeting was the main component of gate duties, the bulk of it seemed to be ‘fun time with the farang‘ for the vice director. He didn’t speak very much English, but he consistently tried to have conversations with us. He was astonishingly tall for a Thai, towering above my five-foot-eight giantness, and he had this crazy wide smile that matched his crazy laugh. And he was always laughing. I was a constant source of entertainment, and the subject of many a joke. Especially once I started taking Muay Thai lessons from one of the teachers at the college next door to our school. The front gates to both schools were right next to each other, separated by a chain link fence, and my Thai Boxing teacher usually had gate duty in the morning. He and the vice director joked about me many mornings, as I stood there, enjoying the sweat dripping down my back under my shirt. I may not have learned a lot of Thai, but I knew the word ‘farang’ which means ‘foreigner’ and they used it copiously while laughing and jabbing like they were boxing. I bruise like a peach so I often had big purple spots on my shins when I started learning round house kicks. That became another source of their banter. We learned to deal with this sort of thing. I really had to let go of any sort of self consciousness issues. It helped that I couldn’t understand the majority of it, so I just adopted the Thai tradition of smile and nod and agree. Ha ha ha, yep, yep, I’m funny!
The joking didn’t bother me so much as some of the more awkward exchanges. There was a lot of asking about boyfriends or marriage. When they learned I was not married and had no American boy back home, they liked pointing out who the single Thai men were. ‘He’s single, he can take you swimming! He is nice.’ It was always swimming, why I have no idea, but it made H and I a little uncomfortable. Just smile and laugh, smile and laugh, and let it go. Ha ha ha, yeah…smile smile! We stood there at the gate until about eight o’clock, when all the students would begin gathering for assembly.
Every morning the school held assembly before classes to go over the day’s plans and other school business. Or they could have been doing a daily poetry reading, I wouldn’t have known the difference. The school band played the national anthem every morning while they raised the flag and one student sang the national anthem. Then they performed a prayer and made announcements. The whole process lasted between twenty to thirty minutes, which is quite a bit of time considering the entire student body is lined up in the field, directly under the glaring Southeast Asian sun. There is a tiled stage where the teachers give their announcements with all the flags behind them. For our Monday talks H and I had to stand up on this stage and give a brief speech in English about something to do with America and our culture or country compared to Thailand. Our head teacher always reminded us to be short, because it was very hot. Now, had we been good little teachers, we would have carefully planned out these speeches beforehand. In reality, we planned them out right before as we walked to school or while we waited for assembly to formulate. I heard other teachers in other schools did skits or talent show like things for their morning performances. H and I stuck to pretty mundane simple speeches about American greetings, sports, seasons, Holidays, the 4th of July, and a few other things. The students could not have cared less about our Monday speeches. It was hot, it was bright, and they had to stand in line until notices were over and we were just prolonging them. Maybe if we had found a way of being more interactive or engaging this would have been better. I, however, greatly disliked being up on stage in front of the 1500 or so students. Being on stage sometimes makes me uneasy. I get very anxious when I have to speak into microphones, so the whole morning speech set up was not my favorite activity.
The last week for morning speeches, however, H and I decided to finally have some fun and not care what we looked like or what the teachers would say. In order to give the kids a bit more entertainment we decided to do the topic of music. My students were always telling me “Teacher, sing?” “Teacher dance?” And I always told them “Teacher no sing! No dance!” I can’t sing at all, so no there was none of that. What we decided to do was play a few excerpts from popular international English language songs, and then I danced to them. We played a country song where I line danced; we had ‘Call Me Maybe,’ some hard rock, and a short clean section of an Eminem song. I got the most reaction for my head banging and my poppy skipping about. The rest of that last week all my students tried to get me to dance in our individual classes. Sorry kiddos! That was a onetime only show!