Ban Ponwadaeng School
01.02.2016 - 25.02.2016
You can continue reading my letters following the link below!
See you there
“Volunteers, please come stand here. Introduce yourself to the visitors.” I stand as 60 pairs of eyes turn their gaze my way. My tummy turns and I feel the blood rush to my face. Making my way to the front of the hall I stand in a line with the other four volunteers. Behind us are two very much larger than life pictures of the King and Queen. Ahead of us sit 60 school directors, men and women all dressed in black suits with yellow shirts underneath. It’s 35 degrees. I’m sweating in my t-shirt and skirt and I can see that the heat is also affecting my audience but they seem to ignore it preferring to remain smart in their suits. As we form a line they beam at us, each one pulls out a smart phone and begins energetically snapping pictures. This is what it must be like to be famous! Or just a western person in the middle of a rural village in central Thailand, as we are. Sunnee hands the mic to Yanic and grins. She repeats, “introduce yourself”.
“Sawadee Krup. Hello, my name is Yannick. I am from France and I have been working at the school for almost 2 weeks…” I stop listening desperately raking my brains for some moving speech on how fantastic I think the project is. Nothing. Suddenly Yannick turns and hands me the mic. My palms are sweating and I’m sure everyone can see the mic trembling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m used to public speaking. I’d go as far as to say that I even enjoy it at times but usually I know what I’m going to say. However, in classic Thai spirit, this little speech was flung at us moments before the arrival of these VIPs to the school. We spent the morning watching the whole school, teachers and children alike, dusting, tidying, emptying bins, decorating the hall with gold, pink and sky blue banners, preparing coffee and cakes. The older students are quiet and obedient while the younger ones are excited by the change of energy in the air. Everyone is wearing their Sunday Best. The little girls look gorgeous in Thai traditional skirts decorated with beautiful bright coloured thread their hair in exquisite braids and buns. They sit patiently outside rehearsing their songs, chants and presentations, awaiting their turn to entertain the guests. Making a good impression is always important but here in Asia more so than ever. I don’t know just how important these people are but the way everyone is behaving, they may as well be royalty. Anyway, so here I am mic in hand. Standing tall I smile, hide all signs of nerves. I’m determined to make a good impression on these guests especially after the graciousness we have been shown here.
“Sawadee Ka, Hello and thank you for coming. My name is Charlotte and I am from Scotland in the UK. I, just like Yanic, came here to this school using the website helpX. I plan to travel for over a year in Asia so I was happy to spend time volunteering along the way. I love working with children. The kids here are so lovely and respectful, such fast learners. I teach Kindergarten and I’m very impressed with how many songs they’ve learnt with me in the short time I’ve been here. As volunteers we are treated so kindly by everyone in the school and the village so it’s also been such a beneficial experience for us.”
I rattle this part off and I can hear my mum inside my head, “talk slower” she says. I know I am talking fast even for native speakers. Then it dawns on me. Most of these people will understand 50% of what I say were I to talk slow. They perhaps understand 20% of what I’m actually saying right now, despite the nods and smiles I’m receiving. I decide to wrap it up, “I think the project at this school is working very well and should be adopted in other schools in Thailand, Thank you, Kapkoon Ka”. It was not the most riveting performance I have ever made but I have made my point. Pleased my moment in the light is over I pass the mic to the next volunteer. We all say similar things and keep it short so as not to bore our guests. D finishes off the speeches with a passionate account of his time in the village. Thanking the guests for coming to our school: “I say our school because that’s how I’ve been made to feel here. At home. And I’m proud to be a part of it”. He passes the mic back to Sunee who adds “Danílo, thank you, you gonna make my cry!” she laughs before turning back to her visitors, confidently chattering away in Thai.
Sunee is a petite, middle-aged woman who exudes both kindness and respect. A person of the sort who radiates warm and wise energy from the second you encounter them. Her husband Sawang (the director of the school), a calming, gracious presence, is the quieter of the two but still shares that same energy. They are humans of the nature to lift your mood just by standing beside you, the ones you secretly wish would just take you home with them and nurture you. Sunee has a fantastic grasp of the English language with a subtle sense of humour, often emanating the most unexpected expressions like “shake a leg!” or “No money, no honey”. Together these two extraordinarily driven people have built the foundations to what is now known as “the first rural bilingual school in Thailand”. On our first day there they share with us their dream; that, if given the chance, all of Thailand could speak English as a second language. Unfortunately it’s not the case, least of all in rural villages like Ban Ponwadaeng. Usually children in larger towns and cities have more opportunities when it comes to education however the provincial setting of this village has been no obstacle with regards to the education of these students.
The school is separated into two sections. One is a classic Thai primary and the other is the IEP (Intensive English Programme). The children here pay a tiny bit more and receive half their lessons in English, including Art, Maths and Science. English speaking teachers are not easy to come by in rural parts of Thailand so most, if not all, of the English teachers here are from the Philippines. On top of this Sunnee and Sawang have begun the volunteer programme by searching for willing helpers using the internet. They provide a bed and two meals a day in exchange for a few hours of work (and class preparation) per day. They state that they do not require English teachers, nor do they want actual English lessons. We are asked to create fun activities for our classes to ensure the students enjoy their lessons and see the fun they can have using the language. The use of the volunteer, we are told, is more to interact with the children; allowing them to hear different accents, learn about different cultures and build their confidence when talking to foreigners. These are children of parents who spend most of their time working the land. The likelihood is that the majority of them will follow in their parents footsteps and most of them will not see much of the world past their own region. Sunee tells us “the village can’t see the world, so I bring the world to the village!”. And so they have. In the space of only a few years the village has hosted over 100 volunteers from all over the world. Many come from China, as the school also teaches Chinese, others from France, Spain, Austria, Italy, Chile, Germany, USA and now Scotland and Brazil. Their hard work has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the region. During our three and a half weeks here we have visited and been visited by many admirers of the English Programme including the 60 school directors from neighbouring regions, the Mayor of the Phichit Province and the head of the department of Education (possibly for the country?). It is hoped that the IEP will be implemented in at least ten schools in the next year. I can only hope it actually happens. Sunnee and Sawang are the proof that with the correct drive it can absolutely be done.
This is not to say that every child we encounter here understands perfect English. Far from! What I do notice, however, is the secondary outcome of having a constant flow of westerners in the village; confidence. After meeting numerous other students from neighbouring schools and provinces it is plain that we are fascinating to them, but only from a far. When pushed by their teachers to come and talk to us their fascination transforms to fear and only the bravest step forward to actually interact. The same cannot be said for the pupils of Ban Ponwadaeng. The kids here have no embarrassment or anxiety in addressing us. Not only are these children familiar with sharing their village with westerners but I would go as far as to say that they indulge in our company. It’s impossible to traverse the playground, walk to the shop or even browse the market without the accompaniment of at least four excitable, mini guides.
The gracious hospitality of these young beings immediately sets us at ease. Especially in the first days when, quite frankly, we are left with with far more questions than answers. What’s our timetable? Will we be teaching together? Will we have a Thai teacher with us or will we teach alone? How long are the classes? How large are the classes? We soon learn to give up searching for answers and just go with the flow. Far less stressful and much more fun. Our first few lessons prove impossible to locate. Upon eventually finding the room we peer inside searching for the students. No children. After questioning a passing pupil we discover, what looks like, the younger half of the school sitting together behind the building, cooking food on their own individual clay BBQs.
Small groups of children occupy the centre making beautiful presentations with fruit. Around the sides children of mixed ages (6-9) are cooking meat over real fire. As we regard this enterprise a small, grubby hand finds my own and I peer down. “Teacher! teacher!” (The title bestowed upon any westerner residing in this village). A tiny toothy girl stands before me in faded tartan uniform and holey socks, proudly presenting a piece of meat. Although I immediately question how thoroughly it’s been cooked by this young chef, I humbly accept the gift. My eyes widen as I see a group of boys cooking over a fire that has been positioned 5cm from the edge of quite a high kerb. The (over)protective instinct in me panics. What if it falls and sprays hot embers all over their bare legs?! I scan the scene for some adult supervision but the teachers are oblivious. Well, oblivious or at complete ease with this insanely, hazardous activity! This would never happen in the UK. Mainly due to paperwork and health and safety but also because I don’t think young children would ever be trusted to do anything like this on their own. As I look around I notice that these children are having fun; chatting, singing and generally behaving like kids. They’re not misbehaving, playing with the food or the fire, nor are they so distracted that they’re forgetting the task at hand. In fact it is all going remarkably well!
Even more impressive than the cooking is the speed in which they tidy up. Again, in the UK the teacher would play a prominent role in helping tidy up such a messy activity, especially one that included red hot burning embers. Not in Thailand. The teacher mediates, makes sure everyone is helping, points out things that are still lying around but it’s clear that this is their mess thus their job to tidy. At one point I see her brandish an 8 inch knife that had been left on the ground, wave it in the air and yell in Thai. Almost immediately a child, no more than seven years old, runs to discharge her of the weapon before disappearing among the frenzy that is “Tidy up Time”. Within five minutes the whole place is empty. Food gone, plates and cutlery cleaned, fires extinguished, mats rolled away, floor swept. Nothing is left but the ever ravenous stray dogs that appear to reside at the school.
The following weeks prove to be routine. We teach two kindergarten classes each morning, an hour each. All classes in this school last an hour, regardless of the age of the students. Now, if you have ever tried to hold the concentration of a 4 year old you will know that one hour will feel like an eternity, to both them and you! My classes, planned the night before, feel chock-full of activities that would surly last over the hour I am expected to entertain these small beings. Yeah right! Tasks I plan to last 10 minutes only last two and often I reach the end of my class plan a mere 30 minutes into the class. Panic sets in as the children turn their attention from me to each other. Not being able to speak Thai does not help. Somehow I do not think my few words: “hot, cold, hello, goodbye, thank you, a little spicy” will be of any use to me in here. Instead I do the only thing I can do, I sing. Lucky for me previous volunteers seem to have taught a plethora of nursery rhymes. As I start “red and yellow and pink and blue…” it is as though something switches in their heads, they start singing together and, just like that, they’re hypnotised, their gaze returning to mine.
The alternative tool to control ones class in this country comes in the form of a long bamboo stick not too dissimilar to the one used on the monkeys in Lopburi. If the children become too rowdy the teacher is likely to slam the cane down on her desk to shock the class in to silence. On a few occasions we have seen children gently hit on the hands with this cane and I have even been granted permission to hit the children myself with said stick. Fortunately I teach these classes together with D, having two pairs of eyes to manage the class means less chaos and less need for punishment. It also means that we can plan more fun activities that would otherwise be impossible. In Thailand a teacher has much more freedom when it comes to where they teach and we are encouraged to take the kids outside. We spend mornings singing songs, hunting for insects, flying paper aeroplanes, on one occasion we organise a treasure hunt and on another we download some traditional Scottish music to teach them a simple ceilidh dance. On our last day a genuine sadness envelopes me as I try to explain to these young students the concept of “goodbye forever”. Some grasp the idea while others cluelessly jump around chirrping away at us in Thai, eager to begin the next game. As I stare down at our beautiful chaotic class I come to realise how much these little guys, the school and the village have marked me this past month.
Ban Ponwadaeng, for the record, is not a village in the traditional sense. I would describe it more as two roads forming a T shape lined with a few houses, make shift shops, an internet-cafe (selling ice-cream!), school and small temple. Other houses, farms and hamlets surround the area thus make up the 300 students that attend the school. The school itself consists of a a few different buildings painted sky blue with a football pitch out front surrounded by various trees (coconut, mango, banana). When school ends the boys gather to play football every day, kicking up dust to the point that their feet are no longer visible to onlookers. This dust quickly becomes mixed with smoke due to the small fires lit by villagers and farmers. They regularly burn the fields to make way for new crops, or indeed just fallen leaves they have raked up. The concept of compost has yet to reach this part of the country so anything unnecessary is burned. Each evening, like clockwork, the pink sky becomes hazy with smoke and black ash falls to the ground like snow. The setting sun glows an unreal fluorescent pinky orange, massive on the horizon and the whole village becomes bathed in a soft orange, hazy, smokey, dusty cloud.
The land itself is extremely flat, surrounded by rice paddies, banana trees and sugar cane fields. Those who work out in the fields are ferried to and fro in pickup trucks each morning and evening, crowded together in the back. To avoid inhaling the dust whipped up by the cars, they each covers their faces with a coloured cloth mask. Everyone sports a different colour often leaving space only for the eyes which they will usually cover with sunglasses giving them a more than sinister appearance. They become known to us as the Ninja-Workers. Joining the Ninja-Workers in passing through the village is a constant flow of humungous trucks pilled high with freshly cut sugar cane. You can always smell the trucks before you see them, the sweet, almost fermented aroma filling the dry, hot air. The only other mode of transport we witness are scooters.
Everyone in rural Thailand rides a scooter. Mothers will ride with their little ones standing on the floor in front or squeezed in between the driver and passanger on the seat. I have seen them carry as many as five people at once and of course nobody wears a helmet. Children as young as ten can be witnessed cruising the roads and many of them will even drive on the school grounds with not so much as a raised eyebrow from the teachers. After asking around for the legal driving age in Thailand I discover that it is 18 years old, even older than the UK or the US. This is cleanly not an implemented law and I am told that if the police were to see them they would probably just reminisce of their own childhood spent doing very much the same thing. Due to its rural location and lack of public transport if one doesn't learn to ride a scooter one doesn’t get very far. Literally. Lucky for me, unable to operate a scooter or a car, our house is within walking distance from the school.
D and I are lucky enough to have our very own small and modest apartment consisting of two rooms, shower room and outdoor stove. Our only furniture; a table and bed. Mosquito-net, fridge and fan the only real gadgets we need. Our bathroom has a squat toilet, tap and bucket which we use to wash and although yes, compared to our lives in the West it is a massive change, within a few days we feel completely at home and in want of nothing more. Before leaving to come travelling many of my friends worded my move as brave but each time we change lifestyle I am almost always struck with how incredibly versatile the human being is. I do not feel brave at all because within 24 hours most changes begin to feel completely normal. Waking up at 5am to the monks chanting in the temple next door becomes part of my daily routine, sleeping on a bed that resembles a large wooden table with a thin mat on top even becomes comfortable after a few nights. Feeding scraps to the cat and dog that seem to have adopted us is so regular that I begin to feel as though they actually are my cat and dog. Working together as a team to cook and wash the dishes outside or even washing our clothes by hand, these all take much longer without the gadgets we are used to but there is something rewarding in the joint effort of doing things the simple way.
Of all the observations I have remarked upon above however, the primary element of this experience that will be missed by us both is the never ending kindness demonstrated to us by each person we have met here. Be that the students who are always eager to learn and play with us. The teachers, who may not be able to speak English yet shower us with affection in smiles, cookies, coffee and even on one occasion concerndely driving me to the doctor's (and translating for me!) when I lost my voice. The villagers who greet us with smiles each day, feed us our two meals a day and show a genuine worry for us when we are out during the heat of the day. I have even been given an umbrella to use to prevent the sun from browning my skin (which is, of course, is the opposite of what I want). Then finally to Sunee and Sawang, for making us feel more like guests than volunteers. For taking time out of their weekend each week to drive the volunteers around the region to visit beautiful temples, colourful markets and glorious waterfalls. Not ever allowing any of us to so much as pay for our drinks. Now, for what is meant to be a summary of our stay, I appear to have written an essay lengthy enough to be submitted as a university piece… sorry. With that I will stop! Anyone interested in volunteering for this school please contact me and I will send you Sunee’s details. I am positive they would be more than happy to receive you with open arms.