The End of a Semester
Impressively, I was given a whole 16-hours to prepare my goodbye speech (in contrast to my Valentines Day speech, of which I was given 20 minutes notice). Teacher Ying appeared before me late Wednesday afternoon, flustered and breathing heavily (I’m not quite sure why she felt the need to run to me), and said, “Just talked to foreign language department… they want you to…” And here she paused and laughed to herself, unsure of quite how to say it, while I was gripped in panic. Wanted me to what? Put on a dance for the whole school? Go with them on a trip to Cambodia? What?
“…Give a speech. A goodbye speech. Tomorrow morning. Now, you can have time to prepare for it.”
“Oh, no,” I said, but it was half-hearted, and I knew it would do me no good. “Teacher Ying, do I have to? I hate public speaking!” But as I said it I was smiling, because as much as I’ve always dreaded public speaking, I didn’t completely feel convinced of my own words. Of course, public speaking still makes me nervous. But when, 6-months ago, I would have been Googling, “Ways to Calm Down Before a Speech,” and throwing cold water on myself in the bathroom moments before, this time, I only felt a slight twinge of nerves.
I mean, I guess for one thing, I’ve been ‘public speaking’ every day for 6 months. Monday through Friday, I stand up at least twice a day in front of a group of 25 to 30 students. I’ve practiced the art of speaking slowly; of enunciating; of continuing to speak even when I think what I am saying is stupid, or when I can see my audience is more interested in their phones or their pillows (yes, they sometimes bring these to class) than me. It’s been great practice.
But today I gave a goodbye speech to 3,000 people. And it occurred to me, as I spoke to them all this morning about my feelings about leaving, exactly why it was so comfortable and easy to speak to such a crowd.
It was because I knew that even if they don’t know me, they respect me. A lot of them think I am beautiful (students I’ve never seen before often point at me and say, “Oh, suay—beautiful—teacher”); they think I am smart—at least, they think I know what I am doing up there in front of the classroom each day; and they think I am kind. And I can feel this appreciation, so standing up on stage, I didn’t have any of those mean thoughts towards myself that I normally would, in a room of 3,000 (“I probably look gross; I sound like an idiot; I shouldn’t be up here”). They’ve given me a confidence and a pride in myself that I can only hope I’ll find again in whatever future job I have.
Here’s, in essence, what I said in my speech (at least, what I wrote down to say—I’m sure I left some parts out, but this is what I’d planned):
“Hello. I would just like to say that it has been such a privilege teaching you all. You know, so many of my friends back home dread Monday through Friday because of their jobs. And I know I have been so, so lucky, that I wake up Monday morning excited to come here, to you all. Thank you for showing me your culture. Thank you for including me in everything and making me feel at home here in Sakon Nakhon. Thank you to my co-teachers and director and you, Teacher Owen (he was on stage with me). Thank you for setting great examples of wonderful teachers, and for your kindness. Thank you, most of all, to my students, for your enthusiasm each day in the classroom and for your friendship. I will never forget a single one of you. I know you will all do incredible, unbelievable things with your lives. Good luck with everything. If you are ever in America, let me know, and we can… you know, hang out. (Because America is awfully small). Again, thank you.”
And then I bowed to them as they’d all bowed to me, hundreds of times before.
So, how does it feel to be finished? I’ve been asked this a lot. I taught my last class Monday afternoon. And when I got home, the first thing I felt was an intense level of relief. It’s such a heavy feeling, to be burdened (and gifted) with the responsibility of increasing a student’s English proficiency, especially when I never knew quite where to begin. Do I start with content—showing them songs by Bruce Springsteen, who they’ve never heard of, or Billboard Hits of 2017, to include them in a musical conversation with the world; showing them passages from books like Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22, books that changed my life and changed so many others; do I show them movies that portray American culture, movies that educate and move and inspire… or, do I start with grammar, with parts of a sentence, and how a verb must always follow a subject, and just how fascinating grammar is when you understand the formula and know what you can plug in where and when you can break the rules and why? I mean, my god—how can one person just decide which is more important, or which should come first?
So I feel relief that I did the best I could, but that I don’t have to worry about it any longer. I hope whoever comes after me to teach these kids is a little more experienced than I was, because these kids deserve the chance to become fluent in English. They deserve the chance to watch a movie in their movie theatre without the weird Thai voice-overs (which never matches the lip movements, and is usually terribly translated). They deserve to read The Great Gatsby. They deserve to listen to their favorite songs (by the Chainsmokers, and Justin Bieber), and know, really know, what they are singing.
But after my speech, I also felt sadness and wished, a little bit, that I could stay longer (I know—I never thought I’d say that, either). Because my words were not lies. They have made this place feel like home to me. And I am so nervous that whoever comes after me will not have the passion and love that I have for English, or for these kids, and will be someone who doesn’t know how to relate to them or inspire them or grow with them. And it is sad that I will not necessarily know how they all end up.
I’ve made plenty of lists before, and a lot of my lists mention all the difficulties of living abroad. I’d like to make one more, but this time, I’d like to list all the things about Sakon Nakhon that I will miss the most.
1. I will miss feeling like the wealthiest person on the planet. Seriously—I was shopping at the mall the other day, and I saw two dresses that I thought I could wear for whatever job I get next (in other words… not crappy quality from a street market, which I will inevitably throw out in 2 weeks when it falls apart). But they were “expensive”: $20 each—totaling 1,400 baht (anyone who lives here, knows… this is a lot of money. This is the amount I pay to rent my motorbike for a month. This is the amount I pay for a round-trip ticket to and from Bangkok. This is probably 3-weeks of rice and chicken and weird pork balls. This is probably 1/6 of someone’s monthly paycheck.) So when I bought these two dresses, the saleswomen, who had watched me wide-eyed as I’d begun picking out three, four, five of these expensive dresses to try on, and then had held onto two, practically bowed to the ground as I walked out of the store and repeated, over and over again, a bit in awe, “Thank you, Miss, thank you, thank you.”
As I walked back from dinner last night, a man who sits on the corner in a little brown hut (I believe he is a tailor, because he’s always working on a sewing machine), began speaking to me about the food I’d bought. He gestured to his own dinner—some white rice—and then he said, “I am not rich, like you.”
“Rich?” I laughed. “Trust me, I’m 23-years-old and I just graduated from college. In America, I am not rich.”
“In Thailand, you are a teacher. This means you are very, very rich. You make 30,000 baht a month, don’t you?” (Not sure how he knows my salary).
“Yes…” I said, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this conversation.
“Could I… do you think I could possibly borrow 100 baht for dinner? I will pay you back… on Tuesday morning, I will have more money. I will pay you back.”
(100 baht = 3 dollars).
“Yes,” I said immediately, reaching into my wallet and feeling embarrassed when I saw he noticed I had 2,000 baht on me. I handed him 100 and said, sincerely, “Really, please. You don’t have to pay me back.”
Of course, I know, money isn’t everything/can’t buy you happiness, etc., etc. But when you have just graduated college, and you are about to be the lowest on the totem pole at whichever company you go to next, it is a very nice feeling, for a little while, to feel so capable of being able to afford anything (in moderation) and not having to worry about money. I don’t have to worry about my rent or how much dessert costs or whether I can afford the bottle of wine; I don’t have to worry about paying a ridiculous amount of money for two dresses or whether I can afford to fly to Bali for a weekend or get my hair cut in Bangkok, and if this was America, I would absolutely be worried about all of these things as a young 20-something starting out in a city. But here, my salary is incredibly generous and travelling is incredibly affordable. Which leads me to my next point…
2. I’ll miss my location. Of course, I don’t necessarily mean being stuck in the middle-of-nowhere Northeast Thailand, with rice fields on my left and dirt patches on my right and three-bus-rides-two-taxi-rides-one-songtaew-drive away from anything exciting.
I mean being 40 minutes from Vietnam; 2 hours 40 minutes from Hong Kong; 4 hours from Bali.
I mean being $50 from India; $100 from Australia; and $200 from Paris (I know—why aren’t I going to Paris, again?).
Let’s do some quick comparisons here: I could fly to India for the price it costs me to take an uber back home from Boston. I could fly to Australia for the price of my Ray Ban sunglasses. I could head over to Paris for the price I made babysitting one night last summer. This is not crazy or unattainable or ambitious. This is why I will miss my location. It has made the entire world accessible to me. I can travel the world from Sakon Nakhon for the price of an uber or a pair of sunglasses, to places I’d never even had on my radar before now (I thought India would cost thousands!). If nothing else, I wish I could stay longer for this reason.
3. I will miss my independence. I will miss my routine. As lonely as it sometimes felt, I will miss coming home after school and answering only one question: What do you want to do now? I will miss being able to make the decision to go to the mall and buy iced tea and wander aimlessly around the shops; I will miss heading to the gym and saying hello to my gym friends and taking a work-out class before bringing KFC chicken back to my apartment; I will miss deciding, screw it, and locking myself in my room with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watching Netflix movies all night because I need a break from the whole world. This is not to say it will not be possible for me to do all these things in America—but the decision will not feel as guilt-free, and as easily my own, when I am considering what my friends or family are doing or whether I owe it to someone to be somewhere else.
4. I will miss (sometimes!) the time difference. This one is especially surprising, even to me. The time difference is a complete pain in the neck. Every time I’m waking up to start my day, everyone in America is headed to bed—or they are tired, and don’t really want to talk or Skype or catch-up; and then when they are awake and want to fill me in on their lives, I am tired at the end of a long day… an endless cycle.
But it also means, from the hours of about 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., my phone is relatively quiet (apart from the friends I’ve made in Thailand… and my brother Max, who is nocturnal). And it’s a very nice thing. I have found creative ways to keep in touch with people back home (including Facetiming at 8 a.m., during morning assembly, in an empty classroom; writing long catch-up novels via Facebook; or sending good-morning-good-night texts for the other person to respond to the next day). But it’s nice to not feel glued to my phone. It’s become habit for me to put my phone on airplane mode for hours, because why not, and when I get a message from anyone, I don’t mind waiting a few hours to respond—blame it on the time-difference, blame it on a lack of urgency, or blame it simply on this (somewhat forced) living-in-the-moment mentality I have found as a result of the time difference.
5. I will miss every weekend being an adventure. I hope I find motivation to make my way to the bus station in America (do we even have one…?), to look at a sign, point, and say, “Okay, how about we try there?” I hope I hold onto this curiosity for my surroundings, but I know it is not the same. Part of the adventure, part of the spontaneity, comes from me simply not knowing any better. I point to a sign here in Sakon Nakhon Bus Terminal and say, “Let’s try there,” because it makes no difference to me, and because it’s in a different language, and because it usually doesn’t cost more than $5 to drive on a bus for hours. And I know it will not be the same, to show up at a Boston bus station and point and say, “Let’s try there,” because 1. It will probably end up shipping me off to some place like Lowell or Chelsea, and I’ll think, Okay, this was probably a waste of time and money; and 2. Travelling in America, to anywhere, takes more preparation. I cannot find novelty anywhere. I cannot just take a bus to Lowell and think, Wow, this place is so cool and different and look at that temple! But here, I can. I can literally take a bus 7 minutes or 7 hours away and it makes (almost) no difference to me—it is always exciting, it is always new and novel and interesting, because it is never familiar.
6. I will miss the people. I’ve said it before, so I’ll try to be brief: I will miss their kindness. I will miss their inclusivity. I will miss 21-year-old girls driving me to their hometown, even though I am a stranger to them, because they are “headed there anyway.” I will miss teacher Ying, who invited me to camp for an entire weekend with her and her friend because, “You should have the opportunity to see Phetchabun Mountain while you are here.”
I will miss Fluke pointing to the word “Perfect” on a Present Perfect Quiz and whispering to me, “Teacher, why does it say my name?” Or Oom looking over, from the seat beside him, and saying, “I do not know where you are getting this confidence from.”
I will miss students literally chasing after me to lean over the railing to shout goodbye at the end of the day. I will miss Googling what the sheep look like in New Zealand with Oom (and, then, of course… what the boys look like). I will miss Top always saying good night when I walk into the classroom, and how he is always prepared to sing song lyrics in response to anything I say (Me: “I will always…” Top: “…love you?…” Me: “It’s not too late…” Top: “…To say sorry…?”). I will miss Noon always giving me some of her breakfast and Mew always grabbing my wrist as I walk by to tell me how beautiful I am and Jom telling me before anyone else about going to Wisconsin and Benz saying, “We have to be on our best behavior in class today; we have someone coming to observe,” and me saying, “What, you don’t have to be on your best behavior when it’s just me?” And all the kids laughing… Actually, just in general, I will miss all the kids laughing. They make me feel like the funniest person on the planet… Which leads to my last point…
7. I will miss who I am as their teacher. When I stand in front of them, I can be silly and funny and ridiculous and witty and confident. And these are not compliments—I am not saying I am any of these things. I am saying these are things I have become because of my students—they make me this way. They allow for it. They encourage it and inspire it. I wouldn’t say I am a different person in front of them. Because I act the same way around my closest friends. But this is the first time I have seen myself act this way out in the world, with (essentially) strangers—or, at least, not my best friends. They have given me the confidence to say things spontaneously, and to embarrass myself, and to show my foolish or naïve side, because they have never judged me or shown me anything but admiration. If, in my next job, I am surrounded by people who make me even half as confident, I will be happy.
Next Thursday, I head to Bangkok at 10 a.m. I will have packed up my entire apartment and I will be taking it all with me. I will store it in Bangkok for a month, and then (finally) I will begin my travels. I can’t express how excited I am for these travels. March 11, I fly to Chiang Mai. I will take a bath with elephants and feed them food; I will take a cooking class; I will explore the Grand Canyon and try new foods and venture to waterfalls.
I will head from there to Pai, a gorgeous little town, which I’ve heard also has great waterfalls and Grand Canyons and tea plantations. From there, I will go to Chiang Rai to see temples and museums and then back to Chiang Mai.
On March 24, I will fly back to Bangkok and, from there, I will fly to Hanoi, Vietnam. After a few days there, we will head to Sa Pa to see beautiful fields and waterfalls (Google it—I can’t quite explain it, since I haven’t been there, but it looks breathtakingly beautiful).
Then we will do a cruise on Halong Bay. We will fly to Hoi An from there, and then Saigon, and then we will fly to the south of Cambodia. We will spend a few days on an island there—I’ve heard the beaches are incredible: white sand, clear turquoise water. From there, we will end up in Angkor Wat.
On April 14, I will head back to Bangkok to grab my suitcase. Then I will fly to Dubai to spend 5 days there with another CIEE friend. And then, on April 20th, I will journey home.
I am beyond excited. I know it will go fast, but I will do my best to take plenty of pictures and write (in my phone Notes section) all about my travels, so that when I am home (I am leaving my laptop in Bangkok, so I cannot blog before then), I can update you all on my experiences exploring this little piece of the world. But even if I manage to blog again for CIEE, this is the last one I will write from Sakon Nakhon, and probably the last one I will write until April 20th. So thank you all for reading about my Sakon Nakhon adventures—updates to come!