Donald Trump and Our Past Mistakes

Like most Americans I have been following the presidential race. However, following it from abroad allows me the benefit of tuning out the media circus that has been surrounding it, and to focus only on the facts. None of the candidates are perfect, and each of them have aspects of their policies that I don’t agree with. But no one in this race has distorted facts more than Donald Trump.

Now let me give a bit of a disclaimer. I’m about to say some things that may offend people, but understand that everything I am saying is backed up by historical and statistical evidence. Some people may read this and think I don’t like my own country. I love my country, I’m proud to be an American. Yes, at the moment I am not currently living in the U.S., but what brought me to the country where I am living wasn’t any animosity towards my country. What brought me here was my service in the Peace Corps on behalf of the United States in what I believe to be a mission of peace and global understanding. I’m also going to have criticisms of the military, but please know that I am talking about the ways in which our military has been used. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the men and women of the U.S. armed forces. Their bravery and sacrifice is part of what makes me so proud to be an American. I also believe that our past administrations have done a disservice to our veterans once they are back home, and I hope that is something which will change in the coming administration. So while what I’m about to say might come off as critical of the U.S., it’s information that I believe people need in order to make an informed decision.

Let me start by saying that I believe everyone has the right to vote for who they believe will do the best job as President. I don’t think it is right to push people into voting for someone they don’t want to vote for. However, the misinformation posited by Trump and the policies he hopes to enact are not one’s that I believe are in our nation’s best interest. I wish there was more I could do to dispel some of his bullshit, but seeing as I’m abroad this blog is about the only weapon I have.

Lets examine a few of Trump’s plans for our nation minus the nonsense words he uses. For starters, he is utilizing basic propaganda techniques we all learned about in school. I’m going to list them here in case anyone has forgotten:

Glittering Generalities: Using words or phrases that sound great and are emotionally appealing but don’t really have much meaning. Ex: Lets Make America Great Again.

Name-Calling: Pretty self explanatory, this pertains to derogatory terms meant to weaken credibility and standing. Basically, to make someone look bad. Ex: Who hasn’t Trump insulted? Regardless of how you felt about Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton or any of the other candidates, Trump’s methodology wasn’t to attack their policies but to attack them personally.

Transferring Status: The technique of associating two unrelated things through symbolism. Ex. Trump uses his “success” in business as evidence that he will be a successful President.

Just Plain Folks: This technique is meant to establish a common relationship between the individual (in this case Trump) and the average person. Ex. Ok you got me, Trump hasn’t said a whole lot to make himself relate-able to the average person. Unless you count his *cough* modest upbringing.

Bandwagon: A technique which targets our insecurities and need for acceptance. Like when you feel pressure to wear a certain type of clothing or act a certain way in order to be accepted. Ex: Trump’s entire campaign has played on our most basic fears and insecurities.

I’m a Social Studies teacher and so these techniques are more or less stamped on my memory.  What concerns me is that Trump, like a lot of us, doesn’t learn from mistakes. Unfortunately when you are the leader of the free world, your mistakes become everyone’s mistakes.

Trump and his wall:
   Trump and his stance on immigration is pretty absurd. I mean yes, illegal immigration is an issue and one that needs to be dealt with. However the measures Trump plans to use to address this issue are ridiculous. Not to mention his numbers are a little off.
He claims that Mexico is sending rapists, killers and kidnappers to the U.S. There are a couple of issues with this claim. For starters a comprehensive study by the Pew Research Center found that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than Native-born Americans. On top of that, three out of four individuals caught smuggling drugs across the Mexican border are U.S. citizens. But aren’t they mooching off our tax dollars all the while contributing nothing? No, a study done by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that undocumented immigrants paid $11.84 billion dollars in state and local taxes in 2014. On top of that, the same study estimated that granting undocumented immigrants a clear path to citizenship would in turn raise tax revenues by over $800 million per year. The numbers go even higher if you factor in that citizenship would allow immigrants to pay income tax. Given the higher paid wages and job prospects available to a U.S. citizen as opposed to an undocumented immigrant, it’s estimated that the $800 million per year would climb to $2.2 billion. For anyone not paying attention, that is a good thing.
So why is Trump so enthralled with deporting every undocumented immigrant? Well because he needs a scapegoat, he needs a population to demonize. This type of propaganda has been used for decades by politicians looking to create a common enemy which only they can destroy. You might remember one of them from your history class, an individual by the name of Adolf Hitler. Woah! Comparing Trump to Hitler? Fine I’ll compare him to Nixon, who used the War on Drugs as an excuse to attack the U.S.’s black communities by blaming the nation’s heroine use on them. This allowed authorities to raid homes, arrest community leaders, and demonize black people on the news every night. I don’t know about you but that disgusts me. Was Nixon just a flash in the pan? Well no because if you recall during World War II laws were passed to intern Japanese-American citizens. But when the war was over we went back to accepting everyone right? No, a public survey done in 1944 found that 13% of Americans favored the complete extermination of the Japanese people.

Trump’s attack on Muslims:
In line with his views on Mexican’s are Trump’s views on Muslims. He ‘suggested’ that Muslim’s be banned from entering the United States. He has suggested that Muslim neighborhoods should be heavily patrolled. This is a huge spit in the face of our nation’s religious freedom, and does nothing but foster less understanding among people. And let’s be honest, the average American probably doesn’t have the best understanding of Islam. The media would have us believe that the Quran is some kind of terrorist training manual, and Trump is preying on that fear. It’s embarrassing that statistics are needed to convince people that a certain group of human beings isn’t just born evil. What Trump has ignored is that a study by Gallup, Inc. found 93% of Muslim’s reject extremist views. The book The Missing Martyrs examined extremism as well and essentially found the same thing to be true. The book Euro Jihad found that Western European intelligence agencies believed only 1% of their regions Muslim population were at risk for radicalization. I bet 1% of any population is susceptible to radicalization. In the U.S. we have a new mass shooting every week. In 2015 guess who the majority of mass shootings were carried out by. If you’re among the individuals who guessed ‘white men’ then you are correct. White men were responsible for 3 times as many mass shootings as the next closest demographic. Should police be patrolling white neighborhoods? Should whites be banned from entering the U.S.? I didn’t think so.
People aren’t born to hate, they hate as a result of their environment and the information they receive. What the Gallup study also showed was that most Muslim’s have a distrust in the U.S. and their intentions. Who could blame them when we have presidential nominees posing the idea of targeting them based on their religious beliefs. That is not the United States that I love, and it’s not the United States that I believed we were as a kid in school.

Trump wants to rebuild the military.
The first question I ask is why does our military need rebuilding? The United States currently has the most powerful military in the world. The closest nation to rival U.S. military power is arguably Russia where military service is compulsory for all males, and still they have just over half the active personnel that the U.S. Military has. The U.S. has more ships, more airplanes, and more firepower than any other nation on earth. We also SPEND more on defense than any other nation on Earth, roughly 596  billion dollars per year. A pretty distant second is China, which spends 250 billion, followed by Saudi Arabia at 87 billion and Russia at 66 billion. You don’t have to be a mathematician to notice the U.S. is spending more than all three of those other nations combined.
Now you might be thinking, of course we spend more, we do more overseas. That’s true, there is not an inhabited continent on this planet that does not have a U.S. military base on it. It would be tough to even find a country that was out of range of a U.S. military base. But what are those bases doing? Well in Latin America the United States is providing military support in the war on drugs, which, surprise surprise, is failing miserably. What about humanitarian missions? Nothing is done from a purely humanitarian basis,  and no I don’t think it should be the U.S.’s job to solve the world’s problems (partially because we’re not particularly great at it). In fact, in many cases U.S. military intervention is damaging. The rise of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the genocide that followed can be attributed to the U.S. bombing campaigns along the Cambodian border during the Vietnam War. But the bigger issue I have with our operations abroad is that anything can be sold as a humanitarian mission. The U.S. had no issues staying on the sidelines as 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda yet jumped at the chance to invade Iraq and ‘liberate’ the Iraqi people and get revenge for September 11th. I wonder how many American’s today know that Iraq was not involved in the September 11th attacks, and that our leaders at the time committed what the U.N. would call ‘war crimes’ by invading a nation which did not pose a threat to us.
In some cases we’ve even actively supported the mass murder of other nation’s people by their leaders. The mass murder of leftists in Indonesia during the Cold War would not have been possible without U.S. support. The overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvadore Allende, and the bloody dictatorship that followed under General Pinochet, would not have been possible without funding and support from the U.S. I’m barely skimming the top of the list of countries we’ve helped kill their own civilians (because this post is long and I want people to keep reading).  Even now we support Israel as they bomb and demolish Palestinian communities (which also violates the U.N. charter that allowed Israel to become a nation in the first place). ‘But we’re helping them fight terrorism’, you might say in response. I would encourage you then to take a look at how long it took Hezbollah to gain any kind of footing in Palestine and the circumstances that led up to their rise to power. I suggest reading Palestine: Peace not Apartheid as a means to get a better understanding of the Israel-Palestine situation.
I can go on and on, but my point is that our military is very strong, and our involvement abroad is about as harmful as it is beneficial and needs to be reexamined before any thoughts of increasing the military’s power are considered. Otherwise we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot in our alleged mission to bring peace and democracy to the world.

Trump wants to stop ISIS and terrorism in general:
   You aren’t  going to get an argument from me on this one, ISIS and any other radical group (not just the ones associated with Islam) need to be stopped. Is it the U.S.’s responsibility to stop them? In this case, yes. My concern however is the means by which Donald Trump plans to stop them, and the fallout that could follow.
Now despite what the media might have you believe, ISIS didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. A bunch of guys didn’t wake up one morning and decide to become murderous monsters. ISIS is a direct result of the invasion of Iraq. When the U.S. invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein they shifted what was once a nation with secular states into a nation with one predominant ethnic group, Shiites. Sunni’s on the other hand we’re stripped of nearly all political power. Massive unemployment among Sunni’s became the norm after the U.S. closed down factories and tried to implement a free market economy. Now in case this didn’t piss Sunni’s off enough, many of them also had their possessions and property stripped from them. And to make the Sunni living situation even better, the CIA trained Iraqi death squads (spawned from Hussein’s former secret police) which systematically murdered young Sunni men.
Now, I have no sympathy for anyone who chooses violence against innocent people, however if another country invaded your’s and began dehumanizing and murdering your friends and family, wouldn’t you be a little pissed? There is a quote which I can’t fully remember but essentially proposes that if you are drowning and someone sticks a hand out to help, even if you despise that person, you’re probably going to grab their hand rather than sink to a watery grave. The leaders of ISIS (then simply referred to as the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda) preyed on this, and that is how their numbers and their power swelled. Now please before you get angry and say that I’m defending ISIS, please know that is not my intention. As I said but will say again, I despise them and their attacks on innocent people from all walks of life. My goal is just to point out that sometimes our actions abroad hurt us more than they help us, and sometimes we don’t enact the most far-sighted policies. And by the way, Al Qaeda didn’t exactly pop up out of nowhere either. U.S. involvement in Afghanistan during the Cold War, when the mujaheddin we’re given weapons and support to fight against Russia, is what eventually led to that group coming about.

I don’t know if this is all an act with Trump, lord knows his policies have flipped more times than a McDonald’s hamburger. The American people need to understand who he really is, and what he’s actually done. His business record is abysmal, he’s plunged himself into debt greater than everyone reading this salaries combined. But most of all he can not possibly relate to the average citizen in his current state. What Mr. Trump doesn’t understand is that war should be a last resort, not a type of foreign policy. Most of all he fails to understand that this nation he claims to hold so dear is made of people of all shapes and colors, and that a nation that respects those differences is stronger than one divided by hate. So please, if you’re considering voting for Trump I would encourage you to do a little research. Because if Trump isn’t the type of American who can learn from his nation’s past mistakes, then he is not fit to be the leader of the free world.

No need to hide: A post about mental health

Mental illness is an elephant huddled in the corner of society’s bedroom. It’s an elephant that tramples and destroys, scars and tears. For decades it was misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and mistreated. People living with mental illness have suffered treatments ranging from bizarre to downright brutal. But we live in a new era. An era where depression, bi-polar disorder, OCD, bulimia  and any number of other illnesses are not only becoming better understood, but are also more effectively treated. So then why, in this day and age of such amazing progression, are the stigma’s regarding mental illness still so alive? Why are we still telling that elephant to just calm down, act more like the other elephants and just ‘be normal’. Maybe it’s because we still don’t understand that elephant well enough, or maybe its because we’ve never taken a good hard look at that elephant and realized just how familiar he/she is to us.

When I was working in Manhattan I typically commuted to and from New Jersey by train. Along the way I would either read or occasionally throw on some music and fall asleep. This was dangerous on the way home because, while en route to work I knew the train would end its route in Penn Station, falling asleep on the way home might mean missing my station and waking up in Perth Amboy or Belmar. So on the way home I would look out the window to stay awake, and every day I would pass this billboard. It was a billboard talking about depression, and the tagline said something to the effect of “You wouldn’t say It’s just cancer, get over it.” I liked this sign a lot. I liked that it described a mental illness for what it was, an illness. Not something to be ashamed of, not something to hide, but something to be diagnosed and treated. I had studied a bit of psychology in college and it always interested me. We watched a few films in one of my classes about people living with various mental illnesses, and it was the first time I think I began to really see these conditions for what they were. It’s hard to understand mental illness if you don’t have a mental illness, which I think is a big part of the problem. We all experience, to some extent, anxiety and depression and panic and confusion and any of the other countless symptoms, but we experience them in the way one might experience a thunderstorm. It’s there, it’s less than pleasant to be caught in, but it passes. But what about when that thunderstorm isn’t a thunderstorm, but a hurricane? A powerful hurricane that doesn’t pass but rather just hovers in place, constantly wreaking havoc with little reprieve. Because we’ve all felt some of the symptoms, it’s difficult to understand a person who struggles from a disorder that presents itself in these ways. But a bad mood after a shitty day at work is not depression, liking your DVD’s to be in alphabetical order is not OCD (though it can certainly be part of it…who owns DVDs anymore anyway?) and its the inability to draw the line between these little things and real illness that, I think, lends to the difficulty in understanding and empathizing with individuals who are struggling with mental illness.

Another bizarre factor of mental illness is that it can lay dormant, or build over time, until finally one event or instance just ‘Stone Cold stunners’ the camel’s back and suddenly someone’s faced with a full blown illness. I know mental illness, I’ve known plenty of people who have lived with different types. But it wasn’t until recently that I felt the need to use what voice I have to bring some attention to it. I was speaking with a friend who was telling me about her partner. Her partner suffers from a mental illness but refuses to even acknowledge it let alone be treated for it, and this is causing a major strain in their relationship. And who could blame her!? Who would want to be labeled as crazy, or insane, or mentally incapable of functioning in society. Who would ever willingly subject themselves to that? Who would want to be coddled or looked upon as some fragile object that might shatter if not handled properly? Who would want friends analyzing their every behavior, searching for a sign that they might be about to fall apart? Who would want to hear “I know how you feel” and then have their illness compared to the difficulties of facing the first week of college, or the anxiety faced before a midterm. And then I began thinking that maybe the key to breaking that stigma is just talking about mental illness, making the world a place where people who are living with these issues can come forward and speak openly about it without fear of being shunned or stereotyped. Maybe then people would be more willing to seek treatment, and help themselves, and help those who love them (who often suffer just as much as those actually facing the illness).

I was diagnosed with O.C.D. when I was 19, but I was living with it for much longer. When I was 14 some friends and I got into a pretty serious heap of trouble, and from that moment on the world gradually became a more terrifying place. This was my camel’s back, my tipping point. Over the years the illness built momentum before exploding the summer following my sophomore year of college. I told my family that I thought I needed some help handling what, up until then, had been a semi-controllable annoyance. But once I admitted it, once it was alive and able to take on a life of its own, it spread out and like a virus it infected every aspect of my life. Now I won’t go into details about the different things I dealt with, but they were bad. If organizing your DVDs alphabetically is a 1 and being convinced you’re dying is a 10, I was probably a 10.5-11. It was scary, and it was hard, and for the first time it became difficult to imagine how one continues to look forward to life with this elephant hanging around. I felt like I was tiny, and my life was being dictated by this massive monster who kept the real me locked in a tiny dungeon. But I gave myself over to the treatment, and I worked hard and by the fall of my junior year I was able to get on a plane bound for Ireland where I would do my semester abroad, something that only months ago seemed impossible. I had a lot of support, and because of these positives in my life I was able to take back my life and shove that monster into the tiny dungeon. And now I’m alive, and I love my life, and I relax and I take risks and I get dirty and I do things that would have given me a heart attack back then, but I’m alive.

Over the years I’ve become more and more comfortable telling this story. Most of my friends still don’t know, but some do. I’ll admit it, I was afraid of facing the same stigmas that I am sure are preventing my friends partner from admitting something is wrong and seeking treatment. I usually only told people if I knew they were facing something similar, and I thought my experience could help them. In a few cases, I told people because I had probably had one beer too many and when that happens I’m an open book. But I never regretted telling anyone because every time I did it took a piece of the power away from that tiny little monster in my pocket, and gave it back to me. It will never be cured, mental illness doesn’t work that way. It’s a part of me, but it’s something that can be controlled so that it doesn’t interfere with living.

I wrote this today because I want to encourage anyone reading it to learn about mental illness, understand its roots and what triggers it. I could be wrong, and I’m sure some people have had their suspicions about me, but I think some people probably would not peg me as having a mental illness. I hope that one day it won’t be looked at as anything crazier than a broken arm, or a bad flu, or some other ailment. And I hope then it will be treated and regarded in the same way. I also hope, above all else, that anyone with a mental illness who is struggling to seek help and acknowledge that this is a real medical issue that needs treatment. There is still a lot we don’t know about mental illness, and like many illness’s some can be treated more effectively than others. But awareness and education are the first steps.

So my name is Colin Johnson. I’m 26 years old. I’ve lived in four countries and traveled to more places than I can count. I’ve jumped off cliffs, squeezed through caves, hiked mountains. I speak two languages (sort of). I’m a teacher but I’ve also been a Peace Corps volunteer as well as having a handful of other positions. I’ve run marathons, I like to snowboard and read and climb stuff. I have made amazing friends, found an amazing partner, eaten foods I didn’t know could be eaten, and seen things too bizarre to put into words. I’ve decided to live life for the adventure that it is. And I’m one of the countless people all over the globe living with a mental illness.

Farewell to the Thunderdome

When I first moved into my house at site the desolate walls and floors seemed like heaven to me. For six months prior I had been living with host-families and I couldn’t wait to be on my own. I love my two host families, they treated me like a son. But after six months I didn’t want to be treated like a son, I wanted freedom. There’s a strange thing that happens when you lose your independence for so long and then suddenly gain it back. The simplest, most mundane things seem wonderful because you’re doing them on your own with no one around to see or judge. I suddenly found myself with pallet upon pallet of time with only my imagination to fill it. And so, in the weeks before I eventually got an Internet connection, I would spend my evenings sitting at one end of my barren house while throwing a tennis ball at the other end. The ball would bounce back, occasionally in some unintended direction, and I would grab it and throw it again. And so it went.
This house has become my home, just as life in this village has become the norm for me. I’ve never been so alone, and this time to myself has been pretty…educational. I feel like a different person than I was when I arrived. Old habits died, new ones replaced them. I don’t drink anymore, well rarely anyway. I eat healthier. I listen to podcasts and I started drawing to pass the time. Perceptions changed, ideas grew and collapsed simultaneously, friendships were made. I spent more time on a bicycle than I did when I was 15. I learned a new language (still learning). I fell in love with someone living 13 hours away from me, and we maintained that relationship despite the distance. I questioned why I was here more times than I can count, and was reminded of why every time I was able to make a student laugh or enjoy class a little bit. I experienced emotions in degrees I didn’t even know myself capable of feeling. Extreme anger, desperate loneliness, hopelessness, feelings of defeat. Of course to counter these feelings were ones if boundless joy, satisfaction, and even the occasional overwhelming sense of being where I was supposed to be. But regardless of what I was feeling, each day I came home and sprawled out across the thin mattress on my floor. It was usually atop this sunken cushion that I would ask myself if I could really do this for another day, let alone a week, month, or year. But it was also here that I would bask in the glory of a successful day of teaching, of a class that managed to have minimal screaming and where no one got up and ran out of the room or punched their neighbor. It was here, in my house, that I melted and solidified over and over into the person I am now.
Now, let me be clear, this house has been a headache in itself. Weeks without working water, random blackouts, electric shocks given off by everything plugged into the wall (including the refrigerator). I’ve shared this space with lizards, cockroaches, spiders the size of my hand, snakes that fell out of the ceiling, and whatever animal it is that runs across my ceiling panels at night. There is little ventilation, my room has no windows, and often it was hotter inside than outside. If you asked me if I wanted to get out of this house, 9 times out of 10 I would have assumed you were offering me a different place to live and just accepted, and then when I realized you were just being polite I probably would have punched you for leading me on like that. But deep down I came to love this house. It was my home for over a year and half, and as much as I’m looking forward to leaving it, I’m gonna miss it a little.
In a lot of ways this house is like my service here, difficult to live in and even painful at times (seriously those electric shocks were no joke). But it was home, and I grew to love it and feel like a part of it. I didn’t change it, maybe just took care of it a little differently than it would have been taken care of otherwise, and little by little watched as it changed me. This is my last night in this house. Tomorrow I’m catching a train to Bangkok where I’ll start the next chapter of my life. And so here I am sitting against my bedroom door with a glass of wine (because special occasions are special occasions), chucking my tennis ball at the wall across the room, saying goodbye to an old friend.

Bees and Ghosts

As I walked past the nurses office yesterday I noticed a few of my 4th grade students were laid out on the beds. Two of them were An and Benz, who had previously told me they had headaches and had refused when I asked if they would like to go see the nurse. The other was a girl named Oil, who likes to boss me around and occasionally imitate me teaching. She’s also the same girl who started crying when I first told my students that I would be leaving at the end of the term, so I have a bit of a soft spot for her. I stopped in to see how they were feeling. They asked me to come sit with them…well Oil kind of ordered me to, but the other two asked. I was planning on relaxing in front of the fan and doing some reading, but I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t just read in the nurses room, and so I agreed.

My students like to hear me read, even though everything I’m reading is obviously in English and it’s fair to say they understand none of it. I’ve gotten used to it though, a few times during lunch my students have found me reading and asked me to read out loud and then after a few minutes they laugh and run away. So, as I sat there in the nurse’s room relaying, in the most comforting voice I can manage, the story of the Japanese invasion of the Phillipines during World War II and the events preceding the Bataan Death March, I was surprised when after a few pages I hadn’t heard so much as a giggle. In fact I found all three of my students had their eyes closed and were nestled into their pillows. I looked down at the book, Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, and couldn’t help but laugh. It wasn’t exactly a bed time story. Unfortunately the pause in my reading caused them all to wake from their (possibly fake) slumber and demand that I continue. It also provided just enough time for all of us to notice the bizarre situation happening in front of the room. A few meters away, circling in a dark tornado, were hundreds of bees.

I’ve made my peace with bees. I’m allergic to them, I have an epi pen, it’s whatever. If they land on me I just go about my business until they go on their way. That said, the largest swarm of bees I’d ever seen appearing out nowhere and blocking the only entrance into the room I currently occupied with three 9 year old children was a little disconcerning. I knew I wouldn’t panic if the bees decided to move in here, but what about the kids? The kids asked what they were and I said they were bees. I moved closer to try and scope out the cause of this random swarming, but I didn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. The bees just circled right there in front of the entrance, not coming any closer. And that’s when I heard one of the kids scream, and that’s when things got confusing…or rather MORE confusing.

‘Don’t worry’ I told the students, ‘If you’re not scared of them then they won’t sting you’. I’m not sure if that’s true but I figured it was better than having them panic, and my moral compass when it comes to lying to children is shaky at best. Don’t judge me, I mean c’mon…Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny? At least I was trying to keep them safe, not telling them a fat guy was going to come down the chimney and leave presents even though OUR HOUSE HAD NO CHIMNEY. Uhg, that’s a story for another post. Anyway, my students couldn’t have cared less about the bees. They had other concerns.

When Oil started saying she was scared of ‘pii’ I mistakenly thought she said ‘bee’. At first I was impressed that she knew an English word we hadn’t covered, “Yes, bee, but don’t worry it’s ok they won’t hurt you”. “No Teacher Colin”, she replied “pii”! She tacked on her best scary face to really hammer home the point. Pii means ghost in Thai. I know what you’re thinking, how the hell do ghosts fit into this? I was, and still sort of am, just as confused. And so I asked “What ghost?”. They then proceeded to tell me that the local temple (where bodies are cremated) used to be where the school is, and the school used to be where the temple is, but then they switched them. I don’t know if this is true, but I took them at their word. They told there were angry ghosts that haunted this building and that they were afraid. I still didn’t understand why, out of nowhere, they were afraid of ghosts and what, if anything, this has to do with the very real threat of bee stings. I also didn’t want to outright tell them that the ghosts weren’t to be feared on the off chance the actually were ghosts and my proclamation of their timidness might piss them off. Now again, I know what you’re thinking, ghosts are the stuff of science fiction. Well in Thailand ghosts are as integral to the culture as anything else, and that kind of dedication to a belief tends to rub off on you. I’ve never seen a ghost, but who am I to say they’re not real? Nevertheless I was left at a slight loss for words. Fortunately the bees were still being bees, and seeing as my students were terrified of whatever was going on, I suggested we get out of there. Oil and An strafed the wall to avoid the bees, and I picked up Benz (who is all of three feet tall) and carried her to table near the schools office. As soon as we walked out, the cyclone of bees moved away from the building and disappeared.

The bizarreness of the day didn’t really hit me until I got home. At the time I really just wanted to read my book. Later, as I laid in bed I was struck with a moment of ‘hmm yea that was pretty weird’, but honestly a lot of things are pretty weird and these days weird things just seem…normal.

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Names and Faces

Is it more important to remember a person’s name, or their face? Is it better to recognize a person and admit that you have forgotten what was likely one of the first things they told you about themselves, or not recognize a person but agree that you know someone by that same name and that its entirely possible that this individual claiming to be them is in fact them? I’m not entirely sure one is preferable. Now granted there are times when name and face bond seamlessly in my mind, but more often then not its the face that sticks. I’m terrible with names, and sadly my time in Thailand has done little to improve this quality.

Back in the States there were more instances than I would care to admit of me logging someone in my contacts as “So and so’s friend” or “Mustache Guy”, but in Thailand I met a whole village’s worth of people in a matter of a few weeks and my Thai language skills were very much in their infancy. This led to the formation of an entire mental database of nameless faces including students, fellow teachers, village elders, government workers, neighbors, etc. I could pick these people out of a crowd, but I couldn’t tell you their first name. I knew where they lived, I knew their children were in my 2nd grade class, I knew they were rubber farmers or owned the local noodle shop, but I had no clue what their name was. And though I have gradually learned more and more names, primarily those of my students (which I know sounds terrible, that a teacher might not know their own students names…but I have 300+ students and I met them all in the span of three days, and their names are in Thai so give me a break) but the vast majority of people I see everyday, in my memory, register as faces.

Now if there is any redemption in this admittance it’s that I know A LOT of faces. I know my student’s parents, I know my students obviously, I know my neighbors, I know the guy who I’m pretty sure is on drugs and occasionally screams in the road when it starts raining, that database is stacked. The village I live in is tiny, and so I see the same faces every day. Just like a baby learns to speak by being immersed in the language of their caretakers, I have learned the faces of the locals with little conscious effort. I’ll pass someone when I’m out running and know ‘oh there’s Kwan’s mother’ or ‘there goes Fa and her family’. And its a weird thing to know people only by their faces and by the experiences you’ve shared with them. It’s like returning to some sort of ‘dawn of mankind’ era of socializing and relationship building.

I have been thinking about names and faces a lot over the past two weeks. What spurred this course of thought was an unimaginable tragedy. One of my student’s mother’s was murdered. When I learned about this my brain immediately began combing through my database for this woman’s face. I knew it, I remembered her. I remembered her picking her daughter and a few other students up from school, and us exchanging greetings. A few other shards of recollection, a passing wave from her motorbike perhaps, dotted my fragmented memories of this woman. But this woman had been someone else’s entire world. My student knew her inside and out, she and her mother had lived alone together and the absence and fear this girl must now be facing was incomprehensible. Someone who had meant everything to someone, was to me only a passing face. This meant that every face, every nameless grouping of eyes and nose and teeth, had the potential to be everything to someone else. I thought about the people in my life whose names and faces were merely the surface of all I knew about them and how I would feel if suddenly that person ceased to exist. I felt sick, I felt angry. Who had the right to strip someone of their world? What reason could possibly exist to justify taking from someone that which they know so intimately? What monster could knowingly leave a child so alone? These questions clawed at me until, at the end of the school day, I thought of something else. Who among the nameless faces, the ones I see even in my sleep, was the monster?

I haven’t been back to site in about a week. As I write this I’m sitting stranded in an internet cafe in the midst of a pretty heavy rainstorm. I don’t know if they have since caught the party responsible for the murder of my student’s mother. But I can’t stop thinking about the moment when I found out who it was because I know in that moment what will happen. My brain will comb through its database, pick out the face, and remind me of the times I passed this person on the road, or shook their hand, or smiled at them. The more I think about this the more I’m starting to think maybe names and faces aren’t important at all.

The Ultramarathon – Part 2

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Elevation change during the Thailand Ultramarathon, taken from http://www.thailandultramarathon.com .

I lay in bed the night before the start of the Thailand Ultramarathon with a peculiar feeling in my gut. I had been nervous before races before, but this was different. Just earlier I had sat around a table in the guest house common area with a group of backpackers and other runners, listening to the race photographer describe the course. “It just goes up” he said and turned his palm upwards so his fingers pointed at the ceiling,”literally it’s just like this”. We asked how much of the course was like that and, caught between wanting to be informative and wanting to avoid being intimidating, he shrugged and replied “Most of it.” An ultra runner himself, he told us that despite the course being too difficult for him to run and photograph at the same time, his other reason for not entering was “It scares the shit out of me”. When I saw him poised with his camera at 6km, a mere fraction of the races total distance, all I could say was “You were right.” That night, tossing and turning mere hours before the start of the race, I was scared.

Before falling asleep I managed to convince myself that it was an adventure. I woke up somewhere between the worlds of excited and terrified, but just close enough to the former that a big smile stretched across my face. I started getting my supplies ready. Now I should mention the course had been shortened. Heavy rains had left part of the course damaged and so it was too dangerous for the vehicles sweeping the course for injured or distressed runners to use these trails after dark. So the course would now include just one 50km loop, and then two smaller loops which included the earliest portions of the course (which happen to be the steepest parts). In total the race would come out to around 79km total. Naively I allowed this to be comforting even though I had never run anything remotely close to that distance before. The course would be broken up into 8 checkpoints. Checkpoints 1,5 and 7 would be in the same place, likewise checkpoints 4,6, and 8 (the finish line) would be in the same place. But like all races, this one starts at the starting line (which…was also…sort of the finish line…).

Headlamps on, racing vest buckled, water bottles filled, shoes tie..ah shit one second. Ok shoes are tied. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

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In the first kilometer with fellow runner Masaya Kanesige of Japan!

Fortunately were about to be introduced to arguably the toughest portion of the course. Within the first 6km we will ascend to an altitude of 1000 meters and then return to the level we started at. That early race adrenaline made it seem easy though, and by the time I reached the stream at the bottom of the descent I was feeling pretty good. Checkpoint 1 passed by without a hitch and, despite some deep mud, the route to checkpoint 2 was pretty comfortable. I left checkpoint 2 a little under 2 and a half hours into the race. I was smiling, I was comfortable, I had supplies, and I felt confident that I was in for a great day. When I crossed the finish line 12 hours later, I had the same smile on my face, but I think it was because I had gone in a little crazy in the oncoming sections of the course.

Coming into Checkpoint 1.

Coming into Checkpoint 1.

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Hanging at Checkpoint 2. Photo courtesy of Mr. Kanesige.

The distance between checkpoints 2 and 3 was the longest on the course. 21 kilometers of hills and jungle and hills and not-jungle and trees and giant fissures in the ground and talking rocks and Pitbull songs that get stuck in your head which sucks because you hate Pitbull and his dumb songs and there were flies…no wait the flies were later, but all that other stuff was now. This stretch of the race, though not the most physically tough, was pretty difficult mentally. I would arrive at checkpoint 3 only 3 hours after leaving checkpoint 2, but it felt like a lifetime. The jungle was thick and I was alone so I just started talking to myself. I talked about Ammy, about movies, about books, about food. Then after an hour or so I stopped talking and just started thinking about things. I would get songs stuck in my head but not the full song, just one or two lines of it over and over again. I would drink and snack periodically, and when i had finished up my water I told myself, “Alright the checkpoint must be close because I’m out of water”…and that made sense to me. It wasn’t close, but there were a group of local volunteers waiting about 13km from the checkpoint with water so I was able to refill. I completely forgot to mention this earlier, but somehow between the evening prior to the race and the morning of, I lost my watch. Some of my delusions about how much further I had left to run can probably be attributed to the fact that I had no basis for determining how long I had been going for. But it was hot, so I figured it was almost noon.

After a little while I started hearing things. Now mind you these sounds were almost definitely just normal forest noises, but in my mind it was always another competitor. See I had entered this ultra purely with the desire to finish. In the months leading up to the race I had done about four runs over 20 miles, a handful in the mid to high teens, and the rest I filled in with workouts and shorter runs. I would wake up at 7 a.m. some days and then purposely not sit down again until 7 p.m. because I thought this might be a good way to get my body used to long periods without rest. But needless to say I did not have any expectations of performing well in this contest, I just wanted to finish. When I got a look at some of the other competitors I started to worry that I might finish last. Keep in mind I’ve been competitively running for 9 years now, it’s tough enough for me to enter a race just for the joy of it, but coming in last…I didn’t know if I was ready for that. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out at checkpoint 2 that I was in 8th place. Suddenly anything was possible! Leisure be damned, I want to run well! Hence this led to my mid-race paranoia every time I heard a noise behind me, thinking it was another competitor coming to overtake me!

I don’t really know what happened next, there were roads and stuff and then I was at checkpoint 3. Just before I got there I was passed by fellow runner Masaya Kanesige and he was kind enough to snap a picture of me wading across this euphoria inducing stream.

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It felt like stepping into a bag of Halloween candy that’s had all the Almond Joys and Mounds and other shitty candies already taken out. It was awesome.

It was tough to say goodbye to checkpoint 3. After filling up my water bottles I seemed completely unable to get them back into the pouches on my vest. I think subconsciously this was my brain trying to make me stay there longer, dining on delicious muffins and peanuts. Or it’s possible I was getting tired and my coordination was a little off. Either way, it was only 13km until checkpoint 4 which also marked the 50km point. I remember this stretch of the course being exposed for a while, a lot of sun, and hills, and then we were in the trees and I don’t really remember anything after that. I know I was again in the jungle for what felt like forever but when I emerged I was on flat trails along hillside farms. Farmers hacked away at their crops, children waved and yelled to me. I could hear a river so I know I must be getting close (because the guesthouse was on the river) and then all of a sudden I came out into a village with a paved road and in front of me was a Caucasian woman washing a pickup truck. Now I had really lost it.

I almost thought about poking this person to make sure she was real. When she first saw me and said “Oh hello! You’re one of the runners! Do you want a spray from the hose?” I thought I was hallucinating. But no, it turns out I had encountered one of the few expats that resided in this part of the country. I asked her for directions (not because I needed them because the course was well marked, but because I wanted to look cool and not ask how much further it would be until I could eat something) she said it was only about 2km more. I thanked her and she said I could stop by for a cup of tea next time I came through.

Checkpoint 4 had that feeling you would get when you wrote a long paper in college, full of citations, and all that was left was the annotated bibliography. The bulk of the work was done, the hardest part is over, now you just have to put all your sources in the proper format and POOF all done. In fact don’t even start it yet, go to the dining hall and get a snack, you earned it. And that show you like is on, why not take a load off and watch an episode. Those sources can wait, you’ll finish them in no time. Except that bibliography is going to be like 12 pages long and you won’t finish until the 3 a.m. That’s how Checkpoint 4 felt. All that remained after the 50k loop were two 12km (but actually somewhere between 13-15km) loops. And half of it is that part I already ran, the first 6km to checkpoint 1, and that wasn’t so bad. I practically flew up it last time, all things considered.

Yea so it sucked the second time around. The nimble fresh legs of the morning ascent felt like pirate peg legs, and the cramps that had begun setting in after checkpoint three had intensified so that any motion too jarring sent a wave of pain up my muscles. On top of that, my mind was really starting to wander. Every ounce of mental energy I had was focused on making sure my feet landed safely and that I didn’t trip over anything. Compounding all of this was the knowledge that I was going to have to do all of this again. And then there was the fly. In retrospect it could have been more than one fly, but as far as I was concerned it was one asshole, selfish, life-sucking fly. He circled my head during the entire descent towards checkpoint 1/5. I tried to swat him in what I believed at the time to be exceptionally stealthy maneuvers, but that probably looked absurd to anyone who was watching (which was no one because I was alone) and definitely only fueled the flies cruel, remorseless circumventing of my cranium. I would later tell Mamie (a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who just happened to be staying at the same guest house that weekend) that I have never felt such deep hatred, in all of my life prior, than I did for that fly.

I rolled into the checkpoint mentally exhausted and craving sustenance. I found it in some cocoa covered peanuts. At that moment they tasted like all the wonderful things the world had to offer, and I basked in that wonder. In that time another runner checked in, refilled his water bottles, and took off. He was already on his second lap, and he wore a long sleeved shirt, running tights, gloves, and thick wool socks. No human being has ever amazed me more. I refilled, slugged down some water, and chugged along after him. The next part of the course was paved but still really steep. The road would eventually descend and turn back towards the village where the guest house stood, and my second lap began. I talked to a few runners along the way. An Estonian runner on his second lap chatted with me for a while before tearing off to a great finishing time. A short while later a runner named Jag, a guy from the Philippines now living in Bangkok, caught up with me and we stuck together for a while. Far more knowledgable about ultra events than I was, he gave me a bunch of salt tablets he had packed with him. According to him they helped with cramps, which makes complete sense, and while they couldn’t do much for my existing cramp level they did prevent them from getting worse. The two of us hiked up the hill into Ban Tham where outdoor-lifestyle photographer Mead Norton (the same guy who’s strikingly accurate description of the course had kept me up at night) waited.

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You can check out more of Mead’s awesome photos at http://www.meadnorton.com.

Ok, one lap to go. Jag made a pit stop before getting to the checkpoint and so I continued on solo. The second lap wasn’t much different than the first lap, it was hard. But I had a new issue to contend with; daylight. It was starting to get dark and that meant I would be running through the jungle with nothing but a headlamp and reflective tape stuck to trees to guide my way. I fought as hard as I could to at least make it up the hill before sundown, and I did. The descent and the remainder of the race would be in total darkness. I descended a tiny bit slower than I probably would have if I was going top speed, but this was necessary to insure my exhausted legs didn’t catch on a root or rock and send me tumbling. I was passed by three runners during this time, one of whom was my buddy Jag, and after a brief refill and time check at checkpoint 7/5/1 I found myself in the home stretch. The rest of the race was pretty I eventful for me. I made it up the paved winding roads of the last big hill and then shuffled down. When I got to my first patch of flat land in what seemed like forever, I found something in me I didn’t expect. Most of the course had been inclines. This meant steep hikes up, and even steeper shuffling down. The muscles I needed to do those things were toast. That said though, I found I could still run. With just over 2km left, that’s exactly what I did. I ran as hard as I could. I tore through the streets of Ban Tham, I wound onto the dirt trails that went along the river, I got lost when I missed a piece of reflective tape which forced me to backtrack a bit, but I kept running. I felt it, I felt strong and tough and capable of anything. Never in my life had I done anything this physically and mentally difficult, and so many times I wanted to stop. Instead I ran, and hiked, and climbed, and limped, and gritted my teeth, and kept skating after I was slammed into the boards, and picked myself up after being crushed on the lacrosse field, and I just ran.

The cheers of the other finishers and support teams as I approached the finish line were earth-shattering. After so many hours dominated primarily by my own voice in my head, the noise enveloped me and carried me to finish line. I finished in 14 hours and 36 minutes, the 12th finisher overall. Of the 43 competitors who started, 22 had completed the full 79km. I was sore in places I didn’t know existed, and what would follow was a series of ‘mosts’; the most painful shower I’ve ever taken, the most fruitless attempt at post-race sleep I’ve ever made, the most unable I have ever been to finish a bowl of pad thai, the most relieved I’ve ever been for a race to finish. But I was also really proud of myself and humbled by this challenging course and all that it had put my fellow 42 competitors and I through. That night as  I once again tossed and turned in bed, this time in an effort to find a position that wasn’t painful, I would think about parts of the course and almost like a reflex I would experience a jolt of fear.

The soreness wore off in about two days which was less than I expected. The next morning Mamie and I caught a bus to Chiang Mai to meet up with some fellow PCVs and dine on one of Thailand’s best attempts at Mexican food. The next day I caught a bus to Bangkok, and a little after 1 a.m. my taxi pulled up in front of Ammy’s house. I’m always happy to see Ammy but that night, half awake, I was extra happy to see her. Maybe it was because her face had been in my mind for the majority of my 14+ hour endeavor, or maybe I was just really tired, but that night as I curled up into bed I smiled feeling that I couldn’t ask for more out of life.

And yes, I’ve already signed up for my next race. 100km.

The Ultramarathon – Part 1

There was a time in my life when I thought running was the greatest thing imaginable. I lived to run, and I loved every minute of it. The more I did it, the faster and stronger I became, which in turn inspired me to run more. In my mind the possibilities for my running career were endless. As far as I was concerned the sky was the limit and nothing was going to stop me from reaching my full potential. I was an idiot.

Right around the end of my senior year cross country season the ugly side of running decided to rear it’s head, and like a leach it began sucking the life out of me. I had hit little set backs before. Frankly as a freshmen and sophomore it had taken me a long time before I was even a mediocre runner, let alone a halfway decent one. But I had love for the sport, and that love gave me the energy I needed to power through those set backs. But then all of a sudden in 2010 my body was like ‘whelp it’s been fun but things are gonna suck now’, and they did. No matter how much I ran, no matter what injuries i meticulously attended to, I only seemed to get slower. It felt like my muscles had been replaced with sand bags, and slowly my love for the sport began to fade.

Now running always had a special effect on me, it made me feel tough. I had played other sports before, mostly hockey and lacrosse, but I wasn’t particularly good at them. I wasn’t particularly big, or coordinated, and I seemed to lack the attention span necessary to remember plays and calls and things like that. But, I could take a hit and get back up. While this might not seem like the most glamorous skill to have, it was one I clung to dearly. When someone twice my size would crush me against the boards, or when a stick would catch me in the side of the neck, or between pads, I would just grit my teeth and tell myself I was fine. After a while that response became automated. And while getting laid out in the middle of a lacrosse field may look weak or wimpy from the sidelines,in my mind I was strong because I was getting up ready for more. When I started running I was forced to face a different kind of pain. The kind that creeps up on you, the kind that overloads your senses, the kind you don’t know you’re experiencing until it’s too late. But just like earlier, I could fight through this pain, and the more I trained the more I could focus in pain too.

Now, back to senior year (I promise this has a point and I’m not just being nostalgic) and my shitty track season. I wasn’t getting faster, if anything I was getting slower. Worst of all, I didn’t feel that toughness I once felt. I didn’t finish races feeling like I had given it my all because frankly I hadn’t. My legs, my brain, my body wouldn’t let me. I was zapped, everything was fried, and I was in a slump. Desperate to feel like the badass I had once felt like, I asked my coach if I could start running the 5k and the 1500 every meet during outdoor track. He agreed, and eventually even let me try the steeple chase (followed by the 5k) because, why not? I made sure that if I wasn’t running fast, I was at least going to feel like I was earning my place on the team, and in turn feel tough again. And then when track was over I threw in the towel and didn’t run again for months.

Since college I’ve been on a sort of quest. That feeling of strength and toughness that carried me through running became such a part of me that to try and abandon it was like trying to give up breathing. I can’t train meticulously for races, although I’ve tried. Goal paces, vO2 max, the specifics of training are things I just can’t get into. And so I’ve latched onto the thing I latched onto so many times before. How difficult is it, how painful is it, can I finish it? In answering these questions I’m able to feel that sense of strength I first found picking my muddy ass up on the lacrosse field. And so 1/2 marathons, marathons, triathlons, tough mudders even, they’ve all been really appealing to me, and I’ve dabbled a bit in each. But then, a few months before leaving for Thailand, I entered my first ultramarathon, and I was like a pig in shit.

50k is just barely an ultramarathon. It’s about 8k longer than a regular marathon, so about 31 miles long. That’s not to say they’re easy. They’re extremely hard! Marathons are hard! Half marathons are hard! Hell, running a mile is hard! But when I first learned about ultramarathons my first thought wasn’t that they must be hard, it was that the people who run them must be insane to want to run more than a marathon. The marathon is the pinnacle of running, it’s the fabled El Dorado, it’s the edge of sanity. The marathon is what runners say “yea I think eventually I would like to try one of those”. It’s an event that unifies people, because it’s the ultimate challenge of mind and body. So if that’s what marathons are, then things like ultramarathons and ironman competitions are just batshit crazy. The body can only take so much, and the mind…well you would have to be delusional to think you could focus on one thing for the time it would take to run an ultra. It’s insane, right?

i had to know if I could do it, and so before considering whether I really wanted to or not, I registered. I barely trained, I got injured mid-race, I limped through the remainder of the race and swore never again. Flash forward to last February, I once again found myself in a 50k after better (thought still poor/lazy) training. I made it further but at mile 16 I felt the same injury come on, and resigned myself once again to limping and hobbling through the remainder of the race. It seemed my sense of adventure was writing checks my legs couldn’t cash, or at the very least I couldn’t commit to preparing for. But none-the-less I was hooked. I recognized I wasn’t doing enough to prepare for these races, but I wanted so badly to be able to do them. And so a few months ago I read about the Thailand Ultramarathon, a new event in it’s first year being held in a mountainous region near the border with Burma. I considered, I mulled, I signed up. Not for the 50k though, for the 100k, because learning from my mistakes was clearly out of the question. I woke up the next morning, and as if wrestling with a hangover and remembering some shameful act I had committed, I muttered softly to myself, ‘Ahhhh shit.

Halfway to 52

I don’t like to make a big deal out of my birthday. If I’m lucky I get to spend the day with the people I love and just hang out while eating unhealthy food, maybe watch a movie, and occasionally storm a soccer field in the middle of the night with a flag made of my broken hockey stick and claim it as your own. Other times, like yesterday, I spend the day alone. This may sound sad to some people but I spend so much time on my own here anyway that I’ve become more than accustomed to entertaining myself. So yesterday I slept in, did laundry, biked into town, had a nice lunch, ate a lot of ice cream, slogged back home with what felt like a brick in my stomach, and spent the rest of the evening relaxing and doing some exercise at home. I had begun the day with a FaceTime session with the family back home, and ended it FaceTimeing with Ammy, so all in all I was pretty content. I hadn’t even told anyone in my village that it was my birthday because I was concerned they would make a bigger deal of it than I wanted. So I went to bed that night having closed out on another birthday.

When I arrived at school the next day it was raining, and so morning announcement were being shouted into a microphone while students lined up under the awnings in front of their classrooms. After the bell, I headed to my first class amidst a sea of students, the younger of which persisted in their habit of using me as a jungle gym. I made it to the classroom I share with my coteacher, Kruu Ice (Kruu means teacher in Thai), and we proceeded to push through a review of the last few weeks topics. After class I started to make my way back to the teachers office but was stopped by a group of students before I could reach the stairs. They all started handing me cards and saying happy birthday. I was shocked, first that they even knew it was my birthday and second that they would have made me anything. As it would happen one of the other teachers had seen a ‘happy birthday’ post from my coteacher to me on her newsfeed and word had spread. I thanked all of the students for their kindness and complimented their artwork and then headed to the office. I hadn’t been sitting for more than ten minutes when the door opened and a line of students filed in each smiling and presenting me with a birthday card they had created. It was wonderful, some of them had really out a lot of effort into them. I felt great and afterwards I couldn’t stop smiling.

The rest of the afternoon was full of ‘happy birthdays’ from other teachers and students. They asked how old I was, what I had done to celebrate, etc. I told my students I was turning 100, which few accepted a little more readily than I would have liked. Before long the last period of the day rolled around, 4th grade. I should mention Mondays are slow for me. I teach only the first and last periods of the day, the middle hours are usually spent reading, wandering, etc. I walked up the stairs towards my classroom and was greeted again by a wall of students. A quick glance in the room on my left and I could see the students were drawing. Suddenly one girl ran up and hugged me and handed me another birthday card, before I could finish thanking her another student had handed me a card, and another, and then another. One student came up and handed me a lighter which at first kind of alarmed me, but then another student slapped it out of her hand and told me it belonged to a different teacher before scurrying off. Before I could follow her another student grabbed my arm and started pulling me towards the classroom. My coteacher smiled at me and as I went to look for a spot on the desk to put down the cards I heard my name called. I turned around to see a wave of kids from a few different grades flood into the classroom carrying a small birthday cake with lit candles, a bag of durian chips, and even more birthday cards. The smile that spread over my face at that moment wouldn’t leave me for almost two hours. The students sang happy birthday, I attempted to blow out the candles (which was hard because they were those trick candles), and then tried to get frosting on a few of their faces. They asked if they could watch a cartoon, and after glancing at my coteacher it became evident that she had told them the decision was mine to make. ‘Ok, ok du cartoon’ I responded and the kids cheered.

Later I sat down with a few of my students while we watched one of the Madagascar movies. A group of them gathered around me and started asking me every question they could think of. What was my favorite food, what was favorite food in Thailand, what was my favorite animal, what was my girlfriends name, and eventually, when would I go back to America. I told them I was going back in September for a vacation but after that I would be back in Thailand. They asked how long I would stay in their village and I said about another 8 months, then I was planning to move to Bangkok. Around this time one the girls in my class rested her forehead on knee. I should mention, kids in Thailand are pretty physical. I can’t make it through a day without someone leaning on me, asking to be picked up, laying on my shoulder, climbing onto my lap. The minute I stop moving I pretty much become furniture, it’s just kind of normal, and so when Oil(that’s her name) laid her head on my knee I didn’t think anything of it. Until after a few minutes I noticed my knee was wet, and I realized she was crying. I’d seen her cry once before, another time that the topic of how long I would be staying was brought up. The other kids noticed and while they weren’t crying, I could detect a similar mood among them. They weren’t asking how long I was staying out of curiosity. They were asking because they wanted to know how much time we had left together. They were going to miss me and I realized, despite the abundance of grey hairs they cause me, I was going to miss them.

Is tough to determine success, or even progress, as a peace corps volunteer. A lot of times I feel like I’m not accomplishing much of anything. I try to remind myself that just showing up, just being there, is something that will have an effect, but as time goes on in a place with so much need, that assurance carries less and less weight. Working in education, I probably won’t know what effect I’ve had on these kids for years…if ever. But today as I sat with the kids I started to redefine my impact.

Sure one of the teachers had the kids make birthday cards for me, but there was a lot of care put into some of those cards. They drew things like dinosaurs and monkeys, they each wrote me notes in their own words (and then coached me through reading them). It was sweet, and goofy, and to someone who frequently feels like an outsider looking in, it was very meaningful. They each made sure they handed me the card they made, made sure I opened it and saw their work, and attempted to read what they wrote. Maybe just showing up, just being there, just making sure the kids know I care about them and that they’re important to me, is more powerful than I could have imagined. And yea, maybe they won’t retain more than a few sentences of English, and maybe only a few will ever really be able to speak it. But no matter what I’ll leave this town in 8 months knowing that for 2 years I made them laugh, I picked them up, I let them lean on me during assemblies and sit on my lap when watching movies in class. I hugged them, high-fived them, accidentally knocked a few of the smaller ones over, but always picked them back up. And maybe, just maybe, these two years will have a positive impact on something even bigger than their education….their lives.  That sounds pretty good to me.