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.

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