Kindness In The Morning

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Paul King is a twenty-four year old American who has been living and working in Thailand for a year and a half. For his first nine months in the country, he studied Thai at a university in Bangkok while bouncing around much of Southeast Asia during his time off. Now he teaches English at a public high school in the southern coastal province of Trang. It is here that he also pursues his passion for writing fiction and travel pieces, while deftly avoiding hogs on his motorbike. A former student of author Matthew Quick, he has been continually inspired by the books, words, and life choices of his former American Lit. teacher. You can read Paul’s blog here, as well as follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Something real, something human

“GOOD MORNING TEACHER,” they all say when I walk in.

“GOOD MORNING!” I say back. I am smiling, very animated. I have to be, because they are seventh graders, and it’s important to engage them. But I’m not faking it, either. This is one of my best groups, and seeing their forty-seven smiling faces, I’m happy to be there.

“Teacher Paul, why did you get a haircut?” asks Neung. We have been doing this thing where every day a different student asks me a new question.

“Because it’s important that Americans look handsome,” I say.

“THANK YOU TEACHER,” they say, and we begin our lesson.

* * *

When I first started teaching here, I did not like GOOD MORNING TEACHER. After the first few times when it was novel and kind of cute, I got pretty tired of hearing it and saying it. I began to think it was stupid, since most of the kids just parrot it like robots. With some classes, especially the group I nicknamed “the Darlings” – because they had this darling way of dumping white-out all over the floor, clapping the chalkboard erasers into each other’s hair, and destroying all the handouts I would give to them – I found it especially difficult to be enthusiastic when saying, “Good morning.” There were many days when I did not want to say it at all. I wished I could just give the Darlings a worksheet to do and then make some small conversation with the couple of girls that actually were very sweet – there were always a few shining stars, even in a large class of Darlings.

These few girls – Mot, Tou, and Som – would always really enjoy it when I said “Good morning!” really loudly with a big smile on my face. They would laugh when I would say it like GOOD MOR-NING! and wave at them. On days when I was less than thrilled to be there – perhaps because I walked into the classroom as one particular Darling was throwing a knife into the blackboard – I would say, “Good morning,” to the students with no enthusiasm, no energy. After all, what was the point? These were lower level kids who didn’t care about me or about learning English. They would just roll their eyes or laugh if I tried to engage them with a big, welcoming, “GOOD MOR-NING!” So instead, I would just passively hand out the worksheet and tell the kids to get to work, and if I had any problems I would send them to Ajarn Jaran, the school disciplinarian.

But I could tell that when I did this, Mot, Tou, and Som were disappointed. They didn’t speak my language, but they could read my tone of voice and my body language. For whatever reason, they loved it when I came to their classroom twice a week to give a lesson, even if they didn’t understand a word I said – other than, “Good morning.” It occurred to me that maybe they looked forward to that, “Good morning.” Maybe in this overcrowded public school, where Mot, Tou, and Som are just numbers in a system waiting to be passed unnoticed from one grade to the next, maybe GOOD MOR-NING! was something real, something human. As small as it seemed, maybe it mattered.

Once I realized this, I became defiant in my good mornings. Even if I didn’t feel like it on the inside, I would force myself to say it anyway, loud, smiling, and enthused. Even if it was with a lower level group where most of the kids thought it was stupid, I knew there were a few who appreciated it, and so I did it for them. I didn’t care who laughed or who thought it was lame. I started doing this every day, which went on for many months, and over time I got quite used to saying, “Good morning” in this way.

* * *

Eventually I had to go down to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to apply for the proper visa. This involves going down to the Thai embassy there, applying for the visa, picking it up the next day, and heading back to Thailand. To the uninitiated, this might sound like a nice two-day getaway to KL, but it’s not a fun trip – just a lot of travel, red tape, and sitting around.

On the day I was to go pick up my visa, my mind was distracted, worrying about some unseen bureaucratic loophole that would prevent me from getting the visa and keep me here in KL. This had happened to my co-worker Tom, who had left Thailand without all the proper paperwork and then had a hell of a time getting the staff at school, who don’t speak any English, to fax down what was needed. I had checked and double-checked the documents I had from my school with the list on the embassy website, but these things were always changing.

Feeling stressed and a bit hungover from a later night out at the bar than I had expected, I showered and went down to the small breakfast café across the street from my guesthouse. I sat down, and the server came over with the menu. My mind was elsewhere, and it just happened with the kind of instinct that occurs when you’ve practiced something to the point of exhaustion.

“GOOD MOR-NING!” I said to the guy.

We were both kind of shocked. I had said it very loudly. I hadn’t meant to sound so happy, so enthused. It was only seven in the morning – would he think I was a freak?

For a few seconds we just sort of stared at each other, wondering what exactly was happening. But then, maybe after judging that my good morning was sincere – it had been honed, after all, amidst the fire and harsh criticism of a classroom of Darling Thai seventh graders – he smiled.

“GOOD MOR-NING!” he said back to me. It was as a greeting as loud and as enthusiastic as the one I had given him.

We both started to laugh then, partly because it was all a little unexpected and bizarre to be so upbeat that early in the morning, but mainly because being greeted like this by a total stranger just feels good.

After picking up my visa, I headed to the airport, looking forward to seeing my students again. Mot, Tou, Som – even the Darlings. The irony hit me that the kids who were the poorest students of English were the best teachers of simple truths. They had shown me – first in the classroom, then in Malaysia – that the simple act of saying good morning can transcend language barriers and cultural differences, because a smile is universal. That as small a thing as it might seem, it might matter a great deal to someone else out there.  That if you take a chance on saying it to people, you might brighten someone’s day and get a really positive reaction, and that this is always worth it.

Back in Thailand now to teach for another year, I think I’ll keep saying it.

~Paul King

Q4K is going on hiatus. But The Official Blog of Matthew Quick begins next week. Please follow Q here: http://theofficialblogofmatthewquick.blogspot.com/

13 Responses to “Kindness In The Morning”

  1. In researching my WIP earlier this week, I came across a website that discusses depression and good mental habits. The basic premise is, if you change the way you think, you can, literally, change your brain chemistry. Imagine sad things happening, and your brain believes those sad things are actual events. Imagine happy happenings, and your brain gets happier. Perhaps in the same way, smiles are contagious. A hearty, genuine greeting can override another person’s cheerlessness. If Paul King bellowed GOOD MORNING to me, I think my brain would say, Damn, it really IS a good morning. Smiles go a long way. Thanks, Paul!

  2. Q says:

    Amber Appleton is proud of you…and so is your former English teacher. Those kids are lucky to have you, and you are lucky to have them. Sounds like you’re exactly where you need to be, PK. This essay moved me. Well written. Wise. Human. Humane. I remember when you used to say hello to me back at HMHS, when you were the student. Circles and circles. Thanks for adding your voice, Paul. Great stuff. Onward!

  3. Sawatdee khrap, Paul. “A smile is universal.” As you have so skillfully pointed out, it can be the small things that make a big difference. I am happy to see that your students are teaching you as much as you are teaching them. Your GOOD MORNING to them sets the tone for the class so much better than if you just walked in like you were calling hogs to the trough. This is a great essay and brought a proud smile to my face. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  4. Q4K – While I am sorry to see Q4K go on hiatus I am also looking forward to Matt’s new blog. Q4K has been an inspiring ride each week and we have seen wonderful examples of kindness given and received. I consider everyone who has participated my friend and if you show up at my door I will welcome you with open arms. Best to all.

  5. BD says:

    What a great essay to top off Q4K. As someone who is definitely not a morning person, this essay reminds me that what I project to the world–regardless of the time of day–can affect the people around me. Thanks, Paul!

  6. Well done. Unless one has taught 7th graders, one has no idea. You are a hero!!!!

    Blessings to you and yours,

    Greg

  7. Paul King says:

    Thanks all! I’m glad you enjoyed my essay, hopefully as much as I’ve enjoyed reading yours. I’m also glad to contribute to Q4K before the hiatus, but am eagerly awaiting Q’s new blog as well. All the best to you, PK

  8. Elise says:

    Fantastic post, and an important reminder. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in our own moods, but when we give people just a little bit of focus and attention — something as small as an energetic good morning — it changes everything for both them and ourselves.

  9. Kent says:

    Great essay, Paul! I don’t teach but I have lectured to high schoolers lately I tended to focus on the kids that don’t give a crap what I am talking about. This really brought me down. Now, I try to find the kid in the class that is most into it and focus on that one person. Their enthusiasm feeds mine and soon the bug spreads. Eventually, a lot more kids get into it. Next time, I’m just gonna hit them with a huge “Good Morning” right off the bat.

    Thanks, Matt and Alicia, for the little slices of kindness each week!

  10. Paul says:

    Elise, I think it is very true that the small act of coming into a room with an energetic greeting changes the atmosphere immediately. With young kids it also grabs their attention and gets them on task.

    Kent, there will always be the kids that don’t give a crap. I think you are right to key into the ones that DO, and after some time, some of the ones that are “too cool” may end up coming around when they see the other kids involved and interested, like you say. Not all of them, but maybe some. If it were up to me, kids would be given total freedom to choose if they want to be there or not, and learn to take responsibility for their own learning…ah, but that’s a topic for another time.

    Thanks again all for your comments!

  11. Corey Shagensky says:

    Very nice story! They say first we form a habit, then the habit begins to form us. So keep it up.

    Good afternOOOOOOn!!

  12. mmmmmwww says:

    Interesting story! It is very inspiring!! Here is a film about kindness from strangers, you should take a look at it. http://americanbearfilm.com/

  13. Great essay, Paul. Love re-reading these.

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