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