Several years into my ESL teaching career in Thailand I found myself at a school in the Klong Toey district of Bangkok. This is a noisome slum area that breeds disease, despair, and plenty of good old fashioned juvenile delinquency. It is a place where startling mansions and emporiums nestle cheek by jowl with the most wretched dwellings anywhere on earth. A textbook example of what Karl Marx would call the inequality of capitalism. Everyone hustled 24/7 to get out of that cesspool – some of them honestly, most of them not. The children there had to grow up fast.
My school was fairly modern and the kids, dressed in their cute frocks and blue slacks, looked as innocent as goslings.
At 16 years of age, they were anything but.
The teacher before me was a former prison guard from Australia. He lasted just 3 weeks before he was defenestrated.
This was not a class I was looking forward to teaching, but the wallet was thinning fast and the school had a reputation of paying salaries punctually. So I took a chance.
The first day of class was a debacle. The girls huddled in one corner, gossiping and experimenting with makeup, while the boys lounged near the windows, giving me the once-over to see how much effort it might take to jettison me into the courtyard. Luckily I was fairly heavy, even for a farang, so the boys did not immediately decide to hoist me over the windowsill.
No one paid me the slightest attention, and my lesson went nowhere. When the bell rang the 16-year olds trooped sullenly out, not even bothering to bow or offer me the obligatory wai.
I do not claim to be an Albert Schweitzer or educational genius, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I needed to keep that job till something better turned up, so after school, as I was riding the asthmatic bus back to my apartment, I hit on a plan.
There was a sprawling greenhouse next to my place. I bought a dozen of the cheapest potted plants I could find, and when I told the old lady who ran the place that the plants were for my classroom, she tossed in 6 more, gratis. They were weedy, sorry-looking things, and I had no idea what they were. But I took them all to school with me the next day.
When my girl students saw the plants on my desk they immediately became interested.
I told the girls – while the boys continued to pretend to be totally uninterested over by the windows – that I had to give them an English lesson each day, and that if they would help me through it by at least staying awake, we could spend time after the lesson, before the bell rang, taking care of the plants, and that at the end of the school year I would be happy to distribute them to the class.
The girls immediately began classifying the plants and advising me on how best to take care of them – this one needed lots of water; that one needed direct sun all day; and this one had leaves you could eat – and, miracle of miracles, some of the boys even came over to get in on the palaver.
I kept my lessons short. All the girls, and some of the boys, enthusiastically entered into the spirit of the thing, and as the weeks rolled by I brought in more and more cheap, sickly potted plants, which the kids immediately began nursing into bloom.
Of course, there was a hard core of boys who refused to have anything to do with my scheme. I could not get them to participate. The pleasant time I was having with the rest of the students seemed to goad them on, until one day one of these tough guys picked up a sapling off my desk and hurled it out the window, then tried to stare me down – daring me to do anything about it. The girls set up such a ruckus that the assistant principal shot in to see if I had been lynched. I explained what happened, and she turned on the tough guy with a fury that only the female of the species can summon and sustain. He, and the other tough guys, cowered before her. I found out later that basically what she had said was “I don’t care what you do to the farang teacher, but how dare you destroy one of these beautiful plants! I can promise you that if another one of these blessed plants is disturbed by any of you hooligans I will personally have you roasted alive!” She stalked out, and then my girls took over. They ganged up on the tough guy and physically forced him out of the room to go retrieve the damaged plant from the courtyard below. And they were not gentle about it. And their language was – well, let’s just say I picked up some interesting new Thai vocabulary that day.
After that incident all the tough guys were thoroughly cowed by the girls in class. The girls saw to it that the boys were alert and responsive, so the lesson would get over fast and the plants could be tended to. Any boy who tried the gangsta business again was in for a tongue-lashing and, perhaps, after class, a beating, from the girls. The plants prospered under their care. One of them was a Thai eggplant, which actually produced some small, green, barely edible, fruit.
After several months I was able to finally line up another job in a much better school. I’d like to say that my Klong Toey students gave me a “Good-bye, Mr. Chips” type of send off, but, truth to tell, all the students cared about was divvying up the plants.
All Thais, I’ve since learned, have a green thumb. They nurture plant life like a farang nurtures a money market account. And flowers never stop giving interest.
This taste of Thailand has been brought to you by Provo Flowers. Show your loved ones that you care by bringing them flowers — the gift that lightens any room.