The other day I was boarding a Lao Airlines flight to Vientiane and the attendant greeted me with a nice, “Good morning teacher.” I was a bit stunned, wondering if someone was just playing a little trick on me. Who was she? It’s hard to recognize someone with so much makeup on, but then it came back to me and I could remember the student who sat up straight at her desk with eyes wide open.
It must have been a good eight years ago. With thousands of students taught within that span of time, I’m surprised I could remember. She liked to sit mid-way back on the right side of the room, squeezed elbow-to-elbow on a bench with her best friends who were quicker at learning English, but silly in their underperformance and underestimation of their own futures.
It’s not hard to remember those times because they were not easy by any means. They were close to nightmarish. For some reason, I was volunteering at a private school and had taken over one class. Looking up and out through the windows, I could see the mountains on the horizon, but looking down, I’d see crumpled paper, sunflower seed shells and half-chewed sugarcane spit directly onto the floor. A clean room is a clean start, but we never were able to start the day like that.
The students were typical teenagers who had perfected the art of slouching through life, be it their posture, their socializing or their study habits. I couldn’t comprehend why they treated their education so casually to the point that I would question myself why I thought it was all so important.
When enough buttons were touched, I’d break out into a lecture in broken Lao. “This is your chance! Don’t waste it now because you might not have this chance again and then where will that leave you?” Really, graduating with a certificate but with no skills would not get them anywhere. How could they be so impervious to this message? Why did they act like everything was just a joke?
Amidst this sea of impertinence was one young woman who sat on the right side of the room. She would look at me intently as I ranted. She was probably using all her facilities to understand my Lao, but she needed even more effort to ignore the depths of apathy in her classmates. She was parting her own red sea and that was no small effort considering the frivolous froth that was foaming all around her.
After my own foaming at the mouth, I’d calm down and with tedious predictability, we would return to where we had started. Same dirty room. Same insolence. I wondered every day if we were going forward or sliding backwards. I had always hoped, but never imagined that something could become airborne.
When I got off the plane, we said goodbye. I was happy to see how proud and confident she looked and I felt satisfied that she had remembered me. I think I had done my part, not by singling her out as teacher’s pet, not buying her way out with a scholarship or throwing her a laptop as if it were a lifesaver. I think I helped by simply sticking to my stubborn and foolish belief that a student needs to know and believe in what they can do.
There are so many stories of unpolished gems that could shine with the right intervention. Certainly, a bit of money in the right place goes a long way, but I like these other rags to riches tales. They’re about the moment that a young person discovers who they are and believe in what they can do. They place a dream of any dimension within their sights and then take flight.