“What? Are you serious? There’s no book?” I asked Terry Mumbles, while him, me, and the Crazy Canuck waited outside our apartment building in the searing sun for the school van, which was running 15 minutes late. The Canuck was pacing back and forth by the laundry machines, squeezing a vise-gripper.
It was the first day of the semester. Mumbles muttered something about how the school didn’t give teachers a copy of the book. We needed to go to the library and check out a copy. As did the students. And the students’ versions had been previously used and most of the copies had the answers to assignment and activity questions already written in them.
None of us yet had been given a semester schedule or told when we’d have exams. Mumbles mumbled something about how the first week of class, hardly any students would be there anyway.
The Crazy Canuck went into a diatribe about the TQF reports, labelling them, as well as almost everything else he disliked, “retarded,” and saying how we’d need to go into those to find which book we needed, but that the library often didn’t have copies so we’d have to download the book ourselves or buy it online.
He ranted about how he’d spent hours last term writing and rewriting his TQF evaluations, because there were students from five different majors in his English 2 class and he’d been made to write separate sets of reports for each major, even though they’d all been in the same class. He wasn’t sure what to write because most of them didn’t come to class. Most of the students didn’t speak English either. Not a word.
Mumbles interjected, grumbling about how it wouldn’t matter the grades we gave them because they’d be changed anyway. One class he taught last term was excellent and he gave most of them A’s, but the school had changed the scores, changed many to B’s, C’s, at random, and the students were pissed off about it. As was he. Mumbles mumbled something about the grades being on a curve distribution.
The van arrived in a stinky black mist of dust and diesel fumes. It wasn’t the shuttle bus I expected either. The beaten-up minivan was probably 20 years old. The school's name was embossed on its sliding door but with a couple of letters missing.
Inside was worse. Parts of the flooring looked like they’d cave in and the seats were torn. The AC didn’t work so we kept the windows open, letting in all the exhaust fumes and heat from the road.
The van’s driver, an angry, jowls of fire, middle-aged Thai man, appeared to be nursing a hangover. He reeked of booze and drove at breakneck speed, weaving furiously through traffic and nearly forgot two or three of the stops.
Along the way we picked up a young Bangladeshi couple who worked as teachers/admins. And two African girls in their early 20's, one skinny and one plump. The girls were doing an MBA program and part-time (possibly illegal) admin work at the school.
Towards the end of our journey, on that first day, the school van unsurprisingly broke down, sputtered and stalled and the men got out and pushed it to the side of the road and had to wait in the hot sun for 20 minutes or so for the school to send another van. But it was no van they dispatched. It was a pick-up truck. A very humble one at that. And we all dressed in suits, ties, formal dresses, the Bangladeshi lady in a floral-patterned hijab, all piled into the bed of the pick-up truck and rode in silence, sun and sweat for that last five kilometres of our commute.
The teachers room
Being the first day, maybe there’d be a party or a welcoming ceremony but there was nothing. We didn’t have schedules until 7:45 am that morning. When we arrived, the school seemed half-abandoned and the office was still rocking and rattling through its last trimester of renovation.
The shifty-eyed IT guy, this time in a button-down blue shirt, khaki slacks and black Adidas sneakers, was handing schedules out to teachers as we entered the office to scan in via fingerprint. (He’d cut his hair like Ronaldo, smelled of pineapples, and gave me an enthusiastic handshake, his clammy right hand having slightly too firm a grip)
I saw the accounting lady who’d driven me home and who’d been friendly, but she didn’t offer much of a hello, only a gruff, “Good morning, Ajarn.” (I’d later discover a cold formality at the school. The admins never called any teachers by name, simply referring to us as “Ajarn,” the Thai word for “professor,” completing nearly every sentence with it.)
I sat down for a minute at a vacant desk, next to Mumbles and a cagey Brit. The Brit admonished me, saying how that wasn’t my desk and how I should be careful, because if “they” caught me sitting at a desk that wasn’t mine, or if I purposely switched desks without asking permission, I’d be in “big trouble.”
I’d not been assigned a desk or told I was required to be at one or be required to request to change seats like a kindergartener. There was nothing in the orientation or contract about that. He was right though. This incident - the mere sitting down at a desk that wasn’t mine even though I was never assigned a desk, would come back to haunt me later.
The office was in a shabby condition. I’d have thought with the renovation that they’d have fixed it up. But not so or perhaps not yet. The place was crumbling, had grimy walls and stanchions, rutted floors, and part of the AC casing was missing, exposing the inner pipes, and nearby the junky AC, the ceiling was rotting and leaking. I’d come to find there were occasional cockroaches, huge flying cockroaches and micro-ants.
And there were wasps which would sporadically fly into the office, meetings and classrooms, and the Indian phone-zombie guy once saw and snapped a photo of a cobra slithering into a field nearby the school.
The most troublesome however, had to be the rats. Big bamboo rats the size of little dogs. Mumbles mumbled about rats in the office last term because the Filipino teachers had been eating in the break-room behind the office, leaving half-eaten food out, which had attracted the gargantuan rats of the rice fields and the rats had been running amok, dropping pellet-shaped rat turds everywhere.
One of the teachers, a farang, one of the 6 or 7 who’d resigned after only a month or two in the last year, had gotten into a heated argument with the Filipino teachers about not eating in the office. There was even a sign posted in the stairwell, in English and Thai, warning us not to eat or bring food above the first floor, and that violators WILL BE FINED. But that hadn’t dissuaded this set of Filipinos from munching on their morning chicken and rice.
In the classroom
I’d only minutes prior received my schedule so I hadn’t much time to prepare and drew up a quick lesson plan for introductions, class rules, and a “what you did over the vacation” class discussion activity.
When I got to the classroom, the reality of my situation became further apparent. First off there was nobody there. It was 7:58 am, and the class was to begin at 8:15 am.
“Thai Time,” I guessed applied to students too, as it did to most everything.
At my previous school, the students would be there well before class began. There’d be students studying, reading aloud from books and practicing their English. At this school, the classroom was full of ghosts.
Humans eventually arrived - in body if not in mind. About half the class turned up, filing in anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes late. To my dismay, despite the school touting itself as a top international school in Thailand, out of the nearly 30 students who came, only 2 or 3 could really have a conversation in English. Maybe 10 could speak some English, low to low-intermediate levels. The rest - around 17 or 18 of them - couldn’t speak a word. Not a word. They couldn’t answer simple questions like “How are you?” or tell you their name or introduce themselves.
It was disheartening. Many of my previous students in Korea, were shy but spoke quite well and were motivated to study. This was a much different situation. These were second year students too. They’d in theory passed three semesters of English courses and been through 10 years or so of English study in primary, middle and high school. How did they get this far not being able to speak a single word?
In Korea I had occasional situations where a student had squeaked by, not able to string together a sentence or say more than a few words, but usually they could read and write. I’d never had a single student that couldn’t read nor write. But many of these students could barely read or write. Or do anything.
They were poorly behaved as well. They wouldn’t be quiet. Most would ignore me as I spoke, speaking over me in Thai and chatting away with each other or playing on phones.
I was beginning to understand why they couldn’t speak English. They had no interest in learning.