As the huge hypodermic needle pumped what seemed like gallons of anaesthetic into my toe, I looked around the room and could see all types of candidates for the latest ‘Walking Dead’ box set.
On the narrow metal bed next to me lay a child who couldn’t have been any more than three, with a massive head wound, screaming loud enough to wake the dead on a different continent. A couple who must have been his parents were comforting him, but even I could see that this poor mite needed medical attention immediately.
My ingrown toenail was hardly life threatening, and as I tried to explain to the doctor that maybe she should be looking at the boy instead of me, she wiggled the massive needle around just enough to send a shockwave of pain through my entire body. A bespectacled young doctor appeared. He swiftly pulled the curtain around the young patient, and I returned my gaze to my toe just as the weapons-grade nail cutters were produced.
Jum was busy chatting to the old lady on our left, and as the doctor sliced through my septic nail I did my level best to remain as calm as possible. Jum’s new friend was watching intently as half of my nail was ripped out of my toe; then she looked at my face, waiting for me to start howling like a little girl.
She was disappointed, because I maintained my composure, and just as she was about to ask Jum how she had found such a tough foreigner for a husband my wife let the cat out of the bag and explained that I had about a pint of painkiller floating around my veins. The rest of the procedure was fairly simple, and we were soon on our way back home.
Because we were by then well into the monsoon season, the rain was relentless and due to the usual blocked drains, the roads were under about 10 inches of water. I had to tie a plastic bag over my poor foot in order to stop any infection, and this made our trip home a little more eventful than usual. Once we got there I had to explain to Jum about why I hadn’t been able to complete my first day of teaching, and before I could finish. Wannee’s car was at our gates.
Appeasing the boss
Great! I’d just had a surgical procedure on my toe, almost drowned on my motorbike and now I had to face KPS’s version of the Spanish Inquisition. She listened patiently as I did my best to explain the events leading up to my hobbling exit from the school. Her porcelain features barely creased when I told her about the hornet sting, and how I felt like giving up teaching after such a disastrous day. Instead, she was more concerned about the brand of tea that Jum had served up, and they chatted away for a goodly time while I did my best to look as pitiful as possible.
‘Phil, you will come back to school tomorrow?’ Wannee asked me.
I thought about the alternatives, and although I wasn’t feeling my best, the idea of failure didn’t exactly appeal either. I answered in the affirmative and Wannee left, but only after getting directions to the grocery store where Jum had found that fantastic green tea.
In stark comparison, Tom came home a little later and regaled us with tales of his awesome first day at school. He had been quite popular back in the UK, but this experience was altogether different. It seemed that the girls wanted to be with him, and the boys wanted to be him. My son was as happy as I had ever seen him.
This made me feel a lot better about my day, and after an early dinner I retired to bed for the night. My dreams were particularly vivid; I can remember being chased around the school by a 20 foot tall Mustafa as I hopped pathetically around the staircases. The raucous din made by our frogs rudely awoke me from my bizarre thoughts, and when I heard an all too familiar scream, I went back to sleep rather than repeating the previous nights’ heroics.
My second day as an English teacher in KPS couldn’t have been any more different. Despite offers from Wannee to hold my hand for my first few lessons, I went to each class alone – to my surprise, with some success. There were two classes in the morning and two in the afternoon, adding up to around four hours of teaching. This meant that I had four hours of free time in which to prepare my lessons, plus a one hour lunch break. The whole week pretty much mirrored this pattern, and I noted that I was only teaching for 20 hours per week.
The downside was that my students would only get one hour of English per week, and that was no way nearly enough.
I was forced to wear sandals for at least a week as my poor toe needed some pressure-relief in which to heal properly. As I limped into each classroom, the 50 or so kids would all notice my footwear and the large bandage on my toe. They’d wait for me to introduce myself and, once the pleasantries were dispensed with, they’d ask about my injury. I replied ‘Lep Kop’ (Thai for ingrown toenail).
To my surprise, not a single student laughed or even smirked. ‘Lep Kop’, they would repeat, and I even got some looks of sympathy, which rather helped with the bonding period. I could only imagine the amount of stick I would have got if I was a new teacher back in the UK.
Although teaching in Thailand was never plain sailing, the respect that I got from the students made it a very memorable experience that I will never forget. By the end of the second day I was definitely enjoying my new profession, and this was reinforced even more by the end of the week.
Tom was doing well, and I must admit that I played up the fact that he was my son on occasion. The girls would ask me if I knew him, and when I explained that he was my child, they would start asking all kinds of questions and even begged me for his mobile phone number.
The dreaded mathayom three
I was teaching Mathayom 3, commonly known as the most difficult year to teach. The kids were aged around 15-16, and we all know how this particular hormone riddled bunch of teenagers usually play up. The classes were labelled 3/1 all the way up to 3/14. 3/13 and 3/14 were known as the Talented Students League, or TSL for short. 3/1 to 3/3 were good kids. 3/4 to 3/10 were kind of the middle stream, and as for 3/11 and 3/12… well, let’s just say that these were the most challenging.
But for some reason, over the whole year, it was these kids that I got on with the best. Okay, some of them were probably borderline ADHD, and God knows I didn’t have the tools to deal with this type of behaviour, but I did my best. I managed to mix up my lessons enough for them to retain some level of interest, and to this very day I miss those little monsters!
My own set of objectives was fairly plain:
1) Teach conversational English
2) Make lessons fun
3) Turn up for lessons
That was pretty much it, and when I sat in on some of the Thai English teachers’ lessons, I discovered something that really surprised me. Almost none of them, especially among the older ones, could speak a word of intelligible English! They were essentially teaching reading and writing, and their grammar was probably better than mine, but conversational English was not their forté.
I was often consulted by them in the staff room to double-check their pronunciation, and this was not always easy. I did my best to correct them without making too big a deal about it, but on occasion I failed miserably.
Phil Hall was lucky enough to teach at a government school in Isaan from 2012 to 2013 and thoroughly enjoyed this experience. He also has a book published called Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards.
It takes the reader on a journey from the UK to India and finally Thailand. Debts, Dementia, poorly planned emigration, self discovery, family bonding and attempted murder are all part of the highs and lows of this 18-month true tale. This is an excerpt from the same book with a few alterations.