My Greatest Volunteer Accomplishment: It Isn’t Mine at All

My newest co-teacher, a 55-year old single Thai woman with a passion to learn English, drags in a phonics book taller than me into the classroom. She plops it on the table and begins to unfold the pages. Curious, I go look at the monstrous thing. “Phonics for Grade 1.” I beam as I think of how she hunted it down and dragged it in for teaching.

Her name is Baa Nit. She has never had any formal English training, but she’s driven to learn it, speak it, and push the students to do the same. Long before I worked with her, she urged the students to pay in the cafeteria and use English. “10 baht, please. Thank you.” I knew she was something special. All on her own.

Of all my accomplishments or pride felt as a volunteer, the following holds true: My greatest pride comes from things I haven’t even done myself, as if I’m invisible, merely a catalyst behind the curtain.

Here’s an example: Today I taught a Phonics lesson to grades 1-3. I started my morning with three lovely hugs from the young ladies below. Who needs coffee when you can have love like that? We settled in comfortably, sang our daily Good Morning song, then I introduced them to the Big Book of Phonics. Their eyes bugged open really wide and everyone went, “Wowwww. Big. Book.”

First grade love. Daily hugs. And kittens.

First grade love. Daily hugs. And kittens. A typical Elementary school day in rural Thailand.

I started off with “B” /b/ boy. They gurgled the consonant in their tiny mouths two times. Then three. Then four. Over and over until most of the group pronounced the letter correctly. Sometimes I’d switch it up, holler, and point enthusiastically, “Just the boys this time! “B” /b/ boy.”

The whole time my co-teacher helped keep the students stay focused. During calmer moments, I saw her mouth the consonants to herself quietly, trying to understand the movement of the teeth, the lips, the tongue and cheeks. She wants to learn. All on her own.

Baa Nit jotted mental notes of my lesson, knowing she would have to teach the next two periods on her own. We switch: She leads. I follow. In medical training this is known as “See one. Do one.” The little boys and girls tucked pencils and papers into their knapsacks. A few stray pages poked their heads out of unzipped holes. Baa Nit tidied up the Big Book station for the next group of students.

The bell rang, dismissing the first graders to their next class. I quickly ran upstairs to check my email. When I returned, Baa Nit had already begun the lesson, writing big capital letters and humming words out of her mouth such as bird, bee, ball, boy, bat. “‘B’ /b/ bat,” she said with strong emphasis on the “buh.” As she repeated it, the noise itself bumbled around the room, bouncing off the walls. The students echoed the noise, trying to fit them together like puzzle pieces.

In the front of the classroom, I took a seat and observed her. She pointed at the first letter on the board, pronounced it, then half-nodded to me, cocked and lowered her head as she raised her brows. I half-nodded back once, smiled and took a sip of my hot tea.

Next, she numbered the four, newly learned letters “B, C, D, K – 1, 2, 3, 4.” In amusement, I watched to see what she would do next. This wasn’t an activity I did in my lesson. She picked a random letter and said, “/D/, /d/, /d/, dog. Which one is /d/?” – “3!!” the students screamed in excitement. I loved it.

It’s in that moment that my heart filled with joy and absolute pride. I don’t think it is pride in myself. I have pride on my teacher’s behalf for taking a lesson I taught and making it her own. It’s pride for my teachers and their confidence, their accountability, and willingness to change. Their resilience, their passion, their hope for students. Hope for the future and for Thailand to be the best country it can. I have that hope, too, and the unique, willing teachers with their enormous hearts and students with their eagerness to learn and brains like sponges, they give me that hope. Have I done anything at all? I encouraged them, promised them that they are already great the way they are. I’ll continue to do so in my remaining time here. It’s my greatest pride. My greatest contribution, but really it’s not mine at all, and I feel wonderful about that.

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P.S. Peace Corps Thailand group 126 invitations are now being sent out. Please feel free to contact me and touch base to get a firsthand experience of what the next two years of your life will be like, especially if you have questions related to serving as a LGBTQ volunteer. I’ll do my best to answer any and all questions. Get ready for a life-changing experience.

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One response to “My Greatest Volunteer Accomplishment: It Isn’t Mine at All

  1. Pingback: The Triad: Doctor, Wife, Mother | Light Enough to Travel·

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