“You know, I think everybody longs to be loved, and longs to know that he or she is lovable. And, consequently, the greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.” – Frederick Rogers (a.k.a. Mr. Rogers)
When I was struggling late last May, I sought something that would take it away. I was willing to give or do anything, to surrender. The days came and went as I showed up to school, sometimes teary-eyed, sometimes comatose.
One day, three young girls in my first grade class came up to me. They’d only known me for one week, but as I entered the school they screamed my name and ran toward me. Each one of them wrapped their tiny arms around my leg, resting their chin and smiling up at me. “Good morning teacher.” I grinned a half-smile and asked, “Good morning. How are you?” then each of them giggled.
Something very strange happened at that moment. Even though I was tired and sad before the day even began, suddenly I felt overwhelmed with joy, with love. They didn’t know it, but I quickly took my things upstairs and burst into tears. These young children didn’t speak the same language as me, they weren’t my age, they didn’t share the same culture as me, and yet they were unabashedly happy and excited to see me. They wanted nothing more to love and be loved. They want nothing more than love.
As the weeks went by, I become closer with these young students. I watched them flourish in the classroom and use their little brains like sponges. One student in particular, Euw (pronounced “you”), struck me as someone extremely unique. She had a child-like innocence unmatched by her peers. Each day she climbed upstairs to the office where I worked and sat next to me, her feet dangling high above the ground. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Working,” I replied with a smile. She waited five minutes then headed for the door saying, “I’m going downstairs. I’ll be right back.” Three minutes passed and she’d come back. “What are you doing?” “Working.” After awhile, she’d head for the door reminding me. “I’ll be right back.” She repeated this at least eight times throughout the day, always wanting to come back and sit next to me.
In class she’d scribble letters backwards, frontwards, sideways, crooked and I’d help her by making outlines she could trace. Each time she finished a letter she ran to me, scrunching her work in her hands. “Look!” she exclaimed. I looked at her letters and said, “That’s so wonderful, Euw! Look how great you did. It’s beautiful.” Each letter, each picture, each assignment she would bring to me beaming with pride. Nothing else in the world seemed as wonderful as the work she brought to me.
One day as we were colorings pictures of vocabulary words, I glanced at all of my first-graders’ work. Job and Joy, two twins, colored the grass green and the sky blue, coloring almost neatly inside the lines. The boys, Dton and Ice, colored the clouds fire-red and the grass electric blue, almost neatly inside the lines. Then I looked at Euw’s picture. She had taken the coloring pencils and scribbled large circles in random places all over the picture. There was no rhythm or order to it at all.
“Does Euw learn slowly?” I asked my co-teacher in a culturally Thai way. “Yes. She doesn’t learn very well. She’s not good,” she answered. Then it occurred to me: Euw was, indeed, a very special student.
Again, weeks passed until one day, I heard the teachers in a fluster. “Where did Euw go? Have you seen her? It is lunchtime and no one knows where she is.” No one seemed to know. Before long she returned, now wearing casual clothes instead of the school uniform. Apparently, she had walked several kilometers home for no reason at all to change. The teachers continued to scold her until before long her Grandmother arrived at the school. My co-teacher came inside the classroom to retrieve the long, wooden stick used for bad students. With each whip of the switch my heart sank deeper and deeper into my chest. All I could do was breathe and say in my head, “It’s going to be okay, Euw. It’s going to be okay.” Then I reminded myself, “It’s going to be okay, Julia. It’s going to be okay.”
Months passed more gently and each Monday morning I’d look forward to her huge smile and warm hug, her friends Job and Joy always trailing closely behind. One day at dinner, my mother asked the principal’s wife, “Did you hear about Euw?” Slightly worried something had happened, I listened intently. “Well,” she continued on, “I guess in other subjects she has started to write her name on the top of her papers only in English. Not in Thai.” She laughed loudly, remarking that Euw was learning English better than Thai because she was spending so much time with me. I beamed with pride.
Some weeks at school I noticed that Euw’s hair didn’t seem as clean as the others. I asked,” Did you wash your hair?” She smiled and nodded her head. The next day she came to school with fuzz and dirt in her hair, matted with oil. I was certain no one helped her bathe. I combed my fingers through her hair, patted her head and rubbed her back as she clung to my side, always smiling up at me.
This Tuesday March 12th, 2014 was my last day at Baan Kohkkrang Primary School. When my mother asked me to give a speech to the students, I could feel tears in my throat. I shook my head silently at my mother signaling “I can’t do it.” “I’ll be right next to you Julia. It’s okay,” she said. So I started to speak to 100 pairs of eyes between the ages of 4-13, then I immediately burst into tears.
The day carried on but I knew that before long it would come to an end, an inevitable end. Euw was extremely affectionate that day, hugging me three times before morning announcements even began. She would sit across the room from me and I would cock my head slightly and give her a sly smile. She burst out into giggles for a short moment before returning to her work. During last period, I took photos with all my first-graders with their sloppy hugs and eager camera poses.
As the students cleared the room to head to after-school announcements, Euw hung behind the others and stood with me in the doorway. She put her hand on my leg and stood there with me. “Euw. I want you to know that it’s my last day here. I’m going back home.” She didn’t seem to say anything. From behind my co-teacher loudly said, “Euw, Kruu Julia bawk-wah ja mai maa iik leow. Glaap baan America leow. Kow Kai Mai?”(Euw, Julia won’t come again after this. She is going back to her home in America. Do you understand?) Her little body fell limp except for her small hands that grabbed my camera and stared at it with wonder. I could tell she was trying to wrap her mind around what she had just heard.
I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted to tell her that it was all going to be okay, but I didn’t because other students were standing nearby. How could I tell one student I loved them and not tell them all? As she put on her shoe, I noticed her socks. Every one of her toes in the socks, caked with brown dust, poked out except the pinky toe. Then, her friends quickly dragged her away to announcements and I began to worry. What if I went upstairs and she went home and I never saw her again? What if that was the last time she saw me and hadn’t even realized I was leaving? I stood in the doorway for nearly a half-hour before I realized announcements weren’t ending anytime soon.
I went upstairs to quickly gather my belongings. With gifts in tow and a satchel stuffed with a heavy notebook laptop, I booked it for the gate where the school bus parked. The students already dispersed and my eyes swam through a sea of children hoping to find Euw. This couldn’t really be it, could it? Has she already left and gone back home? I searched frantically. The 100 degree sun beat down on me and I shooed away the school cook who insisted I sit and wait for my host mother to come get me. I couldn’t wait. This couldn’t wait.
At the front of the school, I peered into the rungs of the pick-up truck converted school bus with benches. There, on the back of the bus sat my Euw with her feet dangling high above the ground, her gaze affixed somewhere out in space. My heart thumped and I smiled a large, toothy smile. She saw me and perked up sitting up straight with her backpack. She laughed to herself coyly and fell backwards.
For a half-hour I waited in the sun, balancing my heavy bag and armful of belongings. Every once in awhile, I, too, would stare off into space. I’d come back, though, smiling at Euw and her returning the gesture.
The school bus started the engine and I braced myself for an inhaled breath. “Goodbye, goodbye,” all the older students hollered as they waved their hands at me. But not my Euw. She sat quietly and looked at me. I looked at her. The truck started to drive away and the students stopped waving. It was then that Euw quickly perked up in her white collared shirt flashed a short, shy wave and the biggest smile in the world.
When I wanted someone to steal my heart away, I didn’t expect it to be a 6-year-old. Alas, it is.
Situation side-note: Later after writing this post, my host mother informed me that Euw does not have a mother or father. They left her in the care of her grandparents since birth and the grandfather has since died, leaving only her very elderly grandmother to care for her. She said Euw is one of the poorest students in the school and lives in a hut. I have all the love in the world for this little girl and will continue to send my love and whatever I have to her for the rest of her life, be it clothes, money, or anything she may ever need.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer to learn and receive so much love and compassion from the people I’ve met, especially the children. This is exactly why I decided to serve in the first place. I know the things I’ve experienced will stay with me for the rest of my life. I only hope I can help by passing on the love, compassion, empathy and kindness shown to me in these two years.
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