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The Happinees of a Village Teacher

By Nimit Bhumithavorn

English Translation by Chamnogsri Rutnin

จาก ความสุขของครูบ้านนอก ในเรื่องสั้นชุด มือที่เปื้อนชอล์ก ของ นิมิตร ภูมิถาวร


Illustration: Indigo


The villagers call me "Kru Dej." They just don't go for Viradej Bangyom, which is my full name.

Yes, I'm an ordinary run-of-the-mill rural municipal-school teacher. It's the status of headmaster --Or "kru yai" (big teacher) as they call it -- that gives me the touch of

glory.


Well, 'big' I certainly must be, holding as many jobs in the school as I do - headmaster, staff-teacher, janitor. It's not that I am following the popular practice of hogging all these jobs for my relatives and offspring. The truth to be told is that no one else wants them. Why?

Well, may be the morsels aren't big and cheesy enough to trigger the rat-race!


Working alone is lonesome, but it has its compensations; one gets to rely on oneself, there are no trouble-maker, and there is no need for know-how in administration and management.


The name of my school has a sweet and pleasant ring to it --Ban Don Prai ….sounds like Don Muang, Don Wang and the like.


It was that pretty ring to the name that misled me right from the fatal day I first heard it - the day I applied for a teaching post. The selection of the 'lucky?' candidates was done at the provincial governor's office.


There were over fifty vacant positions to be filled and the candidate with the best examination marks had the right to the first choice. By fluke, my name topped the list; the choice was mine! I read through the list of schools. There ware names like Ban Rai, Ban Na, Ban Suan, Ban Lum, Ban Kok. I didn't know any of them, but the names conjured up bleak visions of drab schools isolated by fields and jungles. Then my eyes reached Ban Don Prai, and the sound of it went right to my heart. It sounded so like Don Muang there in Bangkok that I opted for it...

blindly .... how blindly!


It turned out to be as remote as the end of the world! The remotest of all the fifty-odd schools listed -- 50 to 60 kilometres from Sukhothai, and so deep into the jungle that it was almost sitting on the Burmese border.


Now, to its history. It was opened over ten years ago. In all that time it was only once honoured by a visit from 'The Boss' and that was during my early days there. But then who in their right mind would ever want to come! The trip is through dense jungle and during the monsoon you'd have to slog on foot through mud and mire for days to get there. You can make it by bicycle in

the dry season, but, mind you, the ground is sandy and slopes upward most of the time. Walking may be easier for those whose calf muscles aren't extremely well-toughened.


The compound of Ban Don Prai School is vast and unconfined. It can be expanded as far as you want, no one would care because the surrounding area is bare and unwanted. The immediate terrain is a knoll gently inclining towards the south; after a downpour it dries off fast without leaving muddy puddles like in Bangkok. The school building stands proudly at the foot of a low hill that serves as its backdrop. In front of it different species of bamboos grow in profusion while on either side stand young timbers, survivors of a ruthless deforestation; these young trees will probably be ready for use in half a century's time.


No energy need be spent on decking the place with flowering or ornamental plants, for they already grow in great variety and abundance all around the school --- wild orchids flaunting their fragrant blooms, wild ferns sending up bright-green curved shoots, and leaves that move as if on springs. One had only to cover the ground around them with small red and white pebbles to create charmingly natural flower beds. Shedding their leaves, tumca trees show off their colourful fruit -- red, yellow, green -- mixed in wonderful cascading bunches as if some fun-loving fairy had tied together bright billiard balls and hung them up to flirt with the passing breeze. Multi-coloured vines look just like lines drawn by an artist, an aesthetic work of nature that also serves as swings for the children.


The schoolhouse itself is put together with the greatest economy, the materials being entirely local. The sixteen pillars are made of timber, debarked but unpaired, leaving the knobs and eyes that give an artistic effect. The frame-work of the gabled roofs is of bamboo; palm fronds stitched together in thick rows form the roof. A lighter of bamboo, cracked and woven into patterned panels, makes walls and partitions that are bright as gold, polished, and ... elegant!


In front of the school are railings made of crooked branches, driven into the earth, alternating in zigzag fashion - a valiant attempt to achieve a nouveau art effect. Whether the aesthetic value is appreciated remains an open question. The ground is natural lump laterite with

shallow channels dug under the eaves all around the building to drain away any rainwater that may flood the ground. Doing my best to bestir dormant artistry in the little breasts of my pupils, I got them to put colourful stones in two parallel lines in the form of an 'S'- making

a natty path leading to the school building


Stones, irregular in size and shape, decorate the foot of the flagpole that stands as high or higher than and other in the province of Sukhothai. As high as Chulalongkorn University's, I'd say. Actually, I wouldn't wonder if it's the highest school flagpole in the whole of Thailand.


There's no way the children can break the classroom desks no matter how hard they rock them. They are solid timber as large around as a paddy mortar, sawn into lengths of about a foot, and set up like a pork vendor's chopping block, only thicker. The children sit on them, write on them -- they are multi-purpose. The only thing is to avoid having them fall on your feet.


More than sixty children are stuffed into the bamboo structure called schoolhouse - grades 1 and 2 in 'the left wing,' grades 3 and 4 in the right. It's my routine to start the schoolday by chalking up three math problems on grade 4's blackboard and doing the same thing for

grade 3 before rushing on to grade 2 to write Thai and Arabic numerals from 1 to 10. After that I get down to the first graders, writing up some elementary spelling for them to repeat aloud two or three times before I shout the order:


"Copy it down."


Then it's time to get back to grade 2. The brats have finished copying their 1 to 10 and are carrying on scintillating free-for-all conversations. An imperious bash on the table with the ruler puts an abrupt stop to that, and they queue up to hand in their exercise books.

I put a tick on each book with great speed and utter indiscrimination. That never fails to put a smile on every child's face because everyone is right! Then I chalk up three subtraction problems for them to work on and slip back to grades 3 and 4 to write the solutions to their problems on the blackboard, telling them to check their own work. As a matter of routine, there is some chanting of the multiplication tables and a little explanation of the problems,

then:


"Who has got all of them right?"

"Good."

"Who has got any wrong?"

"Copy the solutions." This is followed by more explanations for those who have made mistakes. The first-graders have by now finished copying the spelling, and have gotten into vigorous fist-fights, with tearful screams from the injured. The cane always comes in handy here and silence ensues, at least for a while. Back to grade 3 with solutions to their problems, but the fourth-graders are talking so animatedly that I have to dampen their spirits a bit by telling them to read the only book they each have for their own - the 'Thai' text book. Now is their chance, and they take it with a vengeance, chanting the poetry loud enough to drive me nutty.


"Hey kids, go out and read under those trees."


That accomplished, I turn to the teacher's manual that combines every subject in one volume, open it at 'The Principles of Democratic Government,' and write a whole page of it on the blackboard.


"Copy it!'' I shout my order and the children obey as meekly as all good pupils should.

By this time, my throat is as dry as dust, my head throbs. I gulp down two aspirins with the rainwater from the earthen jar in the corner of the schoolroom, cough a bit to clear my throat, take a puff at my cigarette, and walk back to look at grade 2's math before writing some

more spelling on the blackboard for the first-graders to read aloud in unison. Then -


"Copy it, kids."


Now the time is ripe for Grade 4. I scrawl a part from the Constitutional Freedom and Rights of Thai Citizens on the blackboard.


"Copy it down, kids."


By the time I get through my cigarettes, it's time for the lunch break. And that's my school morning session.


Anyone can call my teaching method hopeless, backward, down-right bad, or anything they like. My own education wasn't all that high or that good. How can I be expected to teach like an intellectual academician? I teach the way my teachers taught me -- what need is there for sophisticated planning for a school like mine?


I have lived in Ban Don Prai for nearly five years and sometimes wish I could move to somewhere more urban where I could at least get a good strong oliang(1) to quench my thirst, but they still can't find a satisfactory substitute. You see, Ban Don Prai folks and I get along

like ducks and drakes.


The style of life led by Ban Don Prai villagers is quite something to be envious of -it's so free from care. About sixty-five houses stand in rows along the foot of the hill. The basic livelihood is rice-farming; and it's the period stretching between the planting and the reaping that makes me think their lives are enviable. They spend their days gathered together to drink, and the way they drink you'd think their throats and stomachs were lined with copper. One can't really call it extravagance because all their booze is home-brewed. Each household reserves a patch or two in their paddy fields to grow sticky black rice for brewing their fiery drinks to be shared by all on such occasions. This is their daily social gathering, their entertainment, and their recreation. It represents their simple society which has little need for treachery or back- biting. What they feel, they say out loud over their drinks, and the worst that can happen would be a Thai style fist- fight. Murders don't occur here because hostilities dissipate like dreams once the drinkers sober up, and revenge is unheard of.


After four years I have become something of an addict myself; I can tell by the way my stomach does summersaults and cartwheels when drinking time arrives in the afternoons. It's the result of my own weakness, not knowing how to say no. In the first year, little sips of the liquor was enough to catch fire and burn my throat to cinder. Came the second year I managed to gulp it down-- had to do it to keep the women from hooting and taunting me. By the fourth year I was such a veteran that none of the women dared challenge me to 'drinking duals;' only the hardest drinkers would take me on. Even Ai Dua, toughest of them all, isn't so confident now after a dual that left us both rolling on the ground.


Speaking of Ai Dua, he has become one of my staunchest friends. I don't think I like anyone better than Dua in the whole village, and I think he feels the same about me. He is only twenty-two -- five years younger than I, but rural people at twenty-two have the look of forty-

year-old townfolk. I don't know if it's the hard work or the alcoholic content of their moonshine that ages them so. Ai Dua is short, his body disproportionate; the distance from the waist up is amazingly long and contrasts ludicrously with the shortness of the lower part of his body, giving his gait the top-heavy clumsiness of a water buffalo. His head is grotesquely large though he hardly ever exercises what is inside it -- well, except for making up earthy rhymes

and likay(2) songs for tart and lecherous banterings with Ee Waan.


Now, even if Ai Dua's ugliness is such that even dogs would disdain, it must be known that his power-charged body and his quick tongue have drawn the romantic interest of many a maid and widow. His honest and generous heart is an antithesis to his physical ugliness. He loves me like a parent, ready to lay down his life for me- all because of his gratitude. Note that education has very little to do with Ai Dua's simple shining qualities, for his reading and writing skill is barely above the line of literacy.


Ai Dua probably thinks he owes his life to me ever since the day he nearly died from malaria.


You see, all the villagers believe in spirits. The whole village is dotted with small wooden shrines dedicated to various resident Chao Paw(3) and Chao Mae(4) who they think can drive out any evil spirits that cause sickness from the body of a sick person. The way to go about it is to bribe Chao Paw or Chao Mae with tempting offerings, such as a bottle of moonshine with a boiled chicken, or a jar of the moonshine with a boiled pig, or, in case of serious sickness, a whole cow accompanied by five jars of the liquor. These offerings are later consumed by everyone with the greatest merriment and appetite after the Chao Paw or Chao Mae has presumably enjoyed it in an intangible sort of way, conveniently leaving the food and booze apparently untouched. Of course, they only appear untouched to human eyes, which are spiritually unrefined.


In the case of Ai Dua, the spirit was damned obstinate despite the offering of two buffaloes and ten jars of moonshine. I couldn't stand it any longer when it became obvious that he was going to die; I fed him some pills I got from the anti-malarial unit that came to Pitsanuloke some time ago. After a few doses of it he got better, for him it was almost like returning from death itself. This, coupled with the fact that Ai Dua never had any real respect for Chao Pwa and Chao Mae made him think I was his saviour, and he has since become grateful enough to let

me kick him in the pants anytime I wish to.


Other people didn't believe that Ai Dua was cured by those tiny little pills.They said Chao Paw Khao Thong(5) were the ones and Chao Mae Raerai(6) were the ones responsible for his amazing recovery. So two of Dua's buffaloes were killed and washed down the villagers' throats by ten jars of moonshine -- enough to make everyone drunk for three days and initiate no less than three fights.


Pu Yai Plod, the village headman, fell and cut his head. His daughter, Raya, cooked so many pots of rice that she cried with exhaustion. The merry widow, Ee Waan, changed bed-partners five, times in a row. Ai Dua sang likay songs and Pieng Choi(7) in a tart dual of earthy Iyrics with Ee Waan Until he was as hoarse as a dying drake. Pa Yai, Pu Yai Plod's wife, lost her appetite in the excitement, forgot to eat, and fell in a fainting fit on the third day of the festivities. That caused Perm the exorcist and Pa Yaem the spiritual medium to be summoned for consultations

on exorcism of the evil spirit that had gotten into Pa Yai. This procedure naturally entailed more bribery to super-natural beings of the upper echelons, requiring on more pig and five more jars of rice liquor. It was, however, decided that the offering of these should be postponed until the following month, presumably because Chao Paw Khao Thong, Chao Mae Raerai, as well as the ghosts ofTa Sa, Yai Mee, Ai Pun, Ai Tui, and Ee Pan had already been stuffed with food and wine to their utmost ethereal capacity!


Having gotten used to the life here, I've come to enjoy it in a way. The fly in my ointment is simply the regular trips I have to make to town for meetings and for my monthly pay. These trips are a real pain in the ass, and each round trip takes at least seven days.


Today, I got back to Ban Don Prai-seven days after I had left on one of these trips, arriving at the school neither too early nor too late. Saying this, I have to explain that there is no fixed time for starting the school day because the children's homes are scattered far and wide

-- mostly several kilometres away from the school. What's more, we have problems about time.

On some days I arrive early but the children get here late; at other times it's vice versa. Telling time is rather confusing because we go by the strength of sunlight and the position of the sun. On cloudy days, no one comes to school until nine or ten o'clock, and on sunny days they turn up as early as cock's crow. I have now found the perfect solution; once all the children -- and I, of course -- have all arrived, school starts and goes on until our stomachs start to rumble. That's the signal for me to announce the end of the schoolday. The reason for all this lies in my 'gold' wristwatch, which has a will of its own; it works when it wishes and stops when it wants. If and when I get a raise in my salary, as I've heard rumoured, I shall get a new one.


Today, something is wrong. No children are to be seen in the vicinity of the school, not even when I clang an iron rod against a rusty old spade in sonal imitation of a proper school-bell, and send its 'cragg -- cragg' sound echoing through the valley. No one appears though my

wrist aches with the force of the effort.


"What on earth are you beating that thing for, Kru?"


I turn and find Ai Dua standing there, exposing his enormous spade-like teeth in an out-sized grin.


"Why shouldn't I?'' I counter tartly. After all this effort to give the children knowledge; here I stand, sans pupils.


"The Village Headman ordered the school closed for a whole week,'' Ai Dua replies with his customary good-humoured laugh.


"Well, what is it all about?"


"Yesterday the children were all here waiting for you. They played until they were exhausted."


"But I ordered them to come on the seventh day."


"That's none of my business. The Headman passed by on his way to shoot barking-deers and saw that you weren't here. So he ordered the school closed for a week."


"Well, the cheek!" I exclaim in exasperation.


"Don't you like it? Oh, can I have a cigarette?"


I fish out a cigarette from the last package bought during the meeting in town and hand one to Ai Dua. He lights it and inhales deeply, grinning good-humouredly.


"Let's go for some fun,'' he says.

"Where?"


"To Ee Waan's, to take some booze, of course."


He takes my hand and leads me away from the school. So here I am with another holiday ahead of me, enjoying life on Government's salary for another week.


Well, it's part of the happiness of a rural teacher!

 

1. A Chinese word for sweet, strong, black iced coffee.

2. A song-and-dance folk drama, known for its witty and lively lyrics.

3. A male spirit.

4. A female spirit.

5. A specific male spirit.

6. A specific female spirit.

7. A folk entertainment performed by a team of men against a team of women, bantering each other by freshly improvised songs with tart and lecherous lyrics.

 


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