She has a cautious, shy smile and observant, dark eyes. She is tall and quiet and tries to minimize her presence by dropping her head a bit. Ra-ya is 14 and in grade 6. Her teacher, Kruu Dtiim (Kruu is an honorific meaning Teacher), tells me her family is from Myanmar, but Ra-ya was born here in Thailand. In the early mornings when I sit on my patio drinking coffee and catching up on world news, I see her ride by in the first song-taew of the morning, the one that collects the students from the outlying areas. She catches my eye and we smile and nod at each other.
Ra-ya is bright and unassuming and I relate to her lankiness, her shyness, her awkwardness. I learned she recently won a prize for her artwork and her teachers are proud of her. They see something special in her, as do I.
My time teaching the students was slow in coming. At first I would sit in the back of the classroom and simply observe, allowing the students ample opportunity to stare at me and take note of my differences, my foreignness. I would catch them furtively, sometimes blatantly, looking over their shoulders to study my clothes, my skin, my hair, my nose, my feet, my size, my facial expressions. When I caught them spying I’d smile and they’d jerk their heads back toward the front of the room and pretend to pay attention to Kruu Dtiim again. Slowly I moved from the back of the room to the front as I began to help Kruu Dtiim with his English lessons, letting the students hear my speech, my pronunciation, my tone. I enunciate slowly and repeatedly and give them plenty of time to practice and imitate me. I correct their grammar and their spelling when they allow me to see what they have written, and sometimes we play games.
The kids like to play Hangman, it helps with their spelling and their vocabulary and it’s a word game I’ve always enjoyed. In the 6th grade, Cha-yut leads the boys. He’s the school’s Scrabble champ. The boys noisily argue over which letter to choose next and I watch Cha-yut watch me to see if he can figure out my reaction to the letters being yelled out. The girls are quieter and more hesitant, taking their time to guess the next letter. Ra-ya leads the girls, not so much because she’s the smartest or a natural born leader, but more because she is the most methodical in trying to determine the next logical letter. The other girls seem to trust her and it’s easier when someone else makes a decision.
In grade 6 the boys are the first to voice their opinions, have their voices heard. They blurt things out, raise and swing their arms about. They playfully jostle and hug each other. The girls sit unmoving, not at all animated and most keep their heads down, averting their eyes. When I speak Ra-ya keeps her head up and looks directly at me. She listens, her dark eyes looking out; her mind looking in. There is a humbleness and an inquisitiveness in Ra-ya that makes me like her. She takes the time to listen as I struggle to speak my few words of Thai. She looks at me knowingly and her instinct is toward patience, unlike many others who giggle and stare open-mouthed at my fumbling and at my mistakes.
One day I brought a world map to class and unfolded it for all to see. I asked them where Thailand was and they bolted out of their seats, rushing to the front of the room to point out which colorful country was theirs. Next I asked them to point to the United States. They struggled, starting at one corner of the map, slowly moving their fingers around trying to read the names on the map written in English. They pointed to Greenland, then Western Africa and then eventually they found it. It was a process of elimination. “Where is the giraffe from?” I asked and Cha-yut, who usually seems to have all the answers, pointed first to India, then to Russia.
Ra-ya is one of the tallest in grade 6, where all the girls are taller and more full-bodied than the boys. The changes for the boys will come soon enough. Ra-ya stands in the back of the cluster of students looking over heads at the map. Some of the students quickly become bored or the questions become too difficult and they retreat and begin to engage in horseplay. Within a few minutes only half of the 17 students remain to gaze at the world map. Even though they can’t point to where the kangaroo lives, or the panda, or to where England or Brazil lies, Ra-ya inches closer, showing an interest in the larger world before her. Later she tells me she would like to go to Paris someday.
It is that thoughtfulness and sense of wonder that makes it easy for me to see her natural affinity for cerebral and solitary pursuits like word games, or studying the map, or her artwork.
Her art teacher told her and her parents that with her talent and her drive, that with some additional practice and hard work, she can surely win one of the top prizes at next year’s national art competition. But Ra-ya’s parents have other ideas. She is 14 and it is time for her to leave school and start earning a living to help support the family. At the end of the term she will move with her family to another province and help her father install satellite dishes. Ra-ya is caught up in someone else’s view of the world. She is, of course, devastated by this news, but Kruu Dtiim tells me she is bartering with her parents, agreeing to work as they wish, but that in two year’s time when her younger sister comes of age they will allow her to stay in school. Maybe one of them will see Paris.