I wanted to test myself on my travels – to push my limits and face some fears. I don’t like heights and I jumped off the 30 foot deck of a boat in the Halong Bay of Vietnam. I ate bugs that made my stomach churn in Bangkok. I held a snake that made my skin crawl in the Mekong Delta. I learned to meet strangers, attempt new languages, and to be alone in new cities.
Public speaking is not a fear I planned to face while backpacking through Southeast Asia. But the first time I stood in front of a class of twenty Thai children, all of them anxiously awaiting this white girl to teach them some English, my stomach shot to my throat and the summer sweat that already speckled my hairline turned cold and clammy.
I was relieved when I didn’t have to utter the first word. One of the older looking children, thirteenish and clearly a leader in the classroom, suddenly stood and all nineteen pupils followed, their miniature wooden chairs sliding noisily across the sandy concrete.
“Good afternoon, teacher!” they exclaimed in unison.
“Good afternoon, class” I wearily responded, suddenly feeling the presence of an invisible script.
“How are you today?” they asked with charming self-satisfaction.
I’m extremely uncomfortable is what I thought. But I responded with “I am well, thank you. How are you?”
“We are great, thank you!”
An extended pause … script please?
“Thank you class, you may take your seats.”
I must have gotten it right because they all sat down, ready to learn.
This rural school in the hills of Northern Thailand taught about two hundred children, ages six to sixteen, and only employed three or four teachers, depending on who showed up on any given day. I had first visited the school with my host family who I was staying with for the month, and as soon as the principle caught wind of my American English, he practically begged me to come help with English lessons.
“Help” is a misleading word because as soon as I arrived for my first day of “helping” I was left alone with no instructions, no background on their experience, and no teacher to assist. I was the teacher, and as a public speaking phobic, this horrified me at first.
But I wasn’t the only one whose insides were twisting with every chime of the bell that indicated we were all stuck with each other for the next hour. Although a select few of the kids were dying to impress me with their knowledge of simple English greetings, I could feel the anxiety that kept others’ eyes locked firmly on the surface of their desks, terrified of my fluid English (maybe they couldn’t detect the tremble in my voice?) and the scary questions I’d want answers to.
Halfway through the first day, I relinquished the responsibility of speaking as soon as I found a workbook exercise to assign. I took the opportunity to let my nerves settle and the sweat on my forehead dry, slowly roaming the aisles like I remembered teachers doing back in grade school.
One of the kids sat with his nose nearly touching his workbook and not even a doodle to show for his work.
Squatting down to eye level, I asked him, can you tell me what day it is today?
His big brown eyes looked up a hair, his head still bent forward as he shook it back and forth.
“Here, let’s look at the book. Which day is it?” I pointed at the options.
Silence, save a few conversations that were sparking around me.
“Is it Monday?”
“Is it Tuesday?”
“Is it Wednesday?”
A twitch of a smile. “Yes.”
Can you say Wednesday?
“Wes-day,” he whispered.
“Very good. Say it again – WEEENsday.”
“WENSday,” he offered, his hesitant smile inching towards the dimple of his chubby cheeks.
“Yes! Good work.”
Phew. We got this kid. I gave him an understanding smile and returned to the front of the room. I would now have to fight to regain the class’ attention after allowing a moment of chit-chat. But when I reclaimed my teacherly position, I asked them in a firm voice to please stop talking, and they all did.
“Thank you. Now, who can tell me … how is the weather today?”
A half dozen answers floated into the air with laughs and whispers between them.
“Can someone please raise their hand,” I asked louder, as I slowly raised mine, looking at it for them to mimic, “and one person can tell me how the weather is today.”
I blushed, hearing the authoritative tone suddenly escape my lips, with no hint of nerves.
They all waited quietly until a spunky girl with long black braids and a tangle of whispy pieces framing her face, waved a little hand at me.
“Teacher, its sunny!”
“It is sunny!”
I finished the day with hangman, which was a huge hit and definitely won me some brownie points. I even ventured into mixing some Thai into my English, which seemed to turn my lesson into standup comedy as they all broke into laughter at my mispronunciation. I laughed along with them and actually began to enjoy myself.
For the following three weeks, I stumbled through English lessons with blank workbooks and frequently blank stares. I typically began my morning with a flutter in my chest but slowly it faded and I’d clomp through lesson plans, always rewarding them and myself with hangman to review the vocabulary we’d painstakingly just learned. I earned their respect by making rules and insisting they be followed – like hand raising which was clearly a foreign concept.
I left the school after three weeks to return to Chiang Mai. I couldn’t wait to be in a city with hot water and all the shopping I needed to keep my solo traveling days stocked with wandering the city streets. I didn’t expect to be sad when I left on my last day, but when all twenty of my students gathered around for hugs and goodbyes, I knew how much I’d miss them. The “Wednesday” boy even gave me a high five, his dimples more prominent than I’d ever seen during class time, as he ran off to join recess after yelling, “Bye, Teacher!”
Now if I ever find myself having to speak to a room full of people, I’ll likely still shake like a leaf. But maybe now, instead of picturing an audience of adults in their underwear (which absolutely does not work), I’ll imagine twenty pairs of bright eyes and big smiles who were brave enough to learn some English from a big scary white girl. We all learned something together in that stuffy concrete classroom. They learned the days of the week, the colors of the rainbow, and the names of classroom furniture. I learned to stand up with confidence and authority, and that it’s the fear you least want to face that is always worth confronting.
Khaawp khoon ka, class! (Thank you.)
You can read more from Britany on her blog, Stars on the Ceiling.