“Stop, teacher! STOOOOOOP!” is what I hear from a classroom as the windows shut and doors slam. I hear shouts of “She is coming! Coming!” in Burmese and I stop walking towards the classroom, confused about whether to continue walking or not. The students seemed pretty adamant about keeping me away from the classroom…is English class really that awful? I’ve only given them a couple painful pop quizzes…right?
Suddenly, two hands cover my eyes and another hand takes hold of me and guides me forward. Confused and a little disoriented, I continue walking (or should I say stumbling) to the classroom. I bump into a couple bushes here and there and stub my toe on the cement step.
But don’t worry, it was worth it. When I finally opened my eyes, I was standing in a pitch black room with 5 candles that lit the area. I looked around to see my grade 8 students surrounding me, saw the presents around the desk, and the beautiful cake that had my name written in Thai. They all began to clap and sing, “Happy Birthday” for me. It was surprising to say the least. I barely had any time to think of a wish before I blew out my candles. Then they opened the doors and windows and I saw that they decorated the classroom and wrote messages all over the whiteboard (with perfect English, I might add; an English teacher’s paradise!).
Then they handed me a knife and I cut one slice onto a plate. They gave me a “special” spoon. I call it special because not only was it the only spoon they had, but it was decorated in red and pink ribbon with a flower woven into the design.
I was able to experience my first Burmese birthday. One at a time, the students took turns to shove a huge piece of cake into my mouth. Yeah, that’s right. I was spoon-fed a HUGE slice of cake by my students. Kind of a strange experience to say the least. As if that wasn’t weird enough (they were taking videos and photos at the time as well), they gave me the spoon and had me spoon-feed each student individually. After a quick frosting fight (in which I received the majority of the frosting on my face), they took me around the school to give cake to each teacher. I found it hilarious, mostly because the teachers didn’t even acknowledge that it was my birthday, let alone the huge splotches of frosting on my face. Instead, they saw me coming with the cake and just opened their mouths as wide as they could. They just waited until I would shove some cake in their mouth. Afterwards, they smile (with the cake in their teeth) and say, “Happy birthday!”
That’s the Burmese tradition. You serve cake to all your friends (with the same spoon) and then at the very end, you take the last bite of the cake. The greatest part about the tradition is seeing full-grown adults just close their eyes and open their mouths…what do they expect me to do? “Ok, here comes the big airplane! Vroooooom vrooooooom!” and playfully “fly” it into their mouths?
Well…yeah. That’s basically what I did to each staff member. Absolutely hilarious. I’ve heard of schools that spoon-feed their students (academically, of course), but this is the first time I have witnessed a school that (quite literally) spoon-feeds the students and teachers. Another refreshing Burmese moment.
So that’s how I spent the morning of my 19th birthday. I can safely say, as strange as it was, I had a great time. I was really touched by my students’ generosity and just how determined they were to wish me a happy birthday. I’m not very interested in telling people when my birthday is. I avoided telling people this year, but somehow one of my grade 8 students found out. They quickly scrambled around town in search of the perfect cake and candles (which, by the way, is incredibly hard to come by in Thailand). It meant so much to me to see the thought that went into my birthday surprise. From the intricate drawings on the whiteboard to the “Burmese for Beginners” book that I received, my students definitely know how to make me feel special. I am so lucky to have such strong relationships with each of them. I mean, what students would build a Frozen jigsaw puzzle, stick it on poster board, and give it to you as a gift? These kids are keepers, I’m telling you.
That’s not the only reason why my birthday was so special this year. I was able to hand my students back their English final exams, showing their improvement this year. They were all ecstatic with their grades and continued to thank me over and over again for being their teacher. The kids went crazy when they saw the English resources I gave them. I also gave each student a class photo and wrote, “Never stop studying English” on the back. It was special when one of my students (who struggles speaking English in class) came up to me and said, “Teacher, I never stop studying English. I want to visit you in America and speak English.”
Today, I was presented with one of the greatest birthday gifts I could have ever received; my students’ gratitude. They each came up to me throughout the day and thanked me for being their teacher. They wrote me letters, bought me ice cream (yeah, that’s always a plus!), and sang their favorite English songs for me. My students’ gratitude has shown me, as cheesy as it sounds, that dreams really do come true.
I guess I should elaborate.
365 days ago, I was a different person. Depressed and miserable on my 18th birthday, I didn’t see much use in living a life of failure. Like most seniors in high school, I was stressed, worn out, insecure, and had no plans for the future. I hated myself for everything I was…and for everything I wasn’t. I was depressed; so depressed to the point of wanting everything to end. The world would be a better place without me. It’s not like anyone would’ve missed me…for months, I contemplated ending it all. I didn’t see much use in living a life where I’m useless…I felt useless if I couldn’t win the scholarships I wanted to win, if I couldn’t attend the school I wanted to attend, if I couldn’t prove what I wanted to prove to my friends and family. I felt like a failure. I couldn’t live with myself, knowing that I was such a failure. I even started cutting myself in hopes to make the pain feel more physical than emotional. To me, physical pain was better to feel than emotional pain. It was my way of escaping. My way of thinking that I could set things right if I just stopped feeling emotional pain. I finally hit a wall. I wanted it all to end.
I had only one dream at the time: my dream was to feel needed. I just wanted to find someone who really needs my help. Someone who needs me for who I am and for what I can offer. Skeptical of it ever coming true, I gave up.
That’s when the miracle happened. I remember crying on my drive home from work one night (like I did most nights), desperate to find an opportunity where I could feel needed. As soon as I arrived home, the first thing I see on my Facebook is a status about the teaching position in Thailand. I figured that I had nothing else to lose, so I might as well apply.
365 days later, here I am. My dreams are coming true. I realized that I don’t need the perfect grades, the best resume, or even a university degree to be needed. My students have shown me that you don’t have to be the perfect scholar or educator to be needed. Sometimes what people need the most is a friend. I may not be the greatest or most qualified English teacher, but I know that these students are just happy to have me as their friend. If a friend is what they needed this year, I am so grateful to have offered my friendship to them. If an English teacher is what they needed this year, I am so grateful to have offered my English skills to them. I’m just grateful that they needed me. Because there is no doubt in the world that I needed them more than anything.
My students’ gratitude has shown me that I am needed by someone. It only took 19 years and a trip across the world for me to realize that. I’m glad I finally reached that realization.
Even though the spoon-feeding of Burmese teachers was pretty entertaining, I’d have to say that the highlight of my day as when I took a group video of my grade 6 students. Before I pressed record, I said, “Ok, class. At the count of three, everyone say, ‘We love school!’” and one boy said, “No, teacher. We say, ‘We love English teacher, Sophie!’”
And at the count of three, that’s exactly what they said.
That’s when I realized that I needed my students just as much as they needed me. I’ll never forget them and I hope they won’t forget me.
Today is the last day of school. I’m not sure if I will ever see some of these students again, knowing the unpredictable lifestyle of the Burmese migrants. Most of them will enter the workforce as they are between the ages of 13 and 16. Others will move back to Burma. Whether they continue their education or begin working their jobs, I am happy to have helped them when they needed an English teacher and friend.
I am also happy to have celebrated my first Burmese birthday in Thailand.