“Teacher Sophie! Teacher Sophie! Come, come, come!”
My student rushes into the office, urgently motioning towards the door. “Let’s go!” he says.
When I get up to follow him out the door, I start to hear music from the outside. “Please come with me,” he says as he ushers me towards the dining hall.
As I approach, I see every single one of my students seated, each holding beautifully wrapped presents decorated with flowers and letters and all sorts of “Made in Myanmar”-like decorations.
I look around the room to see the walls completely decorated with countless posters, which the students must have spent hours working on. One of the posters included a drawing of “Teacher Sophie” with her hair in braids and ukulele in hand, surrounded by students. Classic.
Everywhere I looked, I saw different posters drawn by my students. Each one was unique, but they each had a similar message.
“Don’t forget me.” “Don’t forget us.” “Don’t forget Thailand.”
As I enter the area, the students start to cheer. One of my students pulls up a chair for me in the front of the room, reaches for a letter in his back pocket, and starts to read it. The whole crowd becomes silent as he reads it aloud.
It was the most beautifully written letter. I had no words to say. A couple weeks before, I remember he approached me and said, “Teacher, I wrote a goodbye letter for you. I know you will cry.”
So at the end of each sentence, he would look up and watch me closely, waiting for me to cry. He just wanted the satisfaction of saying that he made Teacher Sophie cry. And he succeeded.
He finishes the letter with the words, “Don’t worry, we be happy. I wish you to be always happy,” then quickly shoves the letter back into his pocket.
Several others came up and read their letters to me. One of my top students comes up and begins to stutter. I ask him what’s wrong because he is normally the class clown; the one filled with confidence and able to steal the show. This is the first time his goofy grin was wiped off his face. He timidly pulls me close and whispers in my ear, “Teacher, I cannot speak. I am very sad. I don’t know what to say.” He looks me in the eyes for a brief moment, then walks away without looking back.
Several more students along with teachers came up to appreciate and acknowledge the work I did at the school. Every person was genuine and every word spoken meant everything to me. Just as we were about to finish up, I looked towards the back of the room to see something I never anticipated.
Four of my students who dropped out of school to work were standing there with gifts. These kids work insane amount of hours at their jobs and rarely receive days off of work. They’re lucky enough to get 1 day off a month. And they all took the day off just to say goodbye to me. They came up to me and we embraced in a group hug. One of the boys takes the microphone in front of everyone and delivers the most impressive speech. A speech I couldn’t even imagine him saying just one year ago.
“Thank you, Sophie, for everything you did for me. You helped me improve my English for my work. Because of you, I have a good job and can make money for my family. Because of you, I can have hope for a future. We all thank you very much for everything you have done. Please don’t forget us when you go back to America. Please come back to us soon. We love you and we miss you.”
As if it wasn’t hard enough to try and stay calm and collected after that, my student runs up and sets up a laptop.
“Teacher, I made a slideshow for you! So you will never forget us!”
As the slideshow pulls up, I realize that he included every single song that was special between us (including the famous “Let It Goooooooo!”). It was adorable. As the slideshow played, the students lined up one by one to give me their gifts. I was (quite literally) drowning in a sea of perpetual gift-giving students. I had no place to move or to put the gifts, there were so many.
How in the world am I supposed to fit these gifts into my backpack and then travel across Southeast Asia?
Ah. English teacher problems.
As they gave their gifts, they left one-by-one. The remaining students were the oldest ones, the students I bonded with the most.
They approached me with tears in their eyes. I realized this is probably the last time I will ever see them again. So I decided to tell them everything. I told them about my depression in America, how I had come to Thailand because I was discouraged and lost. I told them how they showed me a new world; opened my eyes to a different perspective that I never anticipated I would see.
Now there’s no going back. Thanks to them, I have hope for a future filled with more incredible friendships, endless laughter, and opportunities to make a difference. I just needed someone to show me the world. And they did that for me.
This was the day when it finally hit me. My time is over. I’m finished. I’m leaving the community that warmly welcomed the Scandinavian-ly white American drama queen into their lives. They introduced me to fish paste, longyis (traditional Myanmar skirts), and internet fame. They showed me a whole new side of the world that I never thought I would see. They redefined the meaning of kindness and hospitality, welcoming me into their “Big Fat [Burmese] Family.”
It’s pretty difficult for me to describe just how unique and unpredictable these past 16 months have been for me. I guess all I can say is that you had to be there.
Right before he left the classroom, my student, who was the initial one to read his letter to me, pulls me aside and slips a piece of paper in my hand. He says to me, “You can’t read it now. Only when you are back in America. Promise you won’t read it before, OK?”
I kept that piece of paper with me for the next 3 months while traveling through Southeast Asia. I waited for 3 months to open up that letter. Keeping it in my ukulele case, I saw it every time I took my ukulele out to play. It was absolute torture not opening it earlier, but I kept reminding myself about the promise I made to him.
When I finally arrived in Los Angeles, I opened up the piece of paper. I was so relieved when I found out what it was. It was something I couldn’t stop thinking about and I was finally able to see it again.
It was the same letter that he read aloud at school that day.
“Don’t worry, we be happy. I wish you to be always happy.”
From the dozens of letters I received when leaving, I realized that the one I was holding in my hands was the first and last letter I ever read from my students. What a beautiful realization to have. And what an absolutely perfect way to end this chapter in my life.
“Don’t forget us, Teacher.”