The Great Gatsby Smile

“How did you come to Thailand?”

“Big boat, teacher. Have many people. MANY many people!”

“Was it dangerous?”

“Yes. Dangerous. Little food. Little water.”

“Did you come with family?”

“No, teacher. Father die. Mother die. No have family. One person. Me.”

“Do you like Thailand?”

“I like school. In Myanmar I no go school. Police no like Rohingya. Have guns. I no go school.”

“How do you speak English then?”

“I love English. I find English books. I read English books. I want good speaking English. Teacher help me?”

When I first saw the pink van pull up to our school, I had no idea who would step out of the car. None of the teachers knew, none of the students knew, even our education coordinator had no idea. We all stood outside watching as children started to step out of the van, one by one. These children looked different from the other Burmese students. Not only were they dressed in rags and incredibly thin, but they looked absolutely miserable. That’s something I’ve never seen before in a child. It wasn’t long before I started to hear the other teachers mutter something about Rohingya. Then it hit me. These children are Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State, Burma.

I’ve been keeping up to date with the current Rohingya situation and was aware of the religious persecution, the violence, the statelessness that these people have endured. I hadn’t actually met a Rohingya before. I heard stories of the stranded boats loaded with hundreds of them in the Andaman Sea. I heard stories of Rohingya knowingly selling themselves to traffickers because they knew it was the only way they could escape Burma. I heard stories about Rohingya children being deprived of education in Burma. All of these were just stories that I’d read about on the news; just another tragedy I happened to stumble upon as I scrolled through the BBC news. But in that moment, as I saw the children step out of the pink van, those stories became a reality.

Our school is one of the few schools in Thailand that accepts Rohingya students. Even though the Rohingya are from Burma like our other students, they cannot speak Burmese. These Rohingya children have lived in Burma their entire lives, but they have never been to school, never learned to speak Burmese, and have never been accepted in any institution. FED is one of the first schools that has accepted these children despite their religion or educational background.

We have about 20 Rohingya students ranging from 2 – 15 years old. When I first entered the classroom to teach English, it didn’t take long for me to realize that these kids couldn’t speak English, Thai, or Burmese. There was no earthly way to communicate with these boys. None of the students or teachers could communicate with them. Perplexed about what to do, I had no choice but to continue my English lessons for my other students. I felt so guilty leaving these students in the dust. I could tell by the way they were looking at me that they were absolutely dazed and confused. I can’t blame them. They somehow managed to escape their country, something most Rohingya are not fortunate enough to do… and now they are sitting in a classroom where they cannot speak any of the three languages we use.

I tried more and more each day to include the boys. While I gave my other students classroom work, I would work individually with the Rohingya boys…but they were too shy to even look at me, let alone open up and practice their English. There never seemed to be any progress with them. Every day was the same…struggling to get them to speak, aching to see them smile, but nothing happened. The boys had fallen into such a deep depression, it was difficult to bring them back to the surface. I can only imagine what hardships they endured in their past. These boys were so young, yet they’ve been through so much. I only wish I could speak their language. I was at a point where I didn’t think there was any way I could ever get through to these boys.

That’s when I met Mohammad (his real name will not be mentioned). Over these past 10 months, I’ve been touched by the most inspiring people. I am constantly surprised when I hear the stories of these people, the way they’ve suffered, the perseverance they’ve had, everything. But Mohammad has definitely been one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met…or ever will meet.

There’s something about him that struck me. Maybe it was that first smile I caught from him; the first smile I ever saw from a Rohingya boy. Maybe it’s the way he cares for his younger brothers; something I would never see from an American 12-year-old boy. Or maybe it was the moment when he finally opened his mouth and spoke English to me.

It was the third week of school and I had been struggling with including the Rohingya boys in my class. None of the boys would speak to me. I was starting to wonder if I was genuinely freaking them out with my over-enthusiasm to teach English and the goofy jokes I make (I do embarrass myself quite a lot when I teach, but I figured it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make as long as it gets the kids laughing).

But these boys still refused to talk to me. Finally, after three weeks, one boy decided to speak up.

That one boy changed everything.

Mohammad’s English turns out to be better than all of my 12-year-old students combined. He speaks with broken, but incredibly comprehensible English. His listening skills are incredible. He can understand everything I say. I can tell that he understands me because every time I’d say something funny, he would nod his head and smile his award-winning celebrity smile.

Yeah, let me just talk about his smile for a second. If you’ve ever read The Great Gatsby or seen the movie, you’ll remember the first time Nick sees Gatsby smile:

“He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself” (Fitzgerald).

Gatsby’s smile is basically the equivalent to Mohammad’s smile…except he’s a 12-year-old Rohingya boy, not a 32-year-old New York elite…and his priorities are closer to staying alive and caring for his brothers rather than throwing extravagant parties to win the love of an already-wed millionaire. But nonetheless, you get the picture.

I’d spend my free time talking to Mohammad. I learned all about his life. He grew up in Rakhine State, Burma. As a Rohingya, he never had the chance to attend school in Burma. He told me about his uncle, who had a large collection of English books. Every evening, from 7-10pm, he would read English books with his two younger brothers.

“Teacher, my dream is to speak good English. That is my dream. I want to go to America. I want to see Teacher in America.”

If only it were that easy.

As a Rohingya refugee, there’s been talk about resettling him in the States with the other boys. Knowing the resettlement process and the lengthy loopholes that they’ll have to jump through, I’m a little skeptical about that promise that the US officials gave Mohammad. Of course, it would be amazing if he was able to move to America.

I showed him a photo of the Statue of Liberty and his eyes lit up and he said, “Teacher! That is my dream! Very happy in America. No happy in Burma. No happy in Thailand. Only happy in America…with Teacher.”

Mohammad has become one of my closest friends at the school. I’ve learned a lot about him. He teaches me about his religion, his culture, and his language. He’ll grab an English book from the shelf, offer me a chair beside him, and read to me for hours.

The best part about speaking with him is every time he explains something to me, he looks me in the eye and says, “Teacher understand?”

Whenever I say, “Yes,” his eyes light up and he smiles his Gatsby-like smile.

It was something that Mohammad said one day that got me thinking.

He said, “When Burmese teacher come to class, I no listen. When Thai teacher come to class, I no listen. When Miss Sophie come to class, I listen. Very happy. Love English class. Only English class. Only happy in English class.”

When he said this, his friends came and joined him. He muttered something to them in Rohingya and their eyes lit up and they finally smiled at me, saying, “Yes, Teacher! English class! Very like! English class! Good good!”

When I heard that, I knew I needed to do something.

I told Mohammad to round up his friends for English class. We would start a new English class just for them. Mohammad’s eyes lit up and he smiled (ah, the Gatsby smile). Within the next couple of minutes, we were all seated together in a tight circle ready to start class. Of course I had absolutely no lesson plan and had no idea what I was going to do…but that seems to be my life around here. The students all formed a circle and motioned for me to go in the middle. I started teaching them and we had the greatest first English class. I had never seen such enthusiastic English learners in one room before. They all were at different levels of speaking, but they all helped each other. From the moment they entered the classroom, they were smiling.

It was the single greatest day I’ve ever had in Thailand. I finally got to see those gorgeous Rohingya smiles. I know it’s cheesy and all, but their smiles somehow magically warm my heart. It’s difficult to describe just how they make me feel. There’s something different about their smiles. Maybe it’s because one of their smiles alone can light up a classroom. So when you put twenty of them in one room, it’s like, “BAM! We can change the world!” Or maybe it’s because when they smile, I stop wondering about their pasts and stop worrying about their futures. I realize that they’re just children who want to be children. They want to smile and be carefree. They need a time to forget about all the suffering they’ve endured.

When we’re in English class, they can finally just smile and be kids. Every child should have that right. Every day since then, I’ve been teaching the Rohingya kids separately. Their progress has been exponential. I am constantly amazed at the fact that these kids can speak such good English in such a short amount of time. They’ve never been to school before, yet they are speeding through my lessons. Every day they surprise me, impress me, and somehow know how to put a smile on my face. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve done the whole laughing-until-crying thing. It’s become a daily routine for me.

The problem is these boys are refugees; temporarily placed in Thailand until some other country will actually accept them. I have no idea when that day will come, or if it will ever come. These boys live a life of unpredictability, constantly on the look to find a new home where they will finally belong. Although they belong in my school, I know that this won’t last forever.

Every day, I wait for that pink van to show up. When I see the pink van pull up, I breathe a sigh of relief. I know that they are still here; I can still be with them. I don’t have to say goodbye to them just yet.

I don’t want to think about it when that day comes…when that pink van stops pulling up in front of our school and twenty Gatsby-smiling boys stop hopping out.

That pink van changed everything. I wish I could see it every day, but I know that it will eventually stop coming. The boys will move on. They’ll find a new home. I only hope that I can prepare them as best as I can for when that day comes.

Until then, seeing that simple pink van will remain the highlight of my day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s