A Teacher's Day in Bangkok



Thailand has Mother's Day, of course, and Father's Day too, like any other country aspiring to join the global village. Few other countries I know of, however, have Teacher's Day. It was two weeks ago last Thursday; except at the music faculty of Silpakorn University which, in its infinite wisdom, chose to have it two weeks later. Don't ask me why. In fact: don't ask me the 'why' of anything connected to the music faculty of Silpakorn University; I just turn up there, teach my damnedest and get paid. (Today, as it happens. Timely. What?)

Yesterday there was a white envelope waiting for me on my desk at the music faculty. The letter inside was all in Thai except for my name on the top: Ajarn Robert Wolker. So I knew it was for me. I asked Tassana, the leader of the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra and a violin teacher at said faculty, to tell me what the letter indicated. I am the only foreign teacher, so the admin. office hasn't quite yet got round to realising I haven't a clue what's written on any notice, said at any meeting or shouted at my face for that matter. Where ignorance is bliss...

Anyway: Apparently I was bidden to the ceremony of Teacher's Day at 9.30 a.m. of the morrow's inst. So, being the dutiful new boy, I decided to turn up. "Do I have to do anything?" I asked Jamorn as we drove in his new car to the university together. "Oh no! You just have to sit there while the students sing your praises. It's a wonderful ceremony."

" I love the smell of a new car." I said. "There's something erotic about it." "Don't get me started!" Said Jamorn. In the open-plan staff offices various teachers who I had never seen before, were gathered round. One of them, with something 'of the night' about him, held out his hand. "Hallo." He said. "I'm Mor. I teach jazz piano." Yes." I said shaking his hand. "You look jazzy." He laughed.

At 9.30 precisely (something wrong there, surely? This is Thailand!) the students bade us enter the main hall. The freshmen/women dressed in their regulation white shirt and black trousers or skirt were arranged in rows keeling on the floor. A few older students were skulking round the back. But kneeling at the front of the front were eight students guarding chased gilt dishes with arrangements of flowers piled on them. Chairs were arranged at the front of the hall with a splendid sofa in the middle facing these students. The President of the university (his office is in the same building as the music faculty so he doesn't have to overreach himself much) the dean of our faculty, a few other luminaries I wot not of, were gathering. Tassana introduced me to a guitar teacher. For a duo concert they are giving together I am arranging an old Thai tune entitled 'The Monkey jerks off the Tiger's dick' (I don't make any of this up, you know) so I was pleased to meet him. I said to the guitarist after the usual initial pleasantries "As long as I don't have to sit on the front row I don't mind what happens at this ceremony." "Oh! You don't have to DO anything." He said reassuringly. Just at the moment a student, giving a passable imitation of an usher, ushered me usheringly to a seat on the front row, one away from the Dean and two away from the President on their resplendent sofa. I've lived an interesting and fairly lengthy life, but rarely has my heart sunk so low.

The hall hushed and the president of the students' union spat into his microphone. I think we were being welcomed. Then, in unison, the students wai-ed deeply and began to chant praises to the Lord Buddha, praises to the Dhama (the Buddhist 'bible') and praises to the Monkhood. We wai-ed back. This is a Thursday morning, by the way. They all had cribs in front of them, but many, I noticed, sang from memory - except the Christians who stoically suffered this native mumbo-jumbo with dignified hauteur. Then the President of the university got up and made deep abeyance to a makeshift shrine on which had been placed candles, flowers, a Buddha statue and a life-size bust of the founder of Silpakorn University: Mr. - or possibly Dr. - or more probably Lord - or even more probably Prince Silpakorn.

More chanting followed. Rather beautiful it was. The young voices were muted but cohesive. This was no staged event but an impromptu, sincere gathering. These songs were in praise of their parents. (Think about it, O ye teachers of little faith in British and American institutions.) Each song was preceded and succeeded by deep wais of veneration by the kneeling students in their cotton socks. Bless 'em. We wai-ed back again.

The President's and Dean's speeches I was told afterwards were considered to be good. The students wai-ed. They wai-ed back and spoke of how the Asian tradition regards one's teachers as another set of parents. Our biological parents bring us into the world and teach us how to exist in it. It is our next set of parents, our teachers, who guide us on the journey and show us how to deal with the world. "Teachers" said the President, "are not like ferrymen. We do not just take you from one side of the khlong to the other. Some things we have said or shown you will be with you for always. Like good parents, we are with you for all your journey." Ah, yes... Thank you, John and Laurence, on this Teachers Day. You are still with me on my journey.

The deep wais and chanting resumed. It was directed at us. Thank you for being our teachers they chanted; thank you for all the good you have done for us; thank you for the good things you will do. (And sorry for being such a pain in the neck in the back row? I don't think so...) This year's scholarships were then handed out. One was given to a khatoey french horn player who swished up beautifully to receive it. Was that a wolf-whistle I heard coming from the jazz department at the back? We all applauded him/her anyway.

I knew sitting on the front row would be a mistake. After the last chant had died away, the eight students with the gilt dishes of flowers crawled on their knees towards us. One poor girl got her skirt caught up round her feet and was suddenly brought to an undignified halt. The boy behind nearly collided with her but chivalrously extricated her from her predicament. We on the front row (Why me? Why me?) each accepted one of the flower offerings, bowed, wai-ed graciously and gave our blessings. Then, rather like the Queen accepting a bouquet on her walkabouts, handed them nonchalantly to an aid standing behind us. Without trying to appear cretinous, I looked out of the corner of my eye to see what the Dean did. I was, of course, a nanosecond behind him in my wais and bowings and the slight touching of the shoulder of my student flower giver. Then the students began to get up from the recumbent positions and, thinking the ceremony was over, I started to rise from my chair. "Not yet!" Whispered the guitarist.

The full compliment of students began to approach us with arms full of flowers. I thought I would be left to sit there like the organist at a wedding reception while my colleagues received their dues. I had only been teaching four weeks. Nobody really knew me. And at first this seemed to be the case. The instrumental teachers were each receiving a single rose from their respective students. I shuffled and looked at the floor. Then suddenly a student knelt in front of me and, saying something in Thai, handed me a single red rose. Then another, and another knelt before me. Soon I was clutching armfuls of roses. I didn't know what to say. Tears started to well-up inside me as the the students smiled their gorgeous Thai smiles, knelt before me and handed me yet another single rose. I tried to respond in Thai: "Kop khoon Krab... Kop Khoon Krab... Kop khoon ma krab..." but in the end I was too emotional and resorted to "How sweet of you! Thank you! You are too kind!" or some such platitude. I've taught off-and-on for 35 years now. Never, in all that time, have I been so overwhelmed by so simple, gracious and sincere an act from any students as these.

Later that afternoon I took the choir rehearsal. There was something in the air. The altos were their usual weak, mumbling selves; but the basses were more responsive and attentive than hitherto, and the sopranos were positively vibrant. Everyone tried really hard. Even me.

Even me.