Looking back on it, there was one moment in January 2011, while teaching ESL in Laos, that left me mystified. I was the only American in the office during that stretch—Brad and Stacy had left to have their baby—and as such, I was invited to all events.
I was about a half hour into teaching my 2D class when a student from C came to the door, nopped, and asked if I would please come to the ceremony in the next room. I gave the students a writing assignment and headed over to find the students all standing stock still, with several desks arranged at the very front of the classroom with bottles of water and a tall stack of gifts wrapped in silvery paper.
The head of English, Nakhavet, along with Sifong and myself, sat in the chairs as the students stared dutifully at us. The whole time I was thinking how little I’d asked my students to read, and when it would be over. The head of the class stood up, gave a ten minute presentation in Lao, and the class clapped mechanically for a full thirty seconds. They then gestured to us teachers. Nakhavet stood up, chuckled, and delivered a clipped three minute speech. Then Sifong, in her sixties, stood up and launched into a seemingly urgent speech that, like the tide, ebbed and flowed for a good twenty minutes. I didn’t pick up much, but I heard a bit about water and blessings—one of my fellow teachers leaned over and whispered the metaphor. “The wisdom of teachers spill onto the students to grow them like a spring harvest,” he said.
Finally, my moment came. The head of the class smiled and said, “Please, share wisdom with us.” And although I’d spent three years performing on stage in college, making things up as I went along, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to say. Wisdom? ‘Life’s Lesson’? It sounds like a really entertaining improv game, actually. So rather than manufacture anything of my own, I turned my eyes up to the signs on the walls. Students make an effort to spruce up the classroom with traced drawings or—the eternal favourite—mis-translated sayings from their textbooks.
“Better to be the head of dog than the fail of lion,” I began, then stopped myself. Nobody batted an eye. So I kept on.
“A rolling stone gathers not moss,” I said.
“Money is time, and it is never too late to mend.”
Emboldened by some of the students’ looks, I continued to scan the walls.
“The wise man is always a good listener. And only education leads us to the successful,” I said with a flourish.
Each student sat in rapt attention except for one—the class president—who began to follow my gaze. I let my eyes wander to the far side of the classroom and happened upon the last of the aphorisms.
“Everyone learn from mistake no one is perfect.”
“Where there is a will there is away.”
“Single rod can’t be made a good fence.”
“The blind leading the blind.”
As I said the last one, almost unthinking, the perfect irony dawned on me, and I sat down doing my best to stifle a laugh. The class gave a mechanical clap, and Sifong stood up for a few words before the president handed each of us gifts in turn. As he presented me my gift, he slipped a small package underneath—a personal token from one of the students—which I later unwrapped to find a striped orange and brown tie folded in an old Marlboro box.