I stood looking down at a pair of new Mary Jane’s, black with yellow linings. My sister and I were to go to Thai school, now that we had moved to town from the village, and we were both to be enrolled in Kindergarten 2. The first thing my mother saw to was our uniforms: crisp, white button-up shirts with our names embroidered in blue on the pockets, blue pleated skirts, and the prescribed footwear. My sister’s shoes, lined up neatly next to mine, were smaller. Of course they were. I was older than she–older and probably wiser than Missy and most kids in the class, since I was seven, and Missy only five.
We’d driven past the campus before, Missy and I noting a playground that we would surely be lucky enough to play on every day. Then school began. And as we lined up, sang songs, learned the alphabet, and went to assemblies, we found out that school was a lot more than shoes and playgrounds and choosing a name for one’s pocket that would be easy to pronounce in Thai. That, having known so far only home education with my mom, there were a lot of things we hadn’t considered. We were about to be schooled in not only the rudiments of Thai, but of life as well.
The day often began with an assembly outside in the courtyard. Assembly activities seemed to vary, probably based on days of the week. Students of all ages would gather outside, lined up with their classes in white, khaki, and blue, the girls’ black hair bobbed short. The band played a tune I still remember, one with lots of tinkling percussion, and different motions to each round of the song. Then, with our hands together in a wai in front of us, we would stand at attention and say some words about the flag (at least I think that’s what we were doing–sometimes, our attitude may have been in a kind of religious observance).
I remember the Kindergarten classroom as a large, rectangular room off an outdoor passageway that ran the length of the building. There were shuttered windows open to the outside along the wall opposite the two doorways, and chalkboards front and back. It seems like we sat on the floor much of the time, facing either board, the teacher’s desk between the doors. It was a big class, and even with my small frame of reference, I knew there were a lot of us–perhaps over fifty kids in this one room.
What was the curriculum in Kindergarten 2? One goal for us was the memorization of the Thai alphabet. We chanted it as we followed along with a chart of pictures that went with each of the forty-four consonant symbols: “K is for egg, K is for chicken, K is for bottle, K is for water buffalo . . . ” What I’m writing here is, of course, an approximation and does not do justice to the writing system we were learning. For instance, that first ‘K’ sound is more of a pop at the back of the throat; the other symbols have their own distinct formations and are applied in different situations, affecting, for example, the tone in which the word is pronounced.
At the time, however, I knew nothing about Thai writing, so it was helpful that our schooling involved practice in letter formation. We sat with notebooks in laps, looking up at the model at the board and concentrating on our loops and lines. We got feedback, I know, because I remember the teacher giving my notebook back to me marked up. I couldn’t believe I had it wrong; after all, hadn’t I copied it exactly how it was on the board? But then the teacher would show me how I had gotten the loop on the incorrect side, a technicality I hadn’t even noticed. So I would do it again, and try my best to get it right–I, the big kid in the class who should know how to do things.
The Thai have their own numbers, too, and so we worked at those, reproducing rows of ones, two’s, and three’s in the curling script. Kindergarten also involved learning songs that my sister and I would sing for our mother at home. Occasionally, we were directed to get out the handkerchiefs required with our uniform. The teacher would give directions for folding that we all followed at once. It seems that another day, we all received a small quantity of modeling clay to do with as we liked, so long as we sat in our rows. These activities were serendipitous to me, particularly the clay, and I looked forward to more; however, playing with clay and handkerchiefs did not seem to be a regular part of the program.
What was a pattern, however, was our struggle to connect, to not stand out like pale, light-eyed outsiders who spoke neither the local dialect nor the standard Thai that was the medium of instruction. It would have been good to blend in just a little, to not be a small island of English-speaking foreigners regarded by our Thai peers with a mixture of curiosity and what felt like hostility. I see now that the daily hours at school were not always easy, and with such a big class at times unsupervised, perhaps these children were navigating the unknown and getting through it, just as my sister and I were. If you were different, if you stuck out, you were more likely to be a target of your classmates, an unfortunate principle learned early in life by children all over the world. Writing and alphabet practice were good basic skills to start on. But ordinary activities, like getting through rest times, became challenges to master.