THE BOY WITH HALF AN ALPHABET IN HIS SUITCASE
By Andrew Biggs
Little Potae came to stay with me over the school holidays. His parents went to the South to work on a construction site. Could he stay at my place while they were down there?
That, dear reader, is how I ended up with an 8-year-old in my house for a fortnight.
In the West we have a saying that fish and house guests go off after three days, but this truism does not work in Thailand since rotten fish, i.e. >>pla ra<<, is an essential ingredient to any Northeastern dish. Thus there is no compunction for a house guest to feel the need to move on after 72 hours, or, in Potae’s case, 336 hours.
Ah but I risk sounding like a curmudgeon. It was delightful having Potae ensconced on my sofa, killing aliens and the walking dead all day long in between Ben Ten episodes on TV.
He comes from Nakhon Phanom, 600 km from Bangkok in the remote Northeast. Having just turned 8, he has already been in the Thai education system for four years if you count the three years of kindergarten before Grade One.
I’ve seen his school. It is a collection of wooden buildings which, if not requiring a good paint job, may instead benefit from a good bulldozing. Education budgets rarely make it out that far. They tend to sputter and burn out in provinces a little closer to the capital, leaving Potae and his schoolmates with the dregs.
“In this house, we speak English all the time,” I told Potae on Night One,as we sat eating dinner. My brazen lie caused one or two family members to choke on their steamed rice. Nevertheless I continued: “Can you speak English, Potae?”
Potae chose not to reply. He continued spooning Thai omelette into his mouth.
So I asked him again.
Still not a word. Not even a shake of the head.
It stayed that way for three days. No response. Potae chose instead to engross himself in his smart phone (where the aliens and walking dead met their untimely deaths) and Ben Ten.
It was on Day Four that I managed to get some words out of the kid.
“Do they teach you English in your school?”
Potae didn’t look up from his smart phone. Clearly in rural Nakhon Phanom one is allowed to continue zapping aliens without having to answer questions from elders. But I wasn’t an alien. I wasn’t going to be zapped.
The second time I asked, he nodded his head quickly. A thaw in the relationship!
On Day Five I took him to KFC. By this stage I was beginning to realize that eight-year-olds never stopped eating. When breakfast was over it was time to bring out the Lays. After that it was Pocky chocolate sticks, sliced mango, then some sugary fake chocolate crispy things in the shape of smiling faces which I suspect will render Potae a diabetic in a decade or two. And all this prior to 9 am.
At KFC I asked Potae about his English again.
“Can you count to ten?”
He finished chewing on his chicken nugget, swallowed it, then shook his head. I wanted to explain that it was okay to multi-task; he could eat and shake his head at the same time, but our relationship hadn’t advanced to that level.
“You can’t count to ten?” I asked again, but alas, Potae had already picked up another nugget.
“What about the alphabet?” I asked in the meantime.
Potae nodded with an ever-so-slight smile!
“Well thank god for that,” I said. Clearly those chicken nuggets were doing the trick, so I asked: “Can you recite it for me?”
He held up another nugget. Without any eye contact, staring out towards the KFC menu above the counter (was he going to order more?), he said: “A-B-C-D-E-F-G.” Chomp.
It was good to hear Potae’s voice after four days of silence. But nothing after G was forthcoming.
“There’s a little bit more to it than that,” I said. “What comes after G?”
Potae stared up at the ceiling. Anywhere but directly at me. He reached for the french fries. I took that as an “I don’t know”.
(Potae’s nickname is actually the first two syllables of the English word “potato”, not that Potae would know that, since the word consists almost entirely of letters beyond G.)
By this stage I was starting to feel frustrated. I am aware of shyness in children, but we were into Day Five and really, there should have been a crack in the glacier by now.
Or could it be that Potae was just a product of his environment? If it was true that he’d only learned up to the letter G, what hope was there he’d have been taught anything else, such as good manners?
I took it upon myself to change all that. I decided I would send Potae home not only with a few extra kilograms around his waist, but also with some knowledge. I would take it upon myself to teach him a little English. What an altruistic person I am!
One of the things I quickly discovered about being altruism is that it requires time and effort, both of which I had very little.
And yet in the remaining week I managed to teach him the rest of the alphabet. It cost me a few boxes of Pockys but I did it. I overheard him reciting it in his bedroom on the last night. He got all the way to Z, skipping over R and S but that was okay.
I also taught him “stand up”, “sit down” “turn around” and “jump”. I taught him “good morning”, “good night” and “thank you”, not that he once volunteered any of that information unless I dangled a cylinder of Lays or packet of diabetes in front of him.
Potae left my home last Sunday.
A relative came to pick him up. When the pick-up truck pulled up outside Potae ran out with his little suitcase and scrambled into the car. He didn’t stop to say goodbye.
I hear from his family in Nakhon Phanom that he had a wonderful time in my home. How he managed to transmit this information to his next of kin is beyond me, and I suspect his satisfaction stemmed more from Ben Ten and his constant eating than from any time with me.
I did ask his parents about his education, and they said Potae’s teacher was a mathematics instructor, choosing to teach math over English. That explained his inability to recite the entire alphabet, though one would think a math teacher, when forced to teach English, would at least start by instructing his students on how to count.
Just before writing this column I consulted the Thailand Basic Education Core Curriculum, the standard for all Thai schools. For each school grade there are “Grade Level Indicators” which explain the basic information a child must know upon completion of that year.
For grade one, those indicators include the ability to “act in compliance with simple orders heard”, “specify the alphabet and sounds”, and “choose the pictures corresponding to the meaning of words and groups of words heard”. Note that I fulfilled two of those three indicators in Potae’s short stay with us.
And what of the other 40 kids in his class who didn’t get to go to Bangkok for two weeks over the school holidays? They are still stuck at the letter G. And Potae, as cute as he is, is a silent example of an education system that is beyond broken.