SQUABBLES AT THE SCHOOL
By Andrew Biggs
Running a language school, where the students on the weekends are predominantly little kids, can be daunting at times. You are forever putting out bushfires.
Like two weekends ago, when Somsak had a long face throughout Saturday.
Something was definitely not right. His happy-go-lucky nature took a definite nose dive to the point where it started to affect everybody else at the school. It was one of those situations where I had to take some course of action, so during a teaching break I called him over to my desk and asked him what was wrong.
“Nothing,” he said with a pout.
“Are you sure?”
\“That’s interesting,” I replied. “Because normally you’re laughing and joking around. Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
I was once told by a very wise Thai that when you need to discipline or reprimand a Thai, one good way is to praise him or her first. It sounds a little juvenile and an integral part of Philosophy 101 but it really does work. Point out something good, then at the very end bring up what needs to be adjusted. It is similar to the old journalistic interview technique; prepare ten questions with the first nine being superfluous fluff the interviewee would love to answer — then hit him with the sensitive one at the very end.
So I tried a different tack.
“Somsak, you know what I like about you? You’re clever. You’re entertaining. You work hard, and your English is great.”
Somsak looked down into his lap. There were no signs of the glacier melting.
“You’re creative and co-operative, and you always do the tasks assigned to you,” I said. By this time I was running out of compliments, and besides, Somsak’s face was not budging.
“How about this,” I said. “Just tell me the truth. What’s upsetting you? Come on. I promise I won’t tell another soul.”
Somsak looked to the left and right, pouted a little more, then finally answered:
Ah, now I was getting somewhere! Progress! What was it Confucius said about the longest journey beginning with a single step? Never mind … I had questions to ask.
“What about Chanphen? You two seem to get along just fine.”
“She said a bad thing about me.”
“She said I took money and didn’t return it.”
“You borrowed money from Chanphen?”
“No! It’s a lie!”
Chanphen, who sits next to Somsak, can be a little naughty, and does like to stir up trouble now and then. But she always seemed to be friends with Somsak. What had gone wrong? What could possibly have happened?
“Have you spoken to Chanphen about this?”
Somsak folded his arms and looked defiantly outside the window into the car park.
Of course he hasn’t. It is very Thai to hold grudges without confronting the enemy. The ill feeling ferments until it finally explodes one way or another. I was trying to diffuse Somsak. I don’t know if I was succeeding. The more he spoke, the more the mountain looked set to blow.
“I’m never going to speak to her ever again,” he said. “Never ever again. Never ever!”
“Never ever again is a long time,” I said, trying to sound kind and wise, but sounding a little trite. “Especially when you have to sit next to her.”
“She’s always trying to hurt me! And she accused me of borrowing money and not returning it! I know because someone else told me.”
I was determined to solve this little school tiff that was threatening to turn into World War 3. It was a little later I ran into Chanphen running down the corridor, and I called her aside into my office. “What’s going on with you and Somsak?” I asked.
Chanphen looked perplexed. She shrugged her shoulders, which is considered an impolite thing to do in Thailand, especially for a girl, but Chanphen is a bit of a tomboy in the western sense of the word. While I like Chanphen, and she has been with us for a while, I am also aware she likes to stir others.
“Do you like Somsak?”
“Sure,” she said, looking down at the textbook in her hand with more than a touch of guilt.
“Tell the truth,” I said.
“Well, he’s a little wishy-washy but he’s okay.”
“Did you accuse him of borrowing money and not returning it?”
A flash of guilt, replaced by a veneer of innocence. “No, I never did that! He’s lying! I wouldn’t say that!”
“Calm down … calm down. I’m just asking.”
“But I never!”
I was dreading it, but I know I had to call them both into my office. I decided to do the farang thing and confront the problem head-on. “Okay Somsak,” I said, “Tell Chanphen why you’re upset.”
Anger flared up immediately. “You said I borrowed money and didn’t return it!”
“I did not!”
“I don’t have to prove it! I know it’s true!”
“It is not!”
“It is too!”
“Okay enough!” I shouted in my best teacher voice. “Who told you about this, Somsak?”
Somsak folded his arms, pouted then pursed his lips. “I’m not saying.”
“You say it!” shouted back Chanphen. “Who said I said it?”
This was going nowhere fast.
“Somsak claims it isn’t true,” I said.
“Okay fine,” said Chanphen.
]“So if that’s the case, is it possible to forget this entire incident?” I asked.
Chanphen shrugged her shoulders. “Sure,” she said.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Somsak.
“Well the two of you have to sit in the same room. Can you at least try to be civil to each other?”
Chanphen said she would. Somsak nodded and said: “But she said I borrowed money.”
“Yes, Somsak, I know, but it’s time for you to look ahead, not backwards. It’s a little like learning the future tense instead of the past tense in English class. Now do you think you could do that?” I added, sheepishly: “For me?”
The ensuing five seconds of silence felt like an eternity. But there was a reward at the end. Somsak nodded.
“Okay, now I want you both to shake hands and make an effort to be friends again.”
Incredibly they shook hands. Sure they were sheepish, and I did see Chanphen wiping her hand on her dress after. But it was a start.
Did my intervention help things?
Who knows. Having taught, and worked, with Thais for more than two decades, I realize that classrooms and workplaces can be minefields. Faces get lost easier than erasers and rulers do.
In the case of Somsak and Chanphen, the important thing is to try to get them to look forward. Half the battle is trying to get each side to stop apportioning blame. But grudges can be very tough in the Land of Smiles.
And yet things appear to be okay at my little school.
]Last weekend was fine. Students were happy, teachers were on time, parents waited patiently. There were no major mishaps in class. In fact none of our students has ever had any major personality clashes like the one between Chanphen and Somsak.
That’s right. Somsak and Chanphen are my staff, not my students. Chanphen is 45 years old; Somsak is 52.