A short while ago I started giving free English language lessons to Tor, who is a 19-year-old Thai fighter at Lanna and also happens to be Daeng’s son (one of my favorite trainers). I’m not a trained language teacher – I have no certification or formal education in it – but I am a practiced English language teacher in that I have, at different times, taught English to Korean children in Germany and to prisoners in New York from ages 16-60, who ranged from ESL students to folks who literally just never learned to read or write. If you ask me whether or not I’d want to be a teacher I will answer “no,” without hesitation, nine times out of ten. Despite that, I have always enjoyed teaching; I love it, actually. It’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done in that the gratification of being able to give something to someone simply because you can is a really simple, pure joy.
Tor’s university is three hours away by car, so he only comes home on “long weekends” and our lessons together have been spaced accordingly. While we’ve only had a few sessions together, I’m continually impressed by how “hungry” Tor is to learn English. As a native speaker from a middle-class background (with working-class ethics), it’s easy for me to forget that English opens doors in the world – learning English can literally change someone’s life by expanding opportunities for them. I pay incredible sums of money in loan debt for my own higher education and that colors the way I think about higher education as a whole; but for most people around the world education is actually a tool by which they can reshape their futures. It’s something worth fighting for.
I’m making a concerted effort to record more of my experiences here in Thailand that are not directly related to my accounts of training. This is one such example of something I rarely talk about but certainly affects my experience with equal measure. My own endeavors to learn Thai are another example. So I’m using a program (which is quite genius) called Scrivener to document and organize these writings, which will eventually compose a book. If anyone is undertaking a writing project, even casually, I highly recommend checking out the Scrivener software.
Excerpt from my Scrivener
…I lost my fight last night and am feeling better about it today than I generally do. I’m quitting sugar and have been really good about it, so my moods and emotions are far more even-keel than usual and I do believe it has a lot to do with getting off the sauce. But at breakfast I was on the tablet and Tor messaged me to see how my fight went. I told him the results and he supportively asserted that it was no problem. When I asked if he wanted a lesson because I had some free time today and tomorrow he jumped at the chance – maybe a little bit pushed by Daeng, but whatever. We agreed to meet at 3:00 at the gym.
Here’s the thing about Tor: for the first six months I was here we would exchange smiles at the gym and little else. He never uttered a word to me unless it was “no fear” in the corner as he iced my legs between rounds. Then, maybe 7-8 months in to my first year I was doing situps in the back corner of the gym and he came up to me and asked me a full-sentence question, followed by two more very well structured clarifications. I was stunned. His English was not only present but actually pretty casual. Big is the exact opposite. He speaks more English that he lets on (same as Tor) but is so unbelievably uncomfortable when he’s forced to actually speak English that he seems to be grasping for every word, even though he understands a lot. When I first started teaching Tor I wanted to start very simple, but not overly basic. I didn’t want to insult him by going over the alphabet, for example, but no matter how good in English a Thai speaker might be, there are certain aspects that are almost always missing, like prepositions and “s” at the end of plural nouns. Tor is great at pronouncing an “s” at the end of a word but struggles to remember to do it. (Some Thais literally cannot pronounce the “s” at the end because it never happens in Thai. There is no “s” as a final consonant, it becomes “t.” If you think this is silly, try pronouncing the Thai letter ง, which makes the same “ng” sound that we use only at the end of a word (song) but is neigh on impossible to casually use at the start of a syllable.)
Daeng was at our lesson today, which was the first time that’s happened. He greeted me at the driveway as I walked up before the lesson and gave me a genuinely bright smile. Then he put his arm around me and asked, “how are you?” (He always emphasizes the “you”.) I said I was fine and told him I hoped he hadn’t bet too much money on me for my fight the night before. When he indicated that he had not been able to place a bet because he didn’t go to the fights I told him I was relieved. I hate the idea of him losing money because of me. He thought that was funny. Gambling is less of a stress point for my trainers (who are actually doing the betting) than it is for me (who is being bet on). When he sat down with Tor and me I could see that Tor was more focused…