Teacher day was coming. ‘Can we party?’ my adult students asked. Obviously they didn’t know me well enough to know that wasn’t much of a fair question. I responded in really the only way one can when this is put to you. Yes – obviously.
I was a little puzzled; so I asked around the teachers room after the lesson. The general consensus was flowers, maybe a tie or scarf. It didn’t sound at all exciting.
The 20th November rolled around. There was not so much as a mention of teachers day from my first teenager class. Maybe it was all a bit of a letdown. I kept behind one boy at the end to explain why slapping another student in the face was completely unacceptable. Apparently this was new to him. He had been twenty minutes late for class because he was playing on the computers downstairs, then proceeded to go out of his way to annoy me for the remaining 70 minutes. When I finished my stern talk to him, he turned to me:
“Have you have bad day?” he asked in the quietest most controlled way possible but with the faintest sliver of a grin. I was gob smacked. After resisting the urge to beat him with a nearby chair; I continued several thousand decibels louder.
Of course I didn’t tell him, but what a fantastic, well thought through response. There was literally nothing he could have said to make me angrier. Touché young man. Our relationship has further deteriorated; I am now openly entertaining ejecting him from the fifth floor window. I’m not saying I’m going to do it – just that I regularly think about.
Fifteen minutes later I walked into my adult class. On my table was an enormous bouquet of flowers and a gift bag. Inside were a couple of bead bracelets, similar to what I wear. I was a touched, it at least showed some thought.
The lesson was only half way through when all the books slammed shut simultaneously.
‘We go’ announced one of the student. A mutiny I thought. Bastards.
‘What?’ I mumbled unsurely.
‘Party’ came the response in unison. Everything was put away while I posed for pictures with my flowers and each student in turn. I felt incredibly important. Perhaps even a little smug. Screw it – smug as hell. I deposited my books in the teachers room then walked out. They were all lined up on their motorbikes like mod rockers. I jumped on the back of the lead bike.
“Let’s roll” I shouted, pumping my fist. Everybody started at me blankly.
“Let’s go” I tried again sheepishly. Ah yes, nods of understanding. We sped off down the road in convoy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt cooler.
We stopped at a nearby restaurant and went inside. They place was completely deserted and I guessed from the four enormous industrial fish tanks that seafood would be on the menu. Initially I found myself at the end of the table. That just wouldn’t do. I was kindly asked to move to the center of the table. I stared at the completely Vietnamese menu in some hope that the words would somehow begin to morph into something recognizable. They didn’t – and in any way it became clear I wasn’t involved in the ordering.
The first items placed on the table where three large bottles of vodka. I eyed them worriedly. Vodka has often been closely associated with my most stupid moments in life. I wondered if teacher day was like a birthday. Am I about to be annihilated by my students. I looked around me suspiciously – what’s all that whispering down the end?
The food began to roll out, slowly at first then like a torrent. Climaxing with two huge seafood hot pots. Everything was delicious. We sat for three hours gorging ourselves like wild animals. The vodka shots were relentless. Bang. Bang. Bang. For two hours I drank nothing else. Bottles seemed to appear from every crack and crevice. When we finally seemed to have finished them all off. I breathed a slight sigh of relief. A second later the waiter was at my elbow with two new bottles and an enormous grin on his face. I suspected he was in on it.
It was a happy three hours. Everybody laughing and smiling. Probably the most Vietnamese experience I’d had so far. The students were almost complete beginners so our communication attempts often bordered on the completely absurd as can be expected. Occasional words pieced together, wild gesticulations and I believe at one point a set of stick figures on a napkin. I’m sure alcohol helps to understand foreign languages. Somebody really needs to look into this.
Towards the end of the night I was struggling to understand a small group of them. We had to wait until one of the stronger students returned from the toilet. A quick discussion followed.
“Teacher number 1” he stated brightly.
“Well I don’t know about that” I started with at least a certain degree of modesty
“No, No, in Vietnam Teacher number 1” he replied. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about
“Government worker, Number 2; worker, number 3 and business man, number 4” Everyone burst into laughter because he was a businessman; with great nobility, he held his hands up in defeat. I realized it was a cultural hierarchy. It was my turn to laugh.
“In England: Business man number 1, Teacher number 4” I added. Everybody was now roaring with laughter. A few beers went flying off the table. Bao, at the end of the table nearly fell off his chair.
I discovered Teacher Days roots lie in a meeting between communist educators in Warsaw in 1957 and was celebrated for the first time In 1958 as the rather un-sexy: ‘The day of the International Manifest of Educators’. But whatever political spin may have been put on it to begin with, I thought it was fantastic that a profession like teaching is celebrated with such enthusiasm here. I can’t even think of a time I ever bought a teacher a gift and here I was being lavishly fed and slowly drowned in Vodka by a group of people I had only taught seven times.
Unfortunately being an ESL teachers often carries the stigma of backpackers who just want to make some extra money. It really is a sad reality that there are plenty of teachers who couldn’t give a shit about whether people learn or not, as long as they get paid. What we do needs to be in perspective. We are not teaching inner city kids to turn themselves around. In all likelihood we are not going to change anyone’s life. Our job is a functional one. People think that if you can speak English you will have a better chance in life. With that in mind I still take great pride in what I do and I’m immensely satisfied when I’ve done a good job. Anybody who has taught will know that we are rarely thanked for what we do – but as the final shots were hoisted into the air and cries of ‘Our teacher’ rang out I had to swallow hard to keep the lump out of my throat.
We decided to leave – or were asked to leave – either way; well past midnight. To my horror they all jumped on their motorbikes. I waved away the offer of a ride. The walk would do me good. I waddled off down the road like a drunk penguin. Ten minutes later I realized, in the wrong direction.