Philip Hendrix, 130 TESS
As far as I can tell, Ping’s nickname is a transliteration of the English word “Pink”. She has happy eyes and stubby fingers that she loves to clap together. She has a ponytail and round cheeks, and her mouth bulges slightly out from her dark face. She is diminutive, even for a second-grader. Ping loves to play surprised – throwing her hands up and opening her eyes wide, lips covering her teeth, beaming with joy – usually before disappearing somewhere into the near distance. Ping picks up English a little more slowly than some of her classmates, but she doesn’t seem to mind too much. I have seen her earnestly trying; I’ve seen her furrow her brow in concentration, often with singular beads of sweat running through her bangs and down her forehead. And while she is very cute when she is trying hard, she feels far more natural when she is at play, laughing and bouncing around. I remember one time, when I was angry with the class for not paying attention, I lined them up and told them they couldn’t leave until they got an answer right. When I gave Ping a question, her brow furrowed again and she gave me a pleading smile, the kind where the lips stay closed. She said she didn’t know the answer, and I motioned for her to go to the back of the line. You would never know how dejected she was by the way she bounced on back there. Two things were clear to me in that moment. First, I knew that my heart would always have a sore spot for Ping. Second, I determined that I would never hold my students’ knowledge against them again.
Suea’s nickname translates to “Tiger”. He is only slightly bigger than Ping, with even darker skin; his cheeks are adorned with the residue of cooling powder applied every morning. Suea is distinguishable by the dutifully shaved hair on the side of his head, the long and unkempt hair on the top of his head, a couple missing baby teeth right in the middle, and a huge smile prone to making duck noises. Despite his size, Suea is probably the fastest student in the second grade. His legs propel him like a classic flightless bird out of a Saturday morning cartoon, needing no help from his motionless arms which, elevated slightly to the side of his body, seem as if they are about to attempt flight. Suea is matter-of-fact and upbeat regardless of the circumstance, even when students call him dirty and smelly, when he is a half-hour late to morning soccer practice, when his mother is late picking him and his little brother up from school again, and even when the English teachers tell him he and his brother can’t play in the English room this afternoon because they have too much planning to do and would like, for once, not to be distracted by kids after class. Suea is matter-of-fact and upbeat every morning, though he comes from a dark, one-room house with 8 brothers and sisters and little money to go around. He is also one of those students whom teachers say are a joy to teach. He is engaged, he humbly helps his classmates, he eagerly learns new words and picks up work to do outside of class – he treats the whole learning process as a fun adventure. Suea was one of the few students whose home I was able to visit, and this experience will be forever etched into my memory. As my co-teacher and I sat on the cement floor with 3 of the kids and their 2 parents, the youngest slept in a crib hung from the ceiling, and the oldest relaxed on a queen-sized matress without bedsheets. My co-teacher dutifully asked about the details of family life, and the parents answered, their demeanor soft-spoken, matter-of-fact and upbeat. One kid sat next to his father, nestled on his lap, and Suea sat next to me, nestled on my lap. Conversation was interrupted by the other kids making familiar duck noises here and there, and then a sudden rainstorm struck, drenching our sneakers. Suddenly, Suea stood up and retrieved an alphabet workbook intended for the 1st graders. He had taken it from my office the day before, and figured now was as good a time as any to work on his capital A. I don’t know what exactly happened in that moment, but something clicked in me. I felt responsibility; I felt ambition. I felt purpose.
In a sense, my recollections are not unique at all. Most of us volunteers will say that the children give our days joy and meaning, and that they give us a deep sense of welcome and belonging in our communities. It has been too easy at times, though, for me to take them for granted, to just not notice how special and truly narak (in this case, lovable) each of them is. More than anything, this post is an affirmation of what has so far been one of the most important parts of my service – interacting with my kids – and a reminder to continue to appreciate the aspects of this experience that make it worthwhile.
Read Philip’s previous article I Didn’t Think Much About PST Before Coming.