Finding Loke Yew
It is my third weekend teaching at the Myanmar Refugee School. Every time I go there the Uber driver and I bond in our collaborative search for the place.
The one other volunteer and I decided that the reason no one shows up to volunteer at the Loke Yew School is that it is impossible to find. My new Uber friend and I confirmed that the address that I have for the place doesn’t exist. However, he gave me a famous KL land mark – the Hung Kee Noodle Shop. Between that discovery and the confirmation that the address is wrong, I should find the place next week. Besides, the other volunteer and I found a nearby LRT (Light Rapid Transit) station.
Anything you want
When I arrived at the school – late – the students were sitting at benches, not on them, waiting for me. It was as if my arrival was a signal for them to go wild.
What are they doing? I ask the woman in charge.
Waiting for you.
Oh. What should they work on?
Anything you want. Then she disappeared.
HMMM. Well, there were pictures of clothing on the board, so why not sing a song about clothes? I rounded them into a circle. A simple task if I didn’t have to pry them apart and keep them from slugging each other. We sat down, and I started to sing the What are you Wearing song faster and faster as I started losing their attention. If you are wearing a blue dress, stand up if you’re wearing a blue dress, stand up. Everyone, except for the two girls wearing blue dresses, stood up, and it was downhill from there. Children spilled everywhere. But I think they liked my voice.
Teaching little kids is different than teaching teenagers, especially when there are so many of them. It’s hard to tell if they are unruly or if they don’t know enough English to follow my directions. The perk to teaching little ones is that you can pick them up when the chips are down. This particular bunch likes to punch each other – hard. Sometimes I hear a loud crack or look up to see a kid pressed to the floor in a head lock. It takes all of my strength to pry them apart.
Can you tell them?
Then the woman in charge, the only one who speaks Burmese and English, drifted back into the room. Please, can you tell them to sit down and get out their notebooks? I begged. She told them. For the first time in the lesson, they all knew what to do. Then I realized that they didn’t have anything to write with, so I added before the Burmese speaker disappeared, can you tell them they need pencils?
The children sat for a moment, and since one boy had a hat, I went with that. Who is wearing a hat? He smiled. Another kid wrestled him for it, and all hell broke loose again. So, I grabbed all five of the dry erase markers, mere nubs of markers, and said, who wants a marker? There was a mad rush at me. No, I shook my head, down, down, as if I was staving off a pack of puppies. They finally realized that they had to sit to get something from me.
Where is the Cat in the Hat?
After much gesticulating, one boy understood that I wanted them to write hat. H-A-T. Hat. Then another student followed suit, and I poured a gallon of attention over them practically doing cartwheels. I patted their heads and smiled and jumped for joy, thus inspiring a few others to write the magic three letter. Where is the Cat in the Hat when you need him? Finally, we had all the three-letter A-T words I could think of on the board. Most of the kids busied themselves with coloring and hitting each other, but I got a few to write, and some to draw cats and hats. I held off the others from an all-out dry erase marker assault as the privileged five pressed the remaining ink out of them and onto recycled paper. By the end of the lesson, I had some of them writing words horizontally to make sentences: That fat cat. That cat sat.
They were done. They drifted. They wallowed. They wrestled and punched each other some more. It was mayhem.
I made my way through the other volunteer’s room to find a stash of books. The other volunteer had as much control over his students as I did, but they were older. I left the most unruly boy from my classroom with him, just for a reprieve, and scooted back to the wrestling match/coloring fest in my room.
Who wants a book? There was another mad rush. These kids know what they want. They are wanters. There was a clamor for the books. There were more than enough to go around.
The House was Quiet
Then all of them settled. A calm settled over the room. There was an occasional tug at a book, or a nudge to find a comfortable spot, a competition to have more books. ALL of them were engaged.
They came to me and showed me fish, and babies, and boys, and hair, lions, tigers, bears, and Buzz Lightyear. They asked me to sit in Burmese, and I taught them to say sit in English. They said grrr, and I said lion. They devoured the books. They fought over them too, and we learned how to share.
The unruly boy, the one I had stuck in the other classroom earlier, wandered back to join us. He was the most aggressive and disengaged student there. I scooped him up and hugged him into my lap with all the loving I could muster. We read book after book, and he couldn’t get enough, even when his friends tried to fight him, even when the little girl on my other knee roared when she saw the witch in Rapunzel. When he pointed to the scary shark in Finding Nemo, we roared, and we tickled, and we laughed.
. . . and the world was calm*
Every once in a while, I felt a little head pressing against my back or leaning on my shoulder, or playing with my hair. They couldn’t get enough of me, and I couldn’t get enough of them.
The House was Quiet and the World was Calm,
by Wallace Stevens