Ms Teacher Lady

By Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.

Bangkok Post, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, Spectrum Section

There's a quiet revolution stirring amid the ponds of Klong Toey, where students are taught to ask questions and dare to speak out

Let me tell you about an old-time Klong Toey revolutionary: a slum kindergarten teacher. Still going strong in her seventh cycle of years – that makes her more than 72. But don't dare ask her if her beautiful hair is turning slightly grey, even around the edges. No guns, no knives, only pencils and paper and nursery rhymes. You'd say: ''What? A kindergarten teacher revolutionary? You're daft.'' But that's the gig. As long as she can remember, that horrible proverb rattled around in her head – not enough children to tend our water buffalo. Even as a little girl, she told her mum, that's not right. And schoolmarm mum said: ''You're right my daughter, so you change that.”

She's dangerous beyond ''their'' worst fears. ''They'' are the ones who say we need more factories. We have enough schools. An even worse crime, she tells kids it's okay to question what adults say. It's okay for her students to say out loud what they think is right and wrong. And to be praised for the saying of it – not told to hush up. Another part of her crime – believing that every child, especially the girls, must go to school.

She's helplessly and hopelessly in love with teaching. To teach every slum child she meets to count, read and write. How many kids has she taught? At last count a couple years ago, a bunch over 2,000 girls and boys –math, reading, writing, telling nursery rhymes. And she's still teaching today.

Her first ''graduates'' were Slaughter House kids 51 years ago. She began in an abandoned wooden shack in back of the pig holding pens, next to the canal. Dried blood stained the floor boards. Some folks had died there in a gunfight over drugs. She boarded up two rat holes, began feeding three feral half-wild slum cats. Slept in a cubby hole in the back. Rice and salt just outside her mosquito net and cats prowling nearby to keep hungry night-time rats from sneaking into her mosquito net to lick the salt from her hair. Then put up a picture of her own schoolmarm mum, dead now several years, for protection and guidance. Neighborhood folks said it was a good place for a kindergarten as the drug people had been selling to children.

All said the spirits of the place would protect her and the students.

How did she get to Slaughter House in the first place? She was 13 when her older middle-aged schoolmarm mum died. The midwife and the village neighbor women couldn't save her.

After mum died, dad fell apart. Mum had always been the strong one, kept the family together. Dad found a new lady with some money who would take him in; so one day he just walked off their farm and moved in with her.

Oldest sister, a schoolmarm like mum, teaching in a provincial town, took in her 13-year-old sister. Convinced the school board and they bent the rules just slightly – said baby 13-year-old sister qualified close enough to being an orphan. They gave her tuition and living expenses of 30 baht per month. Living as a boarder, she studied and starved, finishing with honors and a pre-university degree. After graduation, older sister said, honors and a degree are nice, but they don't buy you a bowl of rice.

So with her degree and her boarding school suitcase, they bought her a one-way ticket on the day train to Bangkok. Second sister had married a Catholic man who was working and living in the Slaughter House. They needed someone to look after and teach their three children as second sister sold cooked food and local whiskey to the Slaughter House men and the truck drivers early each morning when they delivered daily truck loads of pigs from the farms in the distant provinces.

And after a couple weeks of settling down to the Slaughter House environment, as she tells the story, she had a dream. Her schoolmarm mum now seven years dead, dressed as a grand Thai lady, told her to teach Slaughter House children how to read and write. She said: ''Mum, I don't know how to teach.'' And Mum in the dream said: ''I was a teacher and your grandmother was a teacher and your sister is a teacher and soon you will marry a man who is a teacher. It is our gift. You will know.''

And so it began with a dream. Word spreads fast. There was now a teacher in the Slaughter House, teaching how to read and write. The children graduated when they had the basics, could write their names, read bus numbers and count enough to not be cheated at the local market. But she's repeated to every child she teaches, that old worn expression, it's okay to be born in the swamps of Klong Toey, or anywhere else, but you must clean up that swamp. Go to school.

Tuition was barter: a couple fresh eggs, a bit of rice, fresh pork, some bananas, whatever – or cash, 3 baht per school day, if they could afford it. But, regardless, they did need to pay something, for dignity's sake and also so she could support herself. Students brought their own food for lunch. She became ''Ms. Teacher Lady'' that first week of school.

Who gave her the title? She remembers there was a skinny underfed migrant child. The girl's granny dragged her to school, terrified.

Wizened, betel nut chewing Northeast Thai granny examined 20-year-old Ms. Teacher Lady. She instructed her granddaughter right there on her first day to school to take off her flip-flops out of respect and address her new teacher as Ms. Teacher Lady. So the name caught on.

That Granny, with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild, had migrated to the Slaughter House. It was a drought year back on the farm. The rice crop has failed. They were starving.

A Catholic neighbor in the village told the child's dad: I am going to work in the Bangkok Slaughter House. Maybe he could get dad a job. Wife and Granny didn't like it. Said it was a sin to kill any living creature, let alone large animals, like pigs and water buffalo and cattle, no matter what the reason. Granny won the day _ we have to eat. And five-year-old granddaughter has to go to school. We will talk about sin later.

Granny brought her granddaughter to kindergarten each morning, and mum came to bring her home in the afternoon. After a few weeks teaching school, more and more parents kept coming. Can my child go to school? Do you have room? After two months Ms Teacher Lady was overwhelmed: she had nearly 50 students.

That's when she met the man she married. He had a bad leg. He was educated, but no one wanted to hire a ''gimp.” His mum said: ''Son, teaching is a noble profession. Go be a teacher.'' Mum asked Ms. Teacher Lady if her son could join her. They divided the class. His nickname also stuck: Mr. Teacher Gimp. I asked her once about his leg. She said, in the 31 years they were married, she never asked, and he never mentioned it.

Soon, a delegation of parents living 15 minutes away by bicycle in a notorious drug area of the slum begged her to come and teach their children.

They would buy a wooden house, give it to her to teach school, and provide water and electricity. She tells the story that she was frightened out of her wits. Said that she would think about it.

Then, a couple weeks later, came a second delegation: The wives of drug dealers, thugs, gangsters, all came to see her and promised to protect her. Just please teach our children. They had dreams, perhaps more than anyone else, for their children to grow up on the proper side of the law: To be respected doctors, nurses, lawyers merchants, teachers, and become good dads and mums.

She really couldn't say no.

So wearing a Medal of the Buddha and also a Medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary for courage and protection she taught there for the next 50 years.

New husband Mr Teacher Gimp continued teaching in the Slaughter House. He taught there for 31 years.

Today, 51 years later, stooped a bit and her hair grey, but only at the edges, her new name is Teacher Grandmother.

Today parents, grandparents, even a couple of great-grandparents who she taught along the way, including current office staff, accountants, police officers, cleaning ladies, and taxi drivers, visit her kindergarten.

They ask their old teacher to teach their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren how to count, to read, and to write and chant Thai nursery rhymes. They don't want any other teacher.

Yes, they all take off their shoes, adults and children alike, out of respect, like so many years ago.

They tell Ms. Teacher Grandma: ''See, we're proud to be Klong Toey and we're doing our best to clean the swamp just like you taught us.''

Teacher Grandmum still cherishes that faded picture of her schoolmarm mum and the dream of 60 years, ago, just like yesterday: Mum, dressed as a grand Thai lady telling her, my daughter, you can teach.

''Your grandmother was a teacher and I was a teacher and your sister is a teacher and you are a teacher.''

Ms Teacher Grandma. No guns, no knives, armed only with pencils and paper and nursery rhymes.