By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R, Sunday, July 2, 2017

Published in the Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum

She's a slaughterhouse kindergarten teacher. Her whole life through and through. And her husband was a boy who grew up just over the footbridge crossing the canal to the other side, next to the temple. And her face becomes more beautiful day by day. Serene might be a better word. Her whole life of 48 years. She has been teaching slaughterhouse kindergarten children since her middle teens.

One day, more than 30 years ago, the "junk lady" (collector of second-hand saleables) was there with her three-wheel cart and she gladly gathered all the empty beer bottles and whisky glasses. We all swept the floor, cleaned the place best we could, the kids and mums helping. Our teacher, then a teenager, was there. Her arthritic rheumatism came later. We began school that very day. From a beer hall and worse to a kindergarten for slum slaughterhouse kids.

Oh boy, what a story. Back in the day, this particular shack, large enough, had been abandoned for a couple months, ever since the senior Catholic ladies had put their foot down.

"We are a slaughterhouse slum and our men butcher pork and cattle and water buffalo, and we wash the entrails, but we have our religion and have honour and dignity," said one Catholic lady.

"We will not have a beer hall and worse, with all its cavorting around, in the midst of our community. If our men go there, they need not come home. They can sleep in the pig pens."

With this grandmum slum-type closure, the proprietors -- two local lads -- huffed and puffed, but bravado can last only so long in the face of your grandmums who raised you.

The 78-year-old grandmums had threatened their grown grandsons (the beer hall proprietors) with small bamboo sticks, twigs really. And who would dare defend himself against a grandmum hitting him with a small stick because he had opened a house of ill repute?

And when she's hitting you over the head with her twig, and drops it, she tells you to pick it up and give it back to her so that she can keep hitting you. You pick it up and give it back to her, with her voice ringing in your ears: "How dare you embarrass me in front of all my friends. Shame on you."

In the few months when the beer hall was abandoned, a destitute mum, on the run from her cruel husband, had moved in. She drank rainwater collected from the tin roof, and ate whatever food she could scavenge and cook up from leftovers after the butchering. The neighbouring women were also good to her.

Her three kids had moved in with their mum among the trash and empty bottles. The two older ones had never gone to school and the youngest had nightmares about his mum screaming and crying as she ran from a young foreign man swearing and cursing. He had a long beard.

The grandmums had pronounced by edict that the beer hall was now closed. "We shall open a kindergarten. A school."

The mum with the three kids could live there for a while. Help keep everything clean and look after the place at night. Her two oldest children would attend the temple school across the canal. The youngest didn't have to pay kindergarten fees. All the other children had to pay one baht per day to attend school including lunch. The homeless mum could also help cook the rice.

Our teacher was and is one of the not very many slaughterhouse ladies who could read and write fluently all those years ago. She liked books and studying. Strangely, her handwriting is not only legible but also neat and tidy, even today. She also liked to draw but that went off the tracks when she got crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. She didn't know the cause of that, but nor did the doctors.

True, when she was 12 years old and crossing the street, she was hit by a truck delivering pigs arriving daily from a countryside farm. She took a good knock on the head and woke in the hospital with her loving daddy hovering over her, saying his rosary. He had been weighing the morning shipment of pigs when he heard the news and raced to the hospital.

The medical folk could find no bones broken, so they sent her home. The emergency room was crowded and they were short of beds in the charity ward of the government hospital.

She says some four years later, when she was sweet 16, her bones and joints began to ache -- and it got worse. Again, no one knows how it began. Perhaps when she banged her head in the accident. She was the youngest rheumatoid arthritis patient the medical people had ever seen, so they experimented on her with every medicine available.

Her mum, a northeastern country lady from near the border with Laos, tried every herbal remedy, talked to every village "doctor" she could meet. Nothing really worked. But mum, as she says, in her village travels, did find some excellent type of betel nut to chew, so not all was lost. And all the while dad worked, butchering pigs night after night, and gave all his wages to mum for their daughter's medicine.

Now, at 48, she still aches, walks with sort of a sideways gait, but doesn't complain much. Life goes on. Crippled, she teaches sitting down, the kids love her, and her school thrives. More kids came, another teacher came. Crippled Lady Teacher (that's what the kids call her) is still teaching daily and had been happily married for 18 years until the accident on the gang plank.

She met a young man who was as strong as a water buffalo, or even stronger as the children say, and they fell in love. She also taught him how to read and write his name. He loved her dearly, and they lived together 18 years. A big strapping gentleman, he told her daily how he loved her and felt sorry for her, and would always be there, and would never walk away from her.

Often they would go to places together, and when she felt tired he would simply carry her. She said it looked funny and people would laugh, but he always said: "Let them laugh. Who cares? Besides, they are jealous that they don't have a beautiful wife like I do."

He did leave. She still cries herself to sleep, alone on a late night. It broke her heart. She laments: "Now I have no one. I am all alone." She lost him. It was raining. He slipped on a wet gang plank carrying a 100-kilo sack of rice up into the hold of an old cargo ship docked in Klong Toey. That was three years ago. She still sleeps with his picture next to her bed.

He died tragically. Slipped on that wet gang plank with the heavy sack of rice crashing down on him. He was Buddhist and a shirt-tail relative of the abbot, so they did their very special best they could for him. The whole community came. Buddhist and Catholic and Moslem. And her dad, being Catholic, couldn't become a monk for the day. They had no children, so she put aside being Catholic for a month, put on the white robes of a Buddhist nun in prayer and fasting, but said her rosary every night that her beloved husband who loved her so much and felt sorry for her would rest in peace.

A couple of his drinking friends said they saw his ghost near the gang plank, going up into that cargo ship, and he was happy with the temple prayers, but you never know about these things. A cousin became a monk for one day -- in front of the body for his best friend.

Her dad, Khun Pre-cha Wong Rung, was the only son of Ms Gim Gee, a woman of Chinese origin who was in the Catholic convent for a while some 65 years ago. Mother Superior told her to become a teacher as she had that special gift. "You do not have the gift to be a sister with us, but you can become a great teacher of the poor, especially slum kids in your neighbourhood. My prayers and blessings go with you," she said.

Former novice Ms Gim Gee returned to slaughterhouse catholicity and her family. Married an elderly Chinese gentleman, but he died a few years later in her arms. Although he didn't intend it, but she did, they had a son. But Chinese granny speaking broken Thai wanted her son to be a teacher. He couldn't as he didn't have the brain power.

So he "did" pigs for some 30 years until his back gave out and he became a watchman. He didn't drink too much except for an occasional shot in the morning in his coffee with a raw egg mixed in to get him going.

And his Crippled Lady Teacher daughter? It took three generations. Granny failed, her son just couldn't make it intellectually, but his daughter became the best of all teachers on the planet, or at least in the slaughterhouse. She wants to teach forever. She rides to school each day, sitting side-saddle on a neighbour's old put-put motorcycle.

As for the mum with the three kids, it all worked out. She realised she should have never come to Bangkok. Her parents owned some land and a few water buffalo, and they were prospering well enough. So she went home. Her children are grown now with children of their own. She never married again but is a proud granny.

If you are ever walking in the early morning in the old slaughterhouse, you will find her. Crippled Lady Teacher is first to school in the morning, getting some rice gruel ready for any children who come to school hungry. She is there to welcome all her children, comb any stray lice out of their hair, get them ready for the day.

Recently a lady down the alleyway died, leaving a seven-year-old daughter all alone. Before she died, she asked Crippled Lady Teacher if she would look after her daughter.