Teaching English in a Foreign Land
The first day of teaching can be terrifying even if you're in your own home country, but how about when you're in a far away land and no one speaks your language?
As I stood on the second-floor balcony overlooking the schoolyard I did everything I could to quell the panic attack that was building within me. Approximately 1,100 identically dressed Vietnamese primary school children stood in perfect formation as they received their morning announcements. A woman’s voice belted out of an industrial Karaoke machine that had been repurposed as the school’s loudspeaker, my mind raced faster than the Daytona 500. Why am I here? Why did I think I could do this? How am I qualified to teach? What am I doing? What are they saying? Am I at the right room? Is this even the right school? Who’s in charge? Dear God what did I get myself into?
Just ten weeks earlier, I had arrived down south in the bustling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. I had spent two months captivated by the streets full of motorbikes whirling by in a river of metal and flesh among neon lights, overflowing wet markets, and skyscrapers. But now I was far removed from the pulsating core of Vietnamese capitalism, and I was standing in a small two-storied mustard yellow government school, in a farming village surrounded by a green sea of rice roughly forty minutes outside of nation’s capital of Hanoi. I could hear the chickens crowing from the house next door, and the putter of homemade motorbikes drifting through the air.
It was completely alien from anywhere I had ever been, and it was everything I could do to keep from breaking down. I desperately tried to remember what all of my friends and family who had been teachers had told me. Things like, “the first day is always the hardest,” “every school is disorganized and screwy,” and “you’re going to cry at some point,” managed to occasionally break the dizzying chorus of anxiety that was screaming for attention in my head. To some degree, these thoughts assured me that I was on the right track, but they did little to help in the moment. Awareness of being on the right path didn’t make it much better.
I took a step back from the railing and started to nervously walk about in a five-foot area where I didn’t think anyone could see me. Knowing that I was feeling what everyone had said I was supposed to feel wasn’t helping anymore. My hands shook like a cowboy in an old Western who had been in too many gunfights, and my left foot couldn’t stop tapping the floor like an alcoholic in withdrawal. My thoughts were like water circling the shower drain getting faster, shorter, and closer to the pit of paralyzing darkness with every passing second.
In a brief moment of clarity, I remembered to breath. Such a simple thing seemed so hard, and so radical. I managed to force myself to stop pacing for just a second, stand up straight, inhale through my nose, and fill my chest with oxygen. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to break the cycle of insanity. Out of nowhere I remembered something an ex-girlfriend had said about when she had lived in Vietnam a few years earlier, “time to put your big girl panties on.” It wasn’t perfect, didn’t quite fit, but it worked. That was quickly followed by “this is your life now.”
Those two thoughts turned in a desperate rallying cry as they cycled on, becoming a sort of mantra pulling me away from the dizzying cacophony of self-pity, fear, and anxiety. Over and over again I repeated “time to put your big girl panties on, this is your life now,” till I started to remember other things I had overcome. I remembered surviving the hell-week at my military university, spending three months in a hospital when I had gotten sick in college, the time I was in a Palestinian refugee camp during a protest where they had thrown rocks and batteries at my head mistaking me for the bad guy, and I had survived living in DC, Israel, and Budapest all on my own. I could do this. Couldn’t I?
My breathing slowed down a little, I stopped pacing in circles, and my hands no longer shook like an alcoholic in withdrawal. It felt like hours had passed, but in reality, only a couple of minutes had transpired. I stepped back to the railing to look out over the sea of identical neatly arranged children.
While I couldn’t tell what the woman on the karaoke machine was saying, I could tell that her morning announcement was coming to a close. The older students were starting to pick up their backpacks, while the 1st graders did everything they could to not break rank and run free. Clearly, they were hearing nothing new and their minds had wondered too. They, however, didn’t have panic written across their faces.
A few of them noticed me and I watched their faces light up with curiosity. It was as if they had never seen a foreigner before. Like wildfire, little hands reached out to yank on the closest sleeve and point in my direction. Whispers rippled through the perfect formation and hundreds of eyes not-so-discretely darted in my direction.
“Ohhhh crap, they see me, I guess I’m really doing this,” rushed through my head.
Suddenly a loud drum boomed across the school yard signaling the end of the morning announcements and the children scattered. Hundreds of students picked up their backpacks, turned to me, and screamed “TEACHER!!!!!” while waving in my direction and darting to their classrooms.
Within seconds I was surrounded by 4th and 5th graders that just wanted to say hello. They swarmed around me saying things like “hello teacher,” “what’s your name,” and “you have much hair,” while reaching out to try and touch my clothes and beard. It was like being in a bizarre zombie movie where all the zombies wanted to do was to say “hello” on repeat. I did my best to greet them all but there were far too many.
From beyond the forest of tanned raised hands engulfing me, a woman’s voice shouted in Vietnamese and like magic the children disappeared into their classrooms. In their place stood a short woman in a white pressed shirt no taller than a 5th grader carrying an early 2000s boombox and CD player. Next to her stood a man who seemed to be in his early 50s, also wearing a nicely pressed white shirt.
In a very broken English, she told me that she was the local English teacher I would be working with, and the gentleman next to her was the principal. We shook hands, said hello and awkwardly smiled at each other before miming that it was time I should start my class.
I took one last look at the numbers above the classroom door confirming I was in the right spot. The anxiety was still there, but I had passed the point of no return. As I looked across the threshold of my future, I saw forty-five students quietly waiting at their desks. Their seats were perfectly square with the tables and they sat straight up at attention with their arms neatly crossed atop their desk.
“Time to put on my big girl panties,” I whispered to myself as I stepped into the classroom and began my first class.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Writer, Adventurer
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