In my seventh grade English class, we talked about a unit titled, “What You Do For Fun.” The unit mentioned everything from watching movies to going shopping at the mall. When asking the students about what they can do in the mall, I heard a range of answers.
“Go shopping.” “Eat out.” “Play soccer.” “Sleep!”
A little known fact about Thailand is that you can do everything in the malls. You can go shopping, have an upscale dinner, see a movie, get a massage, go ice skating, you can even play soccer. But one student had a particularly unique answer.
One student said, “you can kill people!”
I ignored it the first time and called on another student to give me an answer. When I asked that student, I heard the student repeat it. This time in a more excited tone and while looking directly at me, as if to get my attention. It was at that moment that I realized I needed to stop and have a serious talk with my students. I said, “That is a very inappropriate answer because I don’t think that’s what we can really do in the mall, or is it?” I then turned the question over to the entire class and said, “Can you kill someone in the mall?” First, everyone stared at me, and then everyone responded no. I then explained to my students that making a “joke” about hurting or harming someone is unacceptable because it’s a horrible thing to lose someone.
I also brought up what happens in my country and how getting hurt in a public space is a genuine fear. “You guys, in my country, people do get killed in malls. People get killed at concerts, and people have even gotten killed at schools, too.” Of course, at this moment, I was met with gasps and looks of horror from my students. Afterward, I explained how lucky they were to live in a country where that doesn’t happen and how wonderful it is to walk around without being scared. I finished the conversation by saying, “So in my class or any class for that matter, we do not joke about people being killed, hurt or harmed. Ever.”
One of the challenges that come with teaching children is that most of the time, they’re still learning how to be appropriate and respectable people.
They will often say some totally off the wall stuff, and I believe it’s because they see how far they can push the boundaries of their innocence and society. After the situation, I realized that my student genuinely did mean what he said as a joke. He did not mean it in a harmful or malicious way. He meant it as a joke because, in his mind, he could genuinely never imagine that someone would go into a public space, a mall for that matter, and kill people. It would simply be too comical to think something like that would ever actually happen. It’s the same as when my twelfth-grade students unanimously got a question wrong about “some tap water being safe to drink.” They all believed the question was a false statement because, in Thailand, you cannot drink any of the tap water. Ever.
This instance brought me to yet another moment that reinforced how important teachers are and can be. My job is so much more than just teaching English vocabulary and reading comprehension. On a day-to-day basis, whether I acknowledge it or not, I am giving children an example of how to act, behave, and think or how to not act, behave, and think. I spend nearly a third of the day seeing, interacting, and being around my students. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that teachers can have a profound impact on children.
In my classroom, nobody is allowed to lie, so I hold myself to the same standard.
I don’t lie to my students when they ask me questions, even the hard-hitting ones like, “In American schools, do they bully each other like on the TV series?” When I hear students using gay in a disrespectful manner, I ask them, “What’s so funny about being gay?” When my Thai students said my Chinese student had smelly food, I said, “Durian smells really gross, but it’s yummy to eat, right?” I even had one student ask me why I called myself Black because he thought calling someone Black was rude. To which I responded, “Why would it be wrong to call me what I am? Would it be wrong if I called you Asian?”
I realize that although people grow up differently and have different cultural norms, it doesn’t cost anything to teach someone how to be a decent person on a global scale. It may be hard to discuss the tough topics, but while ignorance really is bliss, growth doesn’t come from periods of blissfulness.