Against all odds

Life's struggles can afflict some more than others

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Kru June is perpetually late for school. She is the first to admit it, and the last to arrive. On this particular morning, the teachers and students of Baan Kui school have already begun morning assembly as she arrives, hurrying across the arid sports field where the morning ritual takes place.

"I'm the worst teacher at the school," she says apologetically. "I really let the team down."

Kru June's house is right next door to this rural school, 567km from Bangkok in the northeastern province of Kalasin.

I'm here for a week. What a relief to be away from polluted Bangkok, breathing in pristine air in this rural district of Kuchinarai in eastern Kalasin. And while it is remote and devoid of any major conflict, it did make the national media just two weeks ago, thanks to three men who died mysteriously over a short period of time.

Locals decided it was the work of the ghost of a recently-deceased widow. That explains the red cloth I have seen draped outside homes on the way to the school. As a way of warding off that evil spirit, local men have taken to wearing lipstick and even dresses at night-time. The red cloth outside the homes is a warning to the spirit not to attack the men within.

(News stories quoted local government health officials as saying the deaths were far from the work of an unsatisfied ghostly widow. One man died of a stroke, another had a heart attack, and another of a disease caused by an infected hand.)

In the middle of this district is the school of Baan Kui. The school used to have more than 500 students. Thailand's dwindling child population, coupled with the ability of better-off students to choose schools in the main district, means that Baan Kui's student numbers fall each year. This is one of the few positive aspects about the education system here; with 18 teachers, the student-teacher ratio just keeps getting better and better.

It is a chilly Wednesday morning as Kru June scutters across the playing field between her home and morning assembly. The students, from kindergarten to Year 9, are all in uniform but that uniformity is broken by the myriad faded colours of their hand-me-down jackets and sweaters protecting them from the 16C morning.

Already the school director is speaking to the students, who crouch in neat lines on the football field. This morning it is about the importance of being diligent, and how education is the key to a brighter future. As inconspicuously as she can, Kru June falls in line beside her students, namely the 35 pupils of Year 6.

"I live closest to the school, but I'm always late. I'm a disappointment to the director," she tells me at the end of assembly within earshot of the director, who merely smiles. I'm not sure if the smile is that of a benevolent director, or a man harbouring a deep resentment of her tardy behaviour.

She may be late for assembly but she is always on time to teach. From 8.30 to 11.30 every morning she is in her classroom on the second floor of an ageing concrete and wood structure. In this era of innovation and technology, there are exactly five things that Kru June uses as teaching aids. The first is a blackboard. The second is chalk. The third and fourth are her hands. The fifth is her imagination. We'll not count the duster.

On the day I am there, there are no textbooks. There is no projector. There is no television. In fact, come to think of it ... there is no power plug.

This is where Kru June comes to the fore. On this morning there are 20 students, and it is the run-up to the national O-Net test being held this weekend. She is demonstrating English prepositions using a method that appears to be working. The children are reciting rhymes that explain "on", "in", "above" and "below". The children are engaged, making fun hand movements as they shout out the prepositions.

I sit there admiring that energy and persistence in teaching against all odds. I wish I were like her. At the end of the lesson I compliment her on her teaching.

"Thank you," she says. "If only I could get to school on time."

With only a week to go before the national test, she prays her students will remember the prepositions. Kalasin is one of the lowest-performing provinces in Thailand in all three levels of O-Net (Years 6, 9 and 12). They score lower than the remote provinces of the North and Northeast, and, surprisingly, the three war-torn provinces of the far South.

There are myriad reasons for this. As outlined last week in this column, these students have hardly any backup system at home. More than half are being brought up by their grandmothers. Their parents are working on Bangkok construction sites, driving tuk-tuks, or manning the sweat shops of Samut Prakan. They return once every few months. Some return once a year over Songkran. Some never do.

There is an argument that teachers are to blame for Thailand's low education standards. To say this is akin to blaming Cambodian sugarcane burning for Bangkok's current pollution, especially when you witness a human dynamo such as Kru June in action. But one does get the feeling that the more remote one travels in this country, the quicker education budgets dry up and wither.

At lunchtime Kru June can take a break, but she doesn't. She helps set up lunch for the 290 students. The school does receive a budget from the government of 20 baht per student for lunch. Everybody eats the same. Today it is khao man gai, and Kru June has written a sign -- "Hainanese Chicken and Oranges" in perfect English on a blackboard in the wooden school canteen.

There are another two hours of teaching in the afternoon. At 2.30 pm, the school bell rings. Kru June is the one who rings it. It is a simple bell she hits a couple of times with a stick. There is a gaggle of grannies in sarongs waiting at the gates to take their wards home. A young father or two comes by on a motorbike to pick up the kindergarten kids.

And Kru June is gone too. She does not spend a single extra minute at the school. Always the last to arrive and first to leave.

It is the school director who confides in me.

"Kru June lives with her 83-year-old mother who is in the final stages of cancer of the kidney," he says. "She must look after her on her own. Three times a week she takes her bedridden mother to the local hospital, about 20km away, to put her mother on a haemodialysis machine."

For the rest of the time, he reveals, she must be constantly by her side, bathing her, feeding her, giving her medicine, making sure her mother is as comfortable as possible.

This in itself is a full-time job, the director tells me. But there is more.

Kru June's husband, a local government official, was last year diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Just last month he had his voice box removed; he can no longer talk. He, too, spends his time in hospital battling the cancer, and the prognosis is not good.

Somehow Kru June manages to split her time between caring for her dying mother and her dying husband -- and those 35 kids she teaches with nothing more than her bare hands. She can be as late as she likes.


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