Lesson No. 1: Laughter needs no translation

"What's it like," a fellow volunteer in Laos asks, "teaching in one of the last communist governments on earth?"

"It's hard," I say, "to make them do homework."

It's probably because I've confused them so much. Just the thought "Intermediate English" leaves a cramped, wiggly feeling in my throat, like a small frog there trying to get out.

My classroom at Communist Party Headquarters in Vientiane is the size of a one-car garage. Four windows frame a sizzling egg-yolk sun, a profusion of coconut palms, and fuchsia orchids clinging to a chain-link fence.

A rickety green fan wobbles overhead as the Intermediate English class – 12 middle-aged men in gray uniform and three women in ankle-length silk skirts – file into the U-shaped configuration of desks. Their rubber flip-flops go thwip-thwip-thwip, chairs scrape the floor, papers rustle. I push my round metal glasses high on my nose, hoping the frames lend maturity to my face. It's my third week teaching; I need all the props I can get.

"We'll review the verb 'to be,' again." Since Day 1, I have floundered. "These are the tenses of the verb 'to be,'" I say, boring myself. "This is the present – for today, now." I translate a little into Laotian, as the marker squeals across the board, "and the past. We did these last week."

This fails to stir the flat quicksand in their eyes.

"And next is the past perfect, that you use when...." I squint through a column of sunlight, wishing it would beam me upward, as in an Italian painting.

"Mr. Kamfan," I say, "please read the rule for past perfect. Bottom of the page."

I forgot: Three of the men are named Khamfanh, Kamfanh, and Khamfan. In Laotian, a tonal language, they sound different.

"Kam-fan," I say again.

The trio confers in whispers. One of them looks up, "Me?"

"Yes, you."

A Laotian man with black, square glasses reads the rule in halting English.

"OK, do you all understand?"

Silence.

"I want you to work in pairs," I say, "on Exercise 3."

They gaze at me, motionless.

"OK," I relent, "we'll continue together."

At the end of class I ask, "Any questions?"

One of the Kamfans raises his hand. "Teacher, can you explain the verb 'to be'?"

"That's what we covered in class today. Anything else?"

"How old are you?"

"I'm ... older than you think."

For the first time, they smile, as if forgiving me the immaturity I'd hoped to conceal. They gather their books and depart, the thwip-thwip-thwip of flip-flops fading. "Bye, teacher," they call. I wince at the word.

I might have resigned myself to failure but for the beginner's class, an hour later. They speak no English beyond what we've covered in Unit 1. They breezed through greetings, names, introductions. I feel a proprietary affection toward them. Maybe it's their curiosity, the spark of pure intention that is the beginner's gift. If only I could always glimpse this newness in others.

Now, their textbooks are open to Unit 2. I sip water from a glass one student brings me every day. " 'He,' " I say, "is for a man. 'She' is for a woman."

"He is Mr. Duangta," I gesture widely, suspecting it's impolite to point, and "she–." My hand smacks the glass of water. It's airborne for a quiet moment, then shatters on the floor. Everyone, including me, is shocked. Except when driving, Laotians seldom muster enough velocity to smash anything.

"Too much iced coffee this morning," I say in Laotian. "Please forgive me."

Then, with the same suddenness of the breaking glass, everyone explodes into laughter.

"Bo penn nyang," they say, "Don't worry."

The room is charged with delight. As if with a switch, the lights behind their faces glow. There's a universal quality to physical humor, the banana peel, the loss of dignity. Or maybe their own language, from my foreign face, makes me easier to see. Laughter needs no translation.

Later, when the intermediate class files in again, I tell them "No books today." I burrow in my bag for photos from People magazine. "Choose a picture and pass the rest." I write on the board: name, age, job, family. "Write four sentences about the person in the picture."

As I turn to the board, my hand hits a brown vase filled with white plastic flowers. It twirls, skids, then plunges to the floor. Ceramic bits and fake flowers scatter.

The students gasp. I stare at the mess, as if to blame the flowers. No one moves.

"Jai hon, no?" I say. "Hot- hearted, no self-control."

Like the other class, they erupt with laughter. It's almost a relief; any sound from this class. I laugh too. Khamfanh hurries for a broom.

When the class settles, my students deliver their magazine biographies in front of the room.

One solemnly holds up a picture of O.J. Simpson.

"His name is Xai. He is 26 years old. He has seven children. He is a farmer."

In the next 20 minutes, Elizabeth Hurley becomes a tour guide and Natalie Merchant a seamstress. When they finish, I'm suddenly filled with gratitude just to be here. If O.J. gets to be a farmer, surely I can teach.

On the board I write, "Khamfanh, Kamfan, Khamfan." "Please," I say, "can you help me?"

They laugh as I botch their names in a variety of ways. But they look surprised when the hour is up.

"Goodbye, ajaan." Ajaan is "teacher" in Laotian.

Teaching textbooks advise an "ice-breaker" – but breaking glass works, too. Perhaps the willingness to be a fool is a kind of teaching in itself. Perhaps my students will see in me the pure spark of intention that is the beginner's gift.

The next morning, there's a new vase, this one blue, with a mess of fuchsia orchids tumbling over the sides.

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