A wild life

Exuberance bubbles over in a Bhutan classroom.

Carolyn Hamer-Smith
Class 3 students show their joyful, curious enthusiasm.

My class is in chaos. But this is not unusual.

"Miss, Miss, there is a centipede on your desk, Miss!"

The girls are standing on chairs and the boys are running around madly like wild creatures of the night, swinging their books at this poor thing and trying to fling it out the door.

"Class 3, would you please sit down!"

No, they would not actually.

"Is poison, Miss. Will crawl into your ear, Miss."

I don't know how real this threat is, but I don't particularly like the sound of it and quickly decide to let my Class 3 boys do what they do best. They dash around the classroom, shrieking and falling over each other in a mad attempt to throw the enormous centipede out the door while I try to get the girls to sit down again.

I am teaching English in a tiny Buddhist country floating high among the clouds in the Himalayas. The Kingdom of Bhutan is wedged between India and Tibet and often romantically referred to as the last Shangri-La. Bhutan has all the hallmarks of a magical kingdom: dense, virgin forests with pristine mountain rivers; clean, crisp air, and spectacular views of the Himalayan mountain range; a policy of "gross national happiness"; a revered king; and a happy, contented people.

Bhutan is a country steeped in tradition and has managed to successfully preserve much of its ancient culture with people continuing to wear traditional dress, consisting of a kira for women and a gho for men. The people are hospitable and eager to welcome visitors who have made the effort to visit their secluded kingdom. But there is also a stillness to Bhutan, a peace, something bordering on the mystical that is encapsulated by the tiny temples perched high on the mountaintops, by the chants of the red-robed monks that float across the valley, and by the majestic forts built thousands of years ago rising up to the sky.

As the new and only chilep teacher (the word for foreigner in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan) I am rather the center of attention, but completely out of my league in the classroom. This is my first teaching experience and I am unable to instill the same sense of order in my classroom as other teachers do. In fact I have discovered my students are like dogs. They smell my fear. Unfortunately, they also smell my soft side.

The following day the antics continue.

"Miss, Miss, Tashi has a dog in his gho!"

A dog in his gho? My classroom appears to have adopted a wildlife theme. How could there possibly be a dog in my classroom? But there it is, poking its cheeky head out through the folds of Tashi's gho, and the next minute he is wriggling free and flying around the classroom and the boys are racing after him and the girls are standing on their desks again. Pandemonium is restored and Class 3 gets on with another English lesson.

Only last week there was a wild boar in the classroom. It was a baby one, but all the same not what one would expect in an English class with a dog and a centipede. Not to mention blackouts, cuts in the water supply, no chalk (although I must admit that appears to be only in my classroom), and children that leave my class via the window ("I am coming back soon, Miss").

My classes are chaotic, my students unruly, my kira a wraparound nightmare, and my command of the classroom nonexistent. But as I walk home from school, the river rushing merrily alongside me and the magnificent peaks of the Himalayas proudly bearing the first creamy dollops of snow, I am joined by two of my Class 3 monkeys. They regale me with frightening tales of wild koalas ("Is this being true in your country, Miss?"), pepper me with questions about the reality TV show "Outback Jack," and dance around in delight as they teach me rude words in Dzongkha. I fear they might fall into the river, they laugh so much. They carry my books for me all the way home, and as they wave goodbye, call out, "Miss, we hope you never leave, Miss. You is our favorite teacher, Miss ... truly speaking!"

Well, if that doesn't make all the wild boars and insects intent on crawling in my ear worthwhile.

Truly speaking.

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