Several months ago, I heard about a village in the Burmese mountains in need of teachers. I didn’t have experience teaching, but it seemed like a great opportunity. I volunteered my services, unsure of what to expect.
Mr. Bike, a local tour guide, escorted me to the small village. After a fruitful breakfast with my host family, we prepared for the first day of school.
The children heard about my arrival and were curious to see whether the rumors were true. Peeking around corners, spying through fences, and waiting outside the front door with flowers in their hand. Guided by eager giggles, we walked down to the school together.
School began at nine in the morning and ended at three in the evening with an hour lunch break in between. There were about 15-20 students, some as young as three and some as old as 13. When it rained, water leaked through the roof. Books, school supplies, and children often got wet. Thankfully the rain came in short, torrential spurts and rarely lasted longer than thirty minutes.
The children were eager to learn despite our language barrier. However, I could only teach what could be shown. Meaning, conversational topics like, “How are you?” and “I am good” proved to be a challenging task. Instead, we learned sing along songs such as the ‘hoke poke,’ ‘heads, shoulders, knees, and toes,’ the ‘ABC’s,’ and a few others.
We had fun, but school was school. Some days were more interesting than others. Homework and assignments often steered their thoughts into daydreams.
When the day was over, sometimes I would go for a run, write, read, or spend time with the children. Hiking through the mountains, picking flowers, climbing trees, or swimming in the local river until a sky of constellations danced over our heads and an ensemble of crickets told us it was time for bed.
The next morning, I noticed a boy lingering outside my guest house, but I did not recognize him from school. I invited him inside to test his english skills.
He could remember names, words, sentences, and objects with minimal repetition. Carefully, he withdrew a withered english book from his jacket and began to read. When the short story was over his gaze returned to mine and the look on my face must have conveyed bewilderment.
He smiled, “I teach myself.”
I grabbed the other teacher for assistance translating.
“Why don’t you go to school?” I asked.
“My aunt wants me to work. In Myanmar, women perform household chores while the men work in the fields. She disapproves of my interest in education and does not believe it is necessary.”
“Well,” I paused thoughtfully. “If you could be anything in the entire world, anything at all, what would you be?”
“Why is that?”
“Because most people in Myanmar, when they are sick or hurt, they can’t afford doctors. They often die or get terrible injuries and infections. I want to be able to help my people for free.”
Touched by the pureness of his words, I wanted to help him in any way that I could, but being so deep within the mountains, options were scarce.
Instead, I bestowed the only wisdom I could think of.
“Listen to me,” I enunciated each word carefully. “If you want to be a doctor, you can be a doctor. You can be anything you want to be in this world. You need to believe in yourself.”
The following day was gloomy and damp but classes had not been canceled. Shortly after lunch time, I noticed the boy feeding his buffalo on the school grounds, as though hoping the daily lessons would seep through the walls and find their way into his ears. I invited him to join, but he politely declined and returned to the mountains for work.
As school approached its final hour, the pitter patter of running feet echoed just beyond the bamboo walls. I turned to find the boy fidgeting nervously with his hat. The other teacher asked if everything was okay.
“Yes, everything is okay.” He dug his foot into the soft ground. “I finished work early and would like to come to school. Can I come to school?”
Needless to say, he was welcomed with opened arms.
By now, I had acquired a routine. Wake up, enjoy breakfast with my host family, step outside to a swarm of students and their bouquets of flowers, and together, walk down to school.
But, on the fifth morning, something different happened. Something unexpected. As the school grew closer, I could see that somebody was already inside, reading.
It was the boy.
“From now on," He began, straightening his posture. "I am going to wake up early, work as much as I can, go to school, then finish the rest after school is over. I will work hard. I want to be a doctor.”
On the sixth and seventh day he stayed true to his word. Arriving before nine and disappearing at three on the dot. Still, even after a busy day of work and school, we spent the evenings practicing english until our eyelids could no longer bear the weight of another story.
Saying my goodbyes was far more emotional than anticipated and the ride back down the mountain with Mr. Bike was quiet. I thanked him profusely for the experience of a lifetime knowing that during my time in the little village in the mountains, a life was changed.
Or perhaps, by the power of remarkable fate, two lives were changed. Not just mine, but the little boy’s as well.