The past week has been unlike any other I have previously experienced. Our two-week long orientation in Kuala Lumpur (KL) filled with important informational sessions and meetings with the Malaysian Ministry of Education and the United States Embassy was finally over. Oh how the time flew by!
Ninety out of the one hundred English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) said their goodbyes to one another and headed to their respective state orientations for more specific information about their teaching placements. Those in Sabah and Sarawak boarded planes bound for Borneo, ETAs headed for the west coast of peninsular Malaysia boarded busses and headed north, and the rest hopped on a plane for the east coast. Ten of us would not be joining any of these groups for state orientations. We, the ten selected to teach in Kelantan state, had a much different schedule ahead of us.
The state of Kelantan is currently recovering from one of the most severe floods in recent history. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and hundreds of homes were completely washed away from their foundations. Over the course of a two-day span, sixty-eight days worth of rain fell. Sixty-eight. Imagine the a torrential rainstorm pounding your home and then multiply that by sixty-eight. That is what Kelantan experienced in late December 2014.
Although millions of ringgit in aid money has flowed into the state from all over the world, the clean up process is far from over. The local infrastructure was crippled which hampered initial relief efforts and isolated people in their homes for days on end without food or fresh water. Roads were washed out and, in some places, it was safer to take a boat than drive a car or motorbike. Buildings that were intentionally built two or three kilometers away from the floodplain as a preventative measure were suddenly filled with ten meters of muddy water. The situation was extremely grim.
To make matters worse, Malaysian schools had just returned from their longest holiday. Thousands of students were returning to their schools that, just four weeks ago, were submerged under more than a meter of water.
This is where we, the ten ETAs selected to teach in Kelantan, were headed.
Instead of spending a week in Kuala Terengganu for our state-run orientation, receiving more specific information regarding our mentors and schools, we bypassed all of that and flew directly from KL to Kota Bharu, Kelantan. Instead of sitting in yet another conference room for a week, we spent six days visiting schools and villages heavily hit by the flooding.
What can a twenty three year old teacher from America say to a hundred students who have just survived the worst monsoon season in nearly sixty years? How could I help make them forget the recent past? How could I direct their attention anywhere else but their homeland? The answer, I came to find out, was simple: I just had to be myself. My smile made them smile. My laughter made them laugh. My excitement to work with them was more than enough.
Walking into the hall at SMK Kampong Laut was an experience I will not forget. The faces of one hundred secondary students brightened in unison. Emotionless stares into space suddenly came into focus. In a matter of seconds, close to two hundred eyes were tracking my every movement.
My two days at SMK Kampong Laut impacted me in ways no other experience has before. I was reminded of the immense power of a positive attitude. When you operate with a positive mindset, everything seems manageable. I witnessed the essential role a strong school community plays in the lives of its students. This role is especially important during a time of crisis. For a number of the students I spoke with, their time at school was their opportunity to push the memories of the flood to the back of their minds. Even if it was only for a a few hours.
However, I only truly realized how important our visit was to the students as we were preparing to leave. After we thanked everybody who helped to make our visit possible, the students had a message for us. One student stepped forward and spoke on behalf of his classmates. He thanked us for coming to visit a place that no other Americans had ever visited before. He held back tears as he spoke about how much he and his classmates would cherish the two days we spent at their school; about how much we had lifted their spirits.
He held back tears. After two days. If I was ever unsure of the immense power I hold as an American teacher, I was slapped in the face during this student’s speech.
What I came to realize during that students speech was the enormous impact I had on their lives. Simply by sitting with them, talking with them, singing silly songs with them, and guiding them through English games I was giving them an experience they would never forget.
Everything I did, no matter how minuscule I may have deemed it to be in the moment, was being magnified by the circumstances. Even if I was able to get the shier students to whisper a few words in English or get excited to answer a trivia question, I was helping them in ways I did not fully understand at the time.
While our time at SMK Kampong Laut was spent teaching English, we were really doing so much more. Forget the amazing songs, games, and activities we planned. We helped to shape the entire academic year. We inspired a group of students to change their attitudes towards the English language and believe in their academic pursuits. That is what we really accomplished.