“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:16b, 17 ESV).
“Stop! Stop that right now!”
All the students immediately froze in place, startled, eyes wide. I was surprised, too. I had never heard Teacher Jee Jee yell like that at one of our students. Staying calm and not showing strong emotion in public is part of what it means to be Thai. Thais have a saying that only a fool cannot control his emotions. From a very young age, children are taught the virtue of maintaining jai yen, which means a cool heart. Clearly something serious must have happened to cause Teacher Jee Jee to lose her composure like that. I was even more shocked by what happened next.
Teacher Jee Jee strode across the room, eyes aflame. She grabbed Bang, a fourth grader, by the nape of his neck like an unruly puppy and struck him several times. Her scolding words were coming so fast and furious that I could barely understand what she was saying.
“Mother Jee Jee,” I said. “Please, let’s step outside for a moment and talk.”
Jee Jee is a retired teacher who used to teach English and Thai. She was contracted along with Tonya and me to improve the English program in the village school. As we got to know Jee Jee, Tonya and I began calling her Mom, which she enjoyed. Most days, she feeds us lunch. She is very sweet and affectionate to us. She also cares deeply about the students, which is why her behavior was so startling.
Coming out of her rage, Jee Jee released Bang and walked out of the room with me.
We had been having problems with Bang for a while. He was constantly disrupting class and physically harassing other students. “Mom, what happened? What did Bang do?” I asked.
Fighting back tears, she explained that Bang had been poking other students inappropriately with a stick. She clearly felt very bad that she had hit him and was embarrassed about losing her cool.
“Mom, I know how frustrating it can be to work with these kids. Sometimes they behave so badly. Sometimes they disrupt the whole class and keep the other students who really want to learn from being able to pay attention,” I commiserated.
Teacher Jee Jee was nodding her head. “Oh, Teacher Jared, some of the kids are naughty, but Bang is so bad. He is so bad!”
“I know, Mom. But think about this: We don’t know what Bang’s life is like at home. All kids act naughty sometimes, but his behavior is not normal. I think something is wrong at home. We don’t know how his parents or relatives treat him. We don’t know what he is being exposed to. Maybe that is why he is behaving like this. Does that make sense?”
I could see Teacher Jee Jee’s facial expression changing. “Teacher Jared, I never thought about it like that before. Maybe you’re right.” I could tell that she was sincerely trying to see the situation from a different perspective.
“Mom, all the kids need love and acceptance. Maybe Bang doesn’t have people who love him or treat him kindly at home. We need to help these kids if we can.”
“Yes, Teacher Jared, you’re right. We need to help them. They need love.”
I could see the protective mother rising up to displace the strict teacher in Jee Jee, but I didn’t know what the result of that change would be.
The next time I saw Teacher Jee Jee was the following week. As soon as I walked into her classroom, I could sense her excitement. “Teacher Jared, I have to tell you something. I thought about what you said, and the next day I went to visit Bang at his home. Oh, Teacher Jared, his situation is so sad! His house is like a shack. His mother doesn’t live there, and his father gets drunk all the time. One of Bang’s relatives told me that he works so hard to try to clean the house and take care of his younger siblings.
I don’t think they have enough food to eat, so I brought them some clothes and food. I hugged Bang and told him I love him. He promised me he wouldn’t be naughty anymore in school. Oh, Teacher Jared, he is such a sweet boy!”
There are roughly 3 million children and youth in the northeast Isan region of Thailand who, like Bang, are being raised by a single parent or none at all. Droughts, lack of education and other factors have driven parents to leave their families and go to Bangkok or further abroad to find work. Most of these children are being raised by grandparents or elderly relatives.
So what does that mean for kids like Bang? Research in Thailand has shown that children not being raised by their parents struggle in school, are less happy and confident, and tend to be undernourished. Typically, elderly caregivers are so focused on just helping their grandchildren survive that they don’t have the time, energy or resources to engage the kids in activities like reading, storytelling and games that help them develop. By the time they reach school age, these kids don’t have the same language and social skills as children raised by nurturing parents.
So what does this all mean for our work? Since last November we have been teaching ESL classes at the local government school in the community where we are church planting. We have also started a vibrant children’s church ministry on Sabbaths where kids hear Bible stories, sing songs, play games and learn to read English. Working together with our local Adventist friend and community liaison and our AFM supervisors, we have decided on a strategy focusing on building a strong ministry to children and youth over the next two and a half years. To that end, we are planning to start a creative-learning center in the community to help engage, mentor and support kids like Bang who desperately need love and attention. We want to see the children and youth in the community learn how to not just survive, but thrive. It’s our hope that, through helping the kids, we can also reach their parents and relatives. We want to raise up a church of believers built on a foundation of strong, happy families.
Please feel free to contact us if you have questions about our plan to open the creative-learning center or if you’d like to know more about how you can get involved. You can also support this project and make a real difference in children’s lives by making a donation to our special project fund.