Never refuse chocolate

It was mid-morning and Kom saw other students giving me food. It was comical; my little haul was surely too much to consume during a fifteen-minute tea break. Kom rummaged through his bag, pulled out a chocolate bar and offered it to me with a wide smile.

‘Oh, no thank you,’ I laughed. ‘I’ll grow fat.’

‘Don’t say that, teacher,’ he said, his eyes downcast, as if a great sorrow had descended upon him.

I had met Kom on my first day in my new job as a teacher. I was sitting in to observe a more experience teacher, who had asked everyone to write down three numbers each and get someone else to guess what those numbers referred to.

Kom looked at my piece of paper and said, ‘Husband?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘everybody has one husband.’ I realise this is not true, but for some reason, we both burst out laughing.

When Kom re-entered my class about three years later, the carefree laughter had gone. Things were not going well at home. His wife came in for my computing class one day with her tiny daughter in tow, a little girl with large, large eyes and two tight ponytails. Childcare arrangements were not yet in place.

‘Please, I have been home nine years looking after the children. I want to learn. Please let me stay,’ she said. I understood her anguish. I had known what it was to stay at home with beautiful children you love so much, and at the same time feel that the world is passing you by.

But we could not let her stay; management had made it amply clear that our insurance did not cover children on the premises. My boss came and told her kindly, but firmly, that she could not attend class with a child. The little girl started swiping her chubby fingers at my boss’ knees, trying to protect her mother. Kom’s wife was aghast, ‘No, don’t do that.’ And then they both went away.

And so Kom taught me that I should not refuse gifts and goodness. When so many troubles beset us in this world, we should celebrate kindness, accept generosity and be thankful. Sometimes you need to keep your eyes on the small good things, especially when the larger more difficult problems are too difficult to solve, just yet.

I took the chocolate bar. And thanked him.

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Carter

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The farewell

11:20am

“Today is my last day,” I say to my class of adult learners.

There are looks of confusion and uncertainty; they’re unsure if they’ve understood correctly. “Why?” someone asks.

“I’m going to write a book.”

An urgent conference takes place towards the back of the classroom. An immaculately dressed Vietnamese lady excuses herself, “Teacher, I go out.”

I give the rest of the students a colourful folder each (67cents each from Officeworks) with their name printed on the binder as a farewell gift. Seeing an African student studying the folder quizzically, I borrow a hole puncher and show the class how to file up their notes. If I ever teach again, I’ll give out folders on my first day, not my last.

12:30pm

After lunch, the Vietnamese lady rushes into class, late. Her hair is awry. She pulls a black jacket out of a bulging plastic bag, hands it to me and says,”Teacher, try.”

I put it on, it fits perfectly. The students look very pleased. Then they pull out a scarf. Then two boxes of chocolates. Then a handbag.

Farewell Gifts
My farewell gifts

I protest, this is too much, you shouldn’t give me so many things. They tell which students have chipped in to buy the gifts, and an Iraqi man pipes up, “Me too.”

“You too? You pay?” asks the Vietnamese lady.

“Yes,” he says.

“OK, $10 tomorrow,” she says.

Many of my students are learning English in order to get a job in Australia. They pack their food and drink for the day and are frugal to the point that the school canteen struggles to make a profit. I am deeply touched and humbled by their lavish generosity.