Back to school, with an excerpt by Dian Seidel.
Remember the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I about a British woman becoming a teacher in Siam? The woman, Anna Leonowens, says, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” Passager writer Dian Seidel said she had a similar experience when she taught in Siam — what is now Thailand.
Dian didn’t start out as a teacher. After earning her Ph.D., Dian joined NOAA, the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as a climate scientist. Her research contributed to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prizewinning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. When she was 60, Dian and her husband moved to Thailand where she started teaching kindergarten. And that’s what she’s writing about these days.
She said, “I had to put myself in other people’s shoes to understand a culture very different from my own and to get to know my pupils, my co-teachers, my husband, and, most of all, myself.”
Passager published a couple of Dian’s essays about that experience in its Winter 2021 issue. Here’s an excerpt.
Teacher Mahalia, the head teacher, calls, “Ivy and Panit, come to the flagpole.” A tallish girl with long braids and a stout little round-faced boy excitedly reach up to take the rope. With her remote control, Teacher Mahalia turns on her boom box and plays a recording of the Thai national anthem. It is 8 a.m., and at this moment similar scenes are playing out at schools across the kingdom, where loyalty to country and king are taught from birth.
The opening chords bring the children to attention, as all eyes focus on the red, white, and blue striped flag rising up the pole. Ivy and the older children know most of the words, while the younger ones, including Panit, sway and nod in time with the music.
Teacher Mahalia looks at the nodders, throws her shoulders back and holds her head still, in an effort to get the children to do the same. Most get the message, but she needs to place her hands on two-year-old Panit’s shoulders to straighten his posture and help him settle.
Will standing at attention suffice for Steve and me? Or will we need to sing like the older kids? I make a mental note to find a transliteration of the words to the anthem.
The next song is also in Thai. Based on the rousing chorus, and the repetition of the only Thai words I recognize in the lyrics, our school’s name, this must be our alma mater song.
Steve’s expression, a combination of amazement and concern, mirrors my reaction. According to the schedule Teacher Mahalia has created, we will lead the morning assembly starting next week. How will we learn these songs, and whatever others come next? Will we rely on four-year-old Ivy to lead the singing?
But the next number boosts our confidence. Baby shark, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo! Who would have guessed that being baseball fans would be good training for morning assembly at an English immersion school in Thailand? Inexplicably, the Washington Nationals have adopted Baby Shark as a rallying song, so we have the lyrics and hand gestures down pat. It’s a catchy little tune – actually too catchy. It will stick in our heads all day.
The next few songs, some familiar, some not, are also in English. Learning lyrics won’t be tough, but each one is choreographed, with accompanying sign language. A favorite seems to be Let’s Do the Pinocchio, a body-parts vocabulary builder, with the kids dancing around like little marionettes. Most of the kids know the steps and gestures better than the lyrics. Ivy knows them all by heart.
An excerpt from Dian Seidel’s essay “First Morning Chorus” from Passager Issue 70.
Dian said, “Passager has a special place in my heart. You were the first editors to accept my essays for publication, and I am certain that the confidence boost you gave me was key to my eventually finishing a book-length manuscript. Thank you so much for that early support, which was especially meaningful given all the rejections I was getting from other literary journals.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this. Passager has a long history of giving older writers their first publication, many of whom — not unlike Dian — have had long careers in totally different fields. It’s one of the things we’re proudest of.
Dian said, “Thank you for all that you do for Passager authors and readers and for the literary community at large.” Thank you, Dian, for trusting Passager with your work. Dian Seidel’s book about her experiences as a kindergarten teacher in Thailand, Kindergarten at 60, was just published by Apprentice House Press, coincidentally another Baltimore-based publisher, and coincidentally, the publisher of Passager writer Shirley Brewer’s latest book of poems, Wild Girls.
And also, congratulations to our 2023 Passager Poetry Contest winner, George Drew from Poestenkill, New York, and each of our 48 honorable mentions. Passager’s September issue will include all our contest-winning poems, as well as an interview with George.
To subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com. You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts, and various other podcast apps.
For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.