Sacred Heart’s ‘Remedial European History – World War II (Holocaust)’ was always going to be a difficult class. Class size was almost doubled by the ‘observers’ that the school administrators had invited in a desperate measure to escape even more criticism over an incident for which they had already disclaimed all responsibility.
Lining the back wall were the Deputy Head Teacher, the Head of History, representatives from the Israeli and German Embassies and the Papal Nuncio, someone from the Office of the Private Education Commission, two regional education supervisors, a delegate from the Parent’s Association, the Assistant Rabbi from Chiang Mai Synagogue, a priest from the Chiang Mai Diocese, representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the Yad Vashem Institute, half a dozen press photographers and two men with ear-pieces, sunglasses and bulges under their suit jackets who denied they were Mossad.
Acharn Therdthai Rakbankerd took a deep breath and launched into his lesson. After more than week of careful coaching by his superiors, he was under instructions to ensure that his students emerged with enough understanding of World War II history to know that parading round in SS uniforms and draping giant swastikas over school buildings was Not A Good Idea.
Under normal circumstances, this would not be too difficult. Half the students might spend the class fiddling with their mobiles, would baulk at the homework and threaten him with their well-heeled parents if he pushed them too far. But these students couldn’t care less about school activities anyway. All he had to do was to focus on the docile Chinese with glasses on the front row and the problem would be solved.
But he couldn’t just read from the textbook in a loud voice, make them copy it all down and give them a test to see if they’d memorized it. This was the way he always taught and, in his opinion, it worked, if his exam results were anything to go by. But with so many bigwigs in attendance, the school had told him to use the ‘learner-centred’, ‘participatory’ and ‘discovery’ teaching methods that he’d heard about at in-service teacher training sessions and never used.
History was facts. He knew them; the students didn’t. So it was just a matter of reading them out from the textbook and making sure the children listened and remembered. He could see no point in ‘discussions’ or ‘group work’.
The first part had gone OK. He’d stated the facts but kept adding ‘chai mai?’ so it at least looked like some sort of Q&A. Within minutes, the class had settled down. The back half had zoned out as usual, except that Titiporn was flirting with one of the earpiece guys, and the front half was busy copying every word he said. (And worrying what all these ‘chai mai?’ meant and would they be on the test?)
But overconfidence led to his downfall. In a fit of learner-centredness, he decided to ask a question. He chose one of the historically more important facts. ‘Who knows what Hitler’s first name was?’
But since he never normally asked questions like this, he was taken aback by the response. Half a dozen hands were raised in the traditional Sacred Heart manner – palms forward, arms 20 degrees or so short of the perpendicular. The press cameras flashed and he immediately saw tomorrow’s headlines: “Class gives Sieg Heil salute at ‘Nazi’ school.”
While he was still fumbling over that, Patcharin started. Forever looking up things on the internet, always with a contrary opinion, she was a disruptive little trouble-maker. That’s what comes of trying to learn more than the teacher.
‘But sir, if the Nazis wanted racial purity, a sort of Germany for the Germans, isn’t that the same as Thailand for the Thais? I mean, our civics classes are full of ideas about being truly Thai.’
‘But that’s civics, not history. And of course Thailand should be for the Thais. You wouldn’t want the Burmese to invade again, would you? Or the Khmer or Lao?’
‘But my ancestors came from China. Does that make me un-Thai?’
Excruciatingly aware that every face in the administration was pale and Chinese, Acharn Therdthai spoke vaguely about becoming a true Thai with the passage of time.
‘But this is race, isn’t it? Your race doesn’t change with time.’
Acharn Therdthai bit his tongue and offered to discuss this after class, though normally he avoided all contact with know-it-all pests like Patcharin.
‘And this Lebensraum idea, and Grossdeutschland. Isn’t this like these maps of Thailand in all our history books showing the bits of Lao and Malaya and Cambodia and so on that should be Thailand?’
‘Well, er, it’s, er, very complicated but all you really need to know is that it’s wrong to dress up in Nazi uniforms and paint swastikas all over the school. Er, especially when your teachers know nothing about it.’
‘But sir, I was looking on the internet and I found this photo of Prince Harry in a Nazi uniform. Is that wrong as well?’
‘What? Well, er, yes, I suppose it could be.’
‘But sir, he’s a member of the Royal Family. How can you say it’s wrong? Isn’t that lèse majesté?’
‘OK, class over, and Patcharin, I’ll see you in my office.’