Peeps at Many Lands: Siam/Chapter 5
Siamese children, when very young, are but little troubled by either clothes or schools. They spend their time riding on buffaloes, climbing trees, smoking cigarettes, paddling canoes, eating and sleeping. But at some time in life many boys go to school. There is no compulsion. If a boy does not want to go, he can stay away. Yet most boys, both in the remote country districts and in the busy, crowded capital, have learned something. Perhaps the delights of climbing trees and smoking cigarettes pall after a time, or perhaps the boy is ambitious, and wants to get on in the world. If so, he must at least learn to read, write, and "do sums." Whatever be the reason, it does happen that practically every Siamese boy goes to school. His attendance is not regular and not punctual, but in the course of a few years he manages to learn certain things that are of use to him.
Siamese schools are situated in the cool, shady grounds of the temple. They are generally plain sheds or outhouses. The teachers are usually the priests, but here and there a lay head master may be found. In such a case the master, like the boys, is not overburdened with clothes. A piece of cloth is draped about his legs, but the upper part of his body is generally bare. If he possesses a white linen coat, such as Europeans wear in a hot country, he takes it off when he enters the building and hangs it up, so that it shall not get dirty while he is teaching. He generally smokes the whole time, and when he is not smoking he is chewing betel-nut.
The children sit cross-legged on the ground, tailor-fashion. There are no chairs or desks, and if there were the children would sit cross-legged upon them just the same. All learn to read. Now the Siamese language is what is called a tonic language—that is, the meaning of any word depends on the tone with which it is pronounced. For instance, the word ma can be pronounced in three ways, and has, therefore, three meanings—namely, "come," "horse," and "dog." If, therefore, you called out to a friend, "Come here!" in the wrong tones, you might insult him by saying, "Dog, here!" and so on. You might wish to say to a farmer, "Can I walk across your field?" If you were to pronounce the last word in the wrong tone, it might mean, "Can I walk across your face?" a request that might lead to trouble, especially if the farmer were a big man. Some of the syllables have as many as five tones, and the foreigner finds it exceedingly difficult to express his meaning correctly. As the correct meaning of a word depends on the particular accent with which it is uttered, all reading must be done aloud to be enjoyed. Each scholar in the school learns his own particular page or lesson independently of the others, and the many voices blend into one, rising and falling from time to time in a not unmusical hum, sometimes loud and full, when the master is vigilant and the scholars are energetic; often soft and feeble, when the master is dreaming on the floor or lounging in the sun, and his pupils are getting weary of their monotonous task.
Slates and pencils are used for writing, though the best pupils use lead pencils. In a village school ink is never seen.
Arithmetic up to short division is taught in some schools, but in many others no arithmetic at all is taught, for the simple reason that the teacher does not know any. As for bills of parcels and recurring decimals, and all the other horrible things that men do with figures, they are unknown and undreamt of.
Sometimes a little grammar is learned if the master knows anything of the subject, and all who expect to be thought wise must learn pages of the sacred books off by heart, and must be able to repeat them without hesitation or error. They do not understand a word of what they are saying, for the sacred books are written in a dead language that nobody speaks and few understand.
And that is all. There is no geography, history, or science. There are no workshops, laboratories, or drawing-classes.
There is no furniture of any description, no diagrams, blackboards, or desks. I once went into a school, where I saw each child sitting placidly on the ground with a small box in front of him, on which he placed his slate or book. It was a curious sight. There were about forty of these boxes, all procured in the native market, and bearing on their sides varied announcements as to the excellence of Pear's soap and Cadbury's cocoa.
The school opens at nine. The boys arrive between ten and eleven, and the head master puts in his appearance when he has finished his breakfast. The only part of the unwritten time-table that is punctually kept is the time for closing.
In the capital there are now a number of schools that are quite well organized and taught, and even in some of the villages things are slowly improving.
Where English masters are employed some attempt has been made to teach English games. To these the boys take very quickly. Cricket is the favourite game, and some of the boys soon become as clever as their teachers. I shall never forget the first cricket-match, played between a team of Siamese boys and a number of young Hindus who had picked up the game in India. Each side brought a crowd of spectators of its own nationality. Under one clump of trees the swarthy Hindu crowd were gathered, wearing clean turbans and long picturesque robes, with their eyes all aglow and their faces all afire with excitement. Near at hand the lighter-coloured, more sparsely clad Siamese congregated, less excitable, but more genial and pleasant to look upon. Everywhere gathered the dealers in cigarettes, the carriers of teapots, the vendors of ginger-beer and curry. The game baffles description, but I can never think of it without remembering the policeman in the road, who got hit on the bare foot with the ball, and refused to restore it until two-and-twenty cricketers, in various dialects and with yet more varied actions, managed to persuade the wounded officer that they had never meant to hurt him.