My school is pretty much the coolest.
Each November we take one week out of our regularly scheduled lives, shake things up a bit, and scatter our entire middle school throughout Hong Kong and SE Asia for some genuine learning experiences. This year’s trips included service trips to Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, and mainland China; adventure trips to Vietnam and Malaysia; and Hong Kong based activities like golf lessons, movie making, running a restaurant, camping, and art workshops. Needless to say, teachers and students alike come back from that week exhausted, but also renewed and invigorated.
Over the last four years I have had the pleasure of chaperoning trips both in and out of Hong Kong and have found that each challenges and changes me in different ways. This year took me to Chiang Mai, Thailand and the results were, as expected, extraordinary.
Our group included four teachers and 24 students. Upon gathering at the airport that Monday, it was clear that each of us carried big hopes for the week, but also no small number of fears. It’s a tough trip, after all – one that takes responsibility on the part of everyone. The Thailand trip is not for slackers or side-line sitters; we expect hard work, which can be mighty intimidating.
Plus, not everyone knows one another. Mixed age groups and social circles takes time to navigate, especially in middle school.
And on top of THAT, please don’t forget that a good number of these kiddos are only 11 years old and traveling to a foreign country without Mom and Dad to help them. I mean let’s be honest, sometimes I felt anxious just sleeping down the block at a friend’s house when I was that age.
One cannot downplay the significance of this moment in the lives of these kids and their parents.
And oh, the parents.
How humbling (and terrifying) it is to be entrusted with someone else’s child.
To manage passports and arrival cards.
To be given insulin refills and reminders about Jennifer’s diabetic requirements.
To watch a child quickly wipe tears away with the back of his sleeve and realize that this is way harder for him than it is for you… because you’ve already learned how to say goodbye.
The weight carried through the security checkpoint is different for everyone.
The purpose of our service trip was three-fold. First, to work in teaching teams at a village school teaching English. Second, to do a service project for the school – in our case, refurbishing their playground area. And third, to do cultural exchange activities to learn more about our host country.
I won’t ramble about the trip here. Without having been there, the stories simply don’t resonate properly. They don’t have the right lightness, or weight, that I want them to have.
My words cannot show you the twinkle in Ohm’s eyes as he and eight other Thai littles chased after me at the end of a hot day, creating an impromptu game of “ice cube tag.”
I can’t properly boast about how quickly new became normal for our kids – be it washing their own dishes after lunch or absentmindedly using the squatty potties (nevermind the spiders in the corners).
My words will never recreate how good it feels to laugh until your belly aches with teenagers who are not yet too cool to hang out with their teachers.
I cannot make your head spin from hours of exposure to turpentine and oil-based paints… nor can I make your heart burst with pride at the sight of a shiny new playground and the students wearing their stained clothes as a badge of honor.
I cannot properly express the honor we felt when the village elders gave us cooking lessons, or the humility that came when, on our last day, the school we came to serve sent a traditional hot air balloon into the sky – the letters “ICS” trailing behind on a banner – serving us instead.
Most of all, I cannot make you feel the deep hurt and heartbreak of new friends parted – our students sobbing as the vans pulled away; their students sobbing and running from one entrance of the school grounds to the next, just to wave goodbye one final time.
It was a powerful week. A week of firsts. A week of frustrations – some overcome, and some simply powered through for lack of any other choice. It was a week of true learning – the kind that only comes from getting your hands dirty.
That week my students had to do things they didn’t want to do, like take the reins and improvise lessons when materials weren’t available. They had to learn that failures happen – sometimes epic ones – but that never has to be where the story ends. And they had to learn how to say goodbye because some relationships in this life are only meant to be yours for a four days.
They had to be teachers and students simultaneously – and so did I.
Next year I am not coming back to ICS. I have decided to be a stay-at-home mom for this next chapter of my story. This also means that after four beautiful years we must prepare to leave Hong Kong and go… well, we don’t really know yet.
Some days that sense of uncertainty is terrifying, and some days it’s exhilarating… and sometimes it’s both all at once. But like my students in Thailand, I have to remember that the best learning happens when we get our hands dirty. Sometimes we are called to jump in and do it – comfortable or not. And it’s good to remember that the failures need not drown us; that we can ride the waves and have faith in the craft that carries us. After all, haven’t the years taught me that my Lord is a sea-worthy vessel and my family a hearty crew?
All we need is the courage to, yet again, push away from the shore.