La Douleur Exquise | Wayward Explorer (2022)

La Douleur Exquise | Wayward Explorer (1)

Current Coordinates:20.0656° N, 102.6216° (Luang Prabang, Laos)

I fell in love the moment I saw him. The head over heelskind of love. It was his dark, soulfuleyes that first drew me to him. Theywere like magnets pulling at me. Icouldn’t look away, but he was shy and couldn’t hold my gaze. I wanted to embrace him, but it wasforbidden. We were from two differentworlds. And it wasn’t just because hewas 3-feet tall and wore an orange robe.He was 5 years-old and I was his teacher. None of that stopped me from falling in lovewith he and his brother, who sat beside him.There was a third brother in the classroom next to mine. All three of them entered Wat Mano, thetemple where I’ve been teaching English, when their parents died.

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Most boys who become novice monks in Laos generally do so because their family is extremely poor. About 90 percent of the Lao population live off $1.25 a day. Parents who can’t feed their families may choose to bring their sons to a temple and ask a monk to accept them as a novice. The family doesn’t have to be Buddhist, but the child does have to follow the 10 precepts (rules) for novices. Some of these include not eating after midday; no dancing, singing or music; no use of luxurious beds and seats; taking what is not given, and so on. They are not allowed to run, play sports, or do most things boys like to do.

So, what do they get in return? They get fed. I know I just said monks don’t eat after midday but it’s still more food than some of them get when they live with their families. They also get a free education, which includes English classes. Unlike many other countries around the world, the latter is not always offered, or when it is, it’s taught by teachers who are not fluent or literate in the language. The education these boys get, along with learning the English language, provides them with the potential to earn money in the future. If the novices haven’t left the temple by eighteen or nineteen, they can go through the ordination process to become a monk. The always have the freedom to stay or go. The monks’ philosophy is that if someone chooses to leave, he will carry the Buddhist message to other people throughout his life.

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I try to take comfort in the fact these boys are given an education and an opportunity to have a future, but I have to say that teaching them was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It wasn’t because they were pre-beginner level or that we didn’t speak each other’s language. There were so many things I had to grapple with that are counter-intuitive to who I am, the hardest of which was that I was not allowed to touch any of them. I couldn’t hold their hands or hug them – I wasn’t even allowed to hand anything to them directly. If I wanted to give them an exercise to complete or pass them a pencil, I had to lay it down on the desk. If they tried to hand me their completed exercises or something they drew, I would tap their desk with my hand to remind them to leave it on the desk. If they needed help, I couldn’t stand directly next to them – I had to be at an angle, and I had to try and be lower than them. This was not an easy task since they would constantly call out “teacher, teacher!” when they wanted me to help them with something. They’re little shorties and my knees would scream at me every time I had to bend down to try and get below eye level.

Other rules to remember included notpointing my finger, whether it was to call on one of them or show them something on one of their exercises. I became very skilled at what I call my Vanna White gesticulation. It’s a slight flourish of the hand with all fingers flowing across whatever you’re trying to call attention to. Notice I didn’t say I waved my hand over something. Waving is not allowed, nor is clapping. If one of the students gave the right answer or did something noteworthy, I couldn’t applaud. If I saw one of them on the street, I couldn’t wave to them. In fact, if any monk, novice or otherwise, was walking on sidewalk near me I would have to step off the sidewalk to show them respect and to avoid any accidental touching. As a woman, I am the lowest man on the totem pole, so to speak. There is a hierarchy within the monk ranks but for the sake of this point, I’ll just say that monks are at the highest level followed by novices and then lay men, including boys. Females are the lowest. Before some of you get carried away with the jokes or being incensed, this isn’t something that is done out of disrespect. These are things that have been steeped in tradition for centuries and the monks continue to live by those traditions. While males don’t have to follow some of the same rules as women, they do have to follow most of them.

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The hardest rule for me to follow was not hugging the kids. Telling me that I can’t hug someone, particularly a child, is like telling me to stop breathing. One of the greatest joys in life is to squeeze a little human being and to get squeezed back. Every day that I saw the little man I fell in love with, I wanted to hug him and try to make him smile. The first time I made him smile, he made my heart break. The first time I made him laugh, he shattered it. They all did. While they lead lives that are seemingly disciplined and devoid of anything enjoyable, they manage to have fun. They are mischievous in their own ways and they do occasionally break the rules. These were the moments that made me incredibly happy, even if it made it difficult to keep order in the classroom. Part of the fun for some of them was trying to get me to break one of the rules like accepting papers they were trying to hand me. The little stinkers would get the biggest grins on their faces if I started to reach for the paper and then pull my hand back as if it was on fire.For the most part, I remembered all the rules. There was one novice who attended my evening class at an English school, who I’d see walking past the school every afternoon. Our eyes would meet but I never waved to him. I would, however, do a Chicago head nod that conveyed “how YOU doin’?” Hey, it still fell within the parameters of the rules. You can take the girl out of Chicago……

There is one last rule that I had to follow and you see it in the picture of me sitting on the steps with the students from both classes. It’s how I had to dress for teaching. A collared shirt with sleeves is required for all teachers and women had to wear a sinh, a traditional patterned Lao skirt that covers the knees. The real sin is the injustice I did to such a beautiful skirt by pairing it with those awful shoes. In my defense, there is also a rule on footwear and a girl can only do so much with what she’s given. Most of the time the students are barefoot and so was I, depending on where I was teaching. Lao people take off their shoes before entering a home or room, so everyone is frequently barefoot, unless walking outside.

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The second picture is of my classroom at the temple. It had recently been renovated so use your imagination on what it looked like before this picture was taken. There are steep, uneven, and rickety steps to get up to the two classrooms. In the past, the floors of each room had holes in them the students had to avoid so they wouldn’t fall to the ground from the second floor. There had been no wall separating the two classes and now there is one that almost reaches the ceiling. The students in both classes are lively and sometimes noisy, but they’ve learned how to tune each other out and concentrate on their lessons. One thing that does sometimes interfere with their lessons is that they’re exhausted. There was more than one occasion when a student just couldn’t help himself and laid his head down on the desk during the middle of class. Although they nap right before class, their days start at 4am for meditation and/or chanting. This is followed by collecting alms at sunrise, preparing breakfast and then going to school. I could tell if there was a lot of work to do around the temple because more than a couple of them would have their heads on their desks. It was those moments I wanted to scoop them up and take them home with me so they could have lives where their only job was to be a kid, be happy, and go to school.

Hands down, this was the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. It was also one of the most difficult. These little guys shattered my heart and I left many pieces of it behind for them to keep. It’s not possible to spend time with them and not fall in love with every single one of them. It’s also impossible not to worry that they have enough love, happiness, and hugs in their lives. Every day they inspired me and made me smile and laugh during class. And every day that I left them, I wanted to fall apart. While I absolutely want the privilege of teaching them again, I can’t help but wonder if I have the fortitude to do it, hence the title of this post. Literally translated, it means “exquisite pain” (you have to love the French for their dramatic flair). As I understand it, the words were once used to describe the pain of love. Whether or not that’s true, I can relate.

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