|Top on a visit to the Million Year Stone Park a year ago|
When we left off yesterday I had - more or less - given my word that I'd attend the graduation ceremony for one of my sponsored students, Top, if I were in the country at the time. If you don't care to go through the first part, I'd been sponsoring his schooling and visiting with him and his family for more than a handful of years, and seen him become a self-confident and upstanding young man - quite a change from the boy I'd originally met, who spent most of his time apparently fascinated with the ground directly in front of his well-worn shoes. It had been a heartwarming transformation, and I'd been lucky to be along for the ride.
As can be the case when you're trying to arrange events with school kids - especially teenagers - it's a little like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. This year's outing with Top turned out to be a solo affair, and at the time he still didn't seem to know the particulars on his graduation ceremony that was around two weeks away. We said our goodbyes with the whole thing still up in the air, and although I hadn't really said goodbye I figured "well, that's that".
|Top helps at check-out with the family's supplies|
This might be a good spot to mention that the Pattaya Street Kids Support Project is, by its own charter, structured to only provide assistance to minors up to (and through, naturally) the school year during which they'll turn 18. Top was somewhat of an oddball case, and I'd like to make it clear that for PSKSP to remain on the "up and up" the funds, contact and details for the extra year Top needed to finish trade school was handled by a trusted friend, although the regular folks were right there in an unofficial capacity to cheer him on.
Graduation gifts aren't normally given by one Thai to another, but I wanted to do something to commemorate his achievement "Western Style", so at the end of our grocery run last month I stopped Top at a watch shop and told him what my thoughts were, giving him a price range that was generous but not ostentatious and asked him to pick out something he'd like. He'd dealt with my oddball Western ways for years so wasn't all that surprised, and picked out the watch below.
After taking the groceries and supplies back to his family's home we visited a few minutes before saying our goodbyes. As you may already know, the Thai aren't as a rule people who'll stand at the train station and weep, waving farewell with their hankies as their friends or loved ones pull off into the distance, but we all knew that there were no set plans to meet again - particularly under the PSKSP umbrella - but we had each other's cell numbers and emails. I reminded him that I'd gladly attend his graduation, but that he'd need to let me (or preferably my interpreting friend) know where and when it was, as I'd be leaving town in just a few more days. He assured me he would, and our day was finished.
I left Pattaya and went on with my holiday, and when I hadn't heard anything for a couple of weeks I'd figured the ceremony was to take place after he knew I'd be flying home and, somewhat sadly, guessed I wouldn't make it.
Then one morning in Bangkok after my morning walk among the locals I was reading the paper in my room when my cell phone rang. It was Tom, my go-between. "Top just called me. His graduation is at 3:00 this afternoon here in Pattaya. Do you think you can make it?" Noting it was 20 minutes past 10 I replied "I can try, but I'm not all that optimistic about finding a ride there on such short notice." "Are you close to the BTS?" he asked - and then the light came on. "Yes!" I exclaimed "The bus! I can get a bus!" "OK," he continued "Call me when you get to Pattaya, and we'll go from there."
|Top's graduation bouquet|
Evidently fate was along with me, because when I arrived at the window to buy a ticket for the bus that would get me there in time to make the ceremony there was one seat left. It left in 10 minutes, and I clambered aboard and spent the next two hours with the toilet door knocking into my left knee as people went in and out.
Arriving at the Pattaya bus depot at 2:20/14:20 I was cutting things close. I hailed a licensed bandit in a taxi and paid a dear price to get to the charity office, where my friend Tom was waiting for me. I jumped into his car and we arrived at the hotel where the ceremony was to be ten minutes before it was to begin.
As it turned out, the ceremony itself was a private affair for students and faculty only, so we waited outside with Top's mother, sister, younger brother and a close friend of Top's among a crowd of similar folks, all waiting for the graduates to come filing out. As I mentioned, gifts aren't the norm there, but flowers and stuffed animals are, so I bought a bouquet for him, just as his sister and mother and friend had done. Smaller than the ones they'd purchased, but I didn't want to feel like I was showing off. Just me, I guess.
The first few times it happened I'd felt self-conscious when realizing I was the only (or one of a very few) Caucasians at an event or gathering, but I've grown to appreciate it for what it actually is, I guess - a privileged inclusion - and now I enjoy the "how do you fit in here?" looks I still sometimes get, as odd as that may sound to some. On this occasion I stayed somewhat on the fringe of things to avoid the possibility of Top having to explain that I'd paid for his schooling since his family could not, but the words of gratitude from his sister and mother were recognition enough.
By 3:20 we began to see the robes of students already recognized in groups emerging from the hall, most stopping to pick up a saucer with a cup of coffee and a cookie on it before descending the steps to meet the people waiting to congratulate them. Top was in one of the last groups, evidently, because it was nearly 3:45 before I spotted him filing out with a groups of other boys, all smiling and laughing.
|A very pleased Top poses with his family|
There weren't the extended clinging hugs and tears you might see at a graduation here in the USA, but there were smiles of acknowledgement and nods of respect exchanged for the flowers and congratulatory remarks between family, friends and graduates. It was restrained, but joyous - if that makes any sense. I stood back and watched with great satisfaction that I'd had a minor part in it for Top. After all, I wasn't the one who had to drag him out of bed to get him to school or stay on his case to finish his homework; I was merely the benefactor. Still, it was a great feeling.
|Facebook - the same around the world! Students lined up to have their photo taken here...|
For Top it was one of life's defining moments, and he stood holding onto the folder containing his diploma as though it were a life preserver, and, in some ways it might well be just that. 14 years of schooling through a rough childhood and adolescence was quite an accomplishment for this boy - now a man - who had actually learned a marketable skill, as well as hope for a good life ahead for himself, and, hopefully, his wife and children, if that's the path he chooses.
|Top and his friends pose for one of their friends to take a picture|
By now many of the groups were finished posing for photos and had begun to stake out spots to share the buffet dinner that was part of their graduation package, and Top was (casually) glancing about to spot his friends while we were still hold him in place to visit. I figured it was about time for me to cut him loose, so through Tom I told him "School wasn't ever easy for me, either, so I understand a little bit about how difficult it's been for you to stick with this."
I waited for the translation, and could see the look change slightly on his face. Not quite a smile, but a tightening of the lips. "I just want you to know that I think you've done a great job, and I'm proud of you," as out of reflex I reached out and took his hand to shake it. He looked me straight in the eye, covered my hand with his and said (in English, something I'd rarely heard before from him) "Thank you. Thank you so very much."
I was still standing there looking surprised when he smiled, and repeated what he'd said, shaking my hand again with both of his. "You're welcome, Top. Keep in touch and let me know how you do from here, will you?" When that was translated for him he smiled again and nodded, glancing over at his friends.
"Go... have fun," I encouraged him, motioning for him to go over to them, and that needed no translation. He turned on his heel, waved goodbye and ran off to join them, his gown flapping in the afternoon breeze behind him.
Will I ever hear from him again? Who knows - and that wasn't the point to begin with. There are plenty more who also need this simple step up, and I hope I can be there to help a few more before I need a nurse to take care of me. Yes, it was a little sad to see the regularity of it come to a conclusion, but what a feeling to think that the ripples from this one pebble may spread across generations.
Sitting on the bus back to Bangkok a couple of hours later I saw the homes of people who labored - and would continue to labor - beneath the weight of poverty, and thought to myself "You've done a good thing."
As I've said before: we can't save the world, but we can save little pieces of it. If you love and care about Thailand as I do, please consider joining in and saving one small bit of it yourself. The website is the Pattaya Street Kids Support Project. You won't regret it.
|To paraphrase the 80's song: "The future's so bright, he ought to wear shades".|