Of Teachers and Tea Shops

By Aung Zaw 7 February 2015

I thought of them often when I was in exile, and they sometimes came to my dreams. After my immediate family members, friends and teachers from my high school days were the people I missed most as the years away rolled on.

Recently I was glad to be able to attend our high school reunion. I wanted to pay respects to the teachers I had not seen in more than 25 years. I was excited to go, but I wasn’t sure quite what to expect.

To my relief, many of the teachers who had taught me subjects like geography, math, history, economics and English were still alive. One arrived in a wheelchair. Others used walking sticks and were aided by assistants. They were in high spirits, though some shed a discreet tear.

“Where have you been?” one teacher asked me. After finishing school, I had disappeared for decades. For a long time, it had seemed that I would never come home.

The teachers accepted donations and presents from their former students and in return they offered us their best wishes. It was all a little emotional. In Myanmar style, there was a bit of warm commotion amid talk filled with memory and laughing. It was a time to reflect back, and to share tentative hopes. Looking around me, at a time when religious intolerance is increasingly evident, I felt grateful to have had teachers of many religious backgrounds—Christian, Buddhist and Muslim.

I looked for, but did not find, an old friend from sixth grade who was a Karen, like most of our English teachers. To my surprise, the last time I bumped into him was on the Thai-Myanmar border where he had become a soldier. I believe he later moved to the United States.

After we had paid our respects, the teachers, who were in their 70s and 80s, began to head home. I chased down a teacher who had taught me economics and whose classes had partly involved learning the benefits of Gen. Ne Win’s socialist economic policy, even as we students could see its failures plainly outside the classroom!

I remembered she had always asked certain pupils, including myself, to carry her traditional rattan basket filled with teaching materials and lunch containers. To be allowed to carry the basket had been a special honor; it meant you were one of her favorites.

She was still energetic and she looked at me with a wide smile. I joked, “I became a rebel after taking your class! Thank you!” She giggled and walked on to her car.

Some of the teachers seemed more guarded and weary. They seemed uncertain, even sad; I speculated whether they were perhaps missing students who had never come home after dying on the streets.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

One of my favorite teachers, who taught math in ninth grade, was in a wheelchair. My schoolmates told me she had often asked about me after I left Myanmar following the political turmoil in 1988. Now in her 80s, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “You finally came home!”

I was thrilled to see that teachers of her age were still with us, and keeping themselves strong and healthy.

A former headmaster in his late 80s did not recognize me at first, but when I mentioned my grandparents’ names, his jaw dropped. “They were my friends. Your grandfather and I played football together!” he said. I made sure to take his picture to show my grandmother who lives with me back home.

A history teacher who followed the news closely was more forthcoming. In quiet tones she confided that she thought the current political opening in Myanmar was significant. But “we have to move gingerly, slowly,” she said, as if warning me not to expect too much in the immediate future.

I asked her about the history we had learned in class, particularly about the ethnic regions and civil conflict. “You know,’’ she said, ‘‘we taught what the government told us to teach.” It came home to me that just as we were taught not to ask critical questions, but to obey and extend respect, our teachers were under similar pressures.

A friend told me that our former physical training (PT) teacher had recently passed away. We had always enjoyed his class in which we could roam around outside in the fresh air.

I remember he was tall and handsome and had sold snacks to students to earn some extra income. He was a police sergeant in active service, but he would come to school in casual wear. Some students wondered if he was a spy assigned to watch over us. But he was friendly and one of our favorites.

In those days teachers were afraid to discuss political matters. Other subjects, such as sex, were also taboo—we were supposed to be polite! Of course in the school bathrooms you could find indecent writing scrawled on the walls, as well as anti-government slogans.

When I reached the ninth grade, I started skipping classes in favor of sitting in tea shops where I began to catch onto other matters: mainly smoking and politics. Tea shops were a learning ground for dreamers and planners. The young me felt I was among intellectuals, people who thought big in ways that stirred the mind, people who were more imaginative and progressive than our school teachers. The tea shops were the kind of places that nurtured revolutionaries and radicals, where strategies were debated that could change the ruling order.

Many of my female friends remained dutifully in the classroom, hoping to go on to become doctors or engineers. Few considered journalism as a career. But those female students were also our messengers. They would bring us gossip, as well as inform us of our teachers’ reaction to our absence.

Later on in Yangon I bumped into yet another former teacher, who is now in her 60s. Her husband was a well-known literature guru and a former political prisoner who spent years behind bars.

“It’s lucky that you are back here, but I must tell you this,” she warned. “Never get involved in politics because you will always suffer. You will never win. They are not kind-hearted people and they show no humanity!’’

I felt she must offer the same kind of thoughts to her older husband who was resting at home. He was a poet who taught us to be more critical, and a bit more rebellious. He encouraged us to read literature such as Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” John Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat,” and Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf.” And he steered us towards poetry, including the works of W.B. Yeats

When we finally made it to college, we were exposed to other young and progressive professors and tutors who were bookworms and politically-minded. Unlike in the high school days, we shared similar thinking with these figures; namely, the view that we were governed by a bunch of uneducated dictators who were adept at manipulation, repression and guns. We felt as though we were going to hell if we didn’t revolt. And then the time to say “no” came in the form of the 1988 uprising, and many of the friends and teachers I knew ended up serving long jail sentences.

Those teachers, friends and mentors from school, college and the tea shops helped shape the person I have become.

Today the dilapidated buildings and classrooms of my former high school in a Yangon suburb appear much the same as they did 25 years ago.

But at the school, amid our reunion, I also sensed a new spirit and a feeling of anticipation. Some young students came up to me and talked and posed for pictures. They mentioned my writings and my TV programs covering political matters. And as I looked back to the 1980s, and I looked at them, I could not but hope for a more promising future.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in- chief of The Irrawaddy. This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine.