Prof. em. Dr. Jürgen Zimmer

A LITTLE DIARY FROM THE School for Life – PART I

14th February to 15th March 2012

 

14th February

 

If you want to enter the Royal Forest to find the School for Life, you have to turn right when you exit the highway which leads from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and then on to Mae Sai and the Burmese border. After a few hundred meters there is a checkpoint, though no one is actually checked: the barrier is simply lifted and greetings exchanged. The narrow street runs past a small lake, a reservoir with a water level which rises or falls depending on the time of year. The road becomes unpaved, and in the rainy season a shower of mud is churned up by the wheels, while in the dry season – depending on how fast you drive – it is a banner of dust which rises up behind the vehicle.

 

The best vehicle to have around here is a pickup. You see pickups with crowds packed inside and boxes or bales piled several meters high above the cab, so that I increase my distance from such skyscraper vehicles if following them around a corner, worried that they might not only swing wildly from side to side, but even overturn. Motorbikes are loaded even more adventurously: light motorcycles which force every driver to check their wing mirrors time and time again. Three or four people on a motorbike, with a baby wedged in between? “No problem!”. A tower of goods of some description behind the driver, which he holds onto with one arm whilst trying to steer with the other? “Also no problem!”.

 

But somehow there is a problem. The fact that one of the most popular subjects for Thai pop-songs (alongside falling in love, having a broken heart, and being ready for someone new again) is the motorbike accident, is a telling sign. We recommend volunteers to drive their motorbikes on the defensive, and to watch out for the hot exhaust pipes which can cause painful burns to the shins.

 

All is quiet on the small road through the Royal Forest. The pace slows down. A sign points to the “School for Life”. Three kilometers later, a left turn. The farm emerges, bearing the name “Suan Sai Suoi Fha” – “Light Sky Over Beautiful Garden”. Children come running, laughing, and greet us with a Wai – the traditional Thai greeting – and want to carry the luggage, and I think to myself that it’s the same as ever. And I feel at home.

 

15th February

 

At around 4:30am, the first cockerel crows. Shortly after this comes the collective howl of the dogs, though there is no full moon to be seen. Then it stops abruptly, as if lightning has struck. Then comes the solitary yap of one dog, but this receives no reply. All is quiet again.

 

At 6am, the temple bell is rung. Wake up! Morning has broken. By 7am it is lively. Every child belongs to the “cleaning the campus” team. The big dry leaves of the teak trees are collected up, later to be laid in heaps and used to grow mushrooms. Brooms are swung, and a babble of voices and children’s songs rings out from all corners of the campus.

 

At around 9am, Kru Ya comes running in, the Vice Principal who has been at the school for many years. She rubs her arms and shakes herself. She has goose bumps. I ask her if she’s cold. No, comes her answer – there’s a ghost in the school office! The shadowy face of an unknown child had appeared at the window. All the teachers who had been in the room had left in a hurry and rushed outside. Someone fetches a laptop. On the screen is a photo showing the back of the head and shoulders of a teacher sitting at the table, and at the window is an unrecognizable face.

 

Meanwhile, the incident has circulated amongst the children. A dense cluster surrounds the laptop that sits on a table in front of the farmhouse. Kru Ya and I speak about how in two days’ time, a ceremony is planned in front of the four spirit houses which are dotted about the campus. Kru Ya says she saw the ghost itself, not just in the picture.

 

A few hours later, Kru Tomsri (‘Kru’ means ‘teacher’) comes in and admits to the teachers that the ghost appeared for educational purposes. She had produced it on her laptop, touching up the photo of the office in such a way that it appeared to show a ghost. She had told the children that they would bump into ghosts if they roam around at night instead of going to bed. Now the teachers wouldn’t have to chase the children back into bed – they would go to bed like good children. Good, huh?

 

Kru Tomsri differs from Western parents who might threaten disobedient children with the bogeyman despite not believing in him themselves. No, Kru Tomsri believes in ghosts, as do all of the other adults – except for one who believes nothing of the sort, and wishes to dispense with spirits, angels, Buddha and reincarnation too, for that matter.

 

16th February

 

Around 7 years ago, two comic advertisements appeared in the German Journal “Course Book”, financed by the publisher. One of them featured a person in a space suit, in front of a spacecraft. The text said “Tula Bpor-Wai, installing the first solar panels on the moon in 2026. Tula Bpor-Wai is one of over 60 Thai children at the School for Life…”. The other advert pictured someone in a doctor’s overall with a syringe in their hand. The text said: “Darin Sri-ma, developing the first remedy for Parkinson’s disease in 2028. Darin Sri-ma is one of the children at the School for Life…”. The text ends by asking the reader to support the project. Even if Tula doesn’t build solar panels on the moon or Darin doesn’t find the cure to Parkinson’s, both comics express the core of what the schools are about: helping children emerge from the shadows of society and proceed as far forward as possible.

 

Today, 19-year-old Put came to the farm from Chiang Mai. He spoke to the young people in 9th grade who are about to decide whether they will go to Senior High School in the nearby town of Doi Saket, to Vocational College in Chiang Mai, or if they will do something else. Put has a suggestion: they could become grooms and work either in stables with thoroughbred horses or at a vet’s, or in a polo club. Put shows them photos of other graduates of the School for Life who, like him, have completed the groom’s training and are already, after a short period, earning as much as teachers. Photos of thoroughbred horses, photos of the polo club in Pattaya, photos of how horses are bandaged, harnessed and ridden, and of the grooms’ accommodation and their leisure time – going fishing, for example.

 

Having started his training two years ago, Put is now leading the project on the grounds of Chiang Mai University. He has also received a grant to train in Germany at the Marbach Stud Farm and become a farrier. With competition horses like those in Thailand, this is a profession that places high demands.

 

In Thailand, there is a great demand for grooms, and the School for Life – in collaboration with the veterinary faculty of Chiang Mai University – is the only educational institution in the country to provide a groom’s training. Both girls and  boys are welcome. The project was launched two years ago by Dominique Leutwiler, the General Manager of the School for Life and herself an avid rider. And her joy about Put and Ott and all those who want to make something of themselves in this profession is clearly visible.

 

18-year-old Ott was a ‘bad boy’ who stole and threatened to drift into the drugs scene. After his groom’s training, however, he developed his skill as a polo player. The high-end polo club in Pattaya is now sending Ott –  a talented rider – to Argentina for a few months to train him as a professional polo player. The club is planning to send Ott to play in the Thai national polo team in the future. This is breaking news for the School for Life! From ‘bad boy’ to international polo player: a story that we hope for in many variations.

 

19th February

At dawn, a small procession moves towards the four spirit houses. Each is home to the souls of the ancestors who, on this day when many birthdays will be celebrated, are to be honored with gifts: two cooked chickens, mandarins, mangoes, juice and water are left on the verandas of each of the four houses. As one of the birthday boys for whom a party is to be held in the evening, I accompany the group of teachers on their tour. Kru Non, the teacher for Thai classical dance, is the master of ceremonies. We meditate in front of each house, and incense sticks are lit and stuck into the gifts.

 

The walk around the grounds shows the progress being made in organic agriculture: a greater area of land is now being cultivated, along with more village life, especially in the lower part of the grounds by the creek, where a small embankment dams the water and fish are being farmed. Nearby, water buffalo are grazing, and Somchart the farmer has turned his cottage into a small farm. At a small bridge that crosses the creek live Sampan and his wife. Sampan is one of the veterans of the School for Life in Chiang Mai, the foreman of the construction and maintenance team which installed the first sanitary facilities and laid the cables and water pipes after the Tsunami on the site which later became the Beluga School for Life; it was there that he fell in love with Noan, whom he married and took back to the North.

 

After the ceremony at the fourth spirit house down there by the bridge, Kru Non tells me that there are actually six rather than four, and that we will now go to the fifth and sixth spirit houses. I can’t remember there being any more, and so assume there must be some new ones. We walk from the creek at the East of the site back up hill to the entrance in the West and come to a halt in front of the school office. A stool is placed at the window where the ghostly child’s face was seen on Kru Tomsri’s laptop screen, and is then covered with the same gifts which were dedicated to the souls of the other spirit houses, followed by the same ceremony.

 

To be on the safe side, a second chair is placed at the far right of the main entrance, along with the gifts, and a final ceremony takes place. Better safe than sorry. Who knows whether the Tomsrian spirit which Kru Ya seemed to see even without a computer doesn’t exist after all. In any case, the twelve teachers are convinced by the little procession. This reminds me of the comment of one Thai, who said he wouldn’t hang up the 2012 School for Life calendar, which pictures exorcisms and rituals, because the spirits might come out from the pictures and cause trouble.

 

At around 9am, the large room in the farm house is emptied and the adjacent room with the Buddha statues is prepared for the visit of five monks. In Thailand, celebrating birthdays is more about honoring the mother than celebrating the person whose birthday it is. When all the children have gathered in the room and the monks have settled, I remember about this custom of honoring the mothers, and tell them about my mother. She was expelled from her family because of her unmarried relationship with my father, who later died in Russia. Her brother, who was a captain and a pentathlete who had been in training for 1940 Olympic Games which were no longer held, and who soon died in France, could have been dishonorably discharged from the army. I tell them how we survived the war living in a shack without electricity and water, collecting moldy white bread which the occupying forces had thrown away, and sorting out the parts which were edible. I also told them about the weeks before my mother’s death, in which she organized a concert for peace. With the donations which were collected at this concert, we founded the School for Life.

 

The chanting of the monks, which the children join in with, the Christmas festivities, the Thai New Year Festival Songkran, the visits to temples, the church service in the little wooden church nearby, the honoring of the Ancestors: the farm is an ecumenical amalgam of exploratory movements, all contributing to peace between the religions. I resonate with the faithful, with the intersecting fragments of religion and myth, and with our monks from the temple of Lamphun. We discourage missionary efforts, whether they come from the Buddhist-robed operators of “temple businesses” or fundamental Christian sects that approach us with their aggressive marketing and throw their spare change to the poor.

 

By late afternoon, the festival begins on the meadow at the edge of which HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand planted a tree in the fall of 2005. A buffet with many variations of the northern Thai cuisine and homegrown vegetables is laid out. Wasan, the drummer, leads his companions as they swing their hips and are swept into a wild dance by the “Drums of Victory”. Demonstrations of ancient and modern dances follow, and the highlight – by which time it has grown dark – is the Candlelight Dance of twenty girls who paint figures in the night with their candles, a symbol of the unity within the diversity.

 

At the end of the evening, a large cake is cut into many pieces – there is enough for everyone. Then it’s time to tidy up. Everyone knows what needs to be done. I take a melon, the top half of which has been ornately carved by Aimee, who wanted to thank everyone that she could learn and live at the School for Life for so many years.

 

 

21st February

 

A phone call from Guillaume Amigues from the World Economic Forum in Geneva. They are interested in the concept of the School for Life and “entrepreneurship education”. In June, a regional meeting will be taking place in Istanbul: this will be a good opportunity to introduce the concept. He goes on to say that 750 million young people are unemployed worldwide, representing a major challenge for both the public and private sectors. I arrange a date to meet with my friend and colleague Günter Faltin (with whom I wrote the book “Wealth from the Bottom” over twenty years ago; back then it was trailblazer in all things entrepreneurial) as he is currently in Chiang Mai: together, we will design a dossier for the World Economic Forum.

 

22nd February

 

Professor Apichai Puntasen, Doyen of Buddhist Economics, and most recently Dean of the Ubon Ratchathanee University in Isan, Thailand’s poorest region, has sent a student. Her name is Thip and she is studying “self-sufficiency economy”, a concept of the King of Thailand. It is the philosophy of independent survival in times of crisis, such as Thailand in 1997, when the currency collapsed overnight. Apichai (the Thai people address one another by their first name) is a board member of the School for Life Foundation and has been a friend and companion of mine for thirty years.

 

Thip is specializing in organic agriculture and has established frog breeding and mushroom cultivation. This is a pilot project in order to gain experience. The mushrooms grow in a mixture of straw and cuttings from banana plants, built into small mounds and covered with plastic sheeting and additional bundles of straw – mushrooms seem to like to keep warm.

 

23rd February

 

The noisest classroom is that of the retired German teacher Angela Grossmass, who has been teaching English pro bono for the last two months. I’m not sure if “teaching” is the right word – more like a direct transfusion of English, through extreme drama, music and rhythm, into the flesh and blood. The children participate with full committment, and by the end they have exerted so much energy – both mental and physical – that they could fall into a deep sleep. And some do.

 

Today, the lesson is about the human body parts. The second-graders launch themselves into a choreography which would most aptly be dubbed “out of breath”. They jump up and down, row with their arms, and their legs swing rhythmically up and down so high that they look as if they are rehearsing for a performance in the Moulin Rouge. Simultaneously, the names of the body parts from head to toe are being sung, and this mixture of loud singing, hopping around, laughter and guesses as what this or that body part is actually called is the best English lesson I have ever seen. It reminds me a little of my French lessons in 1948 in the former robber baron’s castle in Hohenfels, in the lonely hinterlands of western Lake Constance. When Miss Köppen wanted to explain the difference between “under” and “on”, she crawled under the table or climbed on top of it, and we got a raisin if we could supply the right answer.

 

Angela Grossmass is a decidedly favorable contrast to one of my English teachers, who regularly turned up unprepared, got us to open up the English book on a certain page and read a few paragraphs before telling us to close the books and do a dictation. Week after week, a sure-fire remedy against learning English.

 

24th February

 

Kru Tomsri has transformed her little wooden house into a zoo with hamsters and guinea pigs, as well as planting a vegetable garden which is growing by the day. She invites everyone to help themselves to salad and vegetables. The children love the zoo, and often drop by to look at the animals.

 

Next door lives Siriporn, the head teacher, who is busy extending her garden. Seedlings are being replanted, and beans curl their way up the trunks of teak trees. The children help both Tomsri and Siriporn to dig up the dry earth, mix it with organic fertilizer, water and cover the beds with straw and watch the plants grow.

 

Gradually, all of the unused areas of the campus (40 Rai = 6.5 hectares) are being transformed into vegetable fields and fruit plantations. “Self-sufficiency economy”, the philosophy of the King and pioneer of organic agriculture, reminds me of Julius Nyerere’s concept, the big statesman and visionary in Tanzania the 1960s: he called it “self-reliance”, confidence in ones own power. He wanted to implement it in the Ujamaa villages and schools in Commu­nity Development projects, but his bureaucrats countered him with tough resistance and outlived him.

 

25th February

 

Thirty girls and boys from an international school in Bangladesh arrive. They help to renovate buildings. They bring paint and paintbrushes, and the School for Life children once again experience how many nationalities meet to form such a school.

 

The international school from Bangladesh isn’t the only one which has found its way to the School for Life. The international schools from Stavanger in Norway and Düsseldorf in Germany come every year – as long as the Yellow Shirts aren’t occupying the airport, or the Red Shirts taking control of the center of Bangkok, or floods submerging half of the country. Here in the Royal Forest on the hills of Doi Saket, we are far away from such occurrences, and no one must fear for their safety.

 

Every time when a group of students leaves after two or three weeks – the Bangladeshis are an exception to the rule with their two-day stay this time – tears flow on both sides. But the connections that have been made can always be maintained via social networks.

 

 

 

 

27th February

 

Lutz Buschhüter, a graduate of social work who is married here and has lived in Chiang Mai for more than a decade, is coming here to meet up with two young Germans and their Turkish supervisor Onursal. The two boys are in the final phase of a two-and-a-half year program run by the Youth Fund “Par-ce-val” in Berlin and Brandenburg. This is a project that does rehabilitation work with young people who are ‘at risk’, if you will, of delinquency.

 

I met Haci Bayram, the manager of Par-ce-val, in Berlin to prepare the three-month stay in the School for Life. Bayram’s ideas of sending young people to a completely different social and cultural setting to gain experiences there was not new for me. The High Seas High School, which sails for months over the world’s oceans with students from the 10th and 11th grades is a clear example of challenging young people rather than over-domesticating them. We had volunteers in the School for Life whose stay with us was a turning point: one high school student, for example, had told his mother as he departed that he wanted nothing more to do with her,  but realized during his stay how much she meant to him and went on to develop a new, loving relationship with her when he returned; or the 16-year-old who had drifted into the dropout scene of her city, played truant from school and couldn’t see any point to her life, but then went on after her stay here to give up smoking, drinking and drugs, and went back to school to concentrate on her final exams. Her story was filmed for the German TV: “Polly on the Rocks”.

 

Before they leave, the two youths and Onursal talk to me about what went well over the three months, what we could do better for the next visit from Par-ce-val participants, and why they felt almost too good. The core of Par-ce-val’s rehabiliation program is about bringing strictness and structure to the lives of the young people. One of the two young people filmed a very moving video-portrait of Namson, whose mother was sentenced to 24 years’ imprisonment – 16 more years to go – in Chiang Mai.

 

28th February

 

The abbot of the temple of Lamphun, has been a friend of the School for Life for many years. When people come to him and want to make a sacrifice for one reason or another, he encourages them to give 5000 Baht (€125) to fund lunch at the School for Life. The donors can buy everything in advance, as directed by the abbot, cook it at home, and then bring it to the school to eat with the children. The abbot’s soup is famous amongst the children, and tastes delicious. The abbot and the visitors he brings never fail to be amazed at how much the children can eat.

 

Today he’s celebrating his 60th birthday with us. He has brought his monks and fifty relatives and friends along with him. Everyone collects in the canteen, an open-plan, covered room, for the feast. It is late morning – monks are not permitted to eat after midday.

 

29th February

 

In the large room of the farmhouse, big sheets of paper lie on the floor surrounded by lots of smaller ones. The big pieces of paper have the names of the seven Centers of Excellence ‘under the trees’ written on them (unlike the Hanseatic – formerly Beluga – School for Life in the South of Thailand, the School for Life in Chiang Mai doesn’t have buildings for them), and on the colorful smaller labels are written ideas for projects, mini-enterprises and other activities that are assigned to the centers. The school and family teachers (mentors) have gathered in order to plan the next semester, which will last from May to September.

 

Project ideas for the Center for Organic Farming, for example, include fish farming, frog farming, mushroom growing, composting, herbal gardening, animal husbandry and planting fruits and vegetables.

 

For the Center for Culture Sensitive Tourism, a restaurant management team and projects ideas by the names of “being a little guide”, “where do I come from?”, “soul trekking”, or “the forest as a supermarket” have been compiled.

 

Under the tree of the Center for Nutrition & Health, courses in baking, Thai food, international food, and cooking with guests are all on the menu.

 

The piece of paper representing the Center for Cultural Heritage & Development is surrounded by a multitude of colored labels: Thai & contemporary dance, Thai music, world music, classical European music, jazz dance, local wisdom, ethnic fashion, painting, fresh flower fashion, teaching Buddhism, teaching Christianity, comparative understanding of world religions, performance program develop­ment and teaching the culture of indigenous people.

 

The Center for Body and Soul has also generated plenty of ideas: Yoga & Thai massage, football for girls, football for boys, swimming, martial arts for girls, Thai boxing, basket ball, morning exercise and meditation.

 

Children’s World Radio, an introduction to soft- & hardware, cinema club, children’s journal and white board (a large-screen digital window to the world of the internet) belong to the Center for International Communication, while the Center for Technology, Crafts & Ecology has been assigned maintenance, keeping the campus clean and a bicycle repair shop.

 

Since not everything can be assigned to one Center, another sheet of paper with “Other Essential Activities” written on it lies in the middle, surrounded by ideas for a children’s investment bank, a community shop, mediation, morning ceremony, family day, children’s parliament, guardian angels, night guardians and holiday activities.

 

At around 6pm it is slowly getting dark. The teachers are still deep in discussion. The first teams are being formed. Not all of the labels will turn into projects or Mini-Enterprises – we will set priorities. One upon which everyone agrees is organic farming and animal husbandry. The road towards a self-sufficiency economy is beset with many obstacles, but the Situational Approach upon which the Schools for Life are founded favors learning in challenging, real-life environments. You don’t have to look far to find these on the campus – it’s more a case of stumbling over them.

 

1st March

 

Like on every school day, the temple bell is struck at 6am by a child with a metal rod. It begins with individual taps, and is followed by a quick staccato which then flows back into individual chimes. Then everyone gathers together in front of the auditorium, where the Thai flag is raised and the national anthem sung. The relatively tall aluminum mast is fitted with a pulley at the top, through which the rope runs. The flag is still hanging at the bottom. Today, two six-year-olds will raise the flag. The Head Pupil, Master of Ceremony, begins with a song to which everyone sings along. Depending on how high or low the caller begins, the children always find a pitch that feels comfortable to them. Darius Milhaud would have delighted in the ensuing polyphonic chant that is somehow taken for granted here.

 

The girl and boy try to raise the flag slowly enough so that it doesn’t reach the top of the pole until the end of national anthem. The pulley is squeaking, and several dogs start to bicker and chase a few children back and forth, and when the hymn is over there are still several meters of flag pole left to go, so the children then hoist the flag up as quickly as if they were launching a rocket.

 

And now it is time for an alternating recitation, like in the monks’ ceremonies. Then it is quiet again. The children are meditating, and the dogs have quietened down and are lying about in the shade. The School for Life song is often sung, beginning with the words “School for Life our home, our school …” and ending “I have brothers, sisters and friends”.

 

The children are still standing in six or seven rows, the younger ones on the left and older on the right, with their gaze fixed on the flag. But now the children in the first row turn to those in the second row and both greet each other with a Wai and a “Sawasdee”. The children in the second and third rows then greet each other in the same way, and then the third and fourth rows. The greeting is passed on in such a manner until everyone has been greeted. Finally, the children greet the teachers, volunteers and often the guests too.

 

After that, they form large circles and a meditative dance begins with very slow movements that point up to the heavens or down towards the earth. It is in this way that the strict, ceremonial atmosphere is dissolved into a soft, peaceful sense of togetherness.

 

I used not to think much of rituals, but nowadays I have a different opinion of them. They offer structure in lives which have been overshadowed by biographical catastrophes. The children at the School for Life love rituals.

 

2nd March

 

The School for Life is more than a school. The academic core, the official part so to speak, consists of a nationally recognized social welfare school. It has a ‘School Board’ as well as coming under the umbrella of the overall ‘Board of the School for Life Foundation’ . On both committees, Thai people form the majority.

 

Today, the School Board is meeting. Its members include, among others, the representative of the highest education authority for private schools, the mayor of a community association, the representative of the Royal Forest project, a lawyer from the nearby village of Pongkum, the head teacher and her deputy as well as a family teacher representing the absent or non-existent parents of the children.

 

Two issues shape the debate this morning. First of all, how can bridges be built between the national curriculum and the projects and mini-enterprises? How can the conventional subjects be looted in order to shift some of their content into the new, interdisciplinary ‘clean slates’ of the Centers of Excellence? The seven sheets of paper with the names of the Centers and the labels with the project ideas lie on the conference table in the school library. With the school inspectors, we discuss questions such as how at least half of 120 teaching hours of mathematics can be transferred to other activities and nonetheless still be recognized and evaluated. The school inspectors comment that such a dynamic model, emphasizing the application of knowledge in real situations, has unfortunately not yet arrived in Thai schools. The children are kept inside the classroom and exposed to long speeches by their teachers, memorizing things which are then forgotten again.

 

Second on the agenda: the government has increased the minimum wage for teachers from 8000 to 15000 THB (200/375 €). In the primary school, one teacher is subsidized per 25 children, and in the junior high school, one teacher to 20 children. At this rate, the School for Life will only receive a grant for five teachers. But we have 12 teachers, because according to the School Act, each class must have one teacher. The nursery has three classes for the three-, four- and five-year olds and operates according to the Ministry of Education’s expectations for same-aged classes (unlike us). The elementary school with grades one to six, and the junior high school with grades seven to nine also all need one teacher per class. If we only hired five teachers, we would lose our license. So in the future there will be five funded teachers and seven unfunded teachers. Previously, all twelve teachers received state grants. For us, this means more toing and froing in terms of educational policy.

 

5th March

 

The arrival of Lena Grüber. Lena, who is 26, studied Art in Public Spaces at Berlin-Weissensee. She also helps in the editorial team of “Betrifft Kinder” (Re: Children) and “The Net Publisher”. Her mother, Eva Grüber, became self-employed after the reunification of Germany and began to publish journals and books which do away with educational fussing around, instead seeing children as explorers, experimenters and constructors of their own lives. No educational “jargon” escapes the eagle-eye of the editor.

 

The magazine “Re: Children” is a fan of the School for Life, as is Lena with her big analog camera. She says that shooting analog photos demands more thought and a more accurate sense of waiting for the right moment. The problem with documentary filmmaking and photography, though, is that situations pass by so quickly and can never be repeated; you therefore have to somehow imagine what might happen, and Lena will try to catch some of those moments over the next three days.

 

In the afternoon, the teachers meet again. They form groups on three different subjects. Firstly: Mind Mapping in connection with the fish farming project. When such projects go off at a tangent, it doesn’t mean anyone has got lost – it’s just another chance to learn. The children themselves develop maps of the situations which interest them the most. Since the fish farming project doesn’t take eight hours a day, there’s plenty of opportunity for that.

 

Questions thus emerge which demand clarification and experimental research. Can fish sleep? Why don’t they sink? Don’t they need air? Fish float, but stones and wood sink – why? Why does a stone sink more slowly in oil than in water? Why can birds and butterflies fly? Do they crash sometimes? Airplanes fly too – how do they do that? Why do they crash sometimes, why don’t they float down to the ground if they have wings? How do rockets fly? And when fish get hungry, what do they eat? How do they have babies? Do they lay eggs like birds? Don’t the eggs swim off? Why don’t people lay eggs? What is an egg exactly? If we don’t eat the fish, but want to sell them, where could we sell them and how much for? Why only 20 baht for a fish and not 200? You can get money so easily when you put a card into a machine and push buttons … and so on.

 

Secondly: the planning of an excursion of a few days with the children and guests to the nearby villages the children are from. The project is called “Where do I come from?”. This way, the guests will also get to know the everyday culture of the Thai people and ethnic minorities beyond the well-trodden tourist paths, and make new friends.

 

Thirdly: local wisdom. What do the elders know, and what have the young people forgotten? Who can the children ask, and how can they document their findings? The idea comes from Eliot Wigginton (USA), who in 1966 as a young teacher began collecting the stories of old people with his class. This was in the Appalachians, and was the consequence of Wigginton’s realization that the methods he had learned at university were practically useless with his students. The “Foxfire Book”, with its multiple volumes, was the result of their research, and sold millions of copies. Many many readers wanted to know how to build a cabin or a chimney out of rocks, how to construct a rabbit trap or how to extract the bristles from a slaughtered pig, what a homemade banjo looks like or how a smoking oven can be built.

 

The teachers at the School for Life want to go out with the children into the surrounding areas, find the wise old people, and find out first of all how to build a bamboo hut covered in dry leaves; they don’t just want to collect the knowledge, but they want to build a life-size version with the children, not just a miniature model.

 

6th March

 

The Step Foundation in Freiburg (Germany) has funded sports facilities, including a large football field and a basketball court. At 5pm, it’s time for girls’ football – on the basketball court, because the grass-covered football field is still hazy with the heat of the day, and the distances really are very far to run. Two little goals stand underneath the basketball nets, and the girls are dribbling, shooting, shouting and laughing, with little breaks here and there when the ball – which is not contained by any fence – disappears into the distance and has to be retrieved. The teacher, Dim, whose stature and shooting power is somewhat reminiscent of the legendary ‘Bomber Müller’ from FC Bayern, played in the first ever women’s football team in Chiang Mai seven years ago. Her job is funded by the Foundation in Freiburg, so for the first time we have the opportunity to form a real team with the ten- to twelve-year-olds.

 

Martial arts for girls is also on the wish list. Not full contact martial arts, but dance-like forms such as Pencak Silat from Indonesia or Brazilian Capoeira. The aim is to promote the girls’ self-confidence through martial arts which can be transformed into a dance ritual with high levels of physical discipline.

 

7th March

 

An evening trip to the outlying Wang Tarn restaurant with Trirat Petchsingh, son of a diplomat, who grew up in various countries and is an engineer, has founded a Computer School, teaches at an elite school in the vicinity of Bangkok. Trirat, who can speak better English than Thai, and runs a website which offers a critical perspective on Buddhism,was  a journalist for Reuters and “The Nation”,  and is the author of “Thai mangoes”, a book of short stories – Trirat is leaving us. Responsible for “education innovation”, he says he couldn’t get the backing of the teachers. He comes from a very different world. I appreciate his honesty, his commitment to children, his education, his penchant for experimenting and scientific learning, and I observe the relentlessness – reminiscent of that of Michael Kohlhaas – with which he throws himself into conflicts and creates opponents for himself. He says that he was not the right man for the job, and I agree. We amicably agree that he will retire and take care of his daughters and their companies.

 

Trirat’s role is filled by two people. Manoon Kalapat, former director of the Hotel Training Institute of the Beluga (now Hanseatic) School for Life – a friendly, experienced manager of Hotel Management Schools and hotels, who speaks fluent English and began working for the School Life a few months ago months as grounds manager and head of the guest area. He will now be responsible for the implementation and development of the educational concept. The other person is Dr. Chanmongkol Trisri, previously known as Charlniwat – he has changed his name because Chanmongkol means ‘long life’, and this gets more important the more years one numbers. He spent five years as director of the Center for Organic Farming at the Beluga School for Life and was very highly regarded by the guests for his storytelling skills and for guiding them through the jungle. Now Chanmongkol wants to work in the North. His seventeen-year-old son is studying two hours’ drive away, in Chiang Rai, and will be happy to see his father more often.

 

Chanmongkol will become Director for Organic Farming & Animal Husbandry at the School for Life, and be one of those responsible for seeing that we not only move towards our goal of agricultural self-sufficiency, but also raise funds through the cultivation of highly priced products like cantaloupe melons or out-of-season limes. We are also receiving advice from Ex-Senator Mechai, who many years ago organized a successful nationwide Anti-Aids awareness campaign and since then goes by the nickname of “Mr. Condom”.

 

One of Chanmongkol’s showpieces has been the establishment of a pig farm in China that doesn’t smell. That was a great sensation for all involved. Prior to this, there had been violent dispute with the owners of nearby hotels because of the odors – but after Chanmongkol had solved the problem, the hotel owners were so happy that they became shareholders of the pig farm!

 

Chanmongkol has also advised farmers in Israel. He knows how to drive away snakes with mongooses and that you can feed catfish with a dead dog and they’ll gnaw it down to the bone in six hours. He rides, and when he puts on a hat, he looks like the brother of Charles Bronson. We will breed odor-free pigs, and if the pig farmers in Mecklenburg (a pig-breeding area of Germany) want to know how to avoid the protests of local citizens, then Chanmongkol can hold seminars to reveal his secrets if they are willing to pay good money to the School for Life.

 

But now he has a new problem: some time ago, on Trirat’s initiative, the creek at the lower part of the grounds was dug out for twenty meters for the purposes of breeding fish. Many small fish were introduced into mesh baskets of several square meters. Now they have grown, and it appears that the designers of the baskets underestimated the intelligence of the fish – Chanmongkol has seen the fish overcoming the sides of the basket in one elegant leap and swim off to their freedom. Not an insurmountable problem, but one of many in the world of fish farming.

 

8th March

 

Chalee was here. School inspector, evaluator and specialist in teacher training, whose workplaces extend over much of Thailand. He thinks that the School for Life’s concept, or more precisely the connection between the national curriculum and the Centers of Excellence, would be a good idea for every school. Today, Chalee is here to train the new teachers about how to build bridges between the curriculum subjects and the Centers, as well as on how the inescapable “credit points” can be awarded beyond the confines of conventional education. Chalee loves movement, is an entertainer, and hates the classroom – so the seminar will take place outdoors.

 

Basically, it’s like in a good kitchen: you take the elements from the different subjects, mix them up into a project and then treat this fusion not as some unofficial game, but rather as a modern version of a previously antiquated structure of a curriculum. Yes, something like that. The “credit points” are then just the stamp of approval.

 

Although I can imagine learning without “credit points”, and it’s not as if I’m a supporter of this dynamized bureaucracy, I do realize that in this way we can do sensible things without risking the academic recognition of our children’s efforts. Thanks to Chalee.

 

9th March

 

Born in Berlin in 1787, Emma Hart went on to emigrate to America and marry Dr. John Willard, thus becoming Emma Willard. In 1819, she wrote to the House of Representatives in Vermont campaigning for the education of women, sending them a kind of Magna Carta for the higher education of women in America. In the same year, she opened a school for girls, today’s Emma Willard School in upstate New York.

On the 9th of March 2012 at around 9:30am, two minibuses arrive at the gates of the School for Life. Around twenty girls from the Emma Willard School, a gang of spirited fourteen- to fifteen-year-olds, clamber out of the buses. Students from other countries are always received by our children with a big hello. They want to join in with decorating one of the walls of the house with colorful characters, dance and play with the children, and show them that Emma Willard is an important role model. They have brought along her portrait and hold it up high as they gather for a group photo.

 

10th March

 

At the Pattaya Polo Club, Dominique Leutwiler met Harald Link, its owner, and spoke to him about the development of the groom’s training project. Link, initially distracted by telephone calls and all of the things distract the attention of a manager of a large company who runs a polo club as a hobby, was suddenly gripped by this project, unique  in Thailand, realized its value and was thrilled. Now we can move forward together.

Everywhere in the clubhouse there are photos, including ones of the British princes William and Harry, who have played polo here. The demand for grooms who are skilled enough to make a career of it is much greater than our project can meet at this stage, so expansion is called for.

 

Harald Link asked whether we have horses on the farm; no, we don’t. Well then he’ll send us a couple of horses so that the children can get used to them at an early stage. Chanmongkol is already looking forward to converting part of the grounds into a ranch or cooperating with a neighbor.

 

The groom’s training project has its costs. On the way to writing a memorandum of understanding, we will consider how we can return our investments from the customers and define the proportion of overhead costs in favor of the School for Life so that more is covered than just the costs.

 

12th March

 

The vice-governor of the province of Chiang Mai, Pairoj Sangpoowong, wanted to come and visit today, but ended up having to go to the constituent assembly in Bangkok instead. The Board of the School for Life Foundation will meet at the farmhouse. Those present are Chamnang Chanruang, governor of 65 Rotary clubs in northern Thailand and Senior Legal Expert at the Administrative Court of Chiang Mai; Mary Kelly, on behalf of her husband Matthew, who once played with the “Grateful Dead” and now heads the Amicus Foundation, but is sick today; Prof. Apichai Puntasen, director of the Rural & Social Management Institute under Royal Patronage in Bangkok; Siriporn Hanfaifa, the school director; Dominique Leutwiler, the general manager; and myself. Manoon Kalapat and Chanmongkol Trisri are also present as expert witnesses.

 

We discuss the development of schools, the finances, the new management structure and the long-term security of the School for Life. I announce that the School for Life will be ten years old next year, and I will be 75, and that I plan to retire from all operational matters at the end of 2013 and deal only with the more enjoyable affairs of educational innovation. It therefore makes sense to found an Association of Supporters of the School for Life by this time, in order to ensure the existence of the project in the long term – half of the suporters coming from Thailand, the other half from Germany and the rest of the world.

 

13th March

 

It is a day of departure, joy and sadness: graduation day. The graduates of the 9th grade will follow different paths from now on: to Senior High School in nearby Doi Saket, to Chiang Mai Technical College, or to undertake other professional training. Most of them will stay on with us for the next three years, either commuting every day and continuing to live on the campus or, like the grooms in training,  moving into a townhouse where they will continue to be looked after by us.

 

At 9am, everyone gathers in the Seminar building which has by now been brightly painted by our international guests. The graduates have flowers pinned to their lapels. Speeches, dances, laughter – and tears, not only in the children’s eyes. The head boy has to interrupt his speech because his eyes overflow. He speaks of the happy time he has spent here and says that when he has made something of himself, he wants to come back and support the School for Life. I also believe that some of the graduates of the first generations of the School for Life will return as very capable teachers. They will be very welcome, as are all alumni.

 

Now that the event is coming to an end, the graduates of the Junior High School are all solemnly presented with their documents. This is followed by a particularly beautiful custom: the adults tie small white bands around the graduates’ wrists and wish them well. Many hugs and more tears.

The beautiful flower arrangements are carried outside onto the sports field: group photo. The cameras click. Their faces are radiant once more. In the evening there is a BBQ outside the farm house for the celebrated graduates and teachers. A screen is erected, texts roll across it, and the sounds of karaoke are to be heard until late into the night.

 

Then – silence. But no. A dog that apparently sees ghosts every night begins to bark furiously. No other dogs join in. They know that this dog is not quite right in the head.

 

15th March

 

Late on the previous evening, a brief and violent storm swept the leaves from the trees, tore branches down, lifted up one of the rooves and felled a tree. No electricity for fourteen hours. Nobody has to oversee the cleanup next morning – everyone has their job and knows what to do.

The holiday season begins. Many children set off to their villages, others are taken to their villages by the teachers, and some remain on the farm.

 

The school and family teachers gather together and form teams of four: Team A for the nursery, Team B for grades one to three, Team C for grades four to six of the primary school, and team D for grades seven to nine of the junior high School. Each team also manages a family with children. Four, rather than the previous two teachers, take on the role of parenting. Each team is responsible for both curricular and extracurricular life. The teachers want to overcome the formation of subcultures – school on the one side and family on the other. I like this integration. In the world of boarding schools, you find the structure of ‘school’ versus ‘boarding’ with teachers and mentors or the role of teacher and mentor in one. We tried that practice, but it led to the overloading of teachers, giving them less time to prepare for classes.

 

The model of integration of the two areas will be tested next semester, and one of its best features is that we can break up the usual daily routine – lessons in the morning, projects and other activities in the afternoon – in favor of a rhythm which is both more child-friendly and makes more sense: dedicating the cooler parts of the day in the morning and late evening to organic agriculture, and using the rest of the day for school, project and free time to avoid forming a rigid routine.

 

The teachers are very satisfied with the teams they have built. Towards the end of the meeting, the old teachers practise both of the School for Life songs with the new teachers and show them what is meant by “making power”. We form a tight circle, put all our hands in a pile in the center, count to three and then raise our arms with a powerful “School for Life – Yeah!”. We have been doing that for the last nine years.

 

At 5.30pm, the closing party for all the employees begins outdoors in front of the farmhouse. BBQ, dancing and karaoke. The mood is relaxed. Chanmongkol muses with Sampan over how he can purify used water for irrigation purposes. The driver, Tub, tells us that he thinks he needs to be paid a little more because he has to buy all his own food when he’s on the road. The cook is dancing rock ‘n’ roll. A half moon is in the sky. Even at midnight, the hardier among us are still singing. At some point in the night, everything is cleaned up. It is all done as quick as a flash. And then there is peace.

 

No, not entirely. The dog who sees ghosts begins to howl again. No other dog joins in, but a frog does. The stormy rain lured him out of his hole in the ground too early. Now he croaks for attention, but in vain. No other frog replies. The dog who sees ghosts and the lonely frog are an odd couple in the night before the day when I pack my things and set off to the South, to the other School for Life.