This weekend, the other Terengganu ETAs and I finally held our state camp. 150 kids, three days and two nights, full of laughter and crises. And some tears, but that’s a different story.
At the camp’s closing ceremony, I gave a speech on behalf of the ETAs. Our state English language officer didn’t specify whether this speech was meant to be formal and addressing the end of camp, or less formal, and addressing the impending end of the ETAs’ stay in Malaysia. I went with the latter. In the end, I don’t think it was the correct choice. There were far too many VVIPs in the room, and the officer seemed to tacitly indicate her disapproval by not congratulating me on my speech after the ceremony.
But it doesn’t matter that much to me. I didn’t write the speech for her or for any VIPs, no matter how important they are. I wrote it for the students, and for my fellow ETAs, and for myself.
In the front yard of my house in America, my mother keeps a garden. I know this isn’t most people’s image of American houses. I’m guessing that when most of you think of an American house, you picture a square lawn, full of perfectly trimmed grass. But the truth is that grass is actually difficult to control. It grows every which way, and requires careful watering and trimming to keep neat. And at the end of the day, a lawn is only for appearances.
Instead of grass, my mother chooses to grow fruit trees. Orange trees, the flowers of which bloom delicate, pale, and sweet-smelling. Pear trees, with pears that are no bigger than a baby’s fist, but which taste better than any pear I’ve ever found at the supermarket. Cherry trees, which bear hundreds of cherries in the spring, bright red and impossibly tempting to the high school students who pass our house on the way to school.
Trees are difficult to grow. The soil in my hometown is more acidic than normal, and that makes it difficult for trees to take root. And even when they do take root, it takes years for them to grow to the point when they can bear fruit. Growing trees requires a large amount of hard work and dedication, and an even larger amount of patience.
I don’t have my mother’s talent for growing plants. But I still believe that there is something important to be learned from her garden.
Because, you see, friendships are also grown, much in the same way that you might grow a fruit tree. Friendships begin as seeds, small and fragile, but full of potential. Plant them in the soil of your heart. Nurture them with kindness. Pour love over them, and wait for the first fragile shoots to appear.
But first, your heart must be a place where healthy friendships can grow. If your heart is full of bitterness, your friendships will also be bitter. If your heart is hard as a stone, your friendships will not grow past a seed. But if your heart is an open, soft place, your friendships will flourish. They will sink roots deep into your heart, and grow tall and strong.
I came to Malaysia as an English Teaching Assistant because I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to visit a new country and experience a new culture, but I also wanted to teach myself how to keep my heart open and soft in a strange environment. When you meet with opposition and hardship, it is easy to let your heart close up, to become an inhospitable desert. It is far more difficult to open up, and be vulnerable.
One of the things that always surprises me about Malaysians is how open all of your hearts are. During my two years here, I have been welcomed into near-strangers houses with open arms. I have been called “daughter” by the mother of a student, simply because I was kind to her child. I have seen how Malaysians grow their gardens, the ones in their hearts, and it is often a beautiful chaos, with so many friendships overlapping and intertwining.
And in response to so many open hearts, my heart has become more open as well. This is due, in large part, to my wonderful students.
My students are: honest, sweet, kind, talented, unique, hardworking, exciting, frustrating, weird, and sometimes, a little crazy. They continue to surprise me every day with their intelligence, their confidence, and their creativity. They perform comedy skits that bring tears of laughter to my eyes. They paint beautiful flowers that look like they’re made of fire. They sing. They dance. They burn as fearless and as bright as stars, and best of all, they’re sill so young. They still have so much life ahead of them, and so much growing to do.
It is a surprise to me that I’ve only spent two years at my school, because it feels like longer. The depth of the friendships I’ve formed, and the sweetness of the fruit that they’ve borne, suggests the work of at least twice as many years. I will be forever grateful to the students who have come to me with open hearts and open minds, unsure of who I was, but excited to know me all the same.
This is why it is so painful that I have to leave. I have experienced more love in two years than some people do in their lifetimes, and it is so, so difficult to let that go. More than that, it is difficult to imagine that my students will grow up without me there. They will carry on, growing and learning and becoming the amazing adults that I know they can be, but I will not be here to see it. Even if I return in five years, or in ten years, God willing, none of them will be the same. I will also not be the same. We won’t be teacher and student anymore; we will be leading different lives, separate lives.
But throughout all that, I hope that we can keep our friendships. Of course, it will not be easy. It will take plenty of nurturing, plenty of continued WhatsApp conversations, and maybe a few international phone calls. And yes, I will lose contact with many students. But the ones who truly know me, whose roots have anchored deep in the soft soil of my heart, will stay. And we will grow together, even though we are far apart.
Students, I hope you leave this camp with the seeds of many friendships in your pockets. I hope you grow them in your heart, and nurture them to be strong and tall and beautiful. I hope that you will challenge each other to grow, as people, and to become role models for your peers and juniors. You were brought to this camp because your ETAs believed that you could be leaders, with open hearts and open minds. Please continue to stay open, even through hardship and difficulty.
These have been the two most challenging and yet wonderful years of my life. I owe a great deal to the two amazing, hardworking, and understanding mentors that have guided me through my days at school, and who have been as solid as deep-rooted trees through all of it. None of my projects and programs would have been possible without you.
And thank you to my students. Thank you for being my friend, for trying your best to speak to me, for being patient. I hope that our friendships can continue to flourish and bloom, so that when I return one day, we can pick up where we left off, almost as though no time has passed.