Morning Salute

This is a creative piece I wrote from the perspective of a student at the school I teach at in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand. The student in the story is an individual of my own creation, inspired by the personalities of Banthuadthong School. The same goes for the other characters in this story.

Every morning, at 7:55 am, my heart begins to thud. That’s when they play the song. It’s an old, classic Thai song about the values of being Thai. The school uses it to signal that morning assembly is going to start. Every student at the school knows what to do when they hear it. They gather with their class, line up, and march onto the pavement. Each class has their place. There’s over 1500 of us, but our sense of routine makes the lining-up process almost seamless.

Of course, not all of us line up in the regular sections. Only the students without special roles line up there. There’s a group of girls and one boy that sing the national anthem every morning. The national anthem is sung all over the country at 8 am, but we always start a few minutes early. I’m sure it’s just to make sure we finish assembly on time.

After that, there’s a group of two boys and three girls that sing the school prayer. Someone announces it, and all the students turn to face the Buddha idol at the gates of our school. We close our eyes and bow our heads at the appropriate times. Once this is over, the last group of students, some mixture of the first two, come up to the podium to sing the school song. Sometimes we don’t sing the school song. Sometimes it’s the song for Nakhon Si Thammarat, sometimes it’s another relevant national song. Usually, though, it’s the school song, and we all always sing along, even the kids in Prathom 1 (first grade).

I would argue, that my job is the most important. When the national anthem plays, I’m the one that hoists the flag. It’s not easy.

I got the job towards the end of last semester. The previous boy that hoisted the flag was interested in becoming one of the singers, and so the position was left open. During Monday scouts day, we were practicing folding the flag and Teacher Krit was particularly impressed by my creases. He asked if I wanted to try to help out at assembly the next morning. I never looked back.

The Thai national anthem, when sung at the correct speed, takes around 44 seconds to finish. In this time, I have to pace the flag, making sure that it makes its way up smoothly and at a roughly uniform speed to the top by the end of the song. A few weeks ago, right after school started, I was halfway up when the rope got caught. Of course, the song stops to wait for no one, so I struggled for what felt like years in front of the whole school. The second half of the flags journey was so rushed that day. It was so embarrassing.

When it rains at school, most of the student body stands outside their classrooms to partake in assembly. When I say most, I again mean all except the special role students, and not even all of us. Only four student singers stand in front of the administrative building at the microphone, next to the teacher speaker of the day. It’s so cool hearing the noise of student singing coming from all directions of the school. It’s like the biggest surround sound system you’ve ever seen, complete with slight delays.

While the singers stand in their “at ease” pose under the dry shade of the administrative wing, I brave the elements and make sure the flag goes up. I do it rain or shine, even with heavy drops pattering down on my eyes or blazing sunlight forcing them shut.

I’d say the school trusts me, even depends on me, to make sure that the flag goes up every day. I don’t know what they’d do without me. I don’t actually know who brings it back down at the end of the day, but I’ve offered to do it myself. The teachers always say no, because going home should be my top priority.

One day in particular that was truly taxing in my flag-hoisting career, was the day school started up again after the tropical cyclone Pabuk. Pabuk was awful. It flooded my home and my teachers’ homes, making water rush into our kitchen. My mom had to get everything off the ground as soon as possible, and we all slept at a hotel downtown. Some of my friends who couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel stayed with other friends who lived on higher grounds or had second floors of their homes to stay dry on. I heard that the power went out all over the city that night. Only a few buildings were up and running. Our hotel was one of them.

When I got to school that Monday, after a weekend of cleaning up our home and hoping the water levels would go down, my heart shattered. The flag was totally ruined. Slapped in mud with a branch caught in its rungs, it was in no shape to make its way up. It would certainly get stuck, and if it did go up, it was too caked in debris to open up elegantly. I spent my first fifteen minutes at school pacing around the courtyard, by-passing the practicing students singers who hadn’t seemed to notice the damage that had been done to the symbol they were singing for. It was getting close to 7:50 am, and I was nervous.

Around 7:52, I marched up to the admin office and glanced around for someone to ask for help. Rong Ploy was busy typing something on her phone and the other administrators were out of sight. I wai-ed at her and bowed with a quick “Sawatdee krap”, asking if she’d seen any of the other teachers. When she asked why I pointed to the flag.

Motioning me over, she lifted a brown package out of a drawer. We opened it together and before it was even fully open I recognized the distinct red, white, and blue. It was a new flag. She asked me to hold onto it and be ready during the assembly.

When the students assembled that morning, I stood at the front of the school with Teacher Krit and quietly helped him take off the beaten flag and put up the fresh one. Everyone in the yard was silent. They were probably jealous of me, but mostly happy to see that a new one was ready to flap in the wind. It was so exciting, a beacon of hope, the promise of a new day.

With that, we rang into our a cappella rendition of the national anthem. I secured my hands on the rope and started pulling, mentally calculating the speed and distance of each pull and watching the flag bounce with each tug. After eight tugs my left arm pulled down but stayed in place. I looked up in horror. The flag was stuck.

Everyone kept singing. I lowered it slightly and tried again. Nothing.

Sweat began to pool at my forehead, the song was starting to near its last quarter and the flag wasn’t even halfway up. I looked around, desperate for help, but everyone seemed so transfixed by the patriotism of the song and the flag that they didn’t take a second to glance down at the little boy who couldn’t make it go any higher.

I felt my toes tighten, my hands burn as the rope scraped against my palms, unwilling to budge. This was the end of my career. Everything I had worked towards, everything I had promised, was over. I was pathetic. I had failed the flag on its very first day.

Just then a hand rested gently on my shoulder. It was one of the singers from the school prayer group. She pushed me aside and stuck her tongue out the right side of her mouth while squinting hard. She looked up and the flag and let out an oddly deep grunt. The flag was still stuck. She let go and pulled her skirt a little higher, so the shirt that hung out above it was briefly caught in the waistband. She bent her knees, grabbed the rope and yanked. Up it flew. In two tugs, she had it three quarters of the way up. She pulled and pulled, and by the last note, the flag hit the top with unusual speed. It unfurled in the wind, sunlight shining through its cloth, making it light up.

She nodded at her work and shot me a wink. I looked at my own hands and blushed, reaching for my pants to wipe the sweat off of them.

I turned to face my fellow students, ready to face the laughter, shame, and ridicule that I had coming my way, but alas none of them were looking my way. They had already turned to sing the Buddhist prayer.

This blog, medium.com/@aatal, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Apeksha Atal and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations

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Trying to make sense of the world, one word at a time

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Apeksha Atal

Apeksha Atal

Trying to make sense of the world, one word at a time

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