Schooled on traditional values
My old school, Wannawit, has suddenly been thrust into the limelight after almost 70 years of existence.
Surrounded by high-rise condominium blocks in Bangkok's thriving residential area of Sukhumvit, the school has maintained its sleepy, laid-back ambience with very little change over the decades.
Having grown up and spent our formative teenage years there, my friends and I never found the school quaint or unusual. We loved the fact that each time we returned to visit our teachers, it was like travelling back in time to our childhood in the late 60s.
Then, out of the blue, a television news programme did a feature on the school. Wannawit gained fame overnight, with the media and the general public clamouring to find out more about it.
The reason for the interest, apart from its old wooden buildings that would look at home on the remote borders of the country, is largely the fact that the land is prime property worth over 1 billion baht. Yet the school principal, MR Rujisamorn Sukhsvasti, has no intention of selling to interested buyers who constantly hover in the background.
The school caters to children from the lower end of the social spectrum, as was the objective of the founder, the late Mom Phew Sukhsvasti Na Ayudhya, who penned a number of bestselling novels that are constantly being adapted into films and television series.
The school's 500 pupils pay approximately 3,200 baht a year in school fees — peanuts when compared to the income that could be generated by the sale of the land. But MR Rujisamorn has no personal need for money. She has no children — the teachers and pupils are like her family — and she lives in the same wooden house her mother lived in, containing the same sparse furnishings.
At 94 years of age, she is still as sharp as a pin, going in to the office — just a short walk along the path — every morning without fail. She still puts together the school timetable, and mans the little co-op stationery corner, where children buy their bits and pieces. She knows every child by name and has a booming voice that belies her age.
Almost everyone in my family went to this school. My elder sisters attended when it was still an open classroom with a thatched roof. It was two sois away, yet you could see that roof from our house, because there was hardly anything to block the view apart from a few trees and grazing buffalo.
I began to attend Wannawit when I was about 12 years old. We had to take off our shoes to keep the wooden floors clean. We also had to take turns polishing those wooden planks, both in the classroom and the outside veranda, until they gleamed.
One slight change from the old days is the basketball court, which has now been covered with cement. In my days, it was dirt. When it rained, it would turn into one big, slushy puddle. That didn't deter my group of 10 friends, who were the most mischievous in the class. Our free time was always spent playing basketball. Since it was the only play area in the school, all the other children would be out there as well. There were often five basketballs being thrown around at any one time. It did cause a bit of confusion, not to mention a few unintentional headbutts every now and then.
The Prathom 7 class — in those days there were seven primary and five secondary levels — was in charge of the school's only little garden. Again, we had to take turns tending it, but this comprised mostly of putting one foot into the garden, pulling off a few dead leaves, then running out through the back gate to play when the teacher wasn't looking.
We also had to take turns dusting in the library, a tiny room of shelves lined with books that we found most fascinating. In those days, this was our only source of reading pleasure and reference material, since computers and Google had yet to be invented.
We were taught things like sewing, embroidery, crochet, cross-stitching, vegetable and fruit carving and traditional flower arranging. We made triangular Thai cushions, straw-fringed handbags and even skirts. We did Thai classical dance and music. We studied Thai literature, memorised the famous poems by Sunthorn Phu or the Ramakien, and battled seasonal lice.
Today we have each attained a certain level of success in life, and we all agree that our school played an integral part in forming our characters. It may not be an Ivy League school, but Wannawit was good to us.
We are proud of that.
Usnisa Sukhsvasti is the features editor of the Bangkok Post.
M.R. Usnisa Sukhsvasti is Bangkok Post’s features editor, a teacher at Chulalongkorn University and a social worker.