This past summer, Jessica Meehan Atwood, advancement coordinator at De La Salle High School, New Orleans, and Elliot Gray, science teacher at Mullen High School, Denver, spent a month teaching at a Lasallian school in Myanmar in Southeast Asia. The trip was part of the District of San Francisco New Orleans’ ongoing international adult service immersion opportunities.
Atwood and Gray taught English as a second language to college-age students at the La Salle Learning Center in Yangon, which is near the Bay of Bengal and is Myanmar’s most populous city. During their stay, the pair lived in community with the Brothers in Yangon.
The adventure began on June 11 with the lengthy trip to Yangon. Upon arriving there, Gray’s first impression proved to be a memorable one. “I took a taxi from the airport to the Brothers’ residence in Mayangone Township, Yangon,” he recalled, “and saw men wearing skirts, which I later found out are called longyis. I thought: ‘Wow, I am truly in a different place.’”
Atwood’s first encounters were no less striking. “The experience was unbelievable,” she said. “Everyone was so nice, generous, and hospitable.” She also appreciated the significance of meeting and joining another District Lasallian for the experience, explaining that “it shows the belief that our schools have in working together for the mission.”
The pair spent their first weekend sightseeing in Yangon with Brother Timothy, who resides in Kalaw, Myanmar. “Brother Timothy, Jessica, and I quickly became good friends,” said Gray. “Brother Timothy and I ran nearly every day he was there, and Jessica and I eventually took a weekend trip to the mountainous town of Kalaw. We saw the Brothers’ residence there, hiked to the top of a mountain, and spent a day on and around culturally unique Inle Lake.”
Although the Brothers have served in Myanmar for over 150 years, they have not conducted traditional Lasallian schools since 1965 when Myanmar nationalized all of its schools. From that time, the Brothers have continued the Lasallian mission by serving in learning centers.
In Yangon, Brother Noel Lal is the head of La Salle Learning Centre (LSLC). Brother Noel, working alongside Brother John Win Kyaw, Teacher Lucas, and the other teachers at LSLC. LSLC was founded by Teacher Lucas and others in 1996, and has evolved into an English language learning center and a business school.
Although LSLC students reside in Yangon, most are actually from rural areas all parts of Myanmar, and stay in Yangon to learn English. They are from over one hundred fifty ethnic groups, each with its own unique customs, dances, food, and dress.
As with all teaching jobs, getting started can provide the biggest challenges and surprises. Gray recounted, “On the first Monday, Teacher Lucas sent me into the classroom and told me it was ‘all mine’. I thought to myself, ‘I am a teacher by vocation, how much different can teaching English be than teaching chemistry?’ I spent an evening worrying about my effectiveness in the classroom, but being with the students eased my nerves. They tried every activity without hesitation, even singing! They listened to every word, asked questions, and genuinely wanted to learn.”
Along with preparation, resourcefulness came in quite handy. Atwood soon learned discovered a language besides English with which she could communicate with her students: soccer. “I’ve been playing since fourth grade,” she said, “and it was fun playing with the younger Brothers and the students.” It soon was learned that one of her student’s siblings lives in Battle Creek, Michigan, which gave Atwood the opportunity to help the students learn about the United States. She noted that she and some of her students “still talk by Facebook.”
In addition to their time spent teaching, Atwood and Gray took advantage of free weekends to travel. “There are more than 3,000 Buddhist temples in the small town of Bagan in Myanmar,” Atwood said, “and Elliott and I saw 19, all while travelling on mopeds.”
Nearing the end of their stay in Yangon, the students and Brothers organized for Atwood and Gray a day filled with a traditional Myanmar celebration of dance and food. As gifts, both received a full traditional Karin outfit – vest, purse, and longyis. With the work all done and the goodbyes all said, it was time to leave Myanmar.
The return home gave Atwood and Gray a chance to reflect on how their walk through another part of the Lasallian world had touched and changed them. For both, it came down to perspective and gratitude.
“It has been a terrific opportunity to experience the Lasallian mission that we live at De La Salle in New Orleans,” Atwood said, “but I truly experienced it in a different setting in Myanmar.” And Gray added, “I felt mixed emotions leaving Myanmar. I wanted to share my experience with our immediate Lasallian community, but I did not want to leave the wonderful people I met and the beautiful culture to which I was exposed. Myanmar and the Lasallian community there left an imprint on me, one that I will never forget.”
Story contributed by Jessica Meehan-Atwood, Elliot Gray, and Kathy Calder, AFSC.