A few weeks ago, I found myself sweating bullets, throat raw from shouting, cornered in a tiny classroom full of more than 60 children ages 4-12. If I didn’t have photographic documentation, I might have told you with conviction that they were crawling not only on every inch of the floor but also the walls and ceiling.
When the lot of us applied to serve in Cambodia, we were offered a choice between two distinct job descriptions: to work as a community health volunteer or as an English teacher trainer. Given my background in nutrition plus my lack of teaching experience (or inclination, ahem), I naturally chose health. However, it was not long into pre-service training that PC staff revealed to us a dirty little secret. Health volunteers often become teachers in their communities as well. Before arriving at site, I knew my host-dad was the director of the primary school and thus I would be very involved there in a health education capacity, I hoped. Wash your hands, kids! Smoking kills! Vegetables and fruit make you strong and clever! As previously chronicled, my foray into teaching began with private English lessons for the monks – something which brought with it great joy and purpose. But how did I get from here…
…to here, you may wonder?
My community made it very clear, very quickly, that they didn’t understand why I wasted my time at the health center when I ought to be teaching their children English in order to send them off for jobs abroad. This broke my heart in a dozen ways. Please let me ensure that they will survive diarrheal diseases beyond the age of five before we worry about their lifetime earning potential, I wished to proffer. When word got around as it does in the village that I was giving private lessons, every mother ordered every child to shirk their household obligations and follow me to crash the party. Needless to say, teaching in this environment was impossible. With the help of my pa, we called the lessons off. So long, monks. To appease my community, I would wait until formal classes began in early November and then teach alongside pa’s salaried teachers. This is how I ended up marching alongside my pa’s students and staff as we paraded through the village announcing the first day of school on a makeshift loudspeaker mounted on a farming cart, reminding all the families to send their little ones to school next week. There are few feelings as sublime as having kids fight over walking hand-in-hand with you, the New Teacher.
Unfortunately, the teaching plight was far from resolved. In my first few days of formal class, my “coworkers” – the Khmer teachers with whom I was supposed to be cooperatively teaching and mutually exchanging skills – would spy me approaching school grounds and excitedly dismiss their students, of all ages and various skills levels, who would flood my classroom as their true teacher drove off on a moto. There we were again, me staring into a void somewhere beyond the tumbling sea of thin little limbs and crisp new school uniforms, all somehow sticky with sugar, only a few sets of eyes genuinely beseeching me to teach, teach, teach.
I do not mean paint a picture of Khmer teachers as lazy. Far from it. Despite being a respected position, Khmer teachers are paid meager salaries and the national curriculum is incredibly dated. Students often practice reading a writing English for years without knowing how to actually speak it. Text books are ancient and tattered, supplies are few and far between. Many teachers must purchase and covet their own chalk, for instance. Most of them have other jobs or private lessons to supplement their income. To speak specifically about my pa’s school, we are rivaled by several schools in a neighboring village which receive more funding and are more accessible to students. Pa’s students are those whose families cannot spare the time or money it takes to transport them to the preferred, neighboring schools. Around class time each day can be witnessed a lively exodus of kids biking or being moto-ed to the other school. Pa has kept his school running over the years in a patchwork kind of way, imploring various NGOs and community support for beautification and repairs. I am his latest effort.
Coming to an understanding about all of this, I forged ahead. For Pa. Sometimes I can call on a few of the good-eggs for help translating and organizing activities. Most days, though, I still lay alone in my room before teaching and try to draw together all the strength I can muster. Most days, I make at least one child cry by standing firm in my stance against stabbing one another or dumping pen ink on each other’s clean uniforms. Most days, I leave class reflecting that we made it through barely 3 of the 15 planned words, none of which pertained to health.
Yesterday, however, was not most days. Only the good-eggs showed up. My most helpful and dedicated kids, the ones who before leaving for a 10-minute play-break ask me to set a timer. When I unearthed some long-forgotten crayons, we put on some Bruno Mars and got to work learning introductions and how to write our names in English (partially because teacher is still struggling to remember everyone’s names). No one even tried to gouge anyone else’s eyes out.
I chose none of this teaching malarkey. It chose me and now I’ve chosen to believe it did so for a reason. For long as fate continues to toss a sign of reassurance my direction everyone now then, I’ll stick with it. The signs don’t need to be grand or pronounced, but the occasional rainbow springing from the pagoda opposite of school grounds will not be dismissed.
Thinking of you, Grandpa, and the diligence, fortitude, and self-medicating candy it must have taken not to murder any of us in all your years of minding children.