So back to school.
No sooner had we arrived at the homestay, and whizzed round a temple, than we were whisked off to a school. Now I was really, really dubious about this ‘opportunity to interact with the children’ it smacked of using them as a tourist attraction. I should have had more faith, it wasn’t like that at all. Turns out, our local guide is friends with the teacher in the village. They grew up together. The teacher himself learned English from a volunteer, so is paying back down the line by trying to teach the next generation. He doesn’t charge them, and provides all the materials himself. It isn’t his ‘job’ as such, though it is his passion. He also tries to encourage the children to look after their environment, organising litter collection, that kind of thing. He is desperate for native speakers to come along to model English with the children, and also help them to understand that there is a point to learning this. If they can communicate with tourists it will open up other opportunities for them too. In a rural community there are very few options, speaking English might be a way out of poverty. There has been a shift over time. For our guide, staying in school wasn’t an option, he left about seven years old as he was needed to work in the rice fields. It was much later he got an education, in his mid-twenties, and it is a testament to his tenacity and his imagination that he could see the value of that. Now parents more broadly also recognise that an education in general and the ability to speak English in particular will massively increase the opportunities available to young people. It is also an economic necessity. Rice production is subsistence living at best.
This wasn’t so much laid on for our benefit, as for the community. Or more accurately, a recipricol exchange. I learned so much.
I expected this to be excruciating, but actually no, it was fun, and humbling too.
The first thing was being faced with the breadth of ages and abilities. Also, you have to face the fact that there are no resources to speak of here. I had a rummage through the book shelves trying to find something to read. It was pitiful. A couple of animal identification charts, some battered Australian childrens books (about two) and that was about it. I really wish Intrepid had gently suggested we bring a single child’s reading book with us on this trip. We could transform the resources in this place over the course of a year.
Ironically, because I’m not that comfortable around children – they scare me slightly, and I’m afraid I’ll break one which I know to be bad, or worse still, make it cry and be found wanting – I decided best approach was to get stuck right in. The children were quite excited to see us, they came rushing over asking set questions ‘what is your name? Where do you live?’ That sort of thing, but it was a bit dull. Inspired by the menu reading example earlier in the day I went in search of a book to read. I find just two, one about a rabbit and a duck, and another about a tortoise and a hare. We read together. The children knew both books by rote, which is indicative of how little they have in the way of reading matter. But I tried to make it more interesting by asking questions (the rabbit couldn’t swim, the duck could, so I asked them what they could do that kind of thing). Then as they read I noticed they never stressed the final consonant in can’t or don’t so I encouraged them to try again with a different emphasis. They picked it up really quickly. They were so engaged with the topic and supportive of one another it was genuinely touching and inspirational. The more confident girl is the cousin of the daughter of the school teacher. It was genuinely fun, and rewarding. It made me appreciate how much demand there is for interaction with native speakers (our guide learned English for two years without having the confidence to speak it, perhaps because of the teaching and learning style, perhaps because of having Khmer only teachers).
It was quite hard work, but we all enjoyed it much more than expected. We were a bit early, so not that many children around. We were despatched on our ‘authentic ox-cart ride experience‘ with the promise that more children would be around on our return. The ox-cart ride and sunset was bizarre but worthwhile. I thought in a way I’d rather have just made a donation to the project and not had the contrived cart ride. However, on reflection, these are their working animals and people have their pride. It is better to provide a service in exchange for money. It is a more equitable exchange. Besides, as I sat in the cart returning to the school, the girl I’d been talking to (who was aged ten), was cycling home with her younger sibling balanced on the front of her bike. She waved at me with delighted recognition. It was very sweet and very welcome, I did feel in a small way a bit of a connection with the community albeit inevitably a very transient one.
We returned when it was pretty dark, to find children teaming everywhere in the yard, with goal posts up and a rather pitiful light casting some late and shade across the football pitch. Exhausted and sweaty or otherwise, soccer was waiting to be played. I did feel some pressure to do this, but figure, it’s only an hour out of my life, and it would be rude not to. Four of us joined in, two on each team. My team were shooting towards a goal that was in absolute darkness, I mean literally pitch. There was a tree in the middle of the field of play, and a cow lumbered through at one point on a mission to get – well I don’t know quite where, but across our field of play at any rate.
As the whistle blew for off, I realised belatedly that I had not the faintest idea which of the many children pelting around were on my team. All were barefoot, all were tiny whirlwinds rushing around, and I could hardly see. At one point one of the intrepid group pointed the torchlight on their phone on the ball so we had some idea where it was. Nor do I know how to play football. It mattered not. I just ran backwards and forward in the general direction of the ball, and when it did come my way, essentially by accident, I was so shocked I shrieked and fell over it. Fortunately it was all good natured. I like to think I added comedic value if not sporting excellence to the endeavour, somehow I ended up on the winning team, but I have no idea how. We won three two as well, so a high scoring game. Lots of high fives – or more accurately high tens (double handed high five I learn) and then children disappeared into the night, and we climbed into the bus going back to the homestay.
I was sticky and gross, so took up the option for a bucket shower, which was surprisingly effective.
It is basic it’s true, but also functional and effective. Everything works.
So this afternoon turned out indeed to be quite an education. Not necessarily in the way expected.