I’m going to come right out and say it. My expectations were pretty low for this the first of my two farewell student parties. It’s not that I thought my students didn’t like me, I know they do, it’s just that their collective organisational skills have not been a noticeable forte that has come to the fore during my three-month sojourn to CWF.
The convention is, apparently, that students traditionally organise a farewell party for their teacher in the last week. This sounds all lovely and well and good in theory, but practise is a bit more testing. Because attendance it erratic, it is hard to get all the students together to agree on a date. I did achieve this, and they unanimously agreed the last Thursday of term, so we could have as many sessions together as possible. Only then one of the group (who has not missed a single session all term) announced he is away then, so we had to change the date, and I was panicking as some of the students hadn’t been seen since the original one was fixed and I was living in mortal fear (well not quite, but pretty darned nearly) that we’d have one farewell party and then I’d have to do another for just two students a couple of days later. Nightmare scenario! As it happened, thanks to the wonders of my Facebook group and student telegraph, to my utter amazement they did all turn out.
The other angst-inducing of the whole aspect (aside from mandatory socialising) was the ‘who to pay’ bit. I found out only last week, when for the first time and only time a local staff member came in to my class to talk about recruitment for the following semester, that my students had no idea I was a volunteer. The local staff member, speaking in Khmer was telling them that for the student party they would provide plates and mats, I had no idea what was being said, but suddenly my whole group started laughing and exclaiming in horror. I asked for a translation ‘they have asked if the school will pay for the party and I said no‘. She informed me. The outburst was the students protesting that they couldn’t pay. The conversation went into a sort of joke about who should ‘you because you are a teacher and earn lots of money‘. Erm no. I explained, but they were clearly embarrassed and taken aback. As was I. It is an issue, one of my group is still at school, a couple are students, they don’t have money and I’m not in a position to treat them, and even if I could, there is a principle here, I’ve given 3 months of my time, 90 minutes of lessons five days a week for this group for the whole duration, plus bringing in tinsel, and pens and goodness knows what else. I was furious to be honest, not with the students, they can do no wrong in my eyes, but with the school. It’s pretty basic really, informing the students about how the organisation works. That they use volunteer teachers so that profits can go to a partner NGO working in rural Cambodia. Also, I was furious because it embarrassed us all and because the school mooted the whole idea of a student party, and now I was worried it would be difficult financially for my students to afford. I was saying we can just have a party in school and play games, but no that was not the plan. Much Khmer chit-chat continued at high volume and with impressive degrees of simultaneous broadcasting. I had no idea what was going on. Not for the first or last time here in Cambodia.
Anyway, I am delighted to report, they came up trumps! (I’m sure you know what I mean, but I do need to come up with alternative terminology for that otherwise cheery phrase. I’m sure you will know what I mean…). The penultimate teaching session, on Monday, was a bit subdued. Some of my students are genuinely grief-stricken I am leaving. ‘What will we do?’ ‘Who will teach us?’ It is touching but slightly strange too. I tell them they will have an even better, funnier, cleverer teacher (though obviously I really hope not, as I want to be their favourite teacher forever). That they will learn new things. They were not convinced. They all say they want to visit me one day. I wonder if they will, I tell them that they must keep in touch and visit me in Sheffield if they do. They would be welcome, I’d love to find out how their stories end. Did the nurse end up helping disadvantaged poor in Stung Treng? Is the high-school student training to be an architect? Will the banker get promotion and start her own business? The student pharmacist similarly graduated and self-employed? My market researcher data – entry co-ordinator who loves her job, will she be the next international entrepreneur? And my invisible but smiley student nurse, will she make it to graduation and continue with her English and succeed as I hope? If I could help them secure their dreams by an effort of will I would, but frankly I’m still working on my own wish-fulfilment, so they may need to rely on their own enterprise, efforts and resilience a bit too. Which is as it should be.
So, I made my way up to the classroom at 5.00 p.m. Immediately I felt relief. The two students I’d been worried wouldn’t know about the party were present. Phew. This is going to be the final farewell, no lingering death-throes of departure for this group. One student presented me with a bag with a gift. It is a checked scarf – blue (they know this is my favourite colour) and a sort of salmon pink (nice than it sounds) and a fine fridge magnet of Cambodia. Perfect! I was genuinely touched. No photo, due to absence of my camera, maybe one will be added later. Amusingly, I later met another teacher who had an identical gift (different colours and magnet design but basically the same) I wondered if this was a two-for-one scenario, or if there are a finite number of gift options considered appropriate. It made me laugh though, I wonder what the scarf/fridge magnet haul will be for the school as a whole by the end of the week! I was very surprised and touched though. Maybe the whole student party thing isn’t such and ill-fated recipe for disaster after all?
Whilst we were waiting for the final student to materialise (she is always late, struggling to leave work on time, but had said she’d get off early today) we posed for photos. This was a lot of fun. Some of the hugging was a bit self-conscious, I thought I might suffocate them, they are so tiny and I am so gargantuan by comparison, but it had to be done. I love some of the shots though, once we got into our stride. It amazes me how these students have perfected the art of the group selfie, and also what can be achieved with just a moderate amount of inhibition and choreography.
To facilitate a group shot, I collared the teacher from the room next door. She was lovely, saying to my students you should not be sad, because otherwise you won’t remember smiling faces. This is really good advice. She took a couple of group shots. Hilariously, one of my students also particularly wanted to be photographed with her, which I considered a little odd as they’d never previously met. Maybe he has an i-spy book sticker book of foreigners to complete or something. I so wish he’d shared that shot too. He looked wooden and slightly scared, but he wanted that shot!
We waited fifteen minutes or so, but then concluded our other classmate was delayed so headed off… only to find her sitting in reception, which was good, because she was there, and sad, because she had missed out on the group shots.
We strode off. I thought we were going to the horrible BBQ place just a few yards on from the school. It’s vile, but very near. But no. They marched on by. Hilariously (I find a lot of things hilarious and also have a limited number of synonyms with which to convey this) the traffic was exceptionally bad. There was one part where the motorbikes were so densely packed across the six lanes of traffic and up onto the pavements and shop fronts, that even my students gasped and laughed, stopped in their tracks. The traffic is just unbelievable.
We walked on and on. One of my group started to complain it was too far. You’d have thought it was a survival mountain trek, but in fact we only went about a kilometre if that, to Vitking, the long way round. I was so touched and impressed they’d remembered that. It’s a vegetarian restaurant. It turned out to be a very good choice.
We went in and they set about arranging for tables to be put together and menus and the member of the group who is most, well, maternal quite frankly clucked about and got us organised. She often ruffles the hair, or pinches the cheeks of our youngest student. He pretends to be annoyed and wriggles away, but it’s actually very sweet, and quite nurturing. She similarly got us all organised at the restaurant. Even keeping an eye on the time. I ordered a hot plate of noodles with egg and fake meat. It came promptly and sizzling. Lots of photos were taken at all possible angles, some more flattering than others. Ice cream was had by all for desert. Mine was the pinkest ever created. It was alarmingly nice. I have clearly developed a taste for both sugar and large quantities of radioactive e-numbers. That was almost inevitable. You can only hold back the tide of unhealthy eating options for so long….
Our food being speedily consumed, it was about 6.20 and time to move. The bill was produced, and I got out my wallet to pay my share, which is what I thought we’d agreed, but no, I was not allowed to. I put up only a weak protest. I have a feeling the two who are working actually paid for everyone, but I didn’t explore it. They are kind and supportive of one another though. It is like a little student family. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that is what happened.
As we exited the restaurant, a quick pose for exterior shots – you have to have them, blurred or otherwise…
We walked back the quieter back way. I tried to chat to them all a bit individually and encourage them to be happy about future possibilities. It was fun because we ended up coming into the back of the high school next to CWF. I’ve often heard music from there, but not actually realised before coming here at this time, that it is because this too becomes a packed venue for Khmer dance and karate classes of an evening. It suddenly makes sense. They paused where their bikes were parked up to say goodbye, we had rapturous hugs and cheering goodbyes, then I ran off to get to my class, I turned back to see a row of beaming faces, waving, it was a lovely parting image. Yes, I did have a lump in my throat. We have shared an adventure, and it was a really good farewell do. I made it back into my classroom at bang on 6.30 to. I can now believe in miracles. Nothing more unexpected has ever happened. As ever, they amazed me. My funny, feisty, smart and full of surprises students. Who’d have thought it?
Oh, and the absolutely best bit of news. I found out that they have made a pact to carry on learning together. They have all re-enrolled for the next level module, from the next semester at the same time, so they will carry on as a group!
I do like a happy ending. My heart could burst with pride. I’m so happy I could cry!