Let them eat cake. Even if I did have to buy it myself.
It’s the death throes of teaching now. The last few days are a bit of an after-thought at CWF. We ceased taking the register on Friday. Sessions are timetabled, but students seem to regard them as optional. CWF have entirely lost the little interest they had in our efforts, it’s pretty depressing. There is a ‘student party’ scheduled for Thursday – today in fact, but some groups opted to have them on a different day. This means many classes have now finished – including my first group to be fair. Who gave me a fantastic send off. For those teachers who, like me, have such enthusiastic students they insist that classes must run every day so they don’t miss a thing we have to limp on. My second class of students, given the option of an earlier final party were quite adamant that they did not want this. ‘We want to be with you and talk to you teacher‘. Well, that’s fine and dandy and very flattering and all that, but it seems that really what they wanted was the hypothetical option of being able to dip in and out at will, rather than seeing it an absolute commitment to attend. I don’t entirely blame them, I wouldn’t want to keep on coming in if I didn’t have to. To be fair, the lessons on Monday and Tuesday went really well, just talking, and ‘being’ was grand. Yesterday though, the cracks were beginning to show. It was all a bit tortuous.
Walking in (stomping would be more accurate), my self-bought birthday cake swinging in its plastic bag (which thinking about it, might be why it had slid off the plate by the time of my arrival at school) I wasn’t in the best of moods. One very cheery thing did happen to lift my spirits though. The guy in the adjacent shop, who I view as my guardian and protector as he helped me with navigation once and now waves at me every day – had clearly been looking out for me. I normally come for my first class at 4.00, but as that’s finished I was late. When he saw me he was even more animated than usual, I got a two-handed wave. I was quite tempted to go over and give a high-five.. maybe when I actually go to say goodbye I will! It’s the interaction with him and the woman I get coffee from almost every day that have felt the most genuine during my time in Phnom Penh. Those are the people I’ll miss … aside from my students of course. I am in love with them, even if I do sometimes fear it’s because I’ve allowed a small cult of personality to evolve around me. Their English is sufficiently limited they can see only my positive qualities. It’s very affirming on the whole..
Lovely as my students are, it was still a tricky session yesterday. Only five of the elven appeared, and two of them were really late. I was just exhausted, and honestly, it wasn’t the best fun.
On the plus side, it being my birthday, and me recognising that things were likely to be flagging, I had the foresight to take along a cake. I don’t normally do anything in particular for my birthday, but I thought this might provide some sort of distraction in the lesson. I even had some candles and a lighter courtesy of another volunteer who’d sourced them for a previous celebrant. The cake did attract a lot of attention. My students were genuinely quite alarmed that they didn’t know it was my birthday, and full of congratulations and appreciation. One of the students who did come, seeing it was my birthday, gamely rang others to see where they were, but only one replied, my most dependable student, he was ill. I hope he does make the final party. It’d be sad not to see him again.
The cake, which was expensive at $10, came with a little plastic knife and some polystyrene plates and plastic spoons. It looks lavishly decorated, but mainly this is achieved with a flourish of whipped ‘cream’. At no extra cost, they piped on wording – I had ‘Happy Memories’ put on it, as I drew the line at getting ‘Happy Birthday’ on my own cake. Extracting the cake from the box was quite tricky, as it had slid quite spectacularly on its base causing cream to end up everywhere. The cream icing was a bit of an issue to fair. It just seemed to get everywhere. Despite my best efforts, it ended up on walls and tables and the floor, and took a fair bit of mopping up with tissue paper to avoid it looking like some sort of woodland fairy’s dirty protest. (I’m assuming woodland fairies pooh confectioner’s cream in purple and white, though I don’t know this as an absolute fact).
So, the cake was produced and candles lit. An astonishing number of photos were taken. Me with the cake, students with the cake, students with me with the cake, the cake lit, the cake cut, the cake on a plate. More arriving students in the same poses, and so on. Students on their own even. All angles were covered.
Not a great deal of English was spoken, but the cake acted like some sort of enrichment activity for us all in the way that you can smear marmoset gum into holes drilled into wooden sticks to stop them going mad in captivity. It was slightly forced fun. It was OK, but not really high quality fun, it had a contrived and self-conscious feel to it, but it was preferable to trying to ‘teach’ per se. Also, and this is the crucial point I feel, my students embraced the photographic potential of the occasion. Never has a teacher – or indeed human (if we are such things) been so captured on film in Cambodia. Most of these pictures then ended up on Facebook, there was even a video of them singing happy birthday and me blowing out the candles. For all I know this is even now on a loop broadcast on a pay-to-view basis on some website somewhere. The upshot of all this, is that despite the inherent awkwardness of the occassion, from the outside it no doubt looked like loads of fun. Indeed those who were not present subsequently posted on Facebook gutted comments at having missed out so much. Media imaging is everything. Just think, a year from now, Facebook will throw up these memories and people will tell tales of wonder at what a great occassion it was, not excruciating at all. Nope, not one bit!
Look on in wonder:
Oh and then there were the group shots done with a timer – did I not mention those?
So, the cake shenanigans filled a good half-hour, and it was all a bit boisterous and anarchic. I didn’t really know quite how to bring things back on track. It just felt futile trying to do anything organised at that point, and I was a bit miffed at being made to turn out on my birthday for such a small group when I could be sat at home on my own being miserable instead. However, I also felt I owed it to those students who had showed up to do something.
I fell back on the old ‘here are some postcards of Sheffield’ routine, which by a fortuitous miracle none of the students in attendance had done with me before, which is surprising as I’ve done it a few times,. Unfortunately, they weren’t all that interested. I did the ‘discussion points out of the envelope’ thing, which worked up to a point, but we were all a bit off message I think. One question though was interesting. ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ Some really did, shuddering at the very thought. One though said absolutely not. ‘Why so certain?’ I asked. His answer was fascinating, but I couldn’t quite grasp what his point was. He either said, ‘because if there were ghosts we’d see them all the time – spirits wandering because of the Khmer Rouge‘. That is, the slaughtered unable to rest. Or, he said ‘because if their were ghosts they’d have come back to stop the slaughter of the Khmer Rouge.‘ I’d have loved to have explored it more. One of the young women in the class began to say that her parents did talk about this, ‘all the time’ and just as I started to ask, another in the group said ‘no, we should be happy’ and firmly put on music on his phone. Topic closed.
I then produced some redundant English language materials I don’t really want to carry back to the UK. An English-language trail running magazine (thanks Cheetah Buddy, please don’t be offended that it wont make the return journey to the uk). Only two were runners, and one said he could find information on the internet so it went to the other. She did want it, the other student didn’t seem to grasp that the point was it was in ENglish, not the content. Oh well. A far greater prize, was the prospect of a concise English dictionary. I’ve not used it the whole time I’ve been here, and I’m not sure it would be all that useful because it is a concise dictionary, not a learner’s one with simple definitions. Anyway, this was much coveted. I suggested a paper aeroplane competition to identify a worthy winner. Anarchy ensued. It was the dart closest to a bell on the floor, but there was not much fair play. The winner who walked off with the prize was possibly the one who cheated most without being caught. Oh well, I was just relieved it was 8.00 p.m. and we could all be released into the night with an easy conscience.
It left me full of apprehension for the actual students’ party the next day, which is today. What if none come? What if it is similarly awkward? Plus, they are set on going to a BBQ place which is a vegetarian’s nightmare. I don’t mind at all that I won’t be able to eat anything other than rice probably, but I do mind that I think they will be embarrassed. I have told them repeatedly I don’t eat meat, but it has not been taken on board. Oh well, a couple of hours from now all will be revealed. Maybe they’ll surprise.
I was a bit dejected leaving. Most other teachers are all done and dusted, so I exited a dark and echoey building. I felt like the only person in the whole of Cambodia working. The security guard was genuinely delighted to be the recipient of the last vestiges of the cake as I left though, so that was good. I so want to end on a positive note with these students though, I hope the party is a bit more joyful.
Fortunately the camera never lies. See the fun I had.