These could not possibly be the same kids I was playing Uno and Legos with all afternoon. Not the ones who jumped all over me for hours at the swimming pool on Sunday, or who won’t let me walk through the neighborhood without carrying my backpack for me and holding my hands. Those kids are innocent angels who have nothing but love to share. The kids in front of me were, well, monsters.
Yet, they had the same names (that I still can’t pronounce), wore the same clothes and looked identical to my angels. Why was I having such a hard time teaching them? Why did I want to stop the lesson, grab my backpack and leave?
Volunteering does not come without challenges and this particular site has many. After an amazing time working with McTery in the Philippines, and a month at the well-organized and effective Honduras Child Alliance last summer, both of which presented their own challenges, this school in Kratie, Cambodia has challenged me in new ways.
Even before I arrived here last week, I was questioning whether or not I should fulfill my commitment to coming. There was a serious lack of communication which left me stranded in a hot city on the Mekong River after a long, bumpy ride in the back of a packed van without air conditioning. The reason I continued on, without even knowing where I was supposed to go, was because the reviews for this volunteer program were the most glowing reviews I’ve read.
I finally did arrive, a day late, and met a few other volunteers who had experienced similar frustrations. It turned out to be school vacation week, so there was not much to do. Questions about what to teach or who to teach or even when to teach went unanswered or we were given information that confused us even more. There was one young volunteer who had been there for six weeks and filled us in on many details, but he had little to say that was positive.
First I wondered if I would make it through the week, then I began to think about leaving the next day. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t stay for the three weeks I had signed up for. The heat and giant cockroaches didn’t help, but I did have my own room and private bathroom, which I was not expecting.
And then I started to connect with people. I met Sara and Melissa, two volunteers from Minnesota who arrived the day before me and would be staying for a week. We were the only volunteers not in our late teens or early twenties and quickly became friends, sharing many meals and conversations.
I also starting meeting the kids, who are always around, whether class is in session or not. It was fun hanging out with the kids, showing them how to use my camera, practicing English with them and playing lots of games.
After a weekend in Phnom Penh to visit with my brother-in-law’s cousin and her husband, and for a dose of air conditioning, I returned feeling that I could handle the remaining two weeks, especially since our formal classes would start and I would have more to do.
That’s when I met the monsters in class. Every teacher will know what I mean when I talk about school nightmares. My nightmare came true with these kids. It was impossible to get everyone to listen or do anything I asked. I spent an hour trying to teach, feeling completely useless, and thinking of all the ways this program could be improved with more structure and organization. I was right back to thinking I wanted to leave.
Now I’m taking things one day at a time. Some classes have improved, but other frustrations have arisen. One director wants the students to be copying from the board into their notebooks. Students with no notebook should be sent home (most never have them). The other director wants me to play games for at least 30 minutes each class, and constantly interrupts my teaching to correct things I am doing “wrong.” I still have no idea what to teach, but I kind of have a regular schedule of just two classes a day for now.
So why have I stayed this long? During my many hours of free time, I hang out with the kids, who are angels once again. I ride the bike to town (about 15 minutes away) and sit in cafes to write, work on future projects and eat. I love riding through the streets of this small town while people, especially children, wave and say hello. I pull up to vendors on the street corner and order fried bananas or some mystery snack for just a few cents. Volunteering gives me a chance to feel like I live here, which is really a great feeling.
And the kids really are angels. I have the best of both worlds now. I can hang out with the kids at the school where I am living and teach the kids at the other location, a ten-minute bike ride away. I never tire of hearing shouts of “Teacher Tim” as I arrive on my bike after class. These kids share everything and play for hours on end with the simplest toys. No one complains about each other or fights over the limited toys we have. They are creative, smart, funny and compassionate. It is a joy to be around them.
The bottom line is that the men running this program are providing a much-needed service to the children of the community. Learning English can make a huge difference in their lives. It may not be the best-run program at the moment, but it is making a difference. I support what they are doing and wish them every success.
Here are some more photos from the happy moments. Some of the kids have been very fast learners with my camera, so this is a mixture of their pictures and mine, as well as Melissa’s, who grabbed my camera to take photos while I was teaching and swimming.