As you all know I have just returned back after volunteering in a school in Cambodia. This story is about a student Thoch Chorlheang and my special bond with him.
It was my first day at school as a volunteer teacher in a new town of a new country. I felt like a kid who was going to start his first ever day of education. Lack of a common language had made me both excited and nervous. I was wondering how I am going to communicate with students who understood very little or no English.
I had already charted out a rough plan of my way of teaching after meeting with people at the NGO who had apprised me of students’ current level of knowledge of English.
Here in school, after the customary round of greetings and introductions, all students settled in their respective seats. As the normal scene in any class, I could see them whispering and discussing me. Ignoring them, as I started discussing about the curriculum and related stuff with their regular teacher, I heard a voice.
One of my classes.
Sitting restless on the third row, a student asked something in Khmer (Cambodian native language) which even his regular teacher was finding it difficult to answer, not because he didn’t understand but for want of an honest answer. When I insisted the teacher to translate for me, he hesitated…. fumbled for words to put it in such a way that I don’t feel offended.
It was a straight question about me. And it was, why I have come there to waste my as well as their time.
Lheang, that fidgety student of grade 6 had every right to ask such question. After all, he had seen a couple of people in the recent past coming for a few days or maybe for a week and trying to ‘teach’ something to the students to achieve a tag of ‘volunteer’. Sometimes they do it to utilize a couple of free days that they have in hand from their travel itinerary. Such diversions disturb the flow of studies and leave the students confused.
I was taken aback.
I had not come like other travellers looking for avenues to kill a few days to suit my travel plans ! My visit to this country and this city had sole purpose of volunteering; for not days but for month. I had eagerly waited for this day, after enquiring, submitting applications and clearing all hazards relating to volunteer in this school. And I had come here not only to teach but learn from them in a friendly way !
So, it was now a challenge for me to come up to Lheang’s expectations. No other student seemed to have the guts or concern to ask this but Lheang was their voice. Will I be able to add to their knowledge and vocabulary? Will I be able to instill confidence in them for English ? Will these kids appreciate my work? And most importantly will I be able to make a place in their hearts ? All these emotions bothered me constantly.
I worked really hard towards achieving it. Never in my life I had taught anybody. From the first day itself, I let the regular teacher complete the course for the day and then would take over from there asking/ drawing/ narrating/ acting out the things. If you have read my earlier post, you’d know how little English they knew. I would repeatedly encourage the students to speak, write and to come up to the board to write or draw. At the end of the day I would then go home and prepare for the next day.
This approach brought result in the first week itself. The children started looking forward to learn new things everyday.
Thoch Chorlheang, my hero.
Lheang is very intelligent and a hard working boy. Way ahead of others in his class, he was always first in writing the answers for any question and waited impatiently for my next question. But ask him to speak or come on the board, he would shy away.
He wants to become an officer and knows he needs to study hard for that. He always carried a large, heavy carry bag which contained his lunch boxes, change of clothes besides usual notebooks & books. The strap was broken so he had to lift it. He is very poor, couldn’t afford repairs let alone a new bag. After long school hours, he goes for more English tuition. By the time he returns home, it is nearly 10 hours.
His full name Thoch Chorlheang was quite difficult for me to pronounce! I asked him several times everyday and showed my helplessness at getting it right. His teacher told me that his name is after a very famous Cambodian film hero. So, from first day itself I had started calling him Hero after trying hard to pronounce his name. Not wanting to speak to me directly for lack of spoken English, embarrassingly he would again blurt out a few sentences about me to his teacher at the word ‘hero’. This had become a daily routine.
There are many other cherishable incidents with him which I won’t mention here.
One of my goals was to prepare them to write letters. The teacher said I was crazy. Although they knew what a letter was they had not written or read one , even in Khmer. They had not gone outside their town in their whole life. I bought some picture postcards and other materials related to posts, showed them photos of post offices, maps … everything and explained to them. Since they learn computers also, it was easier to teach them what an e-mail was.
Fast forward to three days back, I received a short mail from him. Of all the people, a mail from Lheang, my hero ! I am on cloud nine!
How are you? I am fine. thank you.
I stood first in class in exam. I study well.
I miss you very much. When you come to Cambodia ?
I can see how difficult it would have been for a 12 year old to save some money, take time out to go to a cybercafé and write a mail.
As I write this, tears flow down my cheek. Lheang, you are my real Hero !
And yes, I still can’t pronounce your name properly.