Phnom Penh: Opportunity is a Privilege (Day 5,6)

I’ll be honest – I did not know what I was doing on my first day of class. I was wholly unprepared for the realities of teaching, and slightly worried about whether I was qualified enough to provide value to the children. Despite my insecurities, giving up or half-assing this wasn’t an option. While being a teacher doesn’t necessarily come naturally, I believe everyone knows something that is worth teaching. It’s only a matter of understanding what that something is.

I was pleasantly surprised when one of the teachers suggested that I talk about food culture in Italy and the U.S., both subjects I am well-versed in. I was mentally prepared for the kids not to care, but was instead faced with a room full of attentive students. It’s almost comical that I put so much pressure on myself to impress these children. If there is anything I’ve learned from meeting them, it’s that they accept me just as I am. It is such a liberating feeling to find myself amongst a group of people who expect nothing of me and are genuinely happy to take whatever I am willing to give. By the end of my second day, I understood that there was absolutely no need to feel self-conscious. I was here to help the kids, and I couldn’t do that fully until I stopped worrying about myself and started paying closer attention to their needs.

I quickly learned that each grade’s lesson requires tailoring. Grade 5 was not interested in taking notes, yet seemed to pay attention and would even help me with translations. Grade 4 (my favorite) was full of attentive students who took diligent notes and repeated every word I taught them with gusto. Grade 3 required constant engagement – they quickly lost interest unless encouraged with a game. By the time I got to Grade 1, I was clueless all over again: it was a constant struggle to get the kids’ attention as they were incredibly energetic and I had no assistant teacher (who, by the way, is only 14 years old) to help me handle them.

I gained a newfound respect for the school after realizing that for most of these kids, the Center for Children’s Happiness is more than a school – it is home. When I first arrived, I was explained that the word “orphanage” in Khmer (Cambodia’s language) does not translate directly in English: it refers to a place attended by very disadvantaged children, which does not necessarily mean they don’t have parents. I therefore assumed that the students were going home to a family after class. But the reality is, CCH is their family: some of the children are orphans, and others have parents who simply cannot afford to take care of them. CCH houses about 70 of the 87 students, feeds and educates them all until Grade 6, and continues to support them throughout their educational careers. Once they are old enough for a higher education, the school can only afford to sponsor approximately five students to attend a technical school like Don Bosco. Even if many more could go, only a select few get the opportunity.

CCH can only do so much. In the end, even the brightest students have a high chance of failure once they head off to secondary and high school. In Cambodia, the educational system is designed to work against and defeat the students. Only a minuscule percentage make it to a university, and it’s nearly impossible to get there without money for bribery, excellent grades, or extra classes. It angers me to think that there are so many children in the world that have an infinite potential to do anything they set their mind to, but whose future is ultimately aborted by a system that deprives them of opportunity.

In first world countries, opportunity is just there for the taking, perhaps so much that we take it for granted. I cannot bring myself to accept, as I look around these classrooms and see so many smart and eager children, that less than 30% will make it to the 12th grade. I grew up hearing that life is not fair, and I hate that for so many people, it is even worse than that. How can some of us have so much, when others have so little? Even if we are not willing to support someone else financially (which is a completely fair sentiment), why are we as a society not taking the proper measures to ensure that everyone in the world receives at the very least a proper education?

I thought that the more days I was in Cambodia, the more questions I’d have answered. But in reality, the opposite is true. As I understand more about the country and the many issues that plague it, my questions multiply. The most frustrating part is that many of these questions cannot be answered, either due to communication barriers or the fact that no one, not even Cambodians themselves, has the answer.

After bombarding a staff member at the school with a slew of questions that he understandably did not have the answer to, I asked in exasperation: “If there are so many problems in Cambodia and they are so big, how can we possibly begin to fix them?” His answer was: “Little by little.” I suppose that is true, but it also doesn’t make this easier to accept.

And we shouldn’t. Because where there is indignation, there is also resolve to make it right.

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