Please check your marbles at the door.

Roll up roll up one and all!

Please keep your arms, legs and super esophageal ganglions inside the ride at all times.

And whatever you do… Don’t. Look. Down.

Yep, Cambodia is a circus, a roller coaster ride and a high wire act all swirled into one heady mulch of total insanity. At this point I beg your indulgence while I violently shoe horn a literary reference between bouts of ranting:

“In the tropics one must before everything keep calm… Du calm, du calm.” I take (probably too much) pleasure in the fancy that Joseph Conrad is talking here of people tasked with teaching children English from the single worst publication ever vomited up by American printworks…. the Let’s Go! series.

Either that or he’s talking about people who have been forced to participate in polite conversation with one of Ma Susan’s many cats… One or the other. After all there’s only so much Oh Be Thoughtful, Oh Be Gentle, Oh Be Kind, Oh Be Thankful or…. I forget the other one’s name… really have to say. Except of course when they maroon themselves in the plastic sheeting of the ceiling above my classroom… then they won’t shut up!

Suffice it to say; keeping your cool here is far from easy.

On this subject I can actually very deftly return to telling you about my class, because I have left the most maddening for last. Even in my brief tenure as purveyor of knowledge I have learned to beware the back of the classroom… and I think many teachers might be caught rolling their eyes at the mention of the back of the classroom, as an apparition of a particular student appears before them to taunt them with class clowning, shoddy manners and a general malaise of poor attitude.

Ring Leader of Cirque du Back Row is the inimitable Somnang. The broadest swathe of his crummy behaviour is simply not doing the work. Other heads diligently bend. Other tongues work their way between teeth. Other brows furrow. Other sweaty fingers clasp leaky biros. Not Somnang though. He simply doesn’t write. I’m not sure by what alchemy he manages to look busy enough to fly under teacher-on-the-lookout-for-laziness radar but it’s often a good while before I spot his utterly blank page. Even when I wised up I found it hard to take time out from helping students who were actually making an effort to stand menacingly over one that doesn’t bother. Not that I’m all that menacing: at 5ft 3in I can barely reach to brush the underside of intimidating, but I do my best to scowl with the meanest of them and it works about 30% percent of the time…. on children under 12 at any rate.

One lesson took the durian flavoured biscuit though. Day of Birdcalls nearly unhinged me. Somnang hunkered in his den at the back right of the classroom, and proceeded to fill the airwaves with weird bird noises. In the way of young people on a mission to annoy he managed to imbue each one of these wordless cries with the impression of having said “Huh?” or “What?” You know “what” with extra a’s in it, like “whaaaaaat?” If it had been the UK he’d have been cloaked in a hoodie, belligerantly shrugging his shoulders and tauntingly waving his palms at the sky as if to say “I’m not actually doing anything wrong. You can’t get angry at me without betraying to everyone how totally irrational you are.” Kind of like when you’re 8 years old and someone hovers their finger right in front of the bridge of your nose so that the whole top half of your faces starts to tingle and then yells that you can’t get annoyed because they’re “Not touching you! Not touching you! Not touching you!” How did I make it all the way from one side of childhood to the other and not realise how utterly, completely, intensely, debilitatingly and awfully annoying we all were!?!

Back to class and me trying not to lose it. Keeping the attention of 7-11 year olds is a challenge unto itself. Keeping the attention of Cambodian 7-11 year olds is double the challenge since they literally love nothing more than giggling and games. Keeping the attention of 13 7-11 year olds in an open plan classroom with 35 other children within hearing distance, many of whom having nothing better to do than charge around your chunk-of-the-dining-room-masquerading-as-a-classroom making motorbike noises and crashing into each other is totally impossible.

I took in Somnang’s workbook the other day. There’s almost nothing in it at all. Except the odd artless doodle of that yellow angry bird that you tap to put into hyperdrive. And a few dusty red thumbprints.

The battle for sanity is ongoing.

See you next time. 🙂


Don’t sweat it.

Come, pull up a pew in Hell, where the fires burn all night and life is a sauna from sunup to sundown!

Well, not really, just come to Cambodia in April and realise the human body’s ability to vent moisture from every single pore.

I can, without any hyperbole, exaggeration or over dramatisation, assure you than I have never been this hot or this soaked in sweat in my entire life. What I described as hot when I was here in January was nothing, NOTHING, compared to this barometer-busting thermal lunacy! I can’t believe people come here for romantic trysts, it’s about the least sexy place in the world. My hair is constantly stuck to the back of my neck and my temples. Skirts have an unerring ability to glue themselves to the backs of damp thighs. Every time I sit down I have to peel my flesh away from the chair before I can stand up again. Alluring I am most definitely not! And yet…

Nope, just teasing. Personal life staying personal this time. But I can tell you about the HVC kids.

Hmm, who to start with? How about Srey Pi, a front row fixture with a cherub’s face and the confidence of a traumatised field mouse. Each and every piece of work is met by her imploring face looking up into mine: “tell me how to do it” she says with her puckered eyebrows. Give her enough time and enough reassurance though and she pulls through. If only we could find enough time and man hours to really get her alphabet up to scratch. But this is Cambodia: welcome to the epicentre of all frustration on the planet. To the right of Pi is Sopheak, unfailingly diligent and with handwriting that would make angels weep he is, unfortunately, terminally to be confused with LyHak, for the depressingly simple reason that LyHak sits directly behind him and is a similar proponent of the killer hardworking & neat combo. They look absolutely nothing alike though. Sopheak has a round face and big smily eyes, while LyHak looks a little older and wears a permanent look of polite worry. To LyHak’s left we find Rithy (pronounced “Raty”) who is the most insanely adorable creature I had ever seen. Pocket-size, missing his front teeth and with his voice rarely raised above a whisper he’s easy to miss. Overlook at your peril though; since his worksheets are often peppered with beautifully drawn fire breathing robots or gorily detailed skulls and crossbones, you’ll be quick to revise your view of meek-seeming little Rithy.

One up from this silent little boy in his purple shorts is Enan, and in the way that opposites will find each other she is the loudest of my cohort. Bright as a button, sharp as a tack and any other intelligence-related similes you can think up, this girl is quick to learn and eager to impress with it. I’ll be honest: she scared the living daylights out of me my first few days on the job. The striking thing about Enan is her anger. It’s just below the surface, suspicious and mistrustful of newcomers she glares out from under her fringe and freezes the very air in your lungs. But then, then something mesmerising happens. She warms up to you and suddenly she smiles. It’s, no joke, like the sun breaking out from behind black clouds. Before you know it you’re the proud recipient of spontaneous hugs and beautifully rendered Angry Bird’s drawings with badly spelled declarations of friendship and love on them. In fact, the single most tear-jerking part of my time here has been the trickle of little notes that find their way into your fingers after class, or before lunch break or after meditation. You feel tiny fingers plucking at your own and before you can turn to see who it is that wants your attention they’ve flitted away leaving only a tiny square of grubby paper with brightly felt-tipped messages of love hidden inside them. I’ll say one thing though. Enan has god awful handwriting! Hey, you can’t have it all, can you?

Next to her is Loma: parrot, class clown, perpetual cheat and smart aleck. In that naivety of new teachers I began by believing him one of the smartest in the class. It didn’t take long for me to realise that more than half his work is the product of Enan’s mind, and that Loma’s own grasp of English is, well, woeful. My heart bleeds to watch him struggling to pick from that dizzying whirl of 26 foreign shapes and scrawls he needs to begin the word “yes.” But I have faced the diminutive yet powerful wrath of defied childhood and separated him from Enan. He has to work harder, his mouth turns down at the corners more often and the cheeky high-pitched mimicking of my voice has dwindled to silence. But he will learn, and I’ll just have to suck it up and be ok with getting fewer hugs from him at meditation.

Heading back a row we meet Khanoeng; a solid classroom presence with direct, belligerent eyes who, I have to confess, I find utterly maddening. No sooner has a worksheet hit the table than he’s looking at me like I stole his lunch and declaring ” ‘cher. No.” This roughly translates to “Excuse me Teacher but I don’t understand.” It takes every particle of my tenuous self control not to tear my hair out and yell “I know you don’t understand! I haven’t explained yet!!!” That’s not even the worst of it. When I count to ten under my breath and carefully inform Khanoeng that no, I know he doesn’t understand but that I am about to explain… he proceeds to STARE INTO SPACE AND NOT LISTEN TO A SINGLE WORD!!!! Then, sure enough, as other heads that have been attentively turned toward me while I cover the points of what the questions require them to do, bend low over scratching pencils and decade-old biros, up with come the cry. ” ‘cher. No.” And so I must sigh to myself, bite my tongue on the colourful language I can be so unfortunately prone to, and perch myself on his desk to take him through it question by question. To be fair he is not like this at all times. Some days he even participates. On those days I catch myself fearing that the apocalypse will indeed be in 2012. When I found out he was Enan’s brother I flat out couldn’t believe it.Until creative writing class that is.

These kids have very little training in the art of thinking for themselves. So I decided, much to Wa (my translator’s) chagrin, to host a creative writing experiment. I told my kids to write whatever they wanted, about their friends, their family, their likes, dislikes and dreams. I covered the board with prompts; pictures of weather, animals, toys, boats, planes, bikes, fruit, vegetables. I scattered a few books through the class, got a few volunteers to come up and write the Khmer for “story,” “idea” and “dream” on the board. I had them chanting the word imagination. I told them this was not an exercise in precision English but rather an experiment in “Im – a – gin – a – tion.” Or at least, that’s what I intended. Wa seemed horrified at the idea of free will and bad English taking precedent over copying perfect sentences that had no meaning or relevance off the board. And since he makes no secret of believing himself both more intelligent and a better teacher than me, I doubt very much that his offended sensibilities faithfully related my care-free and inspirational intentions. Which is a bit rich really! From someone who spends most of every lunch break quizzing the various volunteers as to the proper names of every single item on the gerry-rigged dining table anyway. And yet, in the midst of Wa’s infuriating discouragement, correction, intimidation and superiority, sat Khanoeng. Pen did not leave paper for one moment and a stream of messy, stilted, faulty, ugly, gloriously individual English was the magical result! I could have tap danced right there under Wa’s upturned nose.

I have to go now: according to the mystifying wisdom of my tuk tuk driver I have rain fever and my concentration is disintegrating like one of the many roadkill frogs on Route 6 once the red ants get to it.

So bye for now, but more soon. I promise.

See you there I hope.