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. 🙂


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