Teaching 6am Classes in the Cambodian ProvincesSeptember 24, 2006
Inertia sits quite well with me as a few years living in Cambodia has, over time, given me an enormous appetite for doing very little as often as I possibly can. So imagine having to wake up and go to work three hours before you’d normally even begin to think about having a slice of toast, a cup of coffee and a bowl of cornflakes.
Just think about it for a minute. I’d had more than a few experiences of going to bed after dawn whilst living in Phnom Penh but the idea of getting out of bed, having a shower, getting dressed and going to work lucid before 6am was a new one to me and seemed rather a tall order.
What had happened was the offer of reasonably well-paid teaching gig in the provinces with the prospect of some other more creative work on top but with the downside of the dreaded 6am classes.
Now, daybreak classes in Phnom Penh either are the lot of the rookie teacher putting in his or her time while earnestly waiting for a more civilized schedule or an opportunity for an early start down the salt mines for the hardened masochist. In the provinces however, there was to be no escape from the sound of a pre dawn alarm clock as at this school even the most experienced foreign teacher’s name was penciled in for a 6am start for that was when many students wanted to study.
I’d been told that getting up at that time of the day comes naturally to a Khmer but not to a Westerner (the second half of that sentence I know to be true as getting up in the middle of the afternoon comes very naturally to me). Nevertheless, as I had to be there first, being the teacher, I can say that getting up at 5.30am comes naturally to nobody at all and it was often 6.30am – halfway through the class – before the final baggy-eyed, half awake Khmer student shuffled in with their hair still wet from an early morning shower.
At that time of day it’s much more desirable to be horizontal rather than vertical whatever your cultural or ethnic background and I quickly realized that almost all my students were studying at such a ridiculous time of the morning not out of any great desire to be awake at such a time, but because this was the only hour they had available in the day, especially as most of them were juggling at least two jobs and some were juggling three, and in some cases university courses also.
There’s no real technique for getting up at that time of the morning although I heard rumours of one Phnom Penh teacher faced with the 6am dilemma having to swig down a bunch of sleeping pills just to get his eyes closed before midnight and then having to pop a pep pill when his alarm clock went off in order to persuade his half asleep body to leap out of the bed.
The only thing is to persuade your half-awake 5.30am self to do what your fully awake self agreed to when taking the job in the knowledge that it’s far from normal to be awake at that time but in terms of your future employment then it’s good and right and desirable. If you need to get up for those classes then you just have to do it.
Finally, it’s never a good idea to get too drunk the night before or one could have the curious experience of starting the class still pie-eyed and ending it with the hangover just kicking in. When I decided to move back to PP, for many and various reasons, one of which was the dreariness of having to wake up at 5.30am nearly every day, another being the only Western food served up in town tasting like rations from a Russian trawler in the 1970’s and coming with the same kind of service, I found that my body clock had become attuned to the silly o’clock starts.
For quite a while afterwards something would trigger at 5.30am and I’d bolt out of bed, fully awake. Phnom Penh isn’t quite as cosy as it used to be, is becoming a little too big and sprawling and is gradually filling up with the type of foreigner one purposefully left one’s own country to avoid; namely all the little metropolitan tweps of the highest order prancing around town in their swanky London clothes and haircuts. Nevertheless, visiting Phnom Penh on the occasional trip back from the provinces meant having your friends look at you like you’d been in jail for a while and I won’t miss that. Nor will I miss the 6am classes which having endured for three terms of duty I can honestly say are only marginally better living under a frog’s arse at the bottom of a minshaft.