Back to School, Past the River of Smell…

After a pretty hectic December I now fall happily back into my happy, humdrum routine.

It’s great to feel the warm but un-aggressive ‘cool season’ sun crawl up from behind during a 6am balcony coffee before embarking on a refreshingly breezy walk to work, from Tuol Tumpoung across the 400 streets that lead to Boeung Trabek.

My morning stroll weaves its routine into the tapestry of others – first I greet the ice-man at the end of my street, watch policemen pulling pork out of their teeth and slurping on iced-coffee outside Tuol Tumpoung market, then join other breakfasters for a bowl of noodle soup or a take-away steamed dumpling from a noodle shop on 163.

After that I stroll across to Boeung Trabek, where a fresh, green garden-centre and the dark, skuzzy stream that is known locally as T’uk S’oy (River smell) sandwich themselves between the old market and the eerie, deserted ‘shopping mall’ that is Boeung Trabek Plaza.

Expansive beer-gardens are nestled amongst a Khmer style ‘muscle’ gym, an enclosed volley-ball space, a brand new indoor astro-turf pitch and lots of wood-carving businesses. The smell of Boeung Trabek is that of sewage water, sawdust and testosterone.

Having worked down here for the last couple of years, I have developed rather a soft spot for the place.

Strolling down the fragrant river path, I take in the impressive spectacle of the wood-carving men who sit holding fist –sized, half -carved statues between their feet as they bend over and whir away with mini-chainsaws at the wooden intricacies between their curled toes.

Then I see the old, bob-haired, cigarette smoking Vietnamese lady who passes by with a grin on her face just at the moment before the smelly river clogs and becomes a wet rubbish dump and nothing more. At exactly this point some evil dog-hater has decided to open a pet-shop where the poor dogs – mostly big Rottweilers – are tied up to the railings of the smelly river and left to bark and shag their way through their terrible fate.

A two minute stroll later, I’m through the school gates. Despite enjoying three work-free weeks, I’m happy to be back and I smile as my name is chanted across the play-ground – “Chaaa Anna, Cha ANNA!”

It doesn’t take much to win the excitement of a few hundred three to eleven year olds but I take pleasure in it all the same. I have taught most of the students here at one point or another and have earned a solid reputation amongst them over the last two and a half years.

Since September I have been teaching a rather eclectic group of grade two students.

As I return to them after three weeks absence, I am a little apprehensive. On entering my classroom the lights are off and I have to pretend to be angry then turn the lights on and feign excitement as the students all jump out at me.

I have to admit that a small part of me enjoys some smug satisfaction in hearing my students contradict my substitute teacher’s assurance that the classes had been “No problem at all…..”
One of the girls grabs my wrist and moans……

“Chaa, Chaa…. when that teacher here it’s so noisy and he just keeps shouting. No one quiet Chaa….so noisy Chaaaa…..so head-ache Chaa.”

OK, so I still have a lot of work to do on the accuracy of their spoken English, but at least I can say that I know how this particular bunch of seven year olds tick and have said good riddance to those times when I felt my muscles tighten and my temple throb, or glanced at that poor little fellow in the corner who was, ever so subtly so as not to offend me, covering his ears against the din of the classroom that should have been under my control.

So now I am able to hold a hand in the air, wait patiently for a few seconds for their attention to focus, their ragged post play-time breathing to slow, the squabbles over seating and desk space to fade out and for them all to hold their hands up and count their fingers down with me and into the silence that is required before anything more can happen.

However, it isn’t long into this first lesson back before I realise that I have made a major mistake by telling them approximately fifteen and a half weeks ago that I would be rewarding good class-work with points that would lead to certificates and small prizes for the students with the highest scores at the end of the semester, which is suddenly upon us.

Of course every seven year old would remember their teacher telling them that a ‘G’ for good would mean 10 points, ‘VG’ (very good) would mean 20 points and an ‘E’ ( Excellent) would reel in a whopping 40 points, and that these points would result in a prize.

I’d remembered a few weeks ago when I asked my Mum to pick me up three little souvenirs from Heathrow on her way over here. I’d since forgotten and the glittery, Union Jack alarm clocks were stashed away somewhere back at home.

The students had bought all their old notebooks and every last scrap of project work they had completed over the last three months and I would now have the job of tallying up their points.

“I’ll take everything in at the end of the lesson and announce the winners tomorrow,” I mumble as they fling them in a huge pile on my desk.

After two hours of routine lunchtime perfection, a solitary read and swim at an almost deserted Phnom Penh Sports Club, I head back down past smelly river to school and make a start on the humungous task that is Grade 2b reward point tallying.

Without much surprise I find plenty of hastily written extras in the books of the most competitive and sycophantic students saying various things like…….

Dear Teacher,
Thank you for your teaching us is so great. I wish you lucky healthy happy good money forever. Give me ‘A’ teacher’.

Anna Spencer

3 thoughts on “Back to School, Past the River of Smell…

  1. me Reply

    Next time, just give eash kid a sticker. Give a choice of many types…the higher grade kids can (more or less) pick first.

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