I teach two grades – grade six and kindergarten one. Whilst the kindergarten class keep me on my toes with their brilliantly un-developed sense of acceptable behaviour, my sixth grade class sometimes leaves me feeling a little flat.
It is me to blame, not them, of course. It is not their fault that a teacher who has finally managed to acquire a good level of classroom control finds herself pining for the chair fights and rocks-at-glass-windows anger that she faced daily working in schools in the UK.
My sixth graders are twelve to fourteen years; their hormones bomb them with whiskery chins and pimples which ambush their K-pop wannabe faces. Lessons require plenty of giggly group work or energetic team games for the chemically charged classroom.
There is an extremely good-natured vibe in the class on most days, unless some massive female calamity has occurred, such as one of the girls buying the same patent pink plastic high tops as another. Most of the time, however, the atmosphere is just oh so……..nice. Which is great, I tell myself.
Why then, recently, have I found myself secretly wishing for a classroom outburst- a screaming, frothy- mouthed, fierce, vitriolic, thirteen year old rebellion?
Four years ago, I can remember walking home to my damp house in Sheffield after a day on the school ground battle field thinking ‘this is it, I’m out of here’. I needed to see what else was out there-away from the sleet and the Rotherham to Sheffield commute. To go alone to somewhere warm, weird and foreign. To free myself from days on end of negotiating with young people who were angry and lost and fed up and bitter.
So, I came here and I really haven’t looked back that often until recently. Now, though, more and more memories are coming back to me of those days when I would be striding up the hills to home high on the achievement of having a conversation with a severely traumatized, fed-up thirteen year old girl and making some sort of progress- even just enough to know that she may come and find me the next day rather than kicking her classroom enemy in the teeth again.
Last week, in my grade six class, I used a recent BBC News report about a search and rescue dog teaming up with a robotic snake to help find people stuck in the rubble of collapsed buildings. The students came up with a multitude of insightful questions and opinions on this as well as on the Boston bombings which we had been studying the week previously.
We had some excellent discussion about science, technology, aliens, bombs and dogs. They asked if they could make a pressure cooker bomb at the end of the unit, I said maybe, we all laughed. They are not only clever and ridiculously conscientious but also very amusing.
However, as much as my students enlighten, entertain and interest me they also depress me sometimes- I won’t lie. Right down from the tiniest kindergarten toddler up to the teenage students there is this inert, innocent but blatant classism, racism and political apathy. Well, of course there is. Of course. The fact that I completely understand the reason for it all does nothing to alleviate the disturbed feeling it stirs inside me sometimes.
Examples of classism appear daily. Yesterday students wrote sentences using phrasal verbs for their homework. At least four students wrote something along the lines of:
“You should not look down on your neighbor just because you are better than them”, or
“It is not right to look down on the street kid. Just give them 1000 riel and look away”.
They didn’t mean for their answers be so ironic but it made me chuckle as I sat alone and marked them. Then I felt angry with them and after that just angry at myself for thinking I have the right to be angry with them. Maybe I hadn’t given them enough examples, for want of not force feeding them my own opinions.
They are such good kids, so wonderfully behaved that one student came to me the other day to ask if she could wear slippers the following Monday because her Mum was going to wash her school pumps at the weekend and they might still be wet.
‘Course you can, thanks for asking’ I said.
One minute I thought,’ Oh how sweet’ and the next minute I was hit by whimsical nostalgia for all forms of refusal to abide by school uniform rules – right back to my own teenage dedication to my cherry red Doctor Martins and my defiant refusal to replace them with black school shoes.
I was a child in the eighties and a grunger in the nineties. I spent days listening to Dinosaur Junior and drawing awful murals on my bedroom walls, splashing bleach on Army and Navy haversacks and making really bad home-made Butthole Surfer t-shirts. Buying bootleg cassette tapes, herbal resin and mood rings in our favourite shop and then getting stoned all afternoon amongst the Roman remains of a castle that lay just behind the bus station was our life for a long time, privileged as we were to live it.
I had the freedom to be happy, high, low, desperate, angry, hate-fuelled, listless, at times completely lost, other times- at moments I can remember to this day- completely found.
Then I grew a bit older and entered the wonderful late nineties world of the UK’s finest free parties, raves, festivals and house-parties and all the immense, ecstatic, off your face and just a molecule dancing to the beat moments that those years bought.
I miss working with teenagers that I can find common ground with. I miss their angst and expressions of injustice and their rebellion. I know that there is no way that I will ever be working in that field here in Cambodia because no matter how well I can speak the language and read the history books and the newspapers, I will never be able to engage in the same way with the Cambodian youth. This is not my country and never will be. I will never understand it because it is around me and not within me.
Sometimes I think I could look for jobs which involve working with less fortunate teenagers but I know that these jobs are not for foreigners but for the Khmers who understand their own youth culture and have lived through their own history.
Of course I accept this. I know about keeping ‘schtum’ on many issues and expecting a widespread ‘schtumness’ to cut off any debates that start to meander away from the safety of the ‘schtum’.
We can happily and comfortably stick to discussions on evolution, aliens and robotic snakes. Teaching, in my opinion, is such an in- the- moment experience involving keeping the cocky, rich boy quiet enough for the hugely introverted, lanky boy at the back to speak sometimes. To focus on keeping the K-Pop fan gigglers and the pimply boys all spinning on an axis that will provoke and retain a productive classroom environment. It is great, I love it. I just miss the youth-fuelled grit of home sometimes.
We had a mock Master-chef week at the end of the last unit and it resulted in the runner -up girls group locking themselves in the toilet for the remainder of the lesson crying when they had all promised me that they wouldn’t leave the cleaning up for myself and the cleaner to do.
I felt angry and wanted to explode at them for watching too much psycho-emotional music videos and being too privileged to consider helping the cleaner mop up after them. I let it go.
I understand that these students are living happy, middle-class lives and that they have no reason to step outside their bubble. I understand the history and the present situation. There is absolutely no reason for them to rebel or feel bitter and every reason for them to focus on their mobile phone bling and the trips to Singapore that have been promised if they keep their grades high.
There are obvious reasons why the anger is deep-rooted inside for anyone here over thirty-five. For those younger and from less fortunate families, maybe a lot of bitterness stems from a feeling of abandonment because their parents may have needed the boys to go away to be monks and the girls to go away and work.
However, they don’t have the luxury of being angry or reveling in uniform rebellion, festivals and raves. They just need to make money to send home to their folks. These people are by far the toughest people I have ever met. You can see their toughness in every lithe motion and every simple, bare-faced expression.
My children will be Khmer-Brits and they will have their childhood and teenage years perhaps split between here and there. This will be their country and so will Britain. I can’t see into the future any more than I can return to the past, obviously. I just wonder what will happen with the youth here, with that generation who will be adults by the time my children will be teenagers.
A recent enlightening article recently on Khmer 440 about a French guy’s experience growing up here in Cambodia really got me thinking about teenagers here and my teenage years and how it will all pan out.
The thirteen year old I, drunk on White Lightning cider, scrambling through thorn bushes with our grunger crew to escape the ravers with knives, thought I was tough and experiencing the roughness of the ‘real’ world- but little did I know.
However, at least I am lucky enough to have felt that roughness and to have been gritty, given my parents shit and come out the other side as an adult with a connection to society, wonderful memories and parents who have far from disowned me.
Using the word youth so much in one article only screams of my lack of it, but I am still young enough to remember and keep hold of that memory of youthful urgency to find truth. Quietly, from the sidelines, I wish for the fierceness and bravery of the youth in Cambodia to keep on getting stronger and for them to find ways to change what is theirs.