Twelve well-behaved children sat politely on the floor, their beautiful, smiling faces looking up at Mike and me as we stood in front of the small classroom. It was about 7:00pm on a Thursday evening, and they were there to learn English. We asked if they had anything they wanted to know about us. “What’s your favorite color? And your favorite animal? Your favorite fruit?” These were not the questions we had expected. But what should we have expected a group of five to twelve-year old kids to ask? “What do you think about the current state of affairs in the U.S.?” Not!
We had been touring in and around Siem Reap that day, visiting a silk farm, Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples, with our Cambodian guide, Borin. Being a tour guide in Siem Reap is a fairly good way to make money, and if you know English and especially Chinese, you’re more likely to get hired. Borin was learning Chinese and his English was pretty good. I was actually surprised at the extent of his vocabulary, but tour guides pick up a lot of words from their clients.
We came to learn that, in addition to working as a guide, Borin volunteers his time a couple of evenings a week teaching English to a group of children in his neighborhood. When we heard this, Mike and I offered to visit his classroom and speak English with them. Borin’s three children were in the class; the smallest, age 5 and the oldest, age 12, eagerly raised their hands whenever we posed a question to the whole group. Borin explained that learning English is imperative for children in Cambodia. “English is a passport to a better job, the key to prosperity and having a better lifestyle. It is hope to a better future,” he said.
Standing in front of the classroom, I came alive! My natural desire to write on a white board and teach were ignited. I had the children guess English words by playing Hangman with them, which they loved—and they were good at it! Mike and I sang English songs with them, racking our brains to remember the words to The Wheels on the Bus, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Old MacDonald Had A Farm, songs we hadn’t sung since our now 22-year old son was small.
The coup de grace, however, was when we taught them how to sing and dance the Hokey Pokey!
In Cambodia there is a shortage of English teachers and a lack of resources, such as tables, chairs, books, and school supplies. When asked what we could donate, Borin requested tables for the children to study. We gave him $24.00, which was enough to buy four tables. When we received a picture of the children sitting at the tables, we felt glad that we had made a small difference.
Borin’s daughter, Nary, hopes to become a doctor when she grows up. With the efforts of her parents and so many other people who are committed to helping the next generation in Cambodia, she hopefully will get her wish.
Note: There are many opportunities to do volunteer work in Cambodia. Some organizations charge a fee, but many don’t. Even just asking your guide, as we did, might unveil some.