Returning to the school was like returning home. The welcome was so warm and inviting, from both the staff and the children, that it made me feel quite humble. The people here are openly appreciative of your presence, and that makes you really want to be useful, in whatever way you can.
However, I have no intention of being the starry eyed foreigner that thinks coming here for a few weeks will change lives. The fact of the matter is, it won’t – but it may spark something that can then grow. The director, Tith, has a lovely turn of phrase. He describes one educated person who wants to share their learning as a candle – and this candle can light another candle and another, which in turn can light further candles, until there are thousands of candles burning and the flame of learning has spread. I see myself simply as a candle.
Tith’s description mirrors my thinking with books, For me, books were always a release, somewhere to hide, learn, feel, and experience things that were otherwise unavailable to me. Books lifted me out of my unhappy childhood and into other worlds where I would prefer to be. Books proved to be my candle, and showed me that a better world existed than the one I knew. And by writing books, I feel that if even one child can use my book to help them dream, to be transported to somewhere better, then I have achieved my aim.
As books are close to my heart, it has been interesting to see the response towards books and reading while I am here. As I explained in an earlier post, the children learn by rote here, continuously repeating sentences and words from the board. There is a lovely, bright library, filled with an odd but colourful mix of donated books that cover a wide spectrum of topics, and I have seen a few children quietly using the facilities, lost in a book. However, the non-fiction books are the most popular, with children pouring over encyclopedias, while storybooks stay on the shelves, unnoticed.
Yesterday, a fifteen year old boy approached me in the library, asking what types of books I like to read and why. He was amazed when I picked authors like JK Rowling, Jonathan Stroud and Roald Dahl off the shelves and he really tried to understand my reasons for liking them. Fun, fantasy, and escape seemed to elude him, and when I asked what his favourite books were – he comes to the library every day before his classes – he said ‘grammar books. And books on nature that give me new words.’
I have been positioning myself around the school playground to read my own books (currently Melvin Burgess, Cry of the Wolf, and Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien), armed with extra picture books for when the inquisitive youngsters start crowding round. The response has been good, with children listening and laughing at the illustrations, and starting to repeat the words and understand the questions I repeatedly ask to draw them into the story. I have seen some of the children return to the storybooks on their own accord, and this makes me happy.
However, it is apparent that the desire to succeed, to learn – and be educated to a standard that can raise you out of your current situation and open up opportunities – has to be the number one priority. These children are fighting as a collective, to beat poverty, social pressures and low social expectations. Many are up at 4-5am, helping with the housework or peeling vegetables for their parents to sell at market, before attending Khmer school all day and then coming to Singing Kites (‘English school’, many of the children call it) at night until 7.30pm. Then they return home to more work and extra study. At weekends these children work. It is no surprise that reading books for fun, fantasy, escape, has little bearing on their lives.
But I believe there is still a place for creativity and the enjoyment of reading for reading’s sake – especially with such demanding lives. It’s just a case of finding a way to make these things relevant to the way they live. This week, I start some creative writing classes with some of the older children. As language is their main interest, I’m trying out similes, and I’m going to try some self-portrait poems about their village and families, moving on to aspirations and dreams. This work will be through concentrated group work over a period of three or four days a week, and although I’m not 100% it’s going to work, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. After all, by being here I feel like I’m the one that’s learning.
You can find out more about this wonderful organisation by liking their Singing Kites Facebook page and I know they’d love you to show your support by sharing and reblogging this post if you can.