Sunday, March 14, 2010

Libraries and Rats

Every Thursday I sit in the high school’s “library” for two hours. I offer this time so that high school students may ask me questions regarding English (or anything, really). It either hasn’t caught on to my students, or they’re too busy, or they just don’t care, for (with the exception of about 5 students) the last few months I have been sitting by myself nearly the entire time. The problem could be in my advertising (there is none), the fact that the library is situated quite close to the school director’s office (location, location, location), or (and this is probably the real reason) is that the library is little more than a storage place and home to many rodents and birds. Not the best place to spend a few hours of your time, eh? It wasn’t until last week though, when two of my (brighter and more motivated) students from my 10 B class came to visit, that I really felt as though the office hours in the library were worth it.

At first they just came into the library to say hello, but I quickly persuaded them to “koy lange” (sit and visit). Off handedly I mentioned that there were a few dozen new English books in three cardboard boxes in the room, left from the last (and first) Peace Corps volunteer at my site. That was all it took. Together we ventured into the books, donated by the Asia Foundation. After a few minutes they stumbled upon a textbook called “My World”, a geography and history text book in one, and from the very first page were hooked. “Where is this Teacher?” they asked, pointing to a picture of the Acropolis. “Greece”, I tell them. “Where is Greece?” they ask innocently. I bring out a map and show them. Although nearly all of the students at my high school take “Geography” almost none of them could point to Europe on the map. It has me very interested in sitting in on one of their Geography lessons. The book has them engrossed for over an hour and has me answering questions like the following:

“What is nahto (NATO)?”
“Have you ever been to the pyramids? Why not?”
“What is that?” (pointing to a picture of the international space station) I answer that it is “a home in space” and that people from different countries live there. Their eyes become wide, then narrower as they are obviously mulling it over. They give the picture one more glance and then turn the page.

My office hours go by quickly that day and I bike home even more certain than ever that I want to finish what the first volunteer at my site attempted to do, and bring a library to the school. Luckily for me, I have a new school director who is seemingly behind the project. It won’t be easy by any means though. The “library” as it is now is a desk (for the “librarian”), a table, chairs, a shelf with unused/discarded textbooks, and a medley of different items that have found storage there. Mice and birds have taken up residence and their excrements cover nearly everything. The walls need to be painted, tenants evicted, shelves built, and books obtained. All seemingly easy except for the fact that nothing is as easy as it seems when you are a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia*.

This week we have our In Service Training (IST) and I will hopefully be learning the ins and outs of grant writing and fundraising in Cambodia. No doubt I will keep you, my faithful blog reader, abreast of any developments as well as the address to send your check so that you may get involved in the project as well :)

Aside from teaching at the school, I also teach every Friday at the local Health Center. Many of the nurses there are between 30 and 45 years old and, if you are unfamiliar with Cambodian history, the years these individuals went to school were the most turbulent of any in the country’s history. Needless to say, they were not given the opportunity to learn English (although some do know a few words of French). When I began these lessons I had to start at the beginning – the ABCs. Most were familiar with them but could not recite them from memory nor remember all the sounds they make. There are two nurses, ages 24 and 25, who know quite a bit and seem glad to have a refresher course. Without a doubt I have the most fun teaching this group. Mostly because they want to be there and are eager to learn – but also, because I have been observing at the center for as long as I have been at site, we are all very comfortable with each other. Jokes abound and we seem to always end the class laughing.

Interlude: A library emerges out of the rat nests…

In December I filled out an application to an organization called Room to Read that was offering English books to needy schools in Cambodia. I had almost forgotten about it when I received a phone call from them asking if I could come by and pick up the 600 books they were giving my school. After a very turbulent weekend in Phnom Penh, I arrived at site with three very heavy boxes containing 600 various English books. The next day my host sisters and I together opened the boxes and happily went through the contents; “Magic School Bus!”, “Clifford!”, “Books on Teaching!’ I was very happily surprised with the selection.

We sat down, my sister Kohnteet and Sampoa, and for five hours wrote “Witchee-ah-lye Roomy Hike” (Romeas Hek High School) in permanent marker in every one of the donated books. I think it was around the 100th book that I realized I could write the name of my school in Khmer by memory. It is the only thing I can write in the language, but I’m proud. Khmer is not the easiest language to learn to write…

Later that day, our hands a bit sore from all the writing, my sisters loaded their moto with the first box and I followed in my bike. After three trips, all the books were safely inside the library. The next day, I had a sit down with the sub-school director who, thankfully, speaks English (my Khmer isn’t THAT good yet). We talked about the library and cleaning it up. He said he would talk to the school director and get back to me. The next day I got full reign to do whatever I pleased in the library as long as I didn’t throw out any books and on Thursday, the “official” cleaning day at the school, I would get at least thirty students to help me :)!
I was ecstatic – and full of dread! The library hadn’t been cleaned in at least fifteen years. The Ministry of Education has a policy that the high schools keep all text books for at least five years. My high school had …excuse me… has some dating back from 1996! I recognize this hording of books may be their showing appreciation for something they did not have twenty or thirty years ago. But can a worm eaten, rat poop covered, petrified to the floor, textbook be any use to anyone?

Well Thursday came and I made sure I came fortified with at least three cups of strong Vietnamese coffee in my system. Arriving thirty minutes early I took stock of everything that needed to be done, and where things would go. I was a bit overwhelmed. The coteacher assigned to help me, Mee-it, showed up soon after along with a twelfth grade student who had promised to help. We started clesning out the shelves and soon were joined by at least thirty of the 10th grade students. And then the “librarian” came. And any vestige of control I had over the project quickly was transferred to her and my coteacher. IT was all for the better actually, as I really didn’t know what to do with half the stuff we came across in that room. Medical supplies? A box of Khmer rice wine? Ten spools of copper wire? And somewhere around the time of discovering the iodine and drip bags a rat ran across my feet. I screamed (who wouldn’t??) which elicited many laughs from the students. “Teacher is afraid of mice!”, they taunted. After that I kind of stood towards the back and watched as the students moved the books, furniture, and miscellaneous things around and cleaned. There were too many hands in the kitchen, as some would say. And I did not want to risk having another rat crawl on my body. I may be in the Peace Corps, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

The students found four very large rat nests, dead birds, and many many books.Some were even petrified to the floor behind some of the shelves!


  1. I'm so proud of you Kellee! I love you!!!

  2. You are so Amazing Kellee!! I am so proud of you! I agree, that you do have to draw the line somewhere, especially with rodents:) Miss and love you tons!!!