After some last minute tuk-tuk (basically a motorbike-drawn carriage) hang ups and promotion poster snafus, the first Sunday session was in motion. Jake and I just recruited Tina, an excellent American teacher who is currently teaching at an international school in Phnom Penh, to complete our first volunteer team. In an odd twist she is also romantically involved with our tuk-tuk driver, Smith (which may help keep the price down!)
At about 11 am we set out to Prek Bongkong. The road involves an exhilarating, albeit harrowing, drive over the Japanese Friendship Bridge which offers a panoramic view of the mighty Mekong’s slightly-less-mighty sister river. Then a drive over the final paved road, followed by a hot and crowded ferry ride to Mekong Island. While on the ferry I am informed that many of the older ferries in Cambodia were plagued by a building flaw that resulted in sinking; we are assured this ferry was not of that make. Once the ferry lands at Mekong Island, we take part in a scene resembling the start of a motocross race combined with a ramshackle chariot run, with both of us pushing the tuk tuk up the dirt incline, and about 100 motorbikes all starting in unison.
A short, bumpy trip later we arrive at the tragically named (though impeccably run) Okay American School. There we have arranged with Bunan, the headmaster, to use all the facilities from 9 until 3 every Sunday for 20 dollars a month. Originally the use of the classrooms was free but there were some communication errors, a contract signed then immediately broken, and several odd claims for electricity and water pricing. Finally, Jake and I are able to work out an amiable agreement that ultimately works for both parties (without paying too high of a foreigner “tax”). We have been to the school twice before to negotiate the deal and both times it was bereft of students. This time we are greeted with smiles, curious stares, giggles, and the sight of one girl dropping a gecko down another girls dress. Young teenagers abound!
This is my first time ever teaching and I am a bit nervous. Jake kindly gives me some pointers and I break the ice with an introduction; “I am teacher John, I am from the city of Boston in America (not strictly true-I hail from the suburban Winchester)” etc. Then I play a game of five questions and by the end of the class I am getting my act together in my new role as Teacher John. The two 45 minute periods pass very quickly and before I know it, it is time for lunch.
The Khmer word for to eat is pronounced yom buy and directly translated it means “to eat rice”. This is no coincidence. When you eat in Cambodia your meal will include rice. The Hengs were gracious hosts and had Jake, the other volunteers, and me for lunch in their home. And what a lovely home it is! On my first visit to the Heng’s home I was struck by the vivid colors of silk, which you can find hanging almost everywhere and being manipulated by the looms. The beauty of their home is matched by the Heng family’s warmth, hospitality and humor. I have been there two or three times before so I am already been acquainted with the cast of characters. After an excellent meal, we are back to teaching.
The second class period is bigger so we opt to use all three classrooms and the three of us each teach 2 different groups. Jake and Tina both repeat their previous performances while my own teaching greatly improved, thanks to some constructive criticisms from Jake. The English ability of the different groups of students varied fairly significantly so it was necessary to feel out their abilities and adapt the lesson plan accordingly. The goal of the English teaching program is not to teach students grammar, or extensive vocabulary, but it is to expose them to the rhythm and feel of natural English, to get them excited about learning a foreign language, and to familiarize them with the opportunities that will come from this knowledge. I overhear English phrases coming out of the dust cloud of students biking home down the dirt road, despite having no assignments or tests. This is autonomous English. The first Sunday is a success!