Friday, March 7, 2008

3-6-08

I teach class each day in thatch walled classrooms with holes, doors and windows that do not lock, a broken desk, or five, and a marker board that is just waiting to fall off the wall the next time a soccer ball hits it. Sometimes 1st graders will poke their head through the large holes in my wall and say, “Hello Ms.Bo!” and run off giggling. We use blue, plastic patio chairs in every classroom. Each break time the students get out, run around, and kick up dust that floats into each classroom and threatens our ability to breathe. I can’t leave anything that smells or tastes good for fear that the family of mice hiding in my classroom will get to it before I do. Every book we use is copied because there are no copyright laws in Cambodia. They are all tattered and falling apart. There is a mandatory picture of the King of Cambodia in every classroom. He sits on a huge throne, crown and all, wrapped in a luxurious gold and red robe. Each day he stares down upon us as a regular reminder to these kids that the king does not care about them and isn’t doing much to help.
The mental health in Cambodia is something worth considering and analyzing though that would probably take the rest of my life to understand. They bash themselves and their country every day. They talk about how stupid Cambodians are. They talk about how terrible the crime is. They talk about how Khmers are basically second-class to the rest of the world. Of course they say this, that’s what they’ve been told their entire lives. In the states we tell our children, “You can be anything you want to be! Reach for the stars! Dream big. You have purpose. You matter. You can do it. Go for it!” Right? Well here, the message is, “You are Cambodian and always will be. Don’t try to get out of it. You will always be stupid. Your efforts at a better life are pointless. If you leave to get an education, you are deserting this family and in turn, we will desert you!” I haven’t seen any form of national pride since I got here. Singing the national anthem each morning at flag raising is more a joke than anything. The kids don’t believe the words they are singing and don’t believe in the country they call home.
Today I went to a bible study that Polly invited me to. She teaches at a school called Logos, a Christian school run on an American curriculum. So I met her there. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was “order”. The grounds were clean, there were kids playing organized sports, the buildings were actual buildings, not huts. There was a pool! A really, nice, clean pool! There was a playground area and as I wandered around I found out that every single class is taught in a clean, nicely decorated, air-conditioned class room. Entering Polly’s kindergarten classroom, I was shocked by the “childness” of it all: paints, coloring books, a computer, nap mats, individual desks, bulletin boards, tiled floors, closets for storage, little hooks for their backpacks. It looked like a classroom back home. Ya know, friendly, welcoming, kid-like? At CAS the kindergarteners don’t have art supplies, stuffed animals, cozy mats to sit on, story books, audio books, blocks, anything. They have wooden desks and walls. There is nothing warm, cozy and orderly about CAS. I was so jealous. Logos is for the rich Cambodian children and the expatriate or missionary kids. CAS is the cheapest non-government school in Phnom Penh. CAS is for the poor kids.
I went to the bible study, which was very nice and returned home unable to figure the reason for my sadness. Upon talking to Fay, she told me that when she sees schools like Logos, she almost always cries. I felt the same way. I don’t have to teach in air-conditioned rooms with hooks for backpacks and a pool, but I feel so sad that I can’t give that to my kids. They have to endure each school day just like I do. They deserve what those kids have. They deserve to have textbooks without ripped out, missing pages and desks without curse words written and carved into the wood. They deserve a safe place to learn where they can breathe and relax and be a kid. No, a million dollar establishment does not guarantee happiness. So before you comment that maybe my kids are happy where they are, I get it. But it just pains me to see what some kids have and what my kids don’t have. Why can’t we all have one or the other? Why can’t my poor children get the best schooling? Why can’t they get driven safely to and from school in BMW’s instead of walking several miles in the hot sun?
Right beside CAS is a building that sort of haunts us everyday. This is the new Cambodia Adventist School building that has been being built for several years now and isn’t guaranteed completion this year either. We just don’t have the money. We need several thousands of dollars. This hurdle seems so huge and many have just given up. Sharon, the principle, has started a fundraiser. She has asked that each and every student and faculty member try to raise a dollar a day for 100 days. This may not seem like much to you. But here, 1 dollar could buy breakfast, lunch, and a moto ride home for one child. One dollar is a big deal. So as the teacher I am supposed to lead my kids in 8th grade to raise $100 each. It is incredibly overwhelming and I hate asking my kids each morning if they have their dollar for that day, because they never do. They don’t have money to give. They hardly have food to eat. This is too big for them.
This is, in part, why I am writing this blog. My kids are completely overwhelmed by this fundraising idea. And while I am trying to be the optimistic teacher who suggests moto washes, garage sales, and selling things, I am fighting years and years of influence much stronger than my own. They’ve never been told they can do something. They feel so isolated and hopeless that anyone would even care that they exist. So they’ve already decided this just can’t be done. The best idea I’ve had so far is a walk/run-a-thon. They really like the idea because it is easy, they understand it, and I offered to try to raise some money at home! You should have seen the looks on their faces, “You are going to write home to help us? Why would they care? Do you talk about us? Do they know we are here?”. I thing that my writing home tells them that I care enough to reach beyond my resources here to do absolutely everything I can to help them. The money we raise goes toward the building project, textbooks, desks, all the normal school stuff that we just don’t have.
On March 27th, 2008, I will be organizing CAS’s first ever walk/run-a-thon and will be running in it myself. We will run around the track at CAS for 30 minutes and keep track of each student’s laps. It is smaller than an average-size high school running track. I am guessing that I could run maybe a lap a minute if I kept a really steady pace. So I would guess 30 laps to be near the maximum anyone will run. This is where you come in.
The kids can’t get money from their parents, their friends, or extended family. I am asking you to sponsor my kids. With 23 students in my class, and 24 including me, a dollar a day for 100 days comes to a $2400 goal. Now that number is even big to Americans, so imagine how these kids feel!
Please consider that because I am here, I know exactly where your money is going. I can guarantee that it will get these kids a better school and better education. I know you may feel like you are giving enough already to other organizations and I am glad you are doing so. But I beg you to consider my kids who I’ve grown to love. I desperately want a better school for them and right now they just don’t have it.
Talk to your Sabbath school groups. Talk to your church pastor. Ask your kids if they would like to help other children in Cambodia to have a chance at a better education. Could you take up an offering? Could you wash some cars with your class or Pathfinder club? Could you stand to miss your Starbucks fix for a few days? I feel like I have an army of support back home. That is why I am asking this of you.
The best way to get the money here to Cambodia is by way of my parents in Colorado or my sister in Nebraska. If you want to sponsor a runner or a walker or if you just want to make a donation, which may be easier, please contact me and I will get you in touch with my parents or my sister, depending on where you are.
I beg you to consider how much a dollar will change the future for these kids. Could you afford a dollar or two per lap? Could you save up to give a larger donation? I guarantee you could save $50 faster than my kids. That is more than any of their parents make in an entire month!
I need to start figuring out donations very soon. So please, please email me if you have any questions. These are “the least of these” in every shape and form. I wish you could see them everyday as I do. But take my word, because it is all I have, these kids need and deserve this. Please do what you can, because no matter what your income is, be it, doctor or poor college student, you are rich, wealthy, and these kids only hope.

In case you don't have my email, it is: hbohlender@gmail.com. Ask away. But please help!

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