I never considered teaching to be a potentially dangerous occupation, until now. In the last three days at school, I have confiscated a five inch blade, two lighters, and an axe. I kid you not.
Cambodia is known for being relatively lax on health and safety – their scaffolding here is made of bamboo and tied together with twine for example. However I sat through a thirty minute staff meeting at the school this week and the only points that were translated from Khmer to English were: teachers only get a two hour lunch break, speak to the head about reimbursement for school supplies, and “the safety of the kids is our top priority”. This is one of the great things about working for Sovann Komar compared to some other Khmer organisations – it functions predominantly like a western one! The staff meetings for example, offer everyone a chance to express their views, concerns, and opinions, and ensure everyone knows about recent and upcoming events. Additionally an NGO which started out as a safe haven for orphaned children, has now decided to use their space, skills, and funds to benefit the wider Khmer community. The staff here all care so much about these children and their safety is a significant consideration.
Not more than two hours after this safety announcement, I looked up from my desk in my Grade 3 class to see an eight year old kid walking past with a knife in one hand and an orange in the other. I say knife, it was a blade totalling about 10 inches in length with one end covered in electrical tape to form a “handle”. I jumped up, (carefully) grabbed it from him, and demanded to know where the hell he got it and why the hell it was in my classroom. He just looked at me blankly (a common occurrence for this particular kid in my English lessons). I spoke to the head teacher about the incident and he immediately called the boy’s mother in to ask her about it. It transpired that he had brought the knife to school from home purely to assist him in peeling his orange. As far as I’m aware, oranges here do not have significantly tougher skins compared to elsewhere in the world. The staff immediately spoke to the students telling them to ask for help when peeling fruit and to not bring in sharp objects. Once again, a problem handled in a very westernised, professional way!
Today I was attempting to round up some kids from Sovann Komar who were meant to be in my classroom and saw a load of them huddled in a circle and then backing away quickly. My immediate thought was that they’d found a snake. I’m petrified of snakes and shouted at them all to come over. At which point there was a loud bang and they all shrieked and laughed. As they finally filed into my class, I noticed one of them was carrying a lighter. Realising the source of the bang, I took it off the kid and put it on my desk. At the end of the lesson, it was gone. Barely an hour later, the same kid was holding a different lighter which I also took, explaining that they were not toys, that fire and flammable liquids were dangerous and that he shouldn’t be carrying it around aged twelve. Once again the lighter disappeared at the end of the lesson (I really should keep a closer eye on my desk). This time, one kid told me the name of the girl who had taken it. I walked out of the classroom to find her crouching just feet from the door, under a wooden house and inches from a wicker shoe stand, tipping gunpowder from a small capsule and setting it alight. I immediately marched her to the head teacher, in addition to reporting it to the director of Sovann Komar. It turns out that these kids get a fire safety talk every couple of months from the resident doctor, but many of the children have spoken to me about the “fireworks” being fun, not dangerous. I have tried to explain that the problem is not so much with the Sovann Komar children themselves but with the younger community children witnessing this behaviour and attempting to copy it, with potentially disastrous consequences. Those whom I’ve spoken to about this, accept and understand their positions as role models within the school.
Enough for one week? Oh no, later that same day I was sat at my desk going over my lesson plan when I looked up to see an eleven year old walking in with an axe. Yep an actual axe. Once again I confiscated the weapon and asked where he’d got it – his house. Once I’d walked to where he lived, he decided to tell me it was from another house. Walking to the second house, I luckily spotted the father outside. He confirmed the axe was indeed him and acknowledged that it wasn’t good that this kid had got hold of it. He then promptly handed it to his eldest son, aged thirteen. At no time was the axe nor knife wielded as a weapon, yet these children have to learn that unintentional damage can still be done. I spoke to the boy’s mother about the axe and she is going to speak to him directly. That’s one of the great things about Sovann Komar too: as I’ve been here so long, I know all the parents of the orphanage children and therefore can go directly to the mum and dad to speak to them about their children, whether it be good or bad. This way the children understand that there is a link between the school and their home life and that their parents are both invested and involved in their education.
So I returned home today relieved not to have been burned alive or beheaded. I understand that this is a different culture and that health and safety in the western world has gone slightly overboard but I was not expecting such a concentrated number of incidents. Luckily for me, Sovann Komar staff share my views that knives, gunpowder, and axes are unacceptable toys for children and have responded excellently to all three situations. Still, never a dull moment when you’re teaching armed children.
P.S. No need to worry mum and dad, I’m going to go to school armed with an AK47 from now on.
P.P.S. I chose that gun due to their prolific use during the Khmer Rouge, I’m not just horribly out of touch with military grade weapons.